What follows is a collection of tributes to the cartoonist Joe Matt, who died earlier this month at the age of 60. Longtime friends mingle with young artists Matt befriended, affording us a variety of new perspectives on one of the standout memoirists of his generation.
In late 2019, Joe got romantically involved with an attractive woman who was in her early 30s. Joe would have been 56. This young woman introduced Joe to her father, and Joe said to him, “I am sleeping with your daughter.”
When Joe told me this, I asked, “Why would you say such a thing?”
His response: “Because that’s what I’d be wondering about if I was in his shoes.” That anecdote doesn’t sum up everything about Joe, but it covers a lot: his honesty, his willingness (eagerness?) to ignore the social niceties, and the fact that he was “a character” — someone unique. No one else was like Joe.
Joe made his debut as a published cartoonist in the February 1989 issue of Snarf (a humor anthology title). (Those pages were later reprinted as the first five pages of his graphic-novel Peepshow: The Cartoon Diary of Joe Matt.) Other people had done autobiographical comics, notably Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, but somehow Joe made the genre seem fresh and exciting, even though there was nothing all that remarkable about the life he was leading. Not to put down the work that Pekar and Crumb had done — I love their autobio stuff — but Joe’s perspective and approach felt radically different. About those few pages in Snarf, I later wrote that “every day for weeks I found myself rereading them.”
Honesty is a tricky word in relation to Joe — he was willing to make himself look bad by sometimes showing himself doing things he hadn’t done. An example that jumps to mind is the the scene in the Peepshow book where he and his friend Ron go to Washington, D.C. (page 71, first edition). Joe shows himself shitting his pants. But he admitted to me and Seth that it was actually Ron who shat himself. Is that honesty or some sort of compulsion to portray himself negatively? And he was also often deliberately inaccurate, like in the strips in the Peepshow book that show him meeting me and Seth for the first time. Seth was as impressed by Joe’s work in Snarf as I was, so we were both eager to meet him. At the time, Joe was living in Montréal. Somehow we were able to get in touch with him, and he came to Toronto to visit. The three of us spent a day together and had a great time hanging out. Joe was then doing each page as a separate story unit, and showing the three of us getting together was probably (in Joe’s mind) too much material for a single page. So he depicted it as if he met me — alone — for the first time on Nov. 27, 1990 and then he supposedly later met me and Seth on Feb. 20, 1991. And those dates are definitely wrong. My guess would be that the first time we all met and hung out would have been in early- or mid-1990. The dates on the pages are probably supposed to reflect when he drew them, and even on that level they’re inaccurate since they imply that he drew them in a day, when most of those early pages took him (at least) several days to draw.
Joe and his then-girlfriend Trish soon moved to Toronto, so Seth, Joe, and I began spending a LOT of time together. We’d usually at least meet on Wednesday (new-comic day) and would often get together some other time in the week too. I look back at that period in our lives with extreme fondness. Certainly, watching Seth and Joe develop as artists was thrilling and inspiring. And it was fun just spending time with them. Seth was definitely the leader of the group. If he wanted to go to a particular bookstore, we went to that bookstore. If he wanted to eat in a certain restaurant, we ate in that restaurant (with Joe always scrutinizing the menu for the cheapest item). Joe would express resentment: “Why is Seth the leader? Why can’t I be the leader sometimes?” I would explain that Seth was the leader because he was the leader. Why fight against the natural order?
Our friendship wasn’t just a mutual admiration society — we were prepared to harshly critique each other. Seth and I both thought that the first issue of the Peepshow comic-book series was great. But when Joe showed us the pages for the second issue, we had to admit to him that we didn’t think it was good at all. I can’t remember what the problem was, but the result was a big let-down as a reading experience after that brilliant first issue. Joe was disappointed, but he took our reactions to heart and significantly rewrote and redrew the issue. Seth and I both agreed that the redone version was a big improvement, and that’s what got printed as Peepshow #2, which later became the second chapter of the graphic novel The Poor Bastard. I think, if my memory is correct, that the night Joe showed us the lousy version of Peepshow #2 was New Year's Eve 1991/92. I can’t remember why Seth and Joe weren’t with their girlfriends, but the three of us spent a large part of that night in a dumpy 24-hour donut shop on Bloor near Bathurst with a bunch of people who had nowhere better to be on New Year’s Eve.
If Joe was meeting someone for the first time, he was likely to ask that person prying questions about their sex life, like how often they had sex with their current romantic-sexual partner, and how many sexual partners they’d had, etcetera. This may lead some of you reading this to assume that conversing with Joe was an offputting experience, but he had a sweet personality, and many people who were grilled by him in this manner happily divulged the private details of their lives.
I was just looking at the cover of The Poor Bastard, where Joe is craning his neck to wistfully and (presumably) lustfully gaze at a young woman. It reminds me of a time when Joe, Dave Sim, and I were strolling down Queen Street. A particularly attractive young woman walked past us, so my head and Dave’s swiveled round to follow her progress. Joe was genuinely mortified. He said something like, “Do you guys have to ogle in such an overt way? It’s embarrassing walking with you.” Joe ogled women, but he would have been much more circumspect in doing so than he seems to be in his comics. (And, of course, Dave today probably gives attractive women only cursory glances.)
Speaking of Dave Sim, while Joe (sensibly) rejected most of Dave’s beliefs about women, one of them did get lodged firmly in Joe’s brain: the notion that women can read men’s minds. Many times Joe would tell me anecdotes about some interaction with a female friend or girlfriend, with the gist of the tale being that the woman knew something that he’d been thinking, and he’d end the anecdote by saying: “Dave is right! They can read our minds!” (I don’t mean to imply that Joe was more susceptible to believing kooky ideas than I am. I could give you a list of my beliefs that would probably lead you to agree with Seth that I’m crazy.)
