Welcome to another edition of “Line By Line,” where we converse with the cartoonists and graphic novelists who are pushing their medium into exciting territory.
A bizarro Renaissance Man of multifarious talents, Matthew Thurber is, among other things, a wild-eyed cartoonist whose books – including 1-800 MICE and Infomaniacs – provide an intense, at times frightening, intimation of what it might feel like to live inside the artist’s head. Recently, hes been putting out a series of shorter “Art Comics,” an ongoing narrative that mercilessly deflates the pomposity of the mainstream art world. Scott Indrisek spoke with him about mazes, Jerry Saltz, and how the comics world is a bohemian whirlwind of STIs, theft, and sporadic violence.
What’s the strangest gift you’ve ever given, or been given?
The gift of life.
Many of your books involve anthropomorphic animals. If you had to be a non-human animal – but one that wore clothes, and maybe held a job, and could speak – what sort of animal might you be?
The animals pass their days in mute servitude. They know that to open their mouths to speak will bring down all kinds of calamity on their heads. They’d better keep their mouths shut, look pretty, purr, pull the wagon, get the food and occasionally get eaten. “Our dumb friends” are playing dumb. Dressing them up for work in a comic is a way of calling them out and encouraging them to break their silence. What’s the worst that can happen? They are already the lowest order of slaves in the capitalist system with absolutely no representation. If I were an animal, I would aspire to the awkward dignity of a horse standing on two legs, but I’d probably be reincarnated as a freaked-out mouse.
The cover of the third installment of your “Art Comic” series features a long line of identical Jerry Saltz figures, holding automatic weapons as they line up to enter the new Whitney museum. Explain?
Jerry Saltz is supposedly an art critic, but he has no opinions. In his essays he never takes a side, or really says anything besides “I’m Jerry Saltz, look at me.” His self-absorption makes him kind of useless to others, and useless to a reader. I think a critic should have some sort of logic, some kind of philosophy behind their writing. If you don’t agree with Clement Greenberg about the flatness of the picture plane – that’s okay, at least he has expressed an opinion that you can think about or argue with. With Saltz, it’s just “The new Whitney is great!!! Although maybe it’s not! Did I tell you I used to be a truck driver?” I hold many conflicting views myself. That’s partially why I write fiction. But I want a critic to formulate an opinion and stand behind it. I don’t care about their personal life or want that as the subject of the writing. Saltz throws jabs at the art world, but he’s like a court jester who can say some naughty things, but is still chained to the throne. The art world really needs harsh criticism and idealism more than ever. Or at least a real clown. [As for the guns], Ic an’t explain why this seemed connected or perfectly disconnected to the ‘open carry’ movement, but it’s an unconscious image I thought of and made, fast, before I could change my mind.
You used to run a gallery space, Tomato House, below your apartment in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn. What was the most grueling/over-the-top/memorable/intense show you put on there? Do you ever anticipate reviving the project?
The last two shows we did were Laura Perez-Harris‘ Belly of the Beast and Ian Gerson‘s Future Floor. Both required extensive build-outs in the space with multiple people working for weeks with power tools. Each show created an amazing immersive environment. Perez-Harris’ installation was a two-story maze one entered through a painting and navigated by crawling in complete darkness to go down a slide and be confronted with three black-spandex-clad, faceless interrogators. Future Floor was an octagonal spaceship/submarine made of plywood with backlit control panels and an intake pool filled with water and shimmering stuff supposedly harvested from the ocean floor. By the end of our last show we had been driven insane and decided we needed a break. We did 3 years of shows, no plans to revive at this time. But I would recommend the activity of being involved in running a space for any artist.
What’s your working day like? What’s your preferred activity during breaks?
If I’m really cranking drawing comics I will work from about noon to midnight or later. I stand outside or go for a walk or read or look at the Internet. I do a lot of things and tend to work intensely on whatever project has a deadline or seems most important. I also teach for a living (this past semester at 3 different schools, which was too much)
Is the comics world as insular and cliquey as the fine-art world?
If the contemporary art world is a replica of the corporate office with its private-gallery back rooms, its frigid snob receptionists, its MBA salespeople, and its tax dodges, the comics world is more like the classic bohemia of the 19th and early 20th art world. That is to say, a seething pit of orgiastic sex, nude modeling, gonorrhea and syphilis, actual artistic skill, marriages shattered by affairs with androgynous cafe-haunting prodigies, sacks full of stolen art supplies buried in the park, suicides leaping off the roof of Our Lady of Mount Carmel church, shouting matches about recently published anthologies turning to blows, plus actual involvement with the rap underground (instead of just millionaire celebrity pop stars), original strips purchased by thugs with dime bags, and cliques of cartoonists soon to be sprung from prison about to fuck up the game.
What’s the shittiest non-art-related job you’ve ever held?
I worked at a window factory in Custer, Washington one summer when I was home from college. My boss was a rich lad my age from Canada who drove a sports car down to America to inspect the factory. Once he used the phrase “touching fabric” as in “I needed to take a shit so bad, I was totally touching fabric,” which is my most positive memory from this job. There was an older cranky guy whose wife would roll 6 cigarettes for him to smoke over the course of the day. There was a guy called Big Dave and a guy called Little Dave, who was an ex con from Georgia who would sometimes sleep on the job. There was a Christian guy who was convinced the Y2K thing was going to be really bad and had stocked up provisions. I had to roll the plastic stuff in between the the window and the frame with a tool like a pizza cutter; cut the pieces of frame with a chop saw; and grind the edges down. Instead of sawdust, I got tiny metal shavings in all my clothes every day.
What advice would you offer to a green, fresh-off-the-boat cartoonist, recently arrived on the proverbial island?
Draw and make stuff every day, make other things besides comics, carry a sketchbook everywhere, be friendly, go to events, introduce yourself, make zines, distribute them, don’t give away your time and labor for free, write letters to people you like, read widely and educate yourself in everything, don’t just hang out in the comics scene–it’s a wide world.