For those who are turned off by autobiographical comics, Joe Matt is often regarded as public enemy #1. His comics are literally about his masturbation habits, his antisocial behavior and hermitlike existence. As a result, they're easy to target as the sort of stereotypical narcissistic navel-gazing with which critics dismiss the entire genre. I think to a degree this charge has some merit with Matt's earlier work, as he was still working through his R.Crumb influence. However, Matt didn't have Crumb's refined drawing chops, intelligence or relentlessness in getting to the roots of his neuroses. After reading his first collection of strips, Peepshow, I lost interest in the numbing sameness of Matt's work. The "revelations" he was disclosing just weren't all that compelling, and he was nowhere near Crumb's class as a humorist.
Imagine my surprise when I read Spent and found it hilarious. Matt has simplified and refined his line over the years and used a basic 8-panel grid throughout the book. With a soft blue tint on every page, the reader's eye is drawn in to every image despite the static nature of most of the stories. Matt's clean look is ideal in setting up the real goal of this book: taking his own self-caricature to its logical extreme and expertly milking each of his most loathesome qualities for every last laugh.
What becomes obvious is that Matt long ago decided to focus on his famously eccentric, misanthropic tendencies and exaggerate them for comic effect. Even the press materials play up Matt's miserly ways, obsession with porn, urinating in jars and keeping them in his room and his willingness to humiliate himself. What one finds in these pages isn't self-reflection--it's shtick. Embarrassing, outrageous and slightly disgusting, certainly--but shtick nonetheless.
The good news for the reader is that it's good shtick. Matt's sense of comic timing has become as finely honed as his line. Each of the four chapters has a different comedic focus. The first chapter introduces Matt's primary comic foil, the cartoonist Seth. "Seth" is everything "Joe Matt" is not--refined, fussy, social, hard-working, responsible. He also relentlessly nags Matt about his lazy, apathetic, misanthropic ways, and chides him for his "witholding" ways--deliberately witholding his company from others in order to hold power over them. What makes Seth such a great character and foil for Matt is that Matt cares so little about his faults that he can blithely take Seth's abuse and then turn around and aggravate him even more.
That segues into Matt meeting up with a sleazy porn enthusiast who lets Matt borrow videotapes for a fee. The next chapter is all about Matt's ridiculous hobby of taking videotapes, copying them, and editing them down to a few precious scenes that he wanted to watch again and again. Along the way, we get flashbacks to Matt's childhood, a sort of survey of his history of masturbation and sexual humiliations. The payoff came when young Matt stole a few frames of film from a friend's full-length movie and realized that they were all shots of a man's ass--it's a delicious payoff as Matt simultaneously documents his humiliation and invites the reader to laugh at him.
The third chapter is the book's best. It's a scene in a restaurant with Matt, Seth and fellow cartoonist Chester Brown. The comic timing is not unlike the Marx Brothers, centering around Matt's cheapness. The page where Matt tries to beg bread off Seth but refuses the slice that's offered to him because Seth touched it is topped off when Seth decides to lick the entire loaf in order to piss off Matt is one of the funniest in the book. Later, when discussing comics awards, Brown & Seth mocked Matt's vanity in nominating himself combined with his extreme laziness in actually producing any work. They suggested that he should nominate himself "best editor" for his porn editing "work". The chapter picks up on an earlier plot point (Seth's obsession with an old Canadian comic strip), piles on conflict between Seth & Matt, and then concludes with Matt talking Seth into paying out for a bunch of old strips--and then finally deciding to order dinner with his new windfall. It's a great punchline, because it builds on Matt's established flaws while using them expertly to set up conflicts with his foils. For all of Matt's self-abasement, it's telling that he "allows" himself to get the upper hand in this situation.
That doesn't last long, however. The final chapter sees Matt subjected to a whole series of humiliations, culminating in his disgusting landlady lecturing him about urinating in the sink and then having a cat shit on him. It's instructive to compare Matt's autobiographical stories to Ivan Brunetti's. Both are misanthropic, neurotic and filled with self-loathing. However, Brunetti's autobiographical comics (while often funny) are an existential howl, an attempt by the artist to get at something fundamental. Matt, on the other hand, just wants us to laugh at him. His self-caricature is ridiculously over-the-top, revealing that while the events in the book may be factually true, even Matt admits to making up facts that make himself look worse to the reader. When he notes that there's "no payoff, no epiphany, no nothing", he's worried that the readers will be out for blood. He's right that there's not even a story, per se. What he does have is a lot of jokes, and they're not only good ones, they're punchlines that only Joe Matt could make. He's honed his shtick to a fine point and made an art of being Joe Matt and making Joe Matt jokes. There's nothing more to his work at this point than this deft arrangement of humiliating personal anecdotes and tics, but no one else mines this lode of humor quite like him. Ultimately, his autobiography becomes both self-parody and a parody of the genre in general.