Updates, Matthew Young Interview
Email just in (after midnight!) from Bryan Stone:
"Hi Steve! I'm writing from Penina [Gal]'s place. We're having a blast and everyone wishes you were here!"
Guess it's going well for the CCSers at MoCCA! Good news, that!
[I'm posting this with just a bit of the art and images planned; check in later today for the real McCoy, fully illustrated.]
We open, per usual, with the cover art for the comic Matt is selling at MoCCA today. If you're there, grab a copy! If you're not, grab a cup of coffee, snag some breakfast, and -- Enjoy!
The Good Catholic
SB: What's your background -- where you are from, schooling, etc. -- and when did you first get into comics as a reader?
MATTHEW YOUNG: Typical comics beginning for anyone my age: spinner racks at the mini-mart. I grew up in rural West Virginia until I was 12 (when we moved across the Mason-Dixon line to rural Pennsylvania). There were only three sources for books or magazines: the aforementioned mini-mart, the grocery store, and the library. And I have to say our library, back in West Virginia anyway, had some really great real estate. There was one pool in the county and down the street were the Dairy Queen and a hot dog stand, and the library was smack in the middle... right where barefoot pool kids's feet needed a break from the hot concrete on their way to get ice cream.
It had one small milk crate of comics next to the card catalogue. I remember it had two huge library-bound collections of Peanuts and a copy of The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told. I read the Peanuts strips, Garfield, and lots of Spiderman and Batman until one summer when my friend's older sister came home from college. Her boyfriend had loaned her a ton of early Vertigo titles (Sandman: A Season Of Mists, [Mike Baron &] Kelly Jones's Deadman) that I started rummaging through instead of playing Final Fantasy III with my friends. It was mind-blowing reading.
SB: How about when you were older? Your generation doesn't seem to 'outgrow' the medium for a time the way usually mine did; the comics are so much better --
MATT: I went to college to study writing. There I started to get into zine culture a little bit through friends and one awesome professor named Rik who came out of the Morgantown punk scene. I actually met him at a punk party where he'd just gotten a mohawk the summer before he started working at my college. He was a total postmodernist, one of the smartest guys I ever met, who immediately started subverting whatever scraps of culture we could find in Bethany, West Virginia.
I was already writing an "anonymous" spoof of our terrible school newspaper when he started publishing a really political zine called Vanguard Party! If we couldn't get enough articles together he'd stay up all night with diet pills and make up authors of articles. Political zines were a real revolution for me, since the only other zines I'd seen were from a friend still in high school into publishing little personal booklets with titles like The God of Small Things that reprinted blog entries on her hair cuts and summer job, etc...
SB: Amazing, it's like the underground newspapers of the '60s, New Millennium-style. It's good to know that's still happening. You were plugged into all this --
MATT: The campus 'media' got really ridiculous my last semester, when the opinion page editor asked me back to the paper because he loved the zines and satire papers going on. I accepted and immediately attacked all these non-authorized forms of journalism because they were a brain-drain on the "real" college media that if these "renegade journalists" really cared about, they would join them and make them better. Then I'd write the "outlaw journalist" (I'd just discovered Hunter Thompson and Transmetropolitan within a year of each other) response. It was a hoot.
Graduation, of course, burst this lovely little bubble of absurdism. It probably shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did that life outside school wasn't as much fun, but I was never really very forward thinking.
SB: So what got you into making your own comics?
I graduated college and spent a year fruitlessly trying to do something with myself. I went to Europe to pursue a girl who I turned out to not like very much, came back to America on Sept. 11th 2002 with food poisoning and no money but plenty of room to stretch out on the plane, got a shitty job and a shitty new girlfriend, and the shit kicked out of my Sensitive Artistic Soul.
When I was twenty-three, my high school English teacher got in touch with me because it was her last year before retiring. I had been a literary magazine geek, and she wanted to get some of her favorite students to contribute for a retrospective of the literary magazine she'd overseen. I don't remember why, now, but I told her I'd draw a comic. She told me I had up to four pages. So I did a four-page story about forgetting a girlfriend's birthday and the hilarious hijinks that ensue. I pulled out all the stops to make it look professional. I actually went to a craft store to buy some larger than letter-sized paper and my first set of Micron pens! I thought that a series of pens (different sizes no less! How bizarre was this "art" world!) all in a single plastic case was a sign of serious artistic arrival.
