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December 23, 2010


CR Holiday Interview #4 -- Matt Bors

imageMost profiles of cartoonist Matt Bors point out that he's a young man -- younger than 30 -- working in an older man's field. Bors' youth feels important in that the Portland-based cartoonist is in the process of putting together a career far removed from the previous generations' tendency to staff up and let the work flow through their desks. In 2010, Bors provided the book War Is Boring with art far removed from his idiosyncratic editorial cartooning style. He also took a highly publicized trip to Afghanistan with Ted Rall and Steven Cloud and created a variety of work in different styles throughout and afterward. Bors was recently named Comics Journalism Editor at Cartoon Movement, and it's hard to think of anyone of any age more qualified: a cartoonist that's worked in a variety of styles to several different and artistically fruitful ends. I've never met Matt Bors and contacted him cold; I greatly enjoyed his considered answers to my questions, and their persuasive tone. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Matt, I think of you as a Portland person, so I was surprised to learn that you're from Canton, Ohio. Is there anything that you think of particularly Midwestern about your work? Are there influences or experiences or perspective that inform your work that might not have been there if you were originally from a city like Portland?

MATT BORS: I'm glad I didn't grow up in Portland. There's zero diversity here, racially and ideologically. It's a complete bubble.

I had been wanting to get out of Ohio since I was a child, but now that I'm out I appreciate the perspective it gave me. It's better to become a liberal elitist on your own during adulthood than be raised into it. Gives you better perspective on the country. Growing up in Portland you would barely see a black person or ever know what it was like to be religious. And you'd be weirdly passive aggressive.

If I were a politician running for office I could say, "My mother worked her whole life as a waitress, my father struggled with being laid off multiple times, I fired every kind of gun there was by the time I was 15, and I was the first person in my family to graduate from college." It all sounds ridiculous laid out like that but it's factually correct. There is something to the stereotype of people being a little too laid back about things out here on the West Coast. I credit the Midwest with implanting a good work ethic in me -- which I then used to escape from it. Also, I really like drawing urban decay.

SPURGEON: I know that you read comics as a child, but did you have any interest at all in editorial cartooning? Were there cartoonists in that particular field of which you were aware or even admired? Have you furthered your education in that kind of cartoon work since, and is there anyone you feel particularly connected to in the long history of that expression of comics?

BORS: I was not aware of any editorial cartoonist as a child as they weren't published by Marvel and Image, though records indicate I drew my first editorial cartoon for a school project in opposition to the Brady Bill. At the time I thought regulating the obscenely large Liefeldian guns of super-heroes was a bad idea. [Spurgeon laughs]

imageTo tell you the truth, short-form comics like strips and panels didn't interest me for the longest time -- until I had something short to say. I don't know if I'd say I feel connected to anyone in particular other than attempting to carry on the tradition of those before me, but I have tremendous respect for [Jules] Feiffer and [Bill] Mauldin. Not the most original choices, but they are guys who advanced the field and didn't waste their goddamn ink on something trivial. Mauldin's cartooning from war greatly interest me having done a recent trip where I cartooned from Afghanistan. I'm moving into comics journalism these days and I have plans to do a lot more non-fiction work and editorial cartoons from places that aren't my drawing table.

SPURGEON: Was comics part of the basis for you going to art school in Pittsburgh, or were you looking to pursue purer forms of visual media? How satisfied are you with your arts education; do you see practical applications of what you learned in your everyday work? Can you conceive of a different path you might have pursued to get where you are today?

BORS: Going to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh was more of a back-up plan if comics didn't work out -- something to assure my parents, and myself, that I would actually have an income. If you wanted to pursue purer forms of visual media than comics, I wouldn't recommend going to school for graphic design. I appreciate graphic design a lot and still do some freelance in the field, but the school was a breeding ground for people eager to land a position at a firm where they could start doing magazine ads for Hefty bags. There was nothing pure about it. I didn't have a bad experience, really, and I did learn a lot. It just wasn't about comics.The whole time I was there I worked on comics and used everything I learned -- Photoshop, web design, printing -- and applied it to me drawing comics for a living. It's all I cared about doing.

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SPURGEON: Matt, when I mentioned to a friend of mine that I interviewing you, he shot back something along the lines that he only knew you for your style, what I imagine some folks call "cartoony" in an attempt to distinguish how you draw from people working in an illustration-influenced style. I know that you can draw in more than one style. I hate to ask this because I'm sure you've answered it a bunch of times, but what strengths do you think your specific editorial cartooning style affords you that a traditional approach might now. Is it simply the style you prefer to draw in? Does it distinguish your work on the page? Does it soften some of the criticism you dole out? I like it quite a bit, but I wonder how you were reconciled to this style of art.