Here are two photos of Joe and me from a west coast signing tour in 1993, back when people would sometimes ask if we were brothers:
Despite the Ed t-shirt, Joe’s on the left in both of those, which were taken by my then-girlfriend Sook-Yin Lee. (She prompted us to goof around on the statue, which we did to amuse her.)
I don’t know when this next photo of the two of us was taken, but it looks like it’s from approximately the same era, based on how far our hairlines had receded:
I don’t know who took that one — maybe Seth. And I should include a shot of Joe and Seth:
It would seem that Joe had just said something that Seth found amusing. I was probably handling the camera-duty there.
After Joe moved to Los Angeles in 2003, we kept in touch. I’d phone him several times a year.
Unfortunately, after he finished his graphic novel Spent in 2007, he essentially stopped working. From 2007 to his death, he’d only drawn 20-something pages for his next graphic novel. He was going to publish those pages in an issue of Peepshow, but he needed to ink the last four pages. For the last two (or more) years, every time I’d ask him how close he was to finishing that issue of Peepshow, he’d say, “I’ve got four more pages to ink.” It seems that there was some sort of block there that was preventing him from working. I’m often asked how he was able to financially survive when he had no books coming out. He did quite a bit of house-sitting, and fans would often ask him to paint or draw commissions. On top of that, he just lived very cheaply so that he didn’t need much money. Those of us who were concerned about him were wondering how sustainable that way of living would be as he got older, but now we don’t have to worry anymore.
If anyone thinks that Joe’s sex life since 2007 was defined by the masturbation that readers see in Spent, he did have two significant girlfriends in his Los Angeles period. He lived with one of them for several years. And he also had one or two other shorter-term girlfriends (like the one I mentioned in the first paragraph).
In circumstances like this, it’s natural to dwell on “lasts” — the last time I saw him, the last time I talked to him. In 2018, a French comic-book-festival organizer contacted me about coming to Paris. He mentioned that he wanted to invite Seth and Joe too. I said I’d only attend if Seth and Joe were also going. I’m now so thankful that they both agreed and that we had a reunion in December of that year. We did a panel together — I took this photo of Joe right before the panel began.
Seth had just told Joe to put away the lollipop.
At another point during the trip, we did an interview for some magazine and were asked about our favorite French comics. Seth and I complied, but when it was Joe’s turn to answer, he started talking about Dick Tracy! The next day Seth asked me, “Do you know what my favorite French comic is?” Having apparently forgotten whatever Seth had said the previous day, I replied that I didn’t. He got a big laugh out of me when he said, “Dick Tracy."
The last time I talked to Joe on the phone was on Aug. 15. He kept saying that he felt like he hadn't said anything, even though he’d done most of the talking and we’d been on the phone for almost an hour — somehow he wasn’t saying what he really wanted to say. And then the power ran out on his phone and we got cut off mid-sentence. I tried calling back, but Joe was then recharging his phone. This didn’t seem like a big deal because I assumed that I’d be able to call him again in the coming weeks.
In early September I ran into a neighbor of mine who told me that she’d just interviewed Joe for her podcast. I hadn’t known that this neighbor has a podcast, and afterward it occurred to me that I should have asked her for the name of her podcast so that I could listen to Joe’s interview, but then I thought, I’ll just call Joe and ask him for the name of the podcast. So I called on Sept. 14, but he didn’t answer. He usually had the sound down on his phone. If one was calling him, one had to hope that the phone was in his field of vision so that he could see that someone was calling. (My cell-phone plan doesn’t cover sending texts to U.S. numbers, so I couldn’t send him a text suggesting Let’s talk now. And he rarely checked his e-mail account.) I tried a few more times that day, but then gave up, reasoning that I’d be able to get through on some other day. I’m told that he probably died the next day.
I hope that Joe's death will prompt a revival of interest in his work. I see him as one of the most important cartoonists of his generation. He didn’t produce a lot of work — only four books — but three of those books (Peepshow, The Poor Bastard and Spent) are masterpieces. And Fair Weather is pretty good too. I was lucky to be one of his friends.
On Sunday night I received a text from a prominent comics critic / scholar that read: "Now I know everyone’s thinking autoerotic asphyxiation, but I think Peggy Burns did it. He was bad for the brand."
Holy shit, I thought, Tom Devlin is dead!!!
I went on to X (formerly Twitter) to investigate what had happened but found nothing...
I read the message again... Somebody had definitely passed, someone associated with D&Q, someone who was partial to extreme wanking. Tom seemed okay, Chester seemed okay, Joe seemed okay...
It was late on the East Coast and the critic / scholar who had messaged me was not replying to my request for more information, I did the dishes, tidied the living room and went to bed, confused.
Upon waking I immediately checked my messages from the critic and was met with: "Oh no, I figured you’d heard because you’re in LA. Please don’t tell anyone but I heard Joe Matt was found dead in his apt."
It hit me like a freight train.
I loved Joe.
I had feared it was Joe.
This critic is now also fucking dead to me (at least for a little while).
"I’m sorry, didn’t know you knew each other."
Yeah, I fucking did, do your research, you dumb cunt, before you send tasteless wanking jokes to people whose friends have just passed.
I LOVE wanking jokes, but this was not the time for wanking jokes.
Joe was much more than just a wanker.
Joe, as I knew him, was an incredibly kind and smiley man, possessed of boyish energy and a zest for life.
He was unhurried in his art practice, seemingly just in it for the joy of making friends and fans happy with his paintings and doodles.
