Page 45 Review by Stephen
Now that I've finally stopped to think about it, there's a difference between "autobiography" and "autobiographical" that goes beyond noun and adjective. If you were to read so-and-so's autobiography in prose, you'd expect something sweeping, at least a large chunk of that person's life. Accounts like Gerald Durrell's, on the other hand, in which he dips in and out of his idyllic childhood out in Corfu (My Family And Other Animals; Birds, Beasts And Relatives etc.) are perhaps better categorised as "autobiographical". With a few exceptions like Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME and Will Eisner's TO THE HEART OF THE STORM, it's into this second, more episodic category that the vast majority of relevant comics fit, whether they're Eddie Campbell's, Jeffrey Brown's, or Kochalka's diary entries (AMERICAN ELF vols one and two). That's no criticism, it's merely an observation.
What's interesting is the variety of approaches within these works, and Joe Matt's PEEPSHOW series of which this is the most recent collection, is a particularly unusual beast. It's not even episodic, for there are no events to speak of, it's more a portrait of Joe Matt's lifestyle and mindset, delivered as a mixture of conversation in which his friends and fellow creators Chester Brown and Seth despair of Joe's shortcomings (miserliness, selfishness, obsessive and excessive onanism - there's plenty of each in evidence here), and, back in his bedsit, soliloquy. Yes, Joe lays his neuroses bare by talking to himself - and you can't get much more neurotic than that! He may be communicating these inner demons to his readers, but he's not talking directly to us: he never once addresses us nor even looks at us. Have you noticed that you never see Joe's eyes? They're hidden behind the opaque lenses of his glasses, and when he takes them off to shower, his eyes stay closed throughout. Is this some sort of defence, a barrier set up so that he can bear to lay his soul on the carpet for us? Is it an artistic expression of how internalised he feels - how removed from life around him? Or is it just a visual shorthand, part of his self-characterisation? I wouldn't like to presume, but artistically it does help maintaining the illusion that he's talking to himself, in a little world of his own.
It's a world of rented bedsits, shared bathrooms, neighbours he hates, a landlady he avoids, a jar he pisses into when caught short, and rags that he... covers in other stuff, whilst watching and editing porn. Painstakingly he takes you through the process of setting up both VCRs, lining up the tapes, counting down, pressing play, recording, rewinding, eliminating the men's faces then, tape after eight-hour tape, snapping off the tabs triumphantly. I can relate to a little of that: a bunch of us in our twenties did it with music videos, setting them overnight to record MTV's alternative hours, then creaming off the ones we loved best (Nina Hagen, Nick Cave, Danielle Dax, Depeche Mode - in fact anything directed by Anton Corbjin) to form three hours of pure performance joy. But for Matt it involves a crippling degree of guilt, because it involves solitary sexual activity and because, unlike his supplier, he has the self-awareness to constantly question what he's doing. Joe's too sensitive for his chosen hobby (whilst portraying himself as insensitive to his friends - depriving Seth of comic strips he's long sought after, then trying to extract a profit for them), as evidenced by the flashbacks which show a boy nervous around girls and petrified by the prospect of kissing. So why does he do it? "I can't help it," he says at one point to Seth (of being in love with accumulating interest on the money he's squirreled away), and "I can't help it" pretty much says it all.
From the content you might be forgiven for anticipating a style and ability of cartooning far less accomplished than this is. Matt is actually an exceptional storyteller and a portrait artist of unerring accuracy, with a brushstroke that's both elegant and economical. It's incredibly refined, with the sage tones warming up the panels and pages to form very satisfying compositions. The episode when he adoringly takes the cat in from the landing, worries it on his bed, then shouts after it angrily once it's bolted, is a perfect eight-panel page whose mood shift is so abrupt it's hilarious.
So yes, this is Joe Matt, and as much as Jeffrey Brown, I think, he's performing a public service here. You may not be able to relate as well to his particular mindset or daily routine, but it's still a reassuring reminder that we're none of us alone in being prone to guilt, self-doubt, and getting ourselves into a right state of worry. In a nutshell: inner conflict.