By Max Morris
I was first made aware of Matt Thurber’s work when the first issue of 1-800-MICE showed up at Quimby’s bookstore in Chicago. The style of screwball antics conflated with surrealist political drama (one plot point features an immortal bluegrass-star vampire streaking through space, and his apocalyptic approach toward the earth) was of immediate interest, and I recall being surprised that the heady brew of strange plot devices actually moved toward a climax. Today we present some selection from Art Comic, Thurber’s ongoing serial, and I was pleased get a chance to ask him a few questions on his work.
Max Morris: Back in 2014, you wrote this article for The Comics Journal Website , “Letter to a Young Cartoonist”, that stirred some controversy at the time. A bulk of the article dealt with the ramifications of posting comics work on Tumblr and Social Media, among other issues of challengers to the new generation of comics artists. This was in a time when that felt like the primary way to see new work being made by current creators. A little under 3 years after you posted that article, a lot has changed. Looking back at this article, what words do you have to say to the young cartoonist today?
Matthew Thurber: I feel more than ever that printed media contains autonomous power that is almost magical. All internet publication is embedded in and framed by another corporation. With print, as soon as it flies off the press it belongs, like the land, to “you and me”. The disturbing thing about social media is they change the terms of publication from one of total freedom, to one where you are being allowed to express yourself. Because they grant it… they can take it away. Social media echo chambers are destructive: look at what they have helped to do in terms of ripping our country in half, replacing everything with a simulation of reality. Is that what you mean by “a lot is changed”? We’re opting into 1984 because it feels good. It’s so seductive to feel like you’ve done something in pseudo-reality. We need to learn to live without the internet, to distribute artifacts in physical space, to know how to talk to each other again. It is so much more meaningful and beautiful. And guess what??? I’m part of the problem because I’m on INSTAGRAM (@mtshelves)! What a miserable hypocritical worm!!!! And the worst part is….I LOVE it! I love the ego pampering attention and the immediacy despite my complete conviction that it sucks!
MM: In your current ongoing serial Art Comic (which we are previewing in this article) you satirize High Art and all of its follies- your earlier work 1-800-MICE and Infomaniacs could be seen a parody of culture at large, but Art Comic seems to have a specific focus on the world of fine arts- what inspired this move?
MT: I didn’t know what I wanted to say exactly at first. It’s taking shape. I’m interested in how the art world functions as an industry steered by wealth and not by philosophy or ideas, despite the mythology that it is an idealistic pursuit, and how no one talks about the meaning of money in art or how that is never seen as the subject matter or part of the content of art. You’re just supposed to go to these gallery shows and ignore the context. The myths are stronger than the reality.
People wouldn’t go to art school otherwise the definition of art as wealth dovetails with the acceptance of craft as being obsolete, or in an outsourcing of craft or technique to make objects for the artist-manager-boss. Technical skill is replaced by verbal or conceptual dexterity, or of a performance of self, or just by the existence of celebrity. So that, and what the role of schools are in this, and what the role of narrative art and illustration is in all this. And how changes in the art scene reflect the overall development and gentrification of New York, since I moved here in 1996.
So Cooper Union gave up on its mission of providing free tuition in 2014 and I started to make a story based on my own experiences mixed with these absurd paranoid premises. Like that there was actually a conspiracy of artists to repress their students and that Matthew Barney’s Cremaster was taken away from him and became a symbolic representation of a real estate transaction.
Additionally to working as a cartoonist, you have worked as a multimedia artist in theater, performance, and other mediums. Do you feel that affects your work as a cartoonist, and vice-versa?
Yes… in a way it’s all the same energy. Increasingly it seems impossible to think of just doing comics. I’m dying to make an animated film- I just have to get this comic done first. I like to experiment and learning different techniques is part of my process, I guess, maybe even more important than the subject in a way.
I just worked with a group of 8 volunteer non-professional actors, and such, to perform what was basically a dance piece called “Terpinwoe”. We had one rehearsal and that was it, and the performance was great. The theater stuff started as an idea to do a puppet show called Mrs. William Horsley. But the idea of puppetry evolved into a general idea of ‘modeled experience’. Now Mrs. William Horsley has turned into a human puppet show, with actors. It’s more fun than being in any band!
But I think for me, the narrative impulse is behind everything. It’s always a kind of illustration of a story or something resembling a story. The idea of depiction. I would love to make comics that were more abstract, like dance pieces, maybe that’s what Yokoyama does, or Milt Gross. And after something happens like this theater piece I ricochet back into wanting to read and draw quietly and maybe that’s good. But I don’t know why more “Artists” don’t work in comics and why cartoonists get so settled into their medium. I think that is changing a lot actually. Any form is for any artist. I believe in “Amateur Enthusiasm”.
Much of your work utilizes psychedelia, visionary imagery, and absurdity- you also seem to enjoy intertwining plots and complex character development. When structuring a narrative, how do you consider resolving these two seemingly opposing themes?
I don’t know if I consider these tendencies resolved and that’s OK. That’s why novels exist, to embrace contradictions. I like very unexplained and strong imagery, like in dreams. Also, I like beautiful and complicated structures and plots. My favorite artworks are when you get both at once, like how “Mulholland Drive” messed with the logical side of your brain, but through the use of really subconscious imagery. Or Harry Stephen Keeler, whose crime stories are logical to the point where it makes no sense at all. Or Daniel Pinkwater, who somehow balances absurdity and very warm and human characters, or Raymond Roussel whose writing is all an attempt to make connections with the totally random subconscious imagery generated by word-play.
I worry about my characters not having any psychological depth. I wonder about emotional manipulation to get across my ideas. Is it even ethical? Elaine May is good at it- see “A New Leaf”. But if you try to do that it usually looks disgusting in the way that Hollywood movies make you want to vomit with their stupid emotional manipulation. I love ridiculous melodrama, or silent films where stuff just happens and humans are reduced to sacks of flour to be thrown around.
I guess that I think making a graphic novel is one way of keeping many unresolved, inconsistent elements together in suspension as in a soup where there are chunks of this and that floating in different shapes and sizes.
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