SB: Oh, ya, that'll do it.
MATT: The pages went to my teacher, and when I got a copy of the magazine that summer my four pages had been stretched, skewed, shrunk, and stuck on one side of one page with all the care and precision that has been the hallmark of 17-year-old editors throughout history. I was pissed. Not so much at the students, because I didn't know them, but I was really pissed at my ex-teacher and how shoddily she'd treated something she'd gone to all the trouble to ask for and I'd gone to all the trouble of pulling myself out of my self-pitying hole to actually do. And something had felt really right about that comic, too. I had really enjoyed sitting down and making it up. It felt like I had been missing something and this might be it. So I took that story and make it the basis for a comic zine. This was 2004 or so.
SB: Were you into mini-comics at the time?
MATT: I knew next to nothing about self-publishing, and mini-comics were a pretty big mystery to me (when I came to CCS, the first time anyone mention John Porcilino I thought they were talking about the guy who did Wetworks for Image back in the 90s). I had a copy of Zine Scene by Francesca Lia Block and Hillary Carlip that I borrowed from Sarah that was a great guide to some of the nitty gritty of making a book for copying on copiers. I was also gifted a copy of Stolen Sharpie Revolution later. I didn't finish that first book until February 2005, but doing it had shown me that comics are what I want to do from now on. I started looking for drawing and publishing classes based on that one book.
SB: Perfect timing. What then led you to CCS?
MATT: You mean why did I travel from Ohio to Vermont? Simple reason: My decision to go way out West! My girlfriend loves this story. [groans]
She and I both wanted to go after our graduate degrees. We decided that we'd both apply to schools and see who got accepted where and make our plans based on that. There was only one condition, set by me, that we focus all our attention west of the Mississippi. I was sick of the northeast, sick of Pennsylvania and Ohio and had little interest in New York and no interest in moving to the south. I really wanted to move to Oregon or Seattle, but she wanted to stay closer to home. We compromised by agreeing that Chicago and St. Louis would be the cities as far east as we'd consider. She's much more a type-A personality, so as soon as we agreed on this, she went straight off, making lists, contacting schools, bought a big U.S. map and marked the states we'd agreed were not in the running. Eventually, I started looking at schools online at work, and during my usual rummage through the comics blogosphere, I started hearing about a Center for Cartoon Studies.
A few weeks later, I found a copy of The Comics Journal in a discount box at my local comics shop. It had been a customer subscription that was never picked up. The cover story was about our own James Sturm, a former SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design] instructor who'd left to start his own school. A member of the faculty other college I was considering, MCAD, Michelle Ollie, had left her school for this Cartoon Studies school. It seemed that a lot of what I'd been looking for was centering on this little town in Vermont that I subsequently bought a plane ticket to go check out. The school sounded really interesting, the program was exactly what I was looking for in regards to art and technology, and to top it off, I was there telling Robyn [Chapman] about this blog I'd just discovered called Make Comics Forever and she explains to me that it was her brain child.
I felt like I'd found something good here. Now I just had to go back to Ohio and explain to my girlfriend that I was full of shit and would be taking her as far east as it was continently possible without ending up Canadian or in a Stephen King story.
SB: Good thing you two didn't know about Joe Citro and how weird Vermont really is. OK, let's jump the tracks -- sort of, as this also covers your first year at CCS. So, tell me about your new comic, The Good Catholic --
MATT: Blasphemy! Zombies! Non-Christian Idolatry! Murder! Homosexuality! Snow Demons! Cute Little Kids!� It's called The Good Catholic and not because I'm rebelling against my screwed-up religious upbringing. Well, not just that. The name is from Frank Black & the Catholics, the ex-Pixies front man's band.
SB: Love 'em, love his music --
MATT: He said he chose the name because it was "punk," but that's a little too simple for him. So I looked up "Catholic" in the dictionary. The dictionary I looked in actually used the example "catholic, not narrow-minded, partial, or bigoted; liberal, as, catholic tastes" which kinda blew my mind since I think we can all agree that is the opposite of what "catholic" means to most people today. That's a pretty loaded title and it comes with assumptions you have to either subvert pretty immediately or be victim to. I'm not sure it's worth keeping. The first issue had a bit more focus on that: an essay about how I fell asleep watching that horribly-scripted The Passion of the Christ film, and a suggestion on how we could adapt those revolting magnetic car ribbons to support not just our troops but all troops in a truly catholic gesture. I can make the argument that this book, simply by having anything at all, falls into a "catholic" purview, but that's sort of a weak argument to someone who's not into a quick etymological seminar.