BORS: I would have never thought I'd end up drawing cartoony but maybe I have. The style I used for War Is Boring is closest to what I would describe my "natural" style. I had to work to simplify my style when drawing political cartoons and it's become the work I'm known for (to the extent anyone knows of me). I think that approach is better for political cartoons. It take less time, which helps when doing multiple cartoons a week, and it doesn't so much soften the blow as distract you from it coming in.

Even within my editorial cartoons I'll alter the style slightly depending on what the seriousness or silliness of the strip calls for. One cartoonist who does this effectively is [Ivan] Brunetti, who goes between highly rendered and highly simplified strips seamlessly in his books. I see the way I draw as similar to that, employing whatever level of realism or simplification the comic calls for, though I don't vary my style as widely as someone like Brunetti. And drawing leaders in a cartoony way is simply more fun to look at, I think.

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SPURGEON: An older newspaperman once asked me something I couldn't answer all that well because it's not my background, but let me try it on you. Do you think making editorial cartoons is different today because of the saturation of opinion-making that the Internet and shifts in radio and television broadcast media have encouraged? Our media is soaked in opinion. I'm wondering if it might change the context of doing that kind of work when you're competing for a chance to hold forth among dozens of other people as opposed to the one or two that might share an editorial page in the old days. I also wondered if this had an effect on the way you build your opinion, this kind of near-endless opportunity to sample other ways of thinking.

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BORS: There was a time not that long when cable news, The Daily Show and the Internet didn't exist. To even see more than one or two editorial cartoonists regularly would have been difficult. I haven't gone through most of these earth-shattering changes so much as showed up in the middle of them and tried to figure out how to make it work. Once a news story breaks people are instantly tweeting one-liners about it. The writers of The Daily Show are busily typing scripts for a show going out that night. A lot of great takes are already out there by the time the next day's paper hits the stoop. So when your next strip comes out in four days, as sometimes is the case with me, there's a challenge in trying to have a unique take on it. I've tossed off comments on Facebook or something that I get a good reaction from and think to incorporate into a comic instead of throwing it away. So I've used it as a lab in that way and to see what people are talking about, but I don't have relentless daily deadlines so I try not to force a comic on any issue unless something comes to me.

Some guys who work in a more traditional style will have virtually the same comic on a topic and you can usually predict the incoming cliche days in advance. That type of work is the road to irrelevancy for this field.

SPURGEON: Matt, you've had a terribly interesting year, and no period more so than your trip to Afghanistan. What do you think of looking back on the period after you agreed to go and before you actually went? Was that an anxious time? Was the nuts and bolts of putting it together difficult, including trying to figure out what to do with the experience in a professional sense? That health club cartoon you did may be the funniest and scariest cartoon I read this year, and I wondered if there were other experiences like that.

BORS: There was a lot of planning. I don't so much as take the weekend off for a camping trip so everything I needed, from a backpack and sleeping sack to a pair of sunglasses, had to be purchased before I left. The hardest part might have been getting five weeks ahead on comics. I didn't want to miss a deadline if I couldn't file -- then when I got over there I immediately started filing so many cartoons to my syndicate they ran for weeks after I got back.

imageThe period between when I agreed to go and when I left was a blur of work and preparation. The gym strip you mentioned was literally the last thing I did before I left. I had made a giant laundry list of small tasks that needed done and the morning I left I was frantically trying to get to the bottom of it. When I hung up from that gym phone call I went straight to the air port. The next day I was sitting in Moscow with Steven Cloud on a seven-hour layover and decided to draw it up.

It was interesting trying to translate these experiences into my comics. I had been alternating between drawing War Is Boring and my editorial cartoons for a year and a half. Trying to figure out how to translate real-life experience into my editorial cartoons presented the question of whether the cartoony style was serious enough for the subject matter or even if I had enough space to tell the stories I wanted. I ended up doing strips that were funny, slice-of-life, and in a few cases quoting Afghans directly in comics that were more depressing.

SPURGEON: What about being on the ground changed your approach to the trip -- what decisions did you make on the fly in terms of what to draw, what to focus on?

