Surviving and Dying in the Comics Industry

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joe matt how to be cheap surviving in comics

A couple of pieces on surviving in comics caught my eye recently and I meant to make a post about them, but other things got in the way. Then Joe Matt died, and I think everyone who knew him died a little inside. What follows is just some jumbled thoughts that have been rattling around in my head since I heard the news.

It wasn’t that we all were friends with him – although we were all friendly with him – but his work was so synonymous with the person, that we all felt we knew him inside and out. And of course, it hit people who read his work when it came out and are a little bit older, and feeling their own mortality a bit more closely.

Joe Matt was a really really good cartoonist – technically I’d say a great one, in terms of his fluid storytelling, inventiveness, and the sheer impact his work had on people. We’ve lost a lot of great cartoonists in recent months like George Perez and Neal Adams. They died the deaths you’d hope a great person does, surrounded by family, living (we hope) comfortably on the fruits of their long careers.

Joe Matt didn’t go out like that, but he also didn’t live a sad, tragic life. He was living comfortably in a stable housing situation and seems to have had money to get by, from doing commissions and other little money-making tasks. And, despite what you think about a 60-year-old man dropping dead of a supposed heart attack at his drawing board, it’s not that he was living an unnecessarily unhealthy lifestyle – at least from what I can see. There are many, many Facebook tributes to him, and some of the best ones are private. I hope I’m not breaking the bonds of privacy too much to say that based on my reading, he seemed content with his life. He talked a lot about walking an hour every day, drinking kombucha, avoiding carbs, and doing all the things that we think will keep us alive longer. Recent photos of him show a seemingly normal 60-year-old man, not a shattered husk.

But it’s been reported that he had been having chest pains for months and didn’t go to the doctor. That’ll do it. Joe was a legendary cheapskate, and he probably didn’t want to pay  for medical help. I can’t blame him, since getting sick is the worst thing you can do in America. I doubt we’ll ever know the details, but when you feel sick for months at a time, it may be time to get a check-up.

All that said, it’s the detail about dying at his drawing board that sticks in our minds. I guess I’d rather drop dead at the keyboard I’m typing on right now than go through some horrible, lingering illness or drown in a cave, so this is not even the worst thing that could happen to the person who dies. But it leaves a lot of questions for everyone who is left.

It seems like something was unfinished.

Many years ago at MoCCA, I saw Seth present a slideshow that was all about cartoonists’ deaths. It was horribly grim and depressing, made the more so by Seth’s gloomy delivery, (which was doubtless the intended effect). I’ve forgotten most of the artists mentioned, but Seth’s talk definitely included Wally Wood, who took his own life in the face of declining health and what must have been a lifetime of battling depression. The net effect was to paint the vocation of cartoonist as one of low praise and little remuneration, leading to a sad, poverty-stricken ending. An exaggeration, perhaps, but also an accurate account of some careers, alas.

I’d be surprised if Seth didn’t mention Gene Day, a Canadian penciller who died of an aneurysm while crossing the street. Legend has it that Day was also a workaholic who smoked heavily and lived a sedentary lifestyle, all contributing factors to an early death. There’s actually a discussion of Day’s death on Marvel EIC Jim Shooter’s blog, with clarifying accounts from Gene’s brother, David, who says that he wasn’t “grossly overweight,” as legend has it. There is also some discussion over whether sleeping in an unheated Marvel office at 387 Park Avenue South contributed to his death. That part of the legend is not true, but Tom Brevoort adds this bit in the comments.

I can confirm one bit of this account: there would have been no problem with staying overnight in the 387 Park Avenue South offices in terms of the heat. In point of fact, people seemed to do this on a fairly routine basis, particularly Mark Gruenwald, Mike Carlin and Elliot Brown on those marathon weekend sessions when they’d be jamming to get an issue of the Handbook done. Mark also had a secret “man-cave” built into the raised platform that elevated his office desk that some staffers such as Jack Morelli would use when staying in the building overnight–the motion sensors would come on at around midnight, so you needed to stay out of their field of vision or risk setting off the burglar alarms.

I think there are several industries where pulling an all-nighter is accepted, but the idea of regularly sleeping in the office (and having secret cubbyholes to aid the practice) seems like a #ComicsBrokeMe moment for sure. It doesn’t help that Mark Gruenwald also died tragically and suddenly of a heart attack. Legend has it that anxieties over Marvel’s financial chaos at the time contributed to it, however, his death was brought on by an unknown congenital heart defect, 

(I have to throw in here that I live near 387 Park and pass by it many times a week and maybe just on this past Sunday I was looking up at the building, trying to spot the 10th floor and imagining all the goings on that had taken place there.)

That brings me to the two articles that had caught my eye. One is a column at Popverse by Joe Illidge fittingly called “A survivor’s guide to being a working comic book creator.” It’s a frank and tough look at what it takes to make a living in comics on a page rate. It’s an uphill climb.

How do the limits to which you’re pushing yourself sit with your clients, the publishers? The editors may care, but they’re slaves to the publication schedules. Talent managers may or may not care, depending on a variety of factors including where you sit in the food chain of a book, series, or the company in general. Even high-ranking officials may care, but they trust their lieutenants to handle situations.

The publishers are primarily concerned with the smooth continuity of business, the maintenance of intellectual property through regularly publishing a certain volume of books based on their needs and the expectations of their parent companies or investors.

They do NOT automatically assume the moral or ethical responsibility of taking care of YOU, the creators, as individuals or a community. Profit and Loss are the deities to which they bow and serve.

Illidge doesn’t offer any answers in this edition of his column – it’s an ongoing discussion though, and the numbers and factors he lays out are accurate and not great.

