JOE MATT interview on Suicide Girls

“Joe Matt” / Suicide Girls / Daniel Robert Epstein / June 12, 2007

With Spent, autobiographical cartoonist Joe Matt has finally laid to rest his pornography and masturbation addiction. Jerking off 20 times a day will do that to you. In the grand tradition of Robert Crumb, Matt has been exploring his suburban-like depravity for years in his autobiographical comic book Peepshow, which has been collected in a number of trade paperbacks. His latest, Spent, focuses on the period after he broke up with his long time and long suffering girlfriend Trish and Matt is quickly falling headfirst into his addictions. But man does he do it in a funny way. I got a chance to talk with Matt from his home in Los Angeles.

Check out the website for Spent

Daniel Robert Epstein: So I was told you've become a bit more paranoid since our last interview.
Joe Matt: Sort of, yeah. Depending on my mood, I don't trust what I'm going to say. I don't trust my mouth on the phone like this.
DRE:
How's your mood today?
Joe:
It's okay. [laughs]
DRE:
What are you up to today?
Joe:
Not much, I was in the middle of writing a letter when the phone rang. I'm sending a letter to a girl that I like. I was just at the library checking my email. Then I was reading some Sherlock Holmes and the newspaper in a local donut shop…the same donut shop that Jack Nance, star of "Eraserhead,” was killed in.
DRE:
When did you start the issues that are collected in Spent?
Joe:
I'm not sure...eight or nine years ago...possibly ten.
DRE:
Oh my God.
Joe:
It's almost a decade I would say.
DRE:
That's a long time.
Joe:
I wasted years not working. It's not like it took me all that time to do those four issues.
DRE:
Besides when you write about your childhood, it seems like you mostly write about the periods in your life as Trish and then there's post-Trish. What makes you so obsessed with that time?
Joe:
I feel obligated to be complete with the chronology of things as they happened and I'm nowhere near caught up to present day. I wanted the things in "Spent" to follow "The Poor Bastard." "The Poor Bastard" ends with me watching porn. The focus of "Spent" is the porn obsession that I plunged into after Trish. As a topic I'm just focused on porn in "Spent," but a lot of things have happened to me since Trish, because that was so many years ago.
DRE:
I read on your MySpace blog a comment some guy left saying, "Why do you keep talking about Trish?" You wrote, "I'm getting through it."
Joe:
It is odd to be still talking and mentioning her this many years later. I've had a number of relationships since then. The book I'm currently working on now is about LA. I'm trying to recap my last few relationships from the last decade, and everything that's happened to me in LA. I'm just not telling it in the same manner of "Spent." "Spent" is really just long, unbroken scenes of dialogue. Even if I'm alone in my room, it's still just word balloons.
DRE:
When "Fair Weather" came out and we did our interview, someone wrote that they were glad that I didn't ask you about the porn obsession. I was going to try and avoid it this time as well but it cannot be done with "Spent." Is doing this stuff making you a better person?
Joe:
I think better is the wrong word to ask. I stopped producing work somewhat the last five years or so partly to see how it would affect my mood and my well-being. My first two and a half years in LA, I didn't work at all and I was in a great relationship and I was super happy. The cathartic benefits of producing comics wasn't even present and I was still very happy.
DRE:
But you also had other things going on like "The Poor Bastard" pilot.
Joe:
The pilot was nothing. The pilot was just getting together with these guys and writing a little bit. The pilot wasn't reality. It wasn't like my hopes were up. Writing the pilot for HBO was very stressful and I really didn't want it to move forward. I was just playing along to get that paycheck for writing the pilot. I didn't really expect or envision it going ahead. I didn't visualize myself on a set filming these actors speaking these lines. I never thought it would get that far and it didn't.
DRE:
How did the pilot get started?
Joe:
Some friends of mine mailed "The Poor Bastard" to HBO and Showtime. It really is the cliché of who you know out here. My friends' agent knew people at those networks and they got me meetings with both of them. I took the meetings and I think they probably found my indifference to the whole thing refreshing. I was never looking to switch careers from a cartoonist to anything to do with TV or film. Once you sign your rights away, you lose control of everything. You don't own what you're working on so you don't care about it the same way.
DRE:
This must have been after HBO produced "American Splendor."
Joe:
Yeah and I saw a trailer of "American Splendor" and I immediately wanted two sets of actors playing me. I wanted to hire somebody to pretend to be the real me and then another playing the fake me. That would have been tricky but I wanted to do something that wasn't just like a dumb sitcom. I always thought that was where it was heading. I tried to control it and it was still going in that direction in the end. TV is certainly not my medium because I didn't have that inventiveness or original approach to TV or film. Take the American version of "The Office,” which I love. The fact that the camera is floating around the office, doing that fake documentary approach...if I had just seen that earlier I would have been like, “Let's do that!" because it feels more honest when everyone is aware of the camera. "American Splendor" felt more honest because the real Harvey Pekar was in it. That honesty is really what I'm drawn towards. This is why I'm hesitant to go into TV or film.
DRE:
How was working with [Futurama co-creator] David Cohen on the pilot?