He'd been slowly working on the 39 pages long Peepshow 15 for at least 7 years, probably much longer... I hope it surfaces one day, in whatever form it's in, although I know that Joe hated people seeing his unfinished work... perhaps it's best if nobody gets to see it...
I hope somebody puts his old books back into print, I love those books, I read them again and again as a teenager and they informed my growth into an adult (mostly what not to do as a man)... Thanks for putting it all out there for us, Joe. You had an incredible, hugely influential run and you will be sorely missed, not just as a producer of comics, but just as a presence in this world. Everything truly feels darker without your smile. I wept for you, you motherfucker, I love you.
A message to older men: go to the fucking doctor, I know it's scary, but if your feet have been numb for two full years, something is wrong and you need to see a doctor. It won't just be fine, it won't just fix itself. Take care of yourselves...
Joe Matt, famously, did not produce many pages in what turned out to be the last 15 or so years of his life. But he remained at core a Comics Man, as was clear to those who spent time with him.
He and I were pals - companions on years’ worth of “new comics” day meetups and lunches at Meltdown, and for the past seven years or so we tended to spend a long day together about once a month for multi-mile strolls and book and DVD shopping (at Iliad, Skylight, and Amoeba mostly).
Many of Joe’s peculiarities were manifest to his readers, some you had to spend time with him to fully grok. All of them, no matter how off-putting they could seem on paper, came across in person as charming, often sweet, and always energizing to witness because of the level of focused enthusiasm Joe put into everything he did. This included, as often the case in the past half-decade, the muted mutual grousing of men in their 50s about things slowing down, even our enthusiasms. We had to admit—Joe more than me, as he was punctiliously selective about how many books he allowed in his life, even as he mocked my wild profligacy in adding more and more (“Brian Doherty: the man who loved books” was his deadpan slogan about me)—that even book shopping wasn’t the joy it was a couple decades back. But even in exploring the malaise of age, there was no more insightful and entertaining a companion than Joe.
Despite his gap in publishing new comics, he never gave up on seeing himself as a working cartoonist. Even as he got off the conventions/event treadmill and was no longer a regular presence at cartoonist gatherings (Joe loved doing the things he loved to do, but did not like doing most things - I think it was his joke that the motto on his personal crest ought to be “I can’t be bothered,” though it’s possible a friend laid that on him), he would often be especially thrilled or energized to relate some online messaging bout with Kim Deitch, a meeting with Simon Hanselmann or a day spent visiting Sammy Harkham, or hours of talking cartooning and life with Ingrid Rios. He never, at least not to my face, thought or admitted he was done, even as years might go by without a panel being completed. He was not one to talk out his work in detail—he thought it dissipated your creative energies—but on grilling from me (a fan before I was a friend) he laid out a rough sense of at least three different approaches to a graphic novel about his L.A. life over the decade and a half I knew him.
As I recall, one such idea would have been focused on the reason he moved to L.A., an attempt to make a TV show out of Peepshow for HBO. (It never got shot, though various other attempts at media adaptations rose and fell over the years, usually without great enthusiasm from Joe except for any check that might be involved. Two such projects, from what he told me, were in some sort of progress, though not being shot when he passed: a domestic animated series and a French feature film.) Another possible graphic novel would have been about his anguish and heartbreak over one, possibly two, different romantic relationships of his L.A. years. And another involved close focusing on his very time-consuming lottery obsession of the past handful of years.
It’s possible he imagined all three as threads in one graphic novel - but again, he only said that much after extensive questioning from me. (He might have been more open to a fellow cartoonist, which I am not.) I did, however, have the privilege of becoming a Joe Matt comic book character, starring as his conversational foil in some of the new pages post-Peepshow that appeared in the Drawn & Quarterly 25th anniversary anthology, as well as in the pages of an issue he was nearly finished with on his passing. I was able to look at (though not to read) those pages, nearly but not all inked and lettered, just a couple of months ago. His cartooning was sharper and more vivid, clear, and readable than ever. Maximal readability, guiding the reader through a story with the most engagement and least obstruction, was an obsession with Joe, and he was getting better at it.
He kept up with new comics, somewhat, as best his economic circumstances allowed. We’d hit the new graphic novel table at Skylight’s art annex pretty much monthly, but he certainly couldn’t afford to buy new graphic novels and I don’t think he was on all the freebie lists his status deserved. Those who did send him their work must understand: even if he liked it, he was very likely to sell or trade it (sometimes to me) as his living space was reduced to one room and he had to be ruthless about books he kept and, well, there were lots of Barks, Gould, Capp, Gray, Stanley, and Kirby reprint series for him to make room for. But he would always have interesting supportive or critical comments on the new things and old things I’d pick up in front of him, with a special Joe obsession with the print job, size, flaps (he loved them, even on paperbacks), gutter size, proportion of inked image on the page, how the pages held ink: he knew exactly how he thought a properly done graphic novel or reprint collection should look, and failures to reach that pained the perfectionist in him.
I learned to love Li'l Abner thanks to Joe, but even so, I delighted in hearing him verbally deliver Capp routines a little more than reading the strip itself. He was also, to me, a funnier deliverer of Tom Scharpling show routines than the show itself. While not comedy, he could weirdly keep me rapt retelling in great detail the plot of Gunsmoke and Bonanza episodes, though I would never dream of watching either. He’d mock me for wasting my time reading old Gardner Fox or second-rate Marvel '60s reprint comics, while I’d retort that unlike the hours he put in on, say, The Rifleman or Ozzie and Harriet, at least my time wasting junk culture was comics. He would lightly grant my point, but then groan at the sight of any Mike Sekowsky page.