So the subtitle: this issue's is "The Three E.P.s." A total rip from the Beta Band album. The comic is compromised of a trio of short stories tied together loosely by a musical theme that came to dominate the book. The book is also a record of a year of crazy comics growth for me. I bought my first brush for CCS, my first nib, and my first bottle of ink and you can see a real before and after on this book. I hope the change is a positive one.
SB: OK, what's in this issue?
MATT: The first story I finished in August just before starting CCS. It's an autobio piece about how I found inspiration to create new art from, of all things, '80s music. It was part of a great anthology called Side A that came out earlier this year and also featured new CCS graduate Colleen Frakes. In December, for my first semester final, there's a troll bridge adaptation about jealousy and murder. It was the first long work I did primarily with brush. Finally, there's a belated zombie story that wasn't done until May. It's one of my favorite comic pieces I've ever done, and hopefully the funniest thing in the book. And, to keep with the album theme, there are some other little bonuses from over the year: B-Sides, story demos, stuff like that. A part of my CCS application that I thought was really good. The whole book is really good. I'm very proud of every piece of this thing, and how far I've come since the first book I made with glue sticks and stolen Staples copies.
SB: Matt, you created a lot of comics pages during your first year at CCS, some of which are in this anthology. Aside from what you've already mentioned, what are the highlights, for you?
MATT: A lot of comics? No kidding. My entire comics oeuvre, everything I had that will be published in the one day M.W. Young Collected Works essentially doubled each semester, if not each month.
Probably the assignment that I nailed best was the second one we had in Cartooning Studio. Take an assigned strip -- I got For Better or For Worse -- and do a strip in that style. I had no real respect one way or the other for FBFW until I went into Lynn [Johnston]'s website and got a real appreciation for her stuff: how much effort goes into each strip... and I think you mentioned that she and Will Eisner knew each other and were collegues, Steve. Do I have that right?
SB: Not I; that must have been James [Sturm], who taught Cartooning Studio...
MATT: At the end of the first semester, the class collaborated on anthologies. That assignment was a series of milestones for me: longest story I'd ever done. First story I'd ever inked with a brush. First time I'd worked with other cartoonists. First time assembling a book with Photoshop and inDesign. First time I'd lived on a week of four hours sleep a night since college.
Actually, I think I got a lot out of the bigger second semester assignments: Zelienople and another one that was my attempt at a Love and Rockets rip off. These were jobs where James gave us all the rope to hang ourselves and I did. Total disasters, but... educational.
Really, the second issue of The Good Catholic is a collection of comics that were highlights from this year. Originally I was going to bind everything I'd done at CCS this year into a giant Comics School Confidential kind of thing. Record one year in all the work I did, and comment on all of it, but then I realized I wasn't interested in revisiting a lot of it, why torture anyone else?
SB: What has the most profound change in your work been during your time at CCS to date, and what influences have been most strongly felt?
MATT: Probably the biggest change in my work has been the fucking plethora of tools that I gathered about myself upon entering The Center for Cartoon Studies. James sent us a list of things to have... and I didn't even realize there could be that much difference in kinds of paper, man. Brushes, nibs, paper, ink and all the stuff that I, honestly, was probably scared away from getting since I had no idea where to start. I hadn't even finished Understanding Comics when I borrowed it from the library.
The reaction to that action, the ying to that yang, the, um, well, event... well, that was certainly profound for me, in the very essential sense of that word, was dead in the middle of second semester when Chris Wright came in to cartooning studio and someone asked what tools he used. He brings his entire cartooning studio out of his shirt pocket: Hunt 102 nib, pencil, eraser, ink. And his art is hatched and textured and crazy-fucking-brilliant and all done with one pen and one pencil. It blew me right out the door. For Christmas my parents had gotten me a wooden briefcase for art supplies. I felt like I was finally in the same league as the rest of the students with my big box of tools, and suddenly it became my big box of hubris. It was made irrelevant.
I dunno. I'm still putting all this together into something coherent. Chuck Forsman did a cool little mini called Comic Dogma about an argument on a philosophy of comics, and I want to do something similar.
SB: You're working at one of the major national chain bookstores. How are they handling graphic novels, comics and manga these days, and what do you find most encouraging and discouraging about this brave new era for the medium?
