January 2004

Bryan Miller

fiction

Fair Weather by Joe Matt

Autobiographical comics are tired, tired, tired. Perhaps it would help if most cartoonists didn’t seem to lead the exact same lives: guilt-ridden childhood, idealized first relationship that ends badly, retreat into art, eventual catharsis. Occasionally the standard autobio comic is done well enough to justify its existence (Craig Thompson’s overpraised but still excellent Blankets), but the market seems ridden with angsty and uninteresting musings on lives only moderately more compelling than the run-of-the-mill personal essay by high school boys and girls obsessed with Plath and Salinger.

Joe Matt is different. His first collection of strips, Peepshow: The Cartoon Diary of Joe Matt, unabashedly borrows in tone and theme from Crumb and Harvey Pekar. He may be aping Crumb and Pekar, but he’s doing a far better job of it than anyone else in comics, sometimes even besting the old pros at their own game. While Pekar and Crumb are almost certainly greater talents in the long haul, Matt, at his best, can occasionally and momentarily outshine them; Crumb is too weird to ever relate with and Pekar’s lack of ability as a draftsman keep his strips from being consistently astounding the way they are when Crumb draws them. Joe Matt is a superb cartoonist who unfailingly draws beautifully, always tweaking his careful blend of cartoonish exaggeration and grounded realism, and when he is at his best he can strike the balance of bizarre and neurotic and real and mundane that sometimes even eludes the old masters. At his best, Joe Matt is possibly the premier artist consistently working in autobiographical comics today.

Fair Weather is not Joe Matt at his best.

Fair Weather collects the second arc of Matt’s mostly ongoing Peepshow series. The first arc, The Poor Bastard, remains his best work. The Poor Bastard is the culmination of all of the autobio strips he did in his Cartoon Diary, focusing the themes and ideas into the story of his final breakup with his girlfriend and what in retrospect appears to be his loss in his battles with sexual obsession, auto-erotic compulsion and neuroses. All that, and it’s damn funny to boot.

Fair Weather breaks from the contemporary Joe Matt and tells the story of young Joe, an obnoxious suburban pre-teen. The story takes place over the course of a single weekend in the midst of one of those endless summers so often depicted in film and literature.

The book opens with a dark haired boy riding his bike down perfectly manicured streets to the Matt household where he meets up with Joe. These first few pages mark clear shift in storytelling for Matt who has never been a cinematic writer. The opening panels feel like the establishing shot to every coming of age story made. The bikes, the boys, the freedom, the sunny skies. If it was a movie you’d have to cast a young Will Wheaton and call it Jerk Off By Me. The pacing of the story is much slower and more deliberate than in his previous work.

Joe and his best friend Dave ride around town, careful to avoid Joe’s angry ex-friend Rizzo who, for mysterious reasons, wants to beat him up. They try to shoplift comics, mock a retarded girl and spy on nude sunbathers at a health spa. Joe blows off his mother and refuses to mow the lawn, later to discover that she has stolen his beloved comic book collection. Joe vows to get them back even as he seeks to screw a local boy out of a valuable copy of Action Comics #1 and get his money together for the upcoming fair where he and Dave can meet local celebrity Doctor Shock.

It’s a lot to pack into one weekend -- too much. Matt never finds much in the way of plot or direction from the story. The heart of the book seems to be his relationship to his friends, particularly Dave, but that bit, overshadowed by all the subplots bumping and stumbling into one another, is the most simplistic and dull part of the book. If Matt’s goal were for a character sketch of himself as a boy, he would have been well-served to tighten his focus. There’s too much going on in Fair Weather but not enough of consequence, and cramming it all into a single weekend makes it feel weirdly over-sentimental.

In its way, Fair Weather is sentimental. One might not at first think that a book in which a boy threatens to burn his own house down or sells out his best friend’s one good secret would be sentimental, but it is in a Joe Matt sort of way. Matt plops himself into the middle of a clichéd suburbia we’ve all seen before, then parades his faults and shortcomings about almost proudly. His self-depiction may be vile, but the world in which he lives still seems too polished to be real.

Matt’s previous Peepshow work is interesting and accessible because Matt is willing to concede certain faults and eccentricities (putting it mildly) -- but not solely because of them. The struggle between his good sense and his bad habits make the book honest and real. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of struggle in Fair Weather, just a lot of bad behavior topped off with some half-hearted attempt at a pseudo-redemptive ending. Young Joe Matt is almost completely unsympathetic, but, worse, he’s not particularly interesting, a damning combination for a protagonist and, in the end, what separates Fair Weather from Matt’s better work.

Fair Weather by Joe Matt
Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN: 1896597742
128 Pages