The fan in me stopped worrying about new comics from Joe, though the friend in me knew it would be good for him to have that feeling of accomplishment again. I saw him getting there, and in the normal life span he was cruelly robbed of, I trusted he would have finished another graphic novel or two. Joe had, I think, mixed and tortured feelings about his lack of productivity, loving and even taking perverse pride in his shapeless, endless life of enforced austerity and freewheeling whim, but knowing that good cartooning was a holy task he was called to but resisted for whatever reason.
The simplest truth though, is this: Joe woke up and went to sleep nearly every day for over a decade (sometimes up at dawn, sometimes at dusk) with lots of walking and biking and talking and TV show watching and comics reading and frugal shopping and café visiting and rearranging image files both porn and non-porn on the computer he obtained a few years ago and sometimes walking dogs or caring for cats, and chose not to put pencil or ink to paper for the vast majority of those days.
Psychologizing unspoken motives in my friends bugs me, but when I did press him for some explanation, it was along the lines of: Why bother? What’s the payoff? He seemed burdened by a sense that the work already done should have delivered him some reward that it didn’t quite, whether in money, regard, fame, love, or even personal satisfaction. He even at times pursued romantic choices because he thought they might help him get to work. But his sheer dogged commitment to a life of frantically imposed austerity and leisure surely had multiple complex causes that were never revealed in front of me. Simple overarching concepts such as “depression” or even “laziness” must play a part. Still, one of the funniest things I ever heard of him saying was, of a person he heard was contemplating a Joe Mattesque life of highly restricted spending and vastly unwinding leisure, that: “He can’t hack it. He doesn’t have what it takes.” He knew it took a special sort of fortitude to live his strange life, however easy doing nothing might seem to an unthinking outsider. Joe was resolutely, inspirationally committed to his own path, whatever his reasons for choosing it, or stumbling into it.
But in terms of receiving entertainment value from Joe Matt the character and storyteller, an aimless long stroll with him taking in his observations and stories on whatever was on his mind, from an experience with a friend or stranger in public to a TV program or movie, to his aesthetic theories about storytelling to his wondering if he should take a more loose-lined approach to drawing to get it done quicker, was a satisfying substitute of sorts, and even if you weren’t a devotee of Joe Matt the Cartoonist, just a fascinating joy to have in your life.
I have been thinking and writing and talking about Joe a lot in the past few days, of course. And it’s delightful thinking and writing and talking and remembering Joe, because he was such a uniquely bright, thoughtful, funny, troubled, peculiar man, who despite a strong streak of self-centeredness really wanted to put on an entertaining show for his friends and companions, or even any stranger he might interact with. I have been suppressing the reason I’m thinking about Joe so much now, but next time I’m in Los Feliz and I’m not taking a multi-mile walk with Joe Matt, not driving him to Iliad and Amoeba, not accompanying him to buy some weird bargain thing at Albertsons or Rite Aid, it’s going to hit me, and it’s going to hurt very much for a very long time.
My comic in CRAM #2 came out of an idea I had that it would be funny to write myself into a real life friendship that has existed for years in comics—“The Toronto Three”—Seth, Chester Brown, and Joe Matt. When I went to L.A. for Permanent Damage, I met up with Joe at Skylight Books. He saw my giant bags and backpack and insisted on carrying my backpack—probably a 20 lb. monstrosity—on the way to a second location, House of Pies. Ended up spending three and a half hours hanging out with him. After Pies, we walked to his apartment (I waited outside, his roommate had rules about guests). He brought out some of his books he was selling on eBay, and I bought one off him. He excitedly showed me his originals of his new comic he was working on, really impressive to see the meticulous craft up close. When asked about his process making autobio, he showed me extremely detailed tiny notes in a small notebook. We talked about all different stuff - favorite topics of his like women and collecting, Seymour the cat he loved to pet sit for. We related a lot, he kept saying it was like talking to a young version of himself. When I drew that comic, all three were caricatures to me. All three were very kind when I met them in real life, but Joe stepped out of his comic book and carried my bag for me, shared countless details about the life he was living, and sounded excited about finishing his new comic he’d been working on for years and was finally making good progress on. I hope people get to read it. He was exactly the cartoon character you expect from his comics, but I did not expect I would get a chance to get to know the human being (even just for an afternoon). He walked me to the train, kept talking about his system for choosing lotto numbers, insisting it was not gambling. I wished him luck on winning the lotto, told him he’d earned it. R.I.P. Joe.
Joe Matt and I were introduced via a mutual friend whom we both had briefly dated. He used to take his Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie books into a shop in Silver Lake where she worked to be library wrapped. As someone with a passion for indie comics and oddballs, she had recognized Joe from his comics and the two of them dated for about a week before it dissolved into a friendship. This same friend knew of my interest in comics and suggested we meet. I hadn’t even read his comics yet, but I was at an age where it seemed like such a rare interest and was feverish to spend time with literally anyone who knew something about them. I had no idea I’d be meeting someone that was such a staple of a world of art I would become obsessed with being a part of. One Wednesday, we drove out to a coffee shop near Meltdown Comics to meet him.
