GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Spent
Joe Matt is a lazy, pornography-obsessed cartoonist whose main (or possibly only) subject is his own miserable life. If you’ve heard of Matt’s work before, you’re probably wondering why I’m restating the obvious. If you’ve never heard of Matt before, you’re probably wondering how much of a career one can get out of that – well, it’s not a deep well, but he’s been at it for nearly twenty years.
Spent collects four issues of Matt’s comic Peepshow; it’s essentially a sequel to his first full-length graphic novel, The Poor Bastard. Poor Bastard was mostly about his rocky relationship with his girlfriend Trish in the early ‘90s, and Spent’s four issues take place in 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2002, respectively. (And the really sad and pathetic thing is that Matt’s depicted life didn’t change in the slightest between ’94 and ’02; these issues read almost as if they’re four successive days.) Matt is seen either in company with his two cartoonist friends, Seth and Chester Brown, or (generally alone) in his room, obsessing about himself and talking to the reader.
Now, what I say from here on applies to the “Joe Matt” who is the main character of Spent; it may or may not precisely describe the real-world Joe Matt, though, to all appearances, he does document his life quite honestly. (And a tip of the hat to my fellow comics reviewer Jeff VanderMeer, with whom I spent several enjoyable months last year debating such things as how much of the “Bret Easton Ellis” in Lunar Park can be mapped onto the man of the same name who wrote that novel.)
But back to Joe Matt. He lives in one room in a cheap Toronto boarding house, pees in a jug to avoid possibly meeting his fellow tenants on the way to the bathroom, apparently flees from anything remotely resembling work, and lives as cheaply as possible. His main hobbies – I should say obsessions – are assembling an ever-growing collection of painstakingly-edited video pornography and a similarly growing collection of classic comic strips, also carefully pasted into notebooks. (He also has an associated sideline in extended bouts of masturbation.) I suppose it’s good that Matt is too cheap to have a computer or Internet access; his head would probably explode from all of the free porn.
Matt’s main topic is his own hideousness and “world’s biggest loser” status; no one else can possibly insult Joe Matt, because he has already insulted himself more comprehensively than anyone else could. His comics are intensely verbal, and the person talking most of the time is Matt: about things he hates (other people, the modern world), about his own, self-admittedly pathetic, life, and, less often, about things he likes (old comics, porn). But no matter what the cartoon Matt says, his underlying subject is himself, and the message is “check out what a loser I am.”
Well, Joe Matt does seem to be a loser, and it can be entertaining to watch him be a loser, but, after the short stories of Peepshow, and the watch-me-alienate-my-girlfriend plot of The Poor Bastard, and the check-out-how-bad-I-was-as-a-kid story of Fair Weather, Spent can be a bit much. Spent is the pure, unadulterated Joe Matt in all of his (lack of) glory, so if you want to know what’s the deal with him, this is the book to get. But it’s hard to explain why anyone would want or need more than one Joe Matt book.
It’s a shame: Matt is a talented cartoonist, who can make panel after panel of the same scene fresh and interesting simply by changing facial expressions. His dialogue is real and well-captured, with the rhythms of actual speech. He understands many of the deep reasons for human behavior, and doesn’t flinch from them. It would be wonderful if he could find a subject outside himself to apply those talents to.
Drawn & Quarterly, 2007, $19.95