Remembering Joe Matt (1963 - 2023)
Joe Matt was the last of his kind
Joe Matt is my spiritual clone.
He was born on September 3rd, just like me. He was raised in the Philadelphia area, just like me. His first name is Joe, just like me. And he had ambitions to be a cartoonist, just like me.
He recently died of a heart attack in his Los Angeles home on September 18th, 2023, a few days after his 60th birthday. He was at his art desk, inking away at another commission.
Who was Joe Matt, and why is he important?
Matt Wagner, a close friend and comic artist and creator of Mage and Grendel, wrote this on Twitter:
“Hey gang...it's with a heavy heart that I have some extremely sad news to share. My longtime pal, occasional collaborator and fellow pop-culture junkie... Joe Matt has suddenly and unexpectedly passed away.
As many of you know, Joe and I first met when we were both students at the Philadelphia College of Art and our mutual love of comics and music soon sparked a friendship that lasted through the decades. Eventually Joe was a color and production assistant on my final issue of MAGE--THE HERO DISCOVERED and he graduated on to beautifully coloring many issues of the original monthly GRENDEL series and, of course, the classic first BATMAN-GRENDEL crossover series. But his greatest fame and expression came in the pages of his own warts-and-all autobiographical comic, PEEPSHOW. Anyone who knew Joe knew that, yes, he was often as frustratingly stubborn and neurotic as he portrayed himself in those pages...but he was also charming, funny, insightful and loyal to the few friends he deemed worth the effort.
I dug through an old sketchbook of mine from "back in the day" and here are a few drawings I did of Joe when we would all gather in my studio/apartment on Green St. in Philadelphia. The first was a mutual portrait as Joe and I sat at opposite ends of my couch and sketched each other. And the second is of Joe hard at work; I'm pretty sure he's cutting friskets for the blue line colors of one of the last several issues of MAGE. Joe had lived in LA for the last decade or so and we mainly kept in touch every couple of weeks via late-night chats on Messenger.
I'll dearly miss my old buddy and his unique outlook on the world...and how we began every phone call babbling in Donald Duck talk at each other. So long, broheim... the world's just a bit more boring without you.”1
The young Joe Matt fascinates me. He looks like Michelle Lam’s boyfriend, or, the ambiguous and hippy-like yuppy who is ambitious to live in New York City and get a nonwhite “long-term” girlfriend. The ponytail, forehead, facial hair, and glasses reek of not showering. It’s hard to imagine what the early to mid-80s were like for Matt and Wagner. Matt eventually graduated from the University of the Arts, and after a failed New York City job, he worked at Fat Jack's Comicrypt in Philadelphia, and worked on his comic, Peepshow, from there. Until he died, Matt was always loyal to Wagner, and Wagner always offered a job to Matt, no matter his economic situation. Comic production, especially since the 1980s, has been an independent hobby with little to no profit. The industry has been in decline ever since.
Michael F. Rizzo recorded the oldest video of Matt on his program, Comix-TV, which aired in Buffalo, New York in April 1995. Matt is presented as a shy, somewhat gay, liberal nerd.
1995 was also a different world and place. No “social media,” no instant access to digital research, no “blogging,” and no public interest in the niche.
Joe Matt did a daring move by moving to Toronto, and likely said back to himself, “fuck America!” The payoff was tremendous. After getting comfy near The Beguiling comic store in Toronto, Matt soon met Gregory Gallant, otherwise known as “Seth,” and began a lifelong friendship with him. He also met his other friend, Chester Brown, and they soon became “the trio.” Gallant, Brown, and Matt looked after each other and made sure they were the big three supportive names that could monopolize the post-Robert Crumb autobiography “comix” industry for Gen-X Canada.
Matt’s friendship with Chester Brown is an odd one. Brown was raised in a dysfunctional, schizophrenic household, and one can only guess how that would distort Brown.
There is no doubt in my mind that Brown is an Asiansexual, currently in denial about it.
His first girlfriend was “Kris Nakamura,” which there should be no surprise where that surname came from. Later, he fell for the whorish Sook-Yin Lee. Lee still has a raging whitesexuality, and to this date, claims to be “genderqueer,” and yet is finding another white boy to lay with every month. All of that liberal veneer becomes quite silly when you see what is really happening between whites and Asians.