After our introduction we traded numbers, and over the next several years I would call Joe up to chat and catch up. Whenever I was back home from college, we’d arrange to meet at a coffee shop or bookstore - sometimes with others, and sometimes just the two of us. Joe was so enthusiastic about talking comics, seasons of Ozzie and Harriet on DVD, Soupy Sales, looking at sketchbooks and making jam strips, but he was also just as interested talking about our lives. He would bring books and attempt to sell them to his friends and me. It was like the character in his comics had leapt off the page. Watering down cheap orange juice, imparting lessons in frugality, talking about relationships at length with no filter. I’m struck now thinking about how available he made himself. Around this time I was between 18-23, and he always seemed happy to get together and see what I was up to. He really didn’t talk down to me (although he did sometimes refer to me as "Young August" after a frequent caller on Scharpling’s Best Show). I felt treated as a friend despite our age difference. Hopefully I wasn’t insane for thinking so, but he always answered when I called. Looking at the books he gave as gifts to friends with lavish paintings in them, or his interactions with fans of his work on Facebook, it seemed like he craved this sort of interaction and loved talking to people. Talking could be exhausting, and sometimes his strongly held opinions on things would be disagreeable or an expressed preference would be in poor taste, but his openness and specificity and depth of thought was very admirable and familiar. Because the art school I was in had no teachers invested in comics, I highly valued whatever feedback he gave on work that I had been doing. He directed my attention towards comic strips that I came to love, and also towards particular elements of craft that at the time were invisible to me. Things as simple as spacing around text in balloons and panel interaction or the staging of characters in our jam comics were very important. He was critical—you could tell these imperfections nagged at him—but also highly laudatory of things that worked, and it was instructive to see what kinds of considerations lead to his effortlessly readable pages. It seems so basic, but getting to observe in person the degree to which these small details mattered to him was one of the most instructive things to see as a developing artist.
I’d look through the pages of his sketchbook and see jams with Aimee Mann, Seth, Chester Brown, Kent Osborne, Jason… endless collaborators. I found it especially hilarious when he showed me jams with Johnny Ryan and would sweat over and anxiously complain that Ryan had been fighting him throughout like a game of tug of war. He would point out his panel here and how Ryan would try to drag the strip in a completely filthy direction, and the next panel he’d be struggling to wrest it back towards decency, only to be undermined again. In spite of his famous and much-criticized lack of productivity, Joe's artistic energy was not diminished; it was instead being channeled into other compulsive activities. Notably, he had a funny, eccentric habit of biking around to a mapped out set of garbage cans around L.A. that he knew had tons of second chance lotto tickets in them; he would then spend an afternoon or evening at the library entering them into the lotto website to see if anything hit. When my dad moved out of L.A. in 2014 it became difficult for me to visit, and as a result our relationship dwindled. I’d still call him occasionally, but it was hard to sustain. The news of his death was shocking, and made me wish we had spoken more recently. Most of all, I wish for his own sake he had had more time and that it wasn’t so expensive to go see a doctor. I hope we get to see whatever unpublished books he was working on, in complete or partial form. He was such a special person.
Like everyone who knew Joe Matt, the shock of his death still hasn’t left me. It's often said that a death is tragic, but Joe was only 60, and after years of false starts and not drawing, Joe had finally begun a new book and overseeing an adaptation of his graphic novel, The Poor Bastard, into an animated tv pilot. Over the years, Joe starting a new book felt like Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football, but I really believed this was it. No question, this is the worst football swipe Joe ever pulled.
I saw Joe a few times in the last couple of weeks. I knew him 20 years. My wife urged me to reach out to him a few months ago because we had lost touch during the pandemic, and we only live 10 minutes from each other. I would run into Joe at a local supermarket, usually between 11:00 PM and midnight. It was fun talking comics with him as we walked the aisles. Had I seen the 1947 volume of Dick Tracy? He had just bought a stack of 1970s Li’l Abner newspaper clippings, and would I be interested in buying his Sid Caesar: The Works dvd set? He sometimes talked like a recurring character on an old-time radio show. When he loved a panel or page, his highest praise was, "Oh, murder!"
I’ve never known a fan of the medium of comics quite like Joe. He had limited space where he lived, so he had a constant turnover of new books, studying them in incredible detail, then reselling them for living space to buy more. He did not want to own too many books. He wanted to absorb and move on to the next. His archivist instincts got him to spend years collecting out-of-print Frank King Gasoline Alley newspaper clippings, and he could tell the difference between the presses used to print them. There was a good press and a bad one, and Joe constantly upgraded his collection to the good one. His monumental effort forms the basis of the Drawn & Quarterly Walt and Skeezix series. You have to look through that microscopic indicia to find his name, but it’s there.
After reading Saul Bellow’s 1944 novel, Dangling Man, I gave my copy of it to Joe. The main character, Joseph, waits for the army to induct him in World War II. It gets delayed for one entangled bureaucratic reason or another. While he waits in suspense, he spends every day reading the paper, drinking coffee, living on his savings, and sitting around in cafés. You can see why Joseph might remind me of Joe, because that’s what he did. The repetitive monotony, day in and day out, the endless routine, it all eventually gets to Bellow’s Joseph, until he gives up and just enlists. Joe read it and I asked him if he liked it. Nope, he hated the ending. “Yeah, he couldn’t hack it,” Joe said.
We sat out on the porch of the House of Pies about three weeks ago, trying to figure out what Joe liked to call a menu's "weak link." That meant the cheapest thing on the menu that got you the most food. It’s trickier than it sounds because there are cheap items that offer very little. Joe was a master at figuring out the perfect balance of cash vs. food, where he figured the restaurant might actually lose money on the deal. Joe’s death completely surprised me because he walked and hiked everywhere in the neighborhood. He hid a lot of stress and angst, but just enough came out that it made me admire him so much for mastering this spartan lifestyle he wanted. The last time I saw him was at a Starbucks on Hillhurst Avenue in L.A. He had a bag of books for sale, and he met a friend to sell them. I couldn’t hang out, but looking out on the patio, I got to see him doing what he loved one last time, talking comics over coffee.
This is a 2009 photo of Joe with my son Archer on a new comics Wednesday. Joe, Brian Doherty, and I met up at Meltdown Comics on Sunset, now long gone. We’d then go to a nearby café, Abbot's Habit, also long gone, to look over the week's haul. Joe and Archer are talking about Archer’s new Buzz Lightyear comic in front of them. Joe loved seeing how much Archer loved his new comics. Joe knew the feeling, he never lost that kid's happiness over a new comic. R.I.P., Joe Matt. So long, pal.
