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“I Just Like Hybrid Activity”: The Matthew Thurber Interview

Influences: Dada

TCJ: When I first read your comics when you sent them to me, I was really kind of knocked out by them. And one reason was that after I read them, it was clear to me that you had an affinity with Dada. You really understood. People say the word Dada-esque or surreal and it’s just kind of thrown around, without a clear understanding of what the movement was, and then I saw that you listed [Marcel] Duchamp as an artist you were particularly interested in. What particular aspects of the movement are inspiring to you, and what is it about Duchamp that you find interesting?

MT: I don’t know if I’m really a very good Dadaist, because if I was, I’d probably knock this computer over right now and go eat a ham sandwich [Clough laughs] or something. I got introduced to Dada through a Daniel Pinkwater book, Young Adults. There’s a group of high school students called the Wild Dada Ducks, and it’s a hilarious book, so then I went and checked all the books out of the library about Dada and Surrealism (this was in eighth grade) and started reading about it then. I just became a big nerd about that period, all those artists. Studying their writing and Tristan Tzara, Robert Desnos—his writing’s amazing.

TCJ: I’m a big fan of Richard Huelsenbeck.

MT: Yeah, he was a historian, right?

TCJ: He wrote poetry and he was their drummer.

MT: Right, Memoirs of a Dada Drummer. I was reading that and then trying to understand it and reading the manifestos — it was this art movement, and then sort of trying to relate that in high school to music and the world of zines. I tried to do a Dada prank in high school where I enlisted all my friends to call the mall telephones to make them ring all at the same time. I guess the art projects that I was doing were pretty Dada-inspired. Then I found out about Alfred Jarry and thought, “This is greater than Dada, this is really for me.” And then I found out about [Raymond] Roussel, through the same line of research. I’m really affected by it, I don’t know how … I guess it’s the irrational acceptance of irrationality, striking harsh images and humor, noise and negativity, anti-careerism (laughs).

TCJ: Your work is explicitly political and not at all didactic, which is kind of a neat trick.

MT: Dada?

TCJ: Your work. And Dada was pretty directly political as a reaction to WWI among other things, but it was also not at all didactic.

MT: Yeah, I don’t think that any of them would confessing to being a political movement, but in retrospect that’s completely what it was. They were just reacting against World War I and all those people dying for no reason, and civilization looks like shit after that. They’re in Switzerland, the most bourgeois possible location. I don’t know … I feel like as far as humor goes, when I see stand-up comedy or “humor,” it’s often reinforcing normative behavior but I feel like Dada and maybe some recent comedy [are the opposite].

TCJ: Are you familiar with the Upright Citizens Brigade?

MT: Not really, but I’ve seen some people, like Tim & Eric, Zach Galifilanakis. You know what’s really great? The show Brass Eye. It’s an English mock news show. I feel like all that stuff is recent, Dada-derived work, where they’re creating humor but its intent is not to be like a smug joke or make fun of people. It can be really upsetting, and that’s what I like about the potential of humor and the political potential of humor to shake things up. I think the best comedy does that, it’s like the role of the jester.

TCJ: Reflecting society.

MT: The jester gets to say the kind of stuff that everyone is thinking, but you can’t hang the fool for saying that stuff. The fool is always welcome at the court. Humor is a weird thing. It’s always kind of accepted on some level.

TCJ: Regarding Duchamp, he’s kind of an interesting figure because he didn’t really directly fit into anything. He was New York Dada, but he was almost Dada-by-association.

MT: He was French and settled in New York. He wanted to live in a skyscraper when he moved here because he wanted to live in the most New York building possible, and [then] he found out he couldn’t rent an apartment in a skyscraper. His posture is really amazing because he stayed outside this movement even though they’ve all tried to claim him. I guess he was working on his own ideas; he occasionally did some design for a Surrealist ball and he was definitely affiliated with Dada. What I really love of his is The Large Glass [aka The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even], and all the notes to that and how it’s this description of this incredible machine that works by its own principles. That whole project is really amazing and the writing in that is great. He was super-influenced by Roussel and Jarry and tried to apply those principles of thinking. I love people who do their own thing. There’s this artist in New York named Paul Etienne Lincoln, who really builds machines that are manifestations of Marcel Duchamp machines. They’re like these memory retrieval machines.