Recently on her official Instagram, she uploaded several vintage pictures of Matt and Brown. She writes, “I got you and Chester to kiss and you made me laugh. …I love you Joe.”
I’m not sure if Matt or Brown are gay for each other, and that Asiansexuality is a form of queerness. Makes you wonder if Matt also had sex with Lee.
Brown also did the artwork for Lee’s 1996 album, Wigs ‘n’ Guns. I admit, that Lee represents an early stage of the AxA subculture, and her cultural values align with the “Suicial, Asian, and Promicsious.” It was pretty hip and cool to be a WMAF in the early 1990s. We are likely going to see more of this punk-rock, anti-liberal WMAF art in the future.
I can’t tell what Brown’s politics are. If he puts himself in the “libertarian” category and has some belief in Christianity, that puts him in the right-leaning to center belief of Gen-X hedonism (think Jim Goad and Lydia Lunch). Gregory Gallant has to be incredibly far-right from what I imagine, as he constantly dresses up in the attire of tradition, and celebrates the achievements of Canadian cartooning. I won’t be surprised if Laibach or industrial music had something to do with his early upbringing in comic art. So what do we make of Joe Matt, who is completely centrist, and just so happens to be friends with an Asiansexual libertarian and a far-right eccentric?
Matt just likes pornography and has zero pick-up artistry skills. That’s it. He learned a lot from Robert Crumb or Jim Woodring and perfectly emulates their style in his own cool “autobiography” that Harvey Pekar already did. And yet, we can safely say the emulation medium of the Crumbs and the Pekars is now out of fashion by 2023. It was a Boomer to Gen X fashion statement, where Millennials by the time looked the other way, and adopted the RISD style of Fort Thunder instead. And after RISD style, we are now knee-deep into the post-2013 Tumblr “SJW” art of Rebecca Sugar and the CalArts scene, which needs no introduction to understand. Everything became bourgeois and commodified for the liberal state.
Matt’s neurotic and meta-awareness of the self in Peepshow is funny because it could only foreshadow his recent death. Always Matt cared about what “the fans” thought about his work, and what he could share with everyone. This is uniquely a Gen-X phenomenon, where private stories become public, and everyone relates to them. However, this “queer stacking” is based upon meritocracy, and what was edgy in 1992 is no longer edgy in 2023. Drawing a personal Crumb knock-off about porn addiction may sound transgressive back then, but today, that’s considered “problematic.” Today, being a trans-black lesbian into board gaming is hip because supposedly, that’s “authentic.”
Brown tried to up the ante with his 2011 comic, “Paying For It,” by arguing how he had sex with over 20 paid prostitutes. But then again, we could also see that as extremely problematic, because we all know Brown is ugly, he’s an Asiansexual in denial, and what is considered “prostitute” isn’t consensual at all, and rather they could all be victims of sex trafficking, and Brown excuses his behavior as some cool Jeffery Epstein power play of “libertarianism.” Brown makes Matt look like a butterfly.
Nonetheless, Matt’s ego is funny, because we forget how there was no social media arrogance back then. We can assume Matt was thinking of the present, and he didn’t realize what he was doing then will never matter now.
It’s hard to imagine there were actual “fans” of Matt’s work back in the 90s.
Matt’s dedication to writing about his real personal life is daring. No one today can write about their personal life without a lawsuit happening, cancel culture targeting the work, or some hard censorship appearing to control the art. Name-dropping now is considered “doxing,” and a word like that did not exist decades ago. All of the internet culture relies on the traditional and ironic foundations of the Something Awful website and everything after it. The Internet-centric language destroys the natural urge for authenticity away from technology.
Back in 2001, Jonathan Goldstein interviewed a woman named Dani, who Joe Matt wrote and drew about in his work. She is still irked and annoyed how, without consent, Matt could use her in his story and write about all these deep feelings about her. To me, Matt is brave and bold, and every serious artist should name-drop and obsess over their real-life muse, without the consequence of liberal society trying to shut us up. Matt did it back then, and it was considered transgressive and edgy.