Robert Crumb, misanthrope and master depicter of grotesquery and perversity, has given us as harsh a tableau of human folly as his masters, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, William Hogarth and Carl Barks. And yet there’s a volume called The Sweeter Side of R. Crumb, showing that even a grouch can warm in the presence of a cuddly cat, a sturdy tree, an elegant French neighborhood, or his beloved wife.
Crumb was Joe Matt’s master, and the creator of abrasive autobiographical comics like Spent also had a sweet side. Amid all the mourning for Joe, I’ve noticed many of his friends land on the word “sweet” (or its cognate term “sweetheart”) to describe Joe.
The sweet Joe Matt? That might seem unlikely to those who know of Joe only through his work. In his autobiographical comics, Joe painted himself as shiftless, miserly, self-centered, shallow, an inveterate masturbator who watched an unconscionable amount of porn, and an all-round “poor bastard.” (That’s certainly the harsher side I mentioned in my earlier memoir of Joe). How could a guy like that be sweet?
Yet many people, including many women, loved Joe, knowing all his faults (which he made visible to all the world). They loved him because he was sweet.
The sweetness was rooted in his incorrigible optimism. He knew his personality disorders but always worked to combat them. The later relationships he had in his life, although none were lasting, showed he had achieved a greater emotional maturity. He was committed to a life of art, and even after years of a writer’s block tried to figure out how to work on his comics. He was amazingly generous, especially considering his poverty, willing to share not just books and music and movies but also creating a vast amount of original art for his friends. Joe was sweet, which is why we loved him. We’ll always love him.
Joe’s death came as a real shock to me. I am not a person ever at a loss for words but I have to admit that the writing of this tribute has been a struggle. I’ve found it hard to organize my thoughts and feelings about Joe and to summarize my experience with him down to just a few paragraphs. That said, here’s the attempt. This tribute is likely more about me than Joe. But that was always the dynamic in our relationship (much to Joe’s eternal frustration).
My Friend, Joe Matt.
Looking back, I wonder if you get to choose your friends or if some other element of fate makes that decision for you. Certainly, in my generation of cartoonists, that decision was largely out of one’s hands. Your friends were simply whichever of the alternative/art-comics cartoonists who lived nearest you. So in Toronto, Chester Brown was my best friend whether he liked it or not. And Joe Matt, when he arrived in town, was immediately absorbed into our friendship and our comfortable duo became a trio. This was no different, it seemed, that Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine and Richard Sala of San Francisco or Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti and Archer Prewitt of Chicago (and several other enclaves throughout North America). You didn’t get all that much of a say in the matter.
This was especially true in our little corner of the world. On the surface you would have a hard time finding a trio of more different individuals. The three of us had nothing in common and yet, so clearly, we had everything in common. I have always felt that the perfect friendship is not two people but three. With two the focus can be too direct. One must always be talking or listening (then waiting to reverse that order). With three a burden is lifted. An easy flow of conversation rolls along. No one need be the focus. A vibrant give and take develops. An easy flow of laughter. Even silence is allowed. Before Joe came along Chester and I had mostly serious conversations. When Joe arrived so did most of the laughs. There was nothing Joe liked more than to laugh. Most of these laughs were at his expense. He encouraged that. Maybe even thrived on it. After Joe moved on it was back to the serious talk.
A friendship, even of three, is something like a romance or a marriage. It has distinct phases. Certainly I have very fond memories of the “honeymoon phase” with Joe. I knew his work before he came to Toronto—this was Chester Brown’s doing—he and Joe had been corresponding back then and Joe’d sent Chet a large stack of photocopies of his single page comics (much of the work that would later become the Kitchen Sink volume, Peepshow). Chet copied his copies and gave me my own stack. I read them over and over obsessively before I ever met Joe. Chet did the same. We both loved those comics and thought they were so fresh, so inspiring, and we were both very primed to meet him on that day. When we met I liked him instantly. Unreservedly. He was funny and personable. Very straightforward, warm, quirky and filled with enthusiasm and youthful ambition. A complete tonic.
Shortly after that meeting Joe moved to town and the “Toronto three” was born. In those early days Joe and I would talk on the phone all afternoon. Sometimes for days in a row. The whole week. Getting nothing done but simply embracing the friendship “crush” that defines the early days of any relationship. These are the times where you relate your life history, marvel at how much you have common and share your hopes and dreams. No judgement. Pure affection. Endless conversations about Crumb or Schulz, Kirby, Kurtzman. Excited at the latest issue of Hate or Eightball. A period where we were exploring the work of so many old cartoonists together with a shared enthusiasm; Harold Gray or Chester Gould. Frank King.
But honeymoons don’t last.
As the years went by the manner in which Joe and I interacted changed. In hindsight, not for the better, yet based on just who each of us were, perhaps it was inevitable. Much like in marriage so too in friendship—one takes on a role. This is a hard thing to explain. You need to have known Joe (and me. And Chester) to understand the odd dynamic that developed between the three of us. Joe was a very complicated person (yet oddly, a very simple one, as well)—a hugely talented artist, an open and earnest type, generous, funny, even outgoing… but also stingy, rude, close minded, set in his ways and a terrible stick in the mud in general. I’ll leave it for some future obit writer to describe me… but pushy, opinionated, condescending and “always right” would be not be far off the mark. Chester—well, Chester was the leavening force between us. The one who made things work. Sly and arrogant on the inside and all accommodating and complacent on the surface. He would quietly sit there and revel in the unpleasant vaudeville routine that was Joe and I, issuing that hilarious horse-whinny of a laugh whenever I would go for Joe’s throat. Joe often complained that I always got my way but the reason I got my way was that Chet sided with me. He backed me up because (I guess) it was just so amusing to see Joe thwarted. We silently conspired. Perhaps Chet was the real leader of the group.
