What we talk about when we talk about ourselves

What we talk about when we talk about ourselves

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 14 November, 2015
A trio of highly underestimated cartoonists living in Canada in the ’90s quietly revolutionised the burgeoning genre of autobiographical comics, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

The genre of autobiographical comics has only risen in prominence with every year since 1980, when Art Spiegelman began Maus as a serialized story. In the 90s, when Maus was published as a standalone graphic novel, mainstream literary critics (even those who felt comics belonged firmly in the children’s section at bookstores) woke up to its importance as a piece of literature. Something about the comics form, moreover, lent itself particularly well to autobiographies. In the years to come, we’d see works like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Craig Thompson’s Blankets, graphic memoirs extraordinaire, books that changed the way a lot of readers felt about comics. But what happens when the people in your life who turn up in your comics are also comics artists themselves?

This piece is about three writer-artists living in Canada in the ’90s, all of whom make or have made autobiographical comics: Seth, Joe Matt and Chester Brown. They keep appearing as characters in each other comics. Their friendship is important to them, but artistic integrity means that they don’t shy away from portraying each other in a negative light if need be. The stories are always honest and try to focus on the context behind each and every such “guest appearance”.

Let’s start with Joe Matt: he was the first of the three to write a graphic memoir. This was his series Peepshow, which began in the late ’80s, but remained a fairly obscure title until the mid-90s. As the name suggests, there is something unashamedly voyeuristic at the heart of these books. At times, the astonishing frankness with which Matt chronicles his failures with women seems awfully close to self-loathing. But scratch a little beneath the surface and you’ll realise that Matt is, in fact, a remarkably objective creator. Seth, who frequently admonishes Matt for his numerous hypocrisies and self-destructive tendencies, is good at playing the devil’s advocate and Matt allows him (or his character) the space to do just that. You need a good cop to play the good-cop-bad-cop routine, after all.

Seth’s position as the disciplinarian is challenged somewhat by Chester Brown’s comics. Brown is opinionated and certainly a far more argumentative man than either Seth or Matt. He, therefore, likes to joust with Seth on moral and personal issues, resulting in a more dynamic interplay than Peepshow. The best example of this is Paying For It, Brown’s memoir about being “a john” (a regular patron of prostitutes). Throughout this book, Brown struggles with the questions being posed to him by his friends: not all of these are moral, but some of them certainly are. And predictably, it’s Seth who corners Brown. But Brown fights back with a series of panels detailing his point of view: namely, that romantic love is a con job that humanity pulled against itself and sexual release is the only thing he is looking for through his endeavours. At one point, Seth gets frustrated by Brown’s attempts to rationalize and reduce his guilt over buying sex and says, “If you want sex that’s free and not guilt-ridden, get a girlfriend.”

Seth, Joe Matt and Chester Brown. They keep appearing as characters in each other comics. Their friendship is important to them, but artistic integrity means that they don’t shy away from portraying each other in a negative light if need be. The stories are always honest and try to focus on the context behind each and every such “guest appearance”. 

This is where things get interesting: this book has more than 60 pages of endnotes and appendices. Almost a dozen of them are given to Seth so that he can explain his side of things free from Brown’s control. This was an almost unprecedented act of authorial generosity, it has to be said.

Finally, let us take a look at how Seth himself has depicted his friends. This was the graphic novel It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken. There is more of Brown than Matt here: “Chet”, as Seth calls him, is unsurprisingly a much more likeable character than we find him to be in Paying For It. At some level, this is not surprising: after all, all of us find our friends to be much better people than their own assessment of themselves. But when read in tandem, an entirely different story opens up: that of three friends, damaged individuals all, who are trying to deal with loneliness, ennui and self-loathing through art. And if that isn’t a noble endeavour, I don’t know what is.

The genre of autobiographical comics is still going strong circa 2015. Brown and Seth have risen in prominence while Matt, although not as productive as the other two, has gained a bit of a retrospective cult following. May their tribe increase.   

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