I spiritually relate to Matt because of his connection with Philadelphia and nearby Norristown. Matt Wagner first published his comics in Comico Primer, published by “Comico: The Comic Company,” located at 1547 Dekalb Street in Norristown, not too far from my family’s house. Sam Kieth made his debut in Comic Primer #5, with his short comic, “Max the Hare,” which would later become “The Maxx.” Matt Wagner and Joe Matt talk about their memory of Philadelphia and Norristown in a podcast with Eli Schwab (Cosmic Lion Production), published on August 28th, 2020. To know that Wagner and Matt had to rush on the “Septa line” and rush to Norristown makes me nostalgic for the times I took the Septa back home to Norristown too. Norristown was once a pioneering place for edgy comics.
Unfortunately, my spiritual brother died. Sometimes I think I belong in Joe Matt’s body, or that he did exactly the things I wanted to do, but existed before I was born. I see the same Carl Jungian archetypes of Joe Matt, Chester Brown, and Sook-Yin Lee manifested in people I know, and the story of the same subculture continues again in ignorance of the past. They are the best examples we have of the proto-AxA lifestyle.
In the grand scheme of things, people don’t care about a niche celebrity or a random historical footnote, and Matt falls under that clandestine category. Post-1980, Reaganomic capitalism advocated neoliberalism, where individuals were responsible for their profitable success, and that meant previous industries of art, like comics and music, would become obsolete. Everything is now on the individual without any blue-collar institution backing up that artistic niche. Comics are purely subjective phenomena and hobby that has no place in the digital age. And even more so, the Robert Crumb model is a yesteryear fad for post-Crumb yuppies who are all now dead or retired.
Think about all the recent comic artists in the last thirty years. Matt Wagner had to rely on an older woman to keep working on the Grendel comic. Sam Kieth met his wife at 15, when she was 30, and became dependent upon her. Dave Kelly, or “Shmorky” of Vineland, New Jersey, is a pedophile who constantly has to live with other gay roommates to produce his comics and animations. Brown has done the same couch surfing. And Joe Matt couldn’t keep his New York City job and fled to Canada. All of these are signs of a depleted economy that produces a decadent culture without order or meaning. What’s left is isolated individualism, where neoliberalism controls the meaning of truth and institutions, and this creates self-destructive and parasitical artists who provide nothing to society. Who do you emulate in a society that is in decline?
Joe Matt is not that astounding in world politics. He’s a byproduct of a zeitgeist that threw the artist to the side in favor of fleeting subcultures and for trivial, subjective, and forgettable aesthetics. And yet, he is me in every way.
Matt pursued the life of the artist in an age that shows all the economic signs it’s bad to do so. Aaron Clarey was right to point out in his 2011 study, “Worthless,” that all art majors are scammed and destroyed. In 2023 with the advent of artificial intelligence and automation production, the meaning of the independent artist is being challenged in a post-capitalist society. Managerialism seems to rule over the artist, and the traditional disciplines of art are being negated. This could only create a philistine society where everyone is stupid and plugged into the matrix. Doing what Matt used to do becomes harder and harder. Even Hollywood writers are crying about the decline that will make them obsolete.
Matt also gives insight into what it was like to be a successful, feminine, apolitical white yuppy, and what forms it can take today in 2023. I don’t want to look like a soy boy, but we know what a soy boy is because Matt wrote about it before everyone else!
We can follow “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” and realize how much Boomer Christianity had on middle-class liberalism. It’s found in the “anti-racist,” the “feminist,” and the “genderqueer” subcultures, everything is a reflection of the egalitarian and condescending white person who supposedly knows better than those wrong kinds of white people in middle America. All of it is a reflection of shame, guilt, and Christian ethos that white people manifest. Work hard, invest in the Protestant work ethic, and everything becomes liberal. No matter how soy boy you are, you can live in Toronto, not be from there, draw your comic, and still have your Asian girlfriend. What then, are these values that make it that way?
My close friend, Cartrell Payne, almost got an interview with Matt this year. Payne couldn’t get the right schedule and didn’t lead up on it. Maybe I should I intervened and contacted Matt instead. We could have had the final interview ever recorded with him.
Joe Matt may be a footnote, but he’s from my subculture, and he’s exactly like every white guy I know who wanted to become an artist in the Philadelphia area. I admire his success, even though he is kitsch and unoriginal. The point is that he had a “social media” life before it, and shows, by example, how to live the yuppy hipster life. I'm very sad about his passing, because Matt had so much more to say.
He’s like me. But he did different things to get where he is.