That bad vaudeville routine is at the heart of my regrets about Joe. You see it depicted in his comics. It’s pretty funny there. My deadpan dismissal of everything he says. It wasn’t so funny in real life. I don’t know how it developed but once it came along it gained speed and he and I pulled it out whenever we had an audience. He’d pump up his peculiarities (he’d deny this) and I’d rise to the challenge and take him to task. In the early days I suppose there was some entertainment value in it. He was an easy target and our game of victim and bully had some charm to it. But over time I came to see it as very unhealthy and often, after a particularly vicious night, I’d go home and end up phoning him and apologizing for the whole thing. He always let me off the hook as if there were nothing wrong… but I knew better. And so did he. Yet, there we’d be, the next time, doing the same thing again. The old Punch and Judy show.
Eventually, I do think we tamped it down some. Put much of the act on the back burner. But never entirely. The truth is he drove me up the wall and he knew it. He knew with absolute confidence that he could put me on the treadmill anytime and he often did it on purpose. There were times where (I suspect) he simply thought I was an asshole and, acting all innocent-like, decided to push my buttons. I cannot say I blame him. He was often right. I took things out on him. He was an easy mark.
When last we saw each other, a trip to Paris for the three of us, I swore I wouldn’t drag that old routine out of the closet. I’d managed to dismiss it in every phone call we had (despite many infuriating conversations) over the last decade. When I saw Joe in the Paris airport I hugged him tight, happy to see him in the flesh, and then, within a few hours the old pattern reasserted. Perhaps it was because we had a fresh audience over there. Whatever the case, it was bad. I don’t want to go over it again. Needless to say, phone calls and letters afterward carried apologies. Like always he not only forgave but pretended nothing had happened. Again, I knew better. I know he was hurt. Nobody likes a bully. Especially me.
Here I must say something harsh. Absolutely nobody irritated me like Joe Matt. Oh, he had my number and he knew it. I have never had this sort of bullying relationship with anyone else (I lie—I had it with my brother Steven as well). He drove me crazy and I told him so every time we talked. I’ve read a handful of online tributes to Joe from old friends and they all include a notation or two about how infuriating he was. It’s true. But it is more than that. He was practically crazy. There was something seriously wrong with Joe. His manner was obsessive. It wasn’t a quirk. He was tortured by those obsessions. He couldn’t let them rest. His cheapness wasn’t adorable, it was a monkey on his back. He didn’t have a job, for example, not because he chose an “alternate lifestyle” but because his neuroses wouldn’t let him make the normal compromises that everyone else makes to get by. He was at the mercy of those neuroses and had to do what they demanded of him. I’ve seen him buy a book for two dollars, sweat out the dread that he’d made a mistaken purchase, lose sleep over it, take it back to the store and get his money back and then a week later buy it again only to start losing sleep again. He’d beg advice about these things but never listen for even a second to my (of course, totally sensible) advice. He couldn’t take any advice. The only voice he could listen to was the one in his head telling him to worry and suffer. It wasn’t funny, it was a curse.
I cannot tell you how many times I was on the treadmill trying to “straighten out” Joe’s life. I desperately wanted him to get back to work but couldn’t get through that wall of neurotic rationalization of his.
Joe: “I can’t stand inking the pages, the whiting out of every line to get it looking perfect. It’s torture.”
Seth: “Then stop doing it that way, get a sketchbook and just draw right in it—directly in ink. Let it look like it looks. Throw away the white out jar.”
Joe: “But I don’t want my comics to look that way. I want them to be perfect looking.”
Seth: “But that isn’t working for you. You haven’t haven’t done any comics in ages. Clearly that’s keeping you away from the drawing table.”
Joe: “It’s true, it’s true. I can’t stand the whiting out—the perfectionism—the worry.”
Seth: “Then change your methods. Do something different. This clearly isn’t the way.”
Joe: “No, no. I don’t want to change. I just have to hunker down. Get back to the drawing table. Get disciplined.”
AND AROUND WE’D GO.
When I heard that Joe had died at his drawing table I almost had to stifle a laugh. I still don’t believe he was sitting there to do any work. There must surely be another reason. I immediately imagined myself saying to him; “the thought of actually doing some comics must have been what gave you the heart attack, eh?” I know, I know, too soon. But believe me, Joe would’ve been the first to make such an inappropriate remark if the tables were turned.
To be fair, I know how hard it is when you have an artistic block. The longer you are away from the drawing table the harder it is to sit and work. I sympathized. Yet, truthfully, I had given up, long ago, in believing we would see any more work from Joe Matt.
And there is the crying shame. For he was a great cartoonist. A truly great cartoonist. He was great in the way that Kirby and Barks and Stanley were great. Naturally great. The cartooning just flowed out from the ends of his fingers. He knew how to make a totally entertaining comic. How to tell a story that flowed effortlessly (seeming) from panel to panel. He knew how to draw the way a cartoonist should draw—with economy and graphic clarity. He understood how to make a story funny and deep at the same time. He wasn’t part of any stupid autobio trend. He was making the only kind of comics he could possibly make. There was no other choice for him. He had a need to confess and he laid it down on the page in a way that was irresistible. Read two panels and you were hooked. You couldn’t put it down. I wish there had been a thousand issues of Peepshow.