Joe:
David is great. It was David and Donick Cary, another Simpsons writer. I don't like to work with other people. I don't like to write with other people. So I fought a lot with them.
DRE:
What was the issue?
Joe:
HBO was giving us mixed messages right from the beginning. They didn't seem to know what they really wanted. We turned in a script that was based on the first part of "The Poor Bastard" where I had a crush on that girl Frankie. That's what they asked for. But then they asked us to write a whole different script about the Andy and Kim characters. It was just obnoxious of them to hire us to write the script and then jerk us around and ask for a whole fucking new script. We should have just stood up for ourselves and said "Fuck you" to them. It was like, "You just got a script that we've been working on for like a month or something." All that effort was for nothing. If I felt stronger about the material, I wouldn't have been like that, but I didn't. There's always this desperate quality in me when I'm around these Hollywood types. I feel like, I haven't got my hands on any money and I just want to play along until I get some money. But the money never really comes.
DRE:
They must have given you option money.
Joe:
Option money was only five grand. But that's not much to sign your life away and risk everything and be worried about it. I was very apprehensive because I just wanted something good to be made and I didn't care if it failed miserably and went straight to DVD. I would have been proud if the show was just good. I didn't care about the success of it. Like I said, there was no original thinking going on in terms of reinventing the material for the TV show. It was just, "Let's just adapt it almost line for line and turn it into a show, for no other reason than to make it live action."
DRE:
It sounds like you wanted to bring something new to the table and you just couldn't bring it out.
Joe:
Yeah, exactly and nobody else was doing it. Nobody else was suggesting anything that was impressing me.
DRE:
Does HBO own the scripts you guys wrote?
Joe:
Yeah I guess they own the script, but they never got my rights. Their option expired like less than a year after we wrote the script and I haven't pursued anyone since. I haven't done anything since then. I haven't had a single meeting or tried to get anything done since then. I'm just been glad to be free of it all.
DRE:
Were Chester [Brown] and Seth going to be characters?
Joe:
Yeah, they were characters. Though Chester and Seth and even myself would have been unwilling to let our names be used as the characters' names because I didn't have any confidence that the show would be any good. I didn't even want my character's name to be Joe Matt. It's too frightening to think that millions of people will see this and this is what I'll be known for. I'll be known for this stupid TV show and not my comics. It's frightening to feel that loss of control and the money didn't compensate for it. I didn't like my deal. I didn't like my contract. It just seemed really not worth it. When I draw comics about this, I'll actually give all the figures of everything. But it's not as good as you ever think it's going to be. There's no such thing as free money or easy money. Even writing the pilot, I feel like I earned every penny I got and I've just been living off that money ever since. It wasn't a lot of money so I'm still just as broke as ever.
DRE:
Obviously there are a lot of autobiographical and semi-autobiographical books out there and it seems like I'm always interviewing one of them. They always say stuff like how they don't want to do navel-gazing comics and then they'll say your name. But then they'll say how much they love your work. Is that insulting?
Joe:
No, it's not an insult at all. I'm a voyeur and I'm trying to make the book I would most enjoy reading. I would imagine other voyeurs are interested if it's done well. I think autobiographical comics have been given a bad name simply because of the fact that I've focused a lot on porn and masturbation. I feel like that's colored the whole genre for some people. Not every autobiographical cartoonist is doing that. I'm following Crumb's lead where he explores his obsessions, at least with women. But there's not a dozen other cartoonists out there doing what I'm doing, which is obsessing with porn and masturbation.
I focus on these topics in "Spent" simply to put them behind me. To say all I could about them and not have to revisit them over and over.
DRE:
Are you less into pornography and jerking off 20 times a day?
Joe:
I would say, yes I'm less into it simply because I'm older. My body's changing. I'm mellowing out. Crumb says the same thing about his sex drive. I'm 43 and my sex drive is not what it used to be. Masturbation is a tool to deaden the emotions and depending on my emotional state, the need to deaden them or the desire to deaden or dull them depends on what I'm going through or what I'm putting myself through at the time. So the happier I am, the more content I am so the less I'm interested in escaping.
DRE:
But sex doesn't deaden your emotions.
Joe:
An orgasm does. An orgasm always deadens my emotions. The post-orgasmic state is what I constantly want to revisit because it's blissful. It is like shooting heroin. It's an emotional detachment from reality. At least it is for me.
DRE:
Do you have a girlfriend now?
Joe:
No, I don't.
DRE:
For the most part women will not be happy with deadened emotions, especially after you've just had sex with them.
Joe:
I've only had one girlfriend since I've been in LA. We were together for two years. But it was like a year and a half ago when we broke up. I'm more female than male in certain regards. I'm very affectionate and loving and into the whole cuddling phase. Sex with another person is different than sex alone.