The other article was from Scott Snyder’s Substack newsletter, a frank and tough discussion of mental health. Snyder has been admirably honest about his own struggles with mental health. Just being open and talking about it is helpful to others who don’t know how to deal with it. It’s a call to acknowledge our own frailties, and also how those are being cranked up by these chaotic and uncertain times.

I want to talk a little bit about a subject that’s close to my heart. I’ve brought up a couple times, but it’s about being a creator and dealing with mental health, making sure your mental health is good. I’ve tried to be pretty open and transparent over the years about my own struggles with anxiety and depression and I just wanted to bring that subject a little bit to the fore, because I’ve been asked more and more lately about coping in that way. I have a lot of friends that are creators in this market right now, and it’s a tough market right now, creator-owned, especially. There’s a big maw of books out there, a lot of great, great books, but it is a tougher market to sell. It is a tougher market to make a living in. And there’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of nervousness, a lot of uncertainty. So I wanted to just sort of talk a little bit confessionally and personally as a way of giving a window into the matter in which I deal with it or have learned to deal with it over the years.

So yeah, as Wild Man Fischer and Rosemary Clooney once sang, “It’s a hard business.”

But back to Joe Matt. As grueling and disturbing as these stories of overwork are, that was not Joe. As Noah Van Sciver pointed out:

“I’ve been seeing some younger cartoonists starting the narrative that Joe Matt died at his desk from overwork, which if you actually knew Joe is hilarious.”

Everyone had a great laugh over that, because Joe was lazy as well as cheap, and his comics were all about that. There’s a lot of talk about mental health in the comments, and someone mentions that the great Spain Rodriguez DID die working at his drawing board, according to accounts,  “inking a poster… for a concert honoring the labor movement and Woody Guthrie.” Rodriguez was 72, and had been fighting cancer for six years. I’m sure that’s how he wanted to go.

There’s a narrative – summed up by Seth’s slideshow – that being a cartoonist is an under-appreciated, underpaid profession that ends up badly. It’s the narrative that underscored attitudes among many indie cartoonists from Crumb and the many that have come after him, seen in countless comics and interviews and magazines about comics. If you looked up the term “low self-esteem” in the dictionary, there was probably a picture of a cartoonist next to it for a long time.

It’s a narrative that today’s young cartoonists, fueled by book publishing, agents, crowdfunding and webcomics, (and yes, media rights) seem to eschew. Feeling the vibe at SPX a week ago, with its pride in work done, home-grown heroes and fierce talk about unions and co-ops, comics seemed like something that people RECEIVED their self-esteem from, not something that sapped it.

It’s a healthier attitude, based on an industry that offers more paths to paying the rent than Joe Matt’s world did. But staying on the path is hard, the rewards are still meager, and often based on unpaid labor somewhere along the way. There are lots of starving actors and musicians and writers, but the biggest payouts for cartooning are still paid to fewer in this field than in, perhaps, any other creative profession.

Joe Matt knew the game, though, and I think he accepted it. Given his many comics about how to live cheaply, I think he reveled in it. For those of us left behind, his death is made sadder by the fact that he hadn’t turned out any work in so long. He told many people that he was working on a new graphic novel, and even showed people the pages. Who owns the rights, who could put it together to publish it is all unknown at this time. Unfinished business. His life feels incomplete to those of us who hadn’t seen in him a long time, but maybe that’s the life he wanted it to be. I hope so.

PS: You can apparently still buy a copy of Joe Matt’s “How to Be Cheap” poster at Kitchen Sink.

 

Heidi MacDonald
Heidi MacDonaldhttps://www.comicsbeat.com/
Heidi MacDonald is the editor-in-chief of The Beat and an award winning author and editor. She is the co-author of The Secret Teachings of a Comic Book Master.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Admittedly only tangentially related: a while back, while looking at some news from my old hometown, I bumbled across the news that the local comic book store owner had died unexpectedly some months prior.

    He wasn’t particularly elderly or infirm. And as irresponsible as it is to speculate in this way, it’s hard not to wonder if being a sole proprietor of a specialty retail establishment or the health insurance options available to such sole proprietors were contributing factors.

    Like Illidge, I have no answers. Except, of course, the platitudinous but not inaccurate idea to take care of yourself. And to encourage the people you care about to take care of themselves. Basically, to care.

  2. “his work was so synonymous with the person that we all felt we knew him inside and out. And of course it hit people who read his work when it came out and are a little bit older, and feeling their own mortality a bit more closely”

    I’ve been trying to figure out why his death has hit me so hard and you nailed it. That and that fact that, yes, it seemed maybe he was going to publish again, someday, this new graphic novel. I hope we get to see those pages.

  3. Man, I loved Peepshow when it came out. I owned that poster for years. I’m glad to hear he didn’t work himself to death, but man, I know Canadian healthcare isn’t perfect, but that’s insane he wouldn’t see a doctor. Then again, if he was still in Canada, he still might not have done that.

    Honestly, the one I worried about when I heard about Joe, was Evan Dorkin. If you follow him online, you know he’s been going through some things. His cartoon about working with bills and deadlines around him, then dying and looking happy, only to end up in hell with the same things around him hit a bit hard after Joe’s death….

  4. Just a few months ago I had purchased one of these posters via Kitchen Sink Press after rereading some of Joe’s work. I had actually contacted him via Instagram back in July to suggest that in these trying economic times a sequel of over-due. His reply is seen below:

    “I do have more tips…not so much on being cheap, but more like “how to survive on a few grand a year” or “how to live on $40 worth of groceries for a month”! Haha. I’ll consider doing a 4-6 page vignette about these topics, for my next book. (True, I’m barely working on it, and I’m dragging it out over countless years, but it will be done, someday!)”

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