Recently I’ve been a tad more adventurous with my choice of comics, moving from the more established indie or creator-owned publishers like Vertigo and Image and trying out small press works, usually on recommendation from a friend.
Two standouts of these are cartoonists Chester Brown and Joe Matt who publish through Canadian press Drawn & Quarterly, and have much more in common than that: not only are they friends with one another but they both write and draw brutally honest autobiographical comics that regularly feature the other (and usually Seth, another cartoonist friend, too) in their work.
I first found out about them after a friend from home told me about this strange group of friends who all at some point illustrate the conversations they have with one another in coffee houses and it sounded like my kind of thing. Always wanting to fall in love with something new I’d previously never heard of, I borrowed Joe Matt’s Spent from the friend.
Spent concerns itself largely with author Matt’s desire to have beautiful women fall at his feet, his pettiness towards friends, his laziness and (mostly) his borderline addiction to pornography, which he renders himself painstakingly editing on an old VCR (this was the early ‘9os, fact fans!). I don’t know if it sounds all that exciting from that description but Matt’s sense of comic timing and willingness to reveal his many flaws to the world make Spent a book well worth reading and strangely affecting towards its end.
And if I said I didn’t relate at least a little to some of Joe’s neurotic bullshit, I’d probably be lying.
I picked up Matt’s The Poor Bastard and Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You a couple of months ago, partly to see how Brown’s style differed and compare the two, but also to see if all they did was masturbate and have coffee.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Poor Bastard had a much more varied tale, mostly concerning itself with the destruction of the author’s relationship and his failed attempts to start a new one. The self-deprecating humour is still here in spades, and the originally serialised nature of the comic is much more evident – because of the autobiographical nature of the book and Matt’s inclination toward leaving real-life influences pretty much the same, supporting characters regularly pick up the comics and get (understandably) pretty mad that he’s portrayed them in the way he has. This becomes particularly excruciating when Matt is deliberating (over several issues) whether or not to make a move on his mate’s girlfriend.
Joe Matt’s simultaneous self-consciousness – in that he records every humiliating moment of his life with expert timing and a knack for empathy – and his lack of self-awareness – how can he not realise that people in his social group will read the things he’s saying about them? – might be the best part of this book, and it makes him just pathetic enough to be likeable, even when e does some despicable things. In fact it’s his willingness to leave in the ugly parts of himself that makes him so endearing.
I Never Liked You, on the other hand, is an entirely different proposal, largely because it’s an account of Chester Brown’s troubled adolescence and early romantic struggles. There are few captions and the page layout is just as minimal, with often only three or four panels taking up half of the space. This kind of formal experimentation isn’t something I’d seen in comics up to this point but I really dug it, because this way moments were allowed to breathe and not be crammed in next to each other. You can really explore the details of a panel (and Brown really does have an eye for them when he includes them) when it’s allowed to exist on its own, and it makes the bigger moments all the more important for their relative scarcity.
Brown lets the story tell itself and never spoonfeeds the moral – mostly because there isn’t one – to the audience. The significance in a scene comes from all of the accumulated knowledge we’ve gained so far, and the most heartbreaking moments are either occupied by silence or involve dialogue that’s seemingly entirely out of place, but we’re all too aware of the subtext. It ends when it ends, but if a satisfying plot or wrapped-up conclusion is what you’re looking for then you’d best steer clear. I Never Liked You is more about teenage longing and not knowing what to do with desire than it is about sweeping romance, and it’s all the better for it. This was someone’s life, more or less; and in life when are there ever any clean endings?