My emotions are dulled and that's the feeling that I want to revisit constantly but the word "spent" is also in reference to my miserable comic career. It's hard to balance everything. It's hard to deal with the porn and masturbation and then be productive and still have a relationship. It's too much for me to juggle.
DRE:
I did an interview with Chester Brown a few years ago for "Louis Riel" and I asked him if he missed you. I was very surprised when he said he didn't miss you. Later when I saw him at MOCCA he said you were very upset by that.
Joe:
Yeah, but only half. I don't take him seriously. He misses me and I miss him. But Chet and I live very much in the moment. Chet certainly more than me. It was Chester who recommended the book, "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle to me, which I keep mentioning on my MySpace profile. "The Power of Now" is a really good book. It reaffirms common sense things basically. It is common sense to live in the present and not dwell in the past. I had enough of living in Toronto. I made the decision to leave because I couldn't take it anymore. So when Chester mentions that he doesn't miss me, I'm sure he's sincere. Why should he miss me? He's got new things going. He's got other stuff. I don't spend my days sitting around missing Chet either, or my family for that matter. You can't keep yourself in this miserable state of missing people. It's concentrating your energies in the wrong direction. Chester was never one for that.
DRE:
You seem to really be cultivating an audience on MySpace.
Joe:
I only got into MySpace to look for a girlfriend. But after a couple of months, it was really apparent that most people weren't using it as a singles site.
DRE:
No, it's more of a networking thing.
Joe:
Yeah and I couldn't really find anyone I was that interested in. I found girls lots of cute girls but no one was thrilling me or writing back to me the way I wanted. So I quickly gave up and then I felt that I had to stay on because fans were contacting me. I really feel like people have the wrong impression of how lucrative the cartooning business is because there's no money in it.
DRE:
Do you think you'll be surprised when the book comes out and Jenna Fischer's fans come out of the woodwork and start buying the book?
Joe:
I don't know if anyone will buy it. Harvey Pekar was on Letterman and his sales didn't really improve. I'm not looking to exploit Jenna Fischer's friendship. Her fans do not care about comics by and large. The entire population doesn't care. My publisher keeps telling me sales are better than ever and more people are paying attention but I still haven't seen a paycheck that has proven this. Maybe that will change when "Spent" comes out and "The Poor Bastard" is back in print. But even when it was in print it wasn't doing brisk business at all.
DRE:
You said you went to the library to go on the internet. Do you still not have a phone, own a house or a computer?
Joe:
No, I don't want a computer in my room. I don't want to have to try to control myself around these things. I don't have any self-discipline. I moved to LA three years ago and I brought very little with me. The books that I have here are the books that I've bought since I've moved here. I'm really fortunate because I live right next door to a library. I'm in there every day so I take books out and I return them and I take other books out. I'm just constantly reading and enjoying my life in coffee shops and restaurants. I'm living very meagerly but I'm very happy.
DRE:
You haven't gotten into internet porn then.
Joe:
I feel like my usage of porn has peaked and is behind me.
DRE:
If you got a computer you'd enter into a new phase.
Joe:
Probably. It's like a bag of potato chips in my room. I'd eat the whole thing immediately. I don't just eat a couple of potato chips, I eat the entire bag until I get sick. The same with candy.
DRE:
I read you won't be doing single issues for a little bit. You're going to do your next work as a graphic novel.
Joe:
That's correct. I don't want to lose my momentum with having to work on letter pages and covers because every time I got an issue out I always felt so fulfilled that I wouldn't even work for six months afterwards. I felt like I had just put something substantial out but in fact it was only 24 pages. Also, I don't want to have to try to take into consideration that the issue by itself would have to read like a unit. I just want to visualize and work on the book as a whole.
DRE:
Plus if you feel like your sales aren't that good for the monthly one, you might as well wait and put out that big book.
Joe:
Did you say monthly? [laughs]
DRE:
Or whatever. [laughs]
Joe:
Even annually isn't that accurate. [laughs]
DRE:
Who do you hang out with in LA?
Joe:
I don't really see that many people. Yesterday I saw a friend of mine Lindsey, that I met on MySpace. She's not a girlfriend or anything, she's just a friend and I hung out with her and her ex-boyfriend yesterday. She's a big fan of SuicideGirls and I told her I would be doing this interview and she was all excited. But we met yesterday at Meltdown Comic Shop here in LA. Then we had lunch and I went back to their place and I played with their hairless cat.
DRE:
Besides this book about LA are you planning any other books?
Joe:
No, just this book about LA.