TCJ: I like The Large Glass because it has a narrative quality to it, and even the creation of it is its own narrative.

MT: Yeah, yeah! Where he broke it.

TCJ: When it broke, he said, “Now it’s done.”

MT: Yeah, and he allowed it to gather dust. It’s really hilarious, the whole process is always really deadpan-humor driven.

TCJ: Have you ever been in the Philly art museum and seen the Duchamp room? There’s that one piece called With Hidden Noise, which is this cylinder with some wire around it, and inside of it was an object placed by Walter Arensberg and Duchamp didn’t know what it is, and no one knows what it is, [Thurber laughs] and it’s like…

MT: Mystery, a mystery.

TCJ: It’s a mystery, it’s a joke, you’ll never know the answer and so that’s going to frustrate you–and that’s the point. He was a snake eating its own tail kind of guy, with a lot of the jokes he told.

MT: Part of the thing that I like about The Large Glass is that he left such a huge paper trail and it really is a—the amount of writing adds up to kind of like a book. That’s the thing about Dada, is that I don’t have the balls to actually annihilate myself or never do anything or something like that. I have a conservative desire to actually make pretty drawings or something that will actually…

TCJ: It could be argued, though, that repeating Dada, doing exactly what they did, is to miss the point of Dada. That is, you could only really do that trick once and have it be effective. A lot of the guys who stayed in art who were Dadaists went on and did things.

MT: Picabia.

TCJ: Or the Arps.

MT: Yeah, you have to do things. Tristan Tzara got into singing Romanian folk ballads.

TCJ: And all those guys lived forever [Thurber laughs]. Those guys were really old.

MT: Because Dada will keep you young. I’m not a card-carrying member of anything like that. I may be interested enough in pataphysics to read all their stuff, but they have this college. It’s funny–it’s really super-academic and I’m just not interested in it to that level where I want it to be my life.

The Tree-Ansformers

TCJ: Your work is very effortlessly high and low at the same time. I can see the hand of all these movements and the things that you study, but it’s clear that narrative drives things and that popular culture is very important to you. I just read the story that you wrote and Benjamin Marra drew, “The Tree-Ansformers Of Life” [in Smoke Signal #10] and I laughed my ass off at that.

MT: Oh wow, great. I’m so glad to hear that. I wasn’t worried once I saw Ben Marra’s drawings because they’re so fantastic.

TCJ: I couldn’t believe how well that worked.

MT: I was worried about it because the script was kind of forced. I mean, I tried to put a lot of jokes in there but I didn’t know how they’d actually play out, but when I saw his drawings I was like “Oh, well I have nothing to worry about.” He’s really an incredible draftsman.

TCJ: It’s funny that you say that the jokes are a little bit forced, but you couldn’t have picked a better partner. That’s what his work’s about, is to kind of blow up these genre ideas and take them seriously–but they’re ridiculous as a result.

MT: Yeah, he just goes over the top and that’s something that I really respect in his work and Johnny Ryan’s too. If you’re going to do genre stuff, it’s great to see it done in an ultimate way. That pairing was actually Gabe Fowler’s idea. He matched us up together [and] he proposed the idea and he proposed the movie. I was like, “Oh no, I can’t–I’m gonna hate Transformers. Maybe I can do it on something else.” So I went and saw Super 8 and I was like, “oh that was pretty good, but it wasn’t so stupid that you could really satirize it.” Then I finally saw Transformers, and I was like, “Holy shit!” [Clough laughs.]

TCJ: The funny thing about it (the story) is that it was still so totally you. You managed to put in your whole tree thing, that was an element of it, the ecological part of it. It was a very blatant political satire, but it was also a farce, and it was all happening at the same time. So you had the weird element (the trees), the satire of the military culture and our current culture and the further along you went in that story the more you realized how weird that world was, which I thought was a really clever unveiling of a joke. Initially, they go in a theater and it seems more-or-less like a normal world, until you realize that the whole country is different now. It all fit.

