Peepshow: The Cartoon Diary of Joe Matt (1992) by Joe Matt
I remember what a thrill it was when Joe Matt’s pages first appeared in various anthologies. I think they were a staple in the Drawn & Quarterly magazine, and also appeared in… Weirdo? Perhaps Snarf? They were immediately graphically recognisable — black borders and tons of itsy bitsy panels. Oh, and the subject matter: Autobiographical minutiae of the most intimate sort: Like… masturbation and eating snot. Oh, and eating scabs. Lots of eating, I guess.
I also remember being a bit puzzled that Kitchen Sink was publishing this, since the strips were serialised in Drawn & Quarterly, but I guess Kitchen Sink had money to throw around in those days.
But I haven’t read these pages since they were originally published more than thirty years ago, so let’s see what this collection is like.
The strips are presented strictly chronologically, I think? And most (or all) of them had been published before.
In the anthologies, they usually functioned as a total break from whatever preceded them. This sort of dense storytelling style was unlike most anything else, although the influence from R. Crumb is pretty obvious. But it’s like a condensed Crumb. At the time I imagined that it was inspired more by Aline Kominsky (because of the subject matter), but I’m not really seeing that now.
And as you can see in the early page above, Matt wasn’t really exactly honest, and is sugar-coating things to try to get to something resembling an acceptable end to that story. I almost wrote “anecdote”, but I think that’s not really accurate — these pages feel like a whole little short story, only condensed a lot. Reading this 80 page collection took me all day — it’s exhausting in some ways.
Matt backtracks a bit from that earlier story’s “resolution”.
Most of the pages stick to the formula when it comes to pacing and the look, but Matt does try some experiments here and there. To the left we have a more playful layout, while to the right we have a super-duper dense one.
He also tries to go for longer stories — there’s one eight page epic about trying to join Sexaholics Anonymous, but it’s not really a successful move. For one, the subject matter just isn’t that interesting: His strange hang-ups seem pretty trivial, and it seems like So Much Fake Drama. And it also seems over-worked — like he’s tried to make a really, really tidy little story out of it all, and it feels a bit dead. (And it almost feels like Matt did the Sexaholics thing not because he really wanted to, but because he thought it would make a good story.)
Matt’s comics were enormously influential — for good reason. They’re just thrilling in their mundanity. It seemed like half the people who read these strips went on to create their own autobio strips (we see Matt meeting Chester Brown above, who did so, and we later meet Seth, who also started doing autobio), and the other half went on to write irate articles about how awful, trivial and cringy these things are), and the third half went on to do parodies of the phenomenon. Yes, three halves — that’s how influential Joe Matt was.
Part of the thrill of reading these comics at the time was the way many of these autobio people portrayed each other, because it soon seemed to become a “scene”, and they were writing about what they were doing, which was hanging out with other autobio artists. (Yes, very incestuous, but…)
A recurring theme in these strips (as indeed in many autobio comics) is how people feel like appearing in them. I guess that seems quaint these days with social media and all…
Anyway! I wouldn’t exactly claim that these strips haven’t aged at all? Because they have. And reading them in a collection like this isn’t ideal, because Matt goes over the same things, over and over again, and it becomes repetitious. But! They’re still great, and they’re still fun, and now I want to re-read Matt’s later work, too.
What is Peep Show anyway? Like the
title says, it’s Joe Matt’s diary. Who
is Joe Matt? He’s a cartoonist—a
singularly self-absorbed, introspec-
tive, obsessive, neurotic, repressed,
ist. Fortunately, he’s also funny and
has the unmitigated bravery to admit
that he’s all of the other above-listed
He seems to be compelled to
disclose all these really intimate
personal details about his life, which
is, like I said, funny, but also frighten-
ing. Watching Joework (especially in
his longer pieces) is like watching a
high wire act: he always appears to be
in danger of tipping over into either
self-pity or buffonery, but amazes you
by staying on that dividing line.
The collection spans the years 1987
through 1991. His drawing style does-
n’t change significantly over this
period, though it would be difficult to
imagine how it could, considering that
the panels are only an inch square; he
packs 10 to 20 in a page, and Joe is
very verbose. Though he draws well
and occasionally enjoys pulling little
visual tricks, Joe appears to me to be
more of a writer who draws than an
artist who writes. Expect the art to
be more experimental in the larger-
paneled, ongoing Peepshow comic
from Drawn & Quarterly.
So what’s the attraction of Joe
Matt’s work? I doubt if this is an
original comment, but in Joe’s early
work, he comes across in much the
same way as Woody Allen did in his
early stand-up and film work. Like
Woody, Joe is the little schlemiel who
knows he’s smarter that every one
else, the guy who could be a big hit
at parties if people would just let him.
Unfortunately, he’s so crippled by his
insecurites and compulsions that he
can’t relax. Fortunately, as Woody has
his Mia, Joe has a woman-who-
Unlike Woody, Joe was able to
make the transition from being the
Lonely Guy to being the Relationship
Guy, and he manages to keep it
interesting. In fact, the best strips in
the collection are the stories about Joe
and Trish: their misunderstandings,
their making up, and the way Joe’s
(and Trish’s) insecurities continue to
nag. If you can uork your way around
the really basic, idiographic cartoon-
ing, Joe and Trish’s relationship is one
of the richest, most fully developed
But, hey, it isn’t all that serious.
There’s lots of play time and other side
attractions, including juicy stories
about old girlfriends, old roomates,
and old employers. In fact, you have
to wonder how much Joe’s friends are
willing to tell them about their lives.
They never know where the intimate
details might start showing up. You
can’t trust someone who’s willing to
be this confessional.
BRAYSHAW: You said that you hadn’t looked Over the
material recently, but do you have any thoughts about the
Kitchen Sink collection, as a unit?
MATT: [laughs] Yeah, I see it as pretty juvenile. It’ s embar-
rassing in a lot of ways. but not completely, because I was
doing my best at the time. But I never look through it. It just
doesn’t appeal to me.
BRAYSHAW: One of the things that did interest me about it
though is the way you don’t ever settle on stories about
your life as it is currently in progress; they ‘re interspersed
with memories of growing up or with fantasies or play
strips. There’s a real sense of variety to the material. It’s
exploding all Over the place.
MATT: I saw this collection as a base that would support
further collections that would expound on some of the
same topics or stories, like I’m doing with my childhood
story. But I was under the complete delusion that I was fast.
[laughs] I was thinking I could get out a collection a year
or something. God knows what I was thinking. But I did
want to cover as much ground as quickly as possible, just
in case that was maybe the only book I would ever do.
Maybe I’d die, who knows? I wanted to get as much
covered as quickly as possible.
It’s difficult to find actual reviews of this book, for some reason. Well, here’s one:
Whereas his later work, such as Fair Weather, bring more technique and poetic qualities to the page, they lose something of the appealing visceral quality of this first collection. Make no mistake it’s a grim read, partly due to Matt’s extremely basic lifestyle, but mainly due to his unflinching desire to uncover every dark thought he’s ever had or selfish attribute that he possesses. He treats his girlfriend, Trish, terribly and is an extreme miser.
Matt now posts pics of cats on Instagram, so I guess he’s no longer a struggling artist.
This is the one hundred and forty-second post in the Entire Kitchen Sink blog series.