I would like to collect those Jam-strips I did with other people. My publisher, Chris Oliveros, and Chester and Seth are the main collaborators of this material. We did all the stuff in sketchbooks but nobody wants to put that stuff out.
DRE:
You really can't find someone to put that out?
Joe:
I would only want Drawn and Quarterly to do it. I could spend the next few months putting that book together but I don't want to right now. I feel like I've got to move quicker on this recent material because I'm writing about a previous relationship and the further I get away from it, the less urgent it feels. The potency of those emotions just fades over time.
DRE:
Are you staying in LA?
Joe:
For the time being. At least another year. I can't afford to stay here.
DRE:
I'm amazed that you've been there for so long.
Joe:
I'm draining my savings account as we speak. I have no Plan B, either I move back in with my Mom or I kill myself. I can't see myself getting a job or anything. But if I had to make money tomorrow I would probably apply at the public library or a post office. I wouldn't know how to get an illustration career going the way Seth has. I don't think of myself as an illustrator. I tried that after college but nothing happened. I showed my portfolio around and it was just horrible.
DRE:
I'm sure it took Seth at least ten years before he started getting regular work.
Joe:
Yeah, it seems very desperate to run around with a portfolio trying to get work. The same way an actor runs around and auditions. It can't be pleasant.
DRE:
I'm sure it feels demeaning.
Joe:
It feels desperate and it is desperate because you're trying to get work. I would just rather have a regular, steady, crummy job if I had to get a paycheck.
DRE:
You've done some coloring work in the past.
Joe:
Yeah, but now all the coloring is done on computers. I haven't a clue how that's done. I can never color superhero comics again.
DRE:
Are you collecting anything in particular now?
Joe:
I don't think so. I'm looking around my room. There's nothing. Just books. Every Wednesday afternoon, I go to the comics shop and see what new books came out. Just a couple hours ago I was sitting here reading the Superman reprints from the 60's.
DRE:
I like that stuff but sometimes the repetition gives me a headache.
Joe:
Sure, you can't read too much of it at once. I'm not crazy about the Superman stuff, like I am about [Jack] Kirby. I was recently reading the Essential Thors. I can't put that stuff down. Or like the Essential Fantastic Four. I can't stop, they're so great.
DRE:
Are you still into Asian women?
Joe:
Not so much Asian. I'm older and I don't feel quite as shallow as I used to be.
DRE:
Do you have a specific woman that you go after now?
Joe:
It's the same but I'm too old now to actually pursue that ideal now. I'm 43 and I can't be pursuing 20 year olds. It's pointless.
DRE:
When we last spoke, your girlfriend at the time was originally a fan of yours. Are you still looking for a fan to be a girlfriend?
Joe:
No, not at all. In fact my last girlfriend wasn't a fan at all. The whole time we went out she never saw me work. She never saw me as a cartoonist or an artist or anything.
DRE:
Why did she go out with you then?
Joe:
We just liked being around each other. It was a great relationship while it lasted. There was no fighting. I don't go after fans; it's always embarrassing and doomed for failure.
DRE:
Many of the SuicideGirls have tattoos and piercings, do you like that?
Joe:
It depends on the specific tattoo and how it looks and where it is. It's the same with piercings, there's good and bad.
DRE:
What if they have a Gasoline Alley tattoo?
Joe:
It's not what the tattoo is a picture of, but where it is. This conversation is going horribly wrong. I just look like a schlub. I'm just a guy in a t-shirt and crummy jeans and I don't look right next to anybody that has any sense of fashion. I can't even imagine going out with any girl that's really got any fashion sense going on. First of all, those kinds of girls aren't interested in me. They tend to go for guys that look right with them. The girls that I'm most attracted to are those who don't have a fashion sense. I like a girl that's almost like a female version of me.
DRE:
If you got a tattoo, what would it be of?
Joe:
I wouldn't get a tattoo. But it would be most tempting to get a cartoon character like Popeye or Charlie Brown or something. I like a tattoo that reads from a distance. Something graphically simple, something symmetrical. The thing I don't like about tattoos is when there are too many colors and they cover the entire arm and it looks like a birth defect or something. You look at someone's arm at a distance and you see this weird staining of colors covering their arm.

by Daniel Robert Epstein

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