MT: Yeah, I guess my idea for it, because I had a hard time actually doing a satire of the story–I read a really good review of it, and then Lisa Hanawalt did a really good review with drawings of it while I was writing it, and then I was like I guess what I can do is write a story that takes place in a world proposed by this movie. This is the sort of world in which you would go to the theater to see this insane, militarized movie, and then the characters became members of the cloned military. Something that I tried to do in a couple of short stories recently has been to make a science-fiction film that’s really compressed, so you pick up all the stuff through inferences.

Confusion, Narrative and Infomaniacs

TCJ: A hallmark of your work, and something you talked about that ties a little back to Dada, is that you enjoy watching soap operas that you’ve never seen before, that you like being confused. Many of your stories don’t really have proper beginnings; [they] kind of plop the reader into something that’s happening. Eventually, you explain everything you need to know, but you create this initial confusion. It’s a way of jarring the reader, as a way of getting people out of thinking of things as conventional narrative, but it’s also a great humor device. You just never know what’s going to be thrown at you without a narrator saying “this is the world that’s happening here”.

MT: I just think of it as being a channel. You have this experience all the time in life of just turning on a channel, and then you’re in the middle of a narrative. That happens every day. Every day that you consume media, there are these sagas and people are always trying to watch every episode of some HBO show or something. “I have to start at the beginning and invest myself in this whole series,” but you really don’t need to. I accidentally yesterday watched an episode of Rumpole of the Bailey, and I was completely entertained because I’d sort of heard of it, but then being in the middle of it, in medias res, was a fun experience, trying to get your footing. As a writer, it’s really fun.

TCJ: A trend I’ve noticed in your comics is that, both in the minicomics and then in 1-800-MICE, was you’ll have a lot of the same themes, sometimes a lot of the same characters popping up, and beyond just that, a sense of that this is happening all in the same universe, and it all has the same mystical rules. How much of that happens in the moment and how much of it is after the fact? “Carrot for Girls”, for example, where you introduce all kinds of crazy ideas and a lot of them pop up later. What is the thought [process] behind that?

MT: Well, I guess some of it is intentional or game playing, or I feel the ideas haven’t really been expressed well enough. I never know whether to keep harping on some weird concept. I may be ready to not make work about the time traveling continuum of the Carrot or the Domino-One pattern that’s this checkerboard pattern. I guess I’ve done a lot of work with repeating that concept.

TCJ: Or if not repeated, it’s in the background.

MT: Yeah, I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. I guess I don’t want to be so obsessed with my own mythology that I’d be yelling at people to refer to some minicomic that they don’t really want to have to track down or something [Clough laughs]. Maybe I’d like it to be available if you were looking, and I know that I’m trying to push against my range. Like my new strips, those Infomaniacs strips I’m working on.

TCJ: Let’s talk about those. I just discovered they existed today and I read all of them. It’s funny, I read one based on a Facebook announcement you had and thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I only read the most recent one first, and again, it’s the kind of situation where you’re thrown in media res into something and I completely understood what was going on. Then I realized, “Oh, there’s a bunch more of these,” so I read them back in order, some of which seemed to be related to each other and some of which seemed to be their own thing. One of the things obviously going on there is your interest in the Internet with regard to identity, and how we create and maintain identities in our current world, something I also noticed in that mini you did, “The Inner You Tube”.

MT: That’s kind of a precursor to these strips in a way. I feel like “Inner You Tube” was a short story that’s self-contained and I’m proud of it, and it kind of is therapeutic way of just working out ideas that are continuing into the Infomaniacs strips about my qualms about how people are interacting with their technology and how are brains are changing due to the fact that we spend twenty hours a day online. Some people spend less time, but most people, given the chance, spend their time with this mass consciousness pool–the architecture of the internet. I’m trying to accumulate ideas and characters and it’s gonna be a weekly strip, so I’m trying to have them be contained week-by-week, so you can read one, and maybe it would be a fairly satisfying reading experience.