MATT: I got lucky in that I'm the guy most geeked-out about comics on staff, so they've pretty much given me free reign to order whatever OGNs [Oversized Graphic Novels] for the store as I see fit. I try not to overdo it (out of some intangible fear they'd take it away), and with MoCCA coming up the orderliness of the section's been suffering, but I've made sure they've got some of the big new and important books. They had no Cerebus phonebooks before I got there... Come on! They only had two copies of Fun Home! Time book of the year! And only two copies is ridiculous because, and this brings me to something I find encouraging and annoying, it's getting harder to figure out where some of these books end up.
Fun Home is mainly stocked as a Biography, same for David B's Epileptic and all of Marijan Sartapi's books. Which is reasonable, but there's no Fun Home in the Gay and Lesbian section where all of Allison [Bechdel]'s Dykes to Watch Out For collections are located. There aren't any in the Graphic Novel section! The 9/11 Commission Report graphic novel had twenty copies in Current Affairs and none in with the Graphic Novels. Larry Gonick is unsung as a guy who has a book on every shelf of the frikkin store.
It's nice that OGNs are being moved out of the comics ghetto (and it's nice that comics section isn't a half-shelf crammed at the end of sci-fi with the Dungeon Master guides). Eddie Campbell goes off about this from time to time, approaching the issue of what to call comics collections: OGNs, graphic novels, etc, mostly by saying "It's a book, I'm an author, next question�," if I may be so bold. So the fact that they're getting mainstreamed into shelves all around the store is great from one perspective. From another, I wish I could just get a second copy for the graphic novels section, too.
The most surprising and visible change I noticed is the new respect that comic strips are getting. They're collected together, not scattered hither and yon through the deathly Humor section. I credit a lot of this to those beautiful deluxe Peanuts and Dennis the Menace collections coming out now. My store even had the Fantagraphics Krazy Kat collections without my goading. Although there are still some sticking points in the system. The New Yorker cartoon collection ended up in comic strips, but individual artists's books end up in humor. Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons seems to always find its way back to the comic strip section. I'm not sure why.
Bryan Lee O'Malley's innovative Scott Pilgrim (2006)
Manga still dominates the graphic novels department (and ours is pretty small), but there's reasons for that which many people have spoken about already and these traits are being absorbed into modern western comics. Scott Pilgrim is an interesting series as it's a real beginning of a synthesis of manga elements with western cartooning, not just a parroting of a certain manga aesthetic. The Flight anthologies, which I'm not very keen on [in terms of] their writing, but are beautiful to look at, show some of this too.
SB: OK, let's dream. If you had absolutely no constraints -- all the time and money you needed, your venue of choice -- what comics would you be creating, Matt?
MATT: Um...Huh. So no restraints. How about all the skills I need? Heh. I think I'd be doing the comics I'm doing right now. I'd just like to accomplish everything two weeks earlier.
What drew me to comics was that there was a kind of writing and style that I could find in few venues elsewhere. In this I mean in early Vertigo stuff, a lot of the British writers who appeared in the '80s and '90s, books that pushed around a lot of ideas about religious and cultural assumptions and enjoyed flipping them about. I just finished the first five books of Cerebus in May, and those just demolished me for weeks with the strength of how good those stories are, and they're taking politics and religious institutions and taking such a huge piss out of them that there's almost nothing left, and they're funny!
I have a graphic novel in my head. It's been there since 2002-2004. I didn't know it was a graphic novel, but I'm pretty sure it is now. It's sort of a twisted love letter to my college, which I like well-enough, but the story is sort of a sewing together of every crackpot theory I made up about the place over four years into some absurd monster (with any luck). If it's not out, in some form, by 2009-2010, then you'll know I turn out a never-was has-been not worth an interview, but it's my senior project.
SB: You'll get it done! Thanks for squeezing this into a pressure-cooker week, Matt, I know it's been tight. Good luck at MoCCA, and looking forward to working with you again this year.
This concludes our marathon MoCCA/CCS interview series for now. Whew, and are my fingers tired!
It's been a haul, but I hope there's been enough solid reading and eye-popping orb-candy to prompt at least a few of you to pick up some of the fine work coming out of this new generation of cartoonists and keep tabs on their growth and work in the coming months and years. These interviews will be archived later this summer on my website for easy access.
Have a great Sunday, one and all --