It always struck me as funny when someone would read one of Joe’s comics and get angry. “What a jerk” they’d say, getting all worked up about Joe and his actions in the story. What amazed me was that they were reacting to the work as if they’d just watched a documentary about him. Totally forgetting that this was a work of art by a very calculating and smart artist who deliberately made the choices in the book that caused this reaction. Joe knew exactly what he was doing. He didn’t paint himself as a creep by accident. That was the point. He did everything on purpose. That weird obsessiveness of his made absolutely nothing an accident. Every line, every panel, every exclamation mark was carefully considered (too carefully considered!). He was a master cartoonist and the work shows it. But that same demanding compulsiveness that made the work good also kept him from the drawing table and issue by issue he lost the ability to put that old cartooning joy and talent onto the page. It’s a heartbreak.
All this points to an obvious fact. He was an oddball. What was it that made him so odd? I mean, he really was one of the oddest persons I have ever met (and I have met my share of weirdos). The answer is, I don’t know. I do know that somehow he never grew up and that his “eternal childhood” was not the secret of happiness. I don’t want to intimate that he had a sad life. That is not his story. He had a odd life though.
Essentially, he was a thirteen year old boy, home for the afternoon, alone to do as he pleased in his room. Forever.
So—snacks, tv, comics. No work. No responsibility. No future. Lots of pornography.
Was it a secret to happiness? No. It was not.
Was it a miserable life? No, surprisingly not.
Joe was no unhappier than anyone else I know. It was true that he was living on the edge and it was true that he couldn’t maintain a long term relationship but he was pretty content (in his own infuriating Joe Matt way). He loved a lot of stuff and he had a lot of friends. He was never bored and I bet he would’ve liked to have lived forever.
Was there some grimness in that eternal thirteen year old’s room? Yes. Of course there was. But that grimness is not the Joe Matt story.
Here is where I should be dropping a series of life-affirming Joe Matt anecdotes. Funny stories of his nutty behaviour. Stories to charm and get a laugh (at his expense). I used to have a ton of these at my fingertips (not all of them that life-affirming) but to be honest I think I have forgotten most of them. I don’t tell them any longer. They were usually about his legendary cheapness or some incredible gap in his knowledge or some ridiculously inappropriate comment he let loose in the worst possible moment. If you spent any time with him at all you gathered your own repertoire of Joe Matt stories. They just accumulated. None of this behaviour was a put on although it often felt like an act. If you looked closely at any of these Joe Matt stories you’d uncover a kind of Joe Matt truth.
For example, here is one that pops suddenly to mind. One Christmas, for reasons I have forgotten, Joe and I had no where to go and no one to spend Christmas with. And so I invited Joe to come over to my apartment for Christmas day. I cooked us lunch and dinner and we took a walk through a botanical garden and played Christmas records and watched the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. Joe had never seen it before. It hit him hard. At the end of the film he had his head in his hands and was wailing: “It’s all true. It’s all true. I have to change. I must learn to be a good person like Scrooge did.”
Well, true to form, a week later Joe had changed his tune. “Why is everyone so hard on Scrooge?” He asked me, “He was just careful with his money?” I know, this sounds like schtick—but he was dead serious. All the rest of the lesson was forgotten.
You see Joe Matt was the most unchangeable person in the history of the world. When I last talked to him he was essentially the very same person I had spoken to on the first day we met. I suspect that had he lived another thousand years he would have acted the same, believed the same things he had always believed, and liked the same fifty things he had always liked (he rarely added or subtracted anything new to his list of interests once it had solidified). He was simply like that. He had a very clear group of favourite things and that was set in stone. When you got him on the phone you immediately were beset by a conversation concerning those old interests. I’m sure you are thinking, “I know someone like that.” You are wrong. Everybody changes over time in some manner. Not Joe Matt. I mean, Chester and I have changed a lot in the last 20 years. Chet, for example, now sports a bushy beard and is much crazier and I have grown terribly smarter and much better looking. Joe, on the other hand, was exactly the same year to year. It was uncanny. We all have traits that never change but Joe was a glacier. Well, a glacier before global warming.
So I return to those opening remarks about friends and whether you chose them. Did I choose Joe Matt Maybe. Maybe not. Did he choose me and Chet? That is a good question. The answer is probably yes and no. Am I glad that Joe Matt showed up in Toronto? That one I can answer. Yes. Wholeheartedly yes. I have spend many words here complaining about Joe but I want it known that I valued him deeply. I loved him. And, before Chester Brown vanishes with a sudden heart attack too, let me just say, I love you as well Chet. We all had great times together back then and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. Those years together were not only a lot of laughs they were also an amazing school of comics. I learned so much from both these cartooning masters. A blessing to have been there. I’m grateful.
Despite what I said earlier I’m happy to hear he went out at the drawing table. Whether he was working or not—and let’s pretend he was—it’s how he would’ve like to go (well, probably he’d have preferred to die in bed with a beautiful woman) or more precisely, it is how I would’ve liked him to go. As a cartoonist. Because that is what he was. Down to the core. A cartoonist. A great one.
And also returning to that ‘friendship is like a marriage’ theme I used above, I have to say after the incredible outpouring of condolences I’ve received after Joe’s death I’ve come to the conclusion that, in some strange way Chet and I are like the widows he left behind. Suddenly forsaken after decades of fraternity.
And like a widow I am left with unresolved feelings.
Why did you have to die so soon, you son of a bitch?
Why were you too cheap to go to the doctor?
We had a lot of history to still work out.
I thought we had another decade, or more, at least.
I never had the chance to make up for all those snide comments and cheap shots. Never had a chance to move into that comfortable, relaxed old age relationship. You know the one Joe, where you and I have known each other forever and all is forgiven.
Never had a chance to say….