TCJ: Each one felt like a fairly discrete unit. It didn’t even have a cliffhanger, but there are definitely threads you pick up in the next one.

MT: Yeah, I wanted there to be a joke like a weekly Sunday strip, but I’m just kind of developing the characters now. It came out of another mini called “MegaBat”.

TCJ: That’s a character who appears for a few pages in 1-800-MICE, and then does not appear again.

MT: He appears in the “MegaBat” mini, working a catering job. There’s this flying fox character whom he’s the son of, and he’s a … I don’t know what he is! (laughs) He’s a minor character at this point who maybe will be activated [later].

TCJ: Is there any particular reason you decided to throw him in 1-800-MICE where you did? I remember you saying, “For awhile I was just introducing new character after new character and I realized that I had to rein it in.”

MT: He was just definitely just a one-pager. He was in the first issue. I think in the first issue the momentum wasn’t really going yet, so there were like some loose ends that just were left to dangle. He really doesn’t have any bearing on the story but I really liked that one page.

TCJ: It was very funny, and I remember being sad that we didn’t get to see more of him, that it was an enjoyable idea. I actually think it was interesting for the narrative, because your transitions throughout are jarring. Here’s something here, then something completely different happening [there] with no narrative spoon-feeding to tell the reader that something different is happening.

MT: Yeah, no segues.

TCJ: You’re being shown things happening in a city: this is happening here, this is happening here, this is happening here, and eventually it all starts to coalesce. You talked about sort of thinking about the plotting later and needing to tie up certain threads, but how iron clad was the plot in your mind in the first issue or the second issue? Did you start to draw in the strings as you did more?

MT: Yeah, the first issue was setting out a whole bunch of narrative propositions and the second issue felt like it turned more into a comic book for me and started to continue those propositions, and then I took a break for like a year where I was just playing music and completely confused and trying to be an illustrator and then when I got back into it, I had this fever to make it into a really sound narrative. Also, I spent a lot of time just working out the plots. I wanted to tie things together in symbolic way. That the reasons for everything would be Marcel Duchamp-type reasons: this affects this, because it’s releasing a gas, and the gas is due to the anger of this texture. Abstract, logical precepts. I don’t think it really does that because it’s still too much like a soap opera, so the ending is just a cop-out of an ending: “everyone dies!” When I was tying things together and advancing the plot, I definitely was trying to pull together this kind of ribbon of all these different threads. I don’t know how to describe it.

Dread, The Ecosystem, and The Ending of 1-800-MICE

TCJ: Let’s talk about the ending. It was kind of a shaggy dog story, in that all this stuff happens and it has meaning and the characters have meaning, and the ending is what you were promising all along. “Well, the volcano hasn’t erupted … yet,” making the reader think, “Well, it’s going to erupt sometime, but that surely won’t be the end.” But it was. The shaggy dog aspect of the story is that the machinations of the story’s antagonists were really all a precept for this concert showdown to see who’s the best banjo player of these three lunatics. You also mentioned elsewhere that it was your takeoff on the ending of Watchmen?

MT: (laughs) I remember when I was fourteen thinking that was the most hardcore thing I’ve ever seen: the beginning of the last issue of Watchmen where there’s twelve pages of apocalypse. I still don’t know really how to end things. That was my first experience ending a really long narrative. So I just ended it in the most retarded way that I could think of. Also I couldn’t think of a happy ending. I hope there’s a happy ending for the society we’re in … but then I had a moment where I decided to add the little characters [that] are in the ash cloud that’s being spewed out on the last [page]. “Oh, don’t worry we’ll be turned into carbon in the end. It’s not such a big deal.” Then I started laughing when I thought of that idea of doing the last page and felt better about it, about the grimness.

TCJ: It’s like the ending of Dr. Strangelove, when Slim Pickens is riding the atomic bomb.

MT: Yeah, it’s cheerful. Somebody wrote me a letter recently that said the ending was … in our society, there may be a terrible ending, but nobody is really responsible. Everyone is a little part of the machine. You’re not directly responsible whether you recycle or not for the whole ecosystem crashing, but you’re part of it and you’ve been manipulated. It’s heavy stuff like that.

TCJ: You seem to be reluctant to talk about the heavier issues in interviews; do you prefer to let the work speak for itself on these issues?

MT: Yeah, hopefully my role is an entertainer and an artist, and I’ll just keep on fiddling until the end, I guess. This work is definitely one that came out of a lot of dread and living in a weird, hilly part of New York that had a high population density. I think there’s a lot of hope. I think that the end has always been near for thousands of years.

TCJ: I’ve done some reading about the millennial movement when the year 1000 was approaching and a similar level of hysteria.

MT: Calendars always freak people out. When I was doing the last couple of issues, I was hellbent on getting them done before 2012, just in case shit really hit the fan and there was no more publishing or something. [Clough laughs] I’m glad I got to have my say. I don’t know though, I just think we’re always evolving.

From 1-800-MICE

TCJ: What’s interesting about 1-800-MICE is that dread is absolutely pervasive because everyone thinks it’s the comet that’s going to get them, not the volcano or not anything that they’re doing. When in fact, as you just said, it’s all of their individual actions that are really affecting their fates. Throughout the book, there’s a half-dozen times when if one action had been changed, everything could have been saved. The opportunity for hope was always there. It’s an indirect message to the reader, I suppose, that small actions mean everything; you have compared it to a Rube Goldberg contraption, where in this case the contraption was doomsday.

MT: We’re all part of the ecosystem with all the animals and plants and all the man-made stuff. If you try to think of the big picture, it’s overwhelming and scary. I guess that’s why my book is ultimately, underneath all the funny stuff, about being non-didactic, that we’re all part of the ecosystems. Different characters in the book are aware of different aspects of it. Even the people who are trying to control it think they’re doing the right thing. Aunty Lakeford really believes that if she proves that the banjo’s origins are in Africa, then that will help, that’s gonna help.

TCJ: I thought that was hilarious, employing Peace Punk to doctor YouTube videos to prove that. It was absurd, but also really on point in that the person who controls information controls the historical narrative.

MT: I think of that as kind of watching people making media at Occupy Wall Street where they are creating a narrative through videotapes and trying to control a narrative for what I think are personally positive, good goals, but they are also engaged in manipulation. Everybody is.

TCJ: As an artist, what do you think about the manifestations of Occupy Wall Street? There’s a culture-jamming aspect of it that I think is interesting, that’s using technology against popular culture and popular consciousness, but it’s also about manipulation of ideas.

MT: I like that, if you go down there, that you don’t feel manipulated, there’s just a lot of people with their individual messages, but I feel like there’s not a single message coming out. That feels like that’s enough, that I can get behind that, that people are expressing honest dissatisfaction. It’s just helping that that presence is there. I think it’s an entertaining place to hang out. I don’t know what to do as an artist when there, except do what everyone else is doing and taking pictures and documenting what’s going on. So I went down and I’ve done some drawings.

TCJ: Even documenting it becomes a political act.

MT: Well, yeah, if you think that sharing media control is so important, just spreading the word is important and taking it seriously. I’ve only seen one little bit of TV on Fox News in this restaurant yesterday. It’s pretty entertaining to see their spin on it, which is, “If you show up at Occupy Wall Street, you may be confronted by angry, bigoted protesters with their anti-semitic signs,” choosing the most distasteful person in the whole group of one thousand people to make the focus of the show. I’m not politically smart and afraid of all. The way I try to do something is just make honest, funny cartoons. I don’t know any other way. Something that may have influenced 1-800-MICE was something that happened on Lummi Island when I was a kid. There’s this graveyard, and these really old oak trees lining the graveyard. Their branches started falling off and some people wanted to cut down the trees. This riled up all of the hippies and a lot of local people went down to the graveyard and protested. My piano teacher wrote this fifty-verse ballad and played it on the harp about saving the trees. [Clough laughs and says “Wow!”] People were trying to get me to do something and join this protest, and I felt like it was hard for me to take a side, but I was observing the whole event.

TCJ: Spectacle, as it were.

MT: Spectacle. Eventually, I was glad they didn’t try to cut the trees down. Some people from Lummi Island are gonna be pissed if you print that [laughs].

TCJ: You talk about the feeling of dread when you were doing the story, and in particular the corner of Brookyln you’re in. How much does living in a high-density population place influence your work? How difficult is that to be away from the green that you grew up with? Is part of your affection for and affiliation with ecological concerns a byproduct of the way you grew up?

MT: I feel like I had it really good as a kid and got to run around the forest all the time, and had a very daydreamy, safe adolescence surrounded by ferns and stinging nettles and little newts on the road and deer getting in front of your car while driving, so I know that it does have an influence. I’m also aware that nature is a great thing until you have to live in a shack and you don’t have any neighbors and you have to split firewood for winter and you could get eaten by a bear. Nature is this romantic, constructed thing, but beauty is everywhere, in everything. I feel like there’s plenty of beauty in the city and I do like the mess and garbage and stuff.

TCJ: You built that into the way you drew Volcano Park. It’s crowded, but you really drew a lot of detail into those big shots of the city, and you drew a lot of jokes in there as well. You got the sense that “there’s dread in the city, and it’s probably denser than it should have been,” but it really felt alive.

MT: That’s where you feel alive. Crowds are exciting. People go to the market on the weekends for fun and entertainment, to rub shoulders with people. Cartoons come from the city. Comic strips come from the city. Vaudeville comes from the Lower East Side. Theaters are where people go to have fun.

TCJ: Do you feel like you could have been the artist you are today if you had stayed on the island in a small town?

MT: No, definitely not. I am who I am because of my environment and because of my choices to stay here, or go here in the first place. I am inexorably drawn by radio and by libraries and by books. A place where I needed more and more stimulus all the time. Now I’m in a good place–we have a nice place to live and I have a garden and it’s quiet, and I’m kind of bored enough with stuff in the city that I don’t have to go to every single music show every single night. I’m happy to just kind of hang out and work, but it’s a good balance.  It feels like I’m more in control than I have been before, so now I can just stare at the Internet and contemplate that. Make work about that. Where I live now is an interesting neighborhood.

FILED UNDER:

13 Responses to “I Just Like Hybrid Activity”: The Matthew Thurber Interview

  1. ant says:

    Fucking Warlock of Firetop Mountain! That reference blew my mind.

    Thurber, you’re a genius.

  2. ant says:

    Oh, and I think maybe Mr. Thurber means “Brass Eye” when he talks about the “English mock news show”….Chris Morris, right?

  3. Rob Clough says:

    That’s my error in transcription.

  4. ant says:

    Oh right. Absolutely brilliant interview, thank you! Would’ve been nice to hear Mr. Thurber talk about late-sixties/mid-seventies German art-rock bands but that’s a minor quibble. And, uh, sorry for hijacking the comments thread….

  5. Rob Clough says:

    Glad you enjoyed it! I feel like there’s a lot I didn’t get to (I didn’t get to talk about his early minicomics as much as I would have liked), but I’ll leave that to future interviewers.

  6. patrick ford says:

    Thanks Guys. I’ve been waiting for this one, and it’s wonderful.
    Rob and other interviewers often ask variations of “Have your parents seen your stuff?”
    We often tend to underestimate our parents. As a kid sexual matters were never discussed in my family, so it was a surprise to me when visiting my Dad one day he gave me copies of Henry Miller’s “Tropic” books.

  7. Patrick Hambrecht says:

    Great interview!

    Hey Thurber, when did you intern for the Dame? Around what years?

    – Patrick

  8. Rob Clough says:

    Thurber interned for Dame Darcy around 1995.

  9. thanks! I went out and bought an Ambergris CD after reading it.

  10. That was epic. Glad you had such great questions for MT

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