BORS: Ted was working on a book and doing daily comics. All three of us were in each other's presence for nearly the entire trip which meant we went the same places and talked to pretty much all the same people. Immediately Ted and I were in a sort of competition, pushing each other to see who could do the most work. Eventually I got sick and fell behind. We'd sort of talk about who felt strongly about doing a certain event and let that person do it if they really wanted.

imageThere was so much material you had to figure out what not to draw so you could be out getting more material. Everyone had an interesting story. Just to draw people's portraits and sketch from life was a real treat, since I don't get to do that any more. I decided before I went I wanted to focus on the people I met and not have the comics be all about me, me, me on a trip. When we were over there the controversy around the so-called Ground Zero Mosque was heating up and it occurred to me immediately to ask Afghans what they thought of it. I found a guy in our hotel lobby who had a real interesting story with once working for the Taliban and saying how this controversy in America depressed him. I drew it up and filed the cartoon three hours later. There was a giant cesspool of opinion around that whole event but I was proud to toss in a droplet of something relevant that no one else would have been able to get.

SPURGEON: Was there anything about the experience in Afghanistan that you found particularly affecting or that surprised you in the way that it hit you? It seemed like you were surprised by how much you enjoyed certain experiences after traveling, and there was a really funny strip where you caught yourself looking at a woman's hair because you had suddenly grown use to not seeing women not covered. Matt, I don't even know, are you an experienced traveler. How much of the experience was new for you?

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BORS: Oh, I'm not an experienced traveler at all. That was my first trip outside the U.S as an adult. There may be no more radical a culture shock than from America to Afghanistan. It's one of poorest, most fundamentalist, war-torn places on earth. I was pretty well-read on the country at that point and I didn't have any naive notions about what life is like in these places. So I was prepared, but there's nothing like going an experiencing it for yourself. You can only gain a better perspective about the way you live from places like that.

SPURGEON: This may be way too nerdy a question, but between War Is Boring and the Afghanistan work you've covered the two ways that most comics journalism is made -- direct and experiential and more of a reflective, studied approach. Do you contrast those experiences in your mind at all -- do they form a continuum for you, or are they singular in terms of what they were like to do?

BORS: They were very, very different. But there is also a link there. In my mind (and I think in reality as well) there's a connection between all this work; editorial cartoons, War Is Boring, my own comic journalism. I'm into non-fiction, politics, journalism. War Is Boring was new to me. I'd never drawn someone else's work and I ended spending so much time on it I wondered if it was worth it. You're just sitting there drawing for days and making sure you have all the clothing and architecture right for the six or so countries the book takes place in. It can become mind numbing. But after all is said and done I'm really proud to have recreated the events in the book.

Then I went to Afghanistan. All of the sudden I could write whatever I wanted. It was such a relief. You have the excitement of being there and reporting and gathering information and then you come back, hole up and draw it all out. It felt like it fit for me and I knew I wanted to do more of this kind of work.

SPURGEON: Am I right that it's the trip that you began the work that saw you named editor at Cartoon Movement mid-Month. At what point did you initial work with them become this full-fledged, funded position, with a freelancer budget and everything. What are your immediate goals in getting the site up on its feet?

BORS: I met the Cartoon Editor of the site VJMovement, Tjeerd Royaards, at the AAEC convention last year in Portland. I don't remember if he came to me or if I pitched it first, but he agreed to print some stories from the Afghanistan trip.

I stopped to see him in Amsterdam on the way home as an excuse to see Amsterdam, of course, but also see what other work I could do for him. He was going to launch Cartoon Movement at that point and, in the tradition of many great business deals, we drank a lot of beer and determined we should work together. It didn't actually happen that quickly, but we talked over the next month or so and I assured him I was serious. We are both freelancers of the same age in the same field that aren't yet ready to see editorial cartoons die and I wanted to really push the comics journalism angle. And now I'm "Comics Journalism Editor," a position I'm quite sure has never existed before now.

I do have a budget and am looking to get about one piece a month, anywhere from 5-20 pages. And I'm scouring the globe looking for people who can do this stuff. No other site or publication is doing it so I feel a real opportunity here. It's going to take me some time to roll out some of the bigger ideas I have, but I'm real eager to help comic journalism make a come-up. Right now, there's funding but we have to figure out how to keep it going in the long run.

Will it succeed? I don't know. But I feel great that I'm in a position to have a say in the matter beyond my own personal work. I'm not willing to throw my hands in the air just yet and say there's no way to make money doing this.

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SPURGEON: One thing with new editorship and the opportunity afforded by the trip to Afghanistan and your work on War Is Boring that seems pretty obvious is that you've gone to where the work is, you're not an editorial cartoonist that's at home kind of processing opinions and shaping work in order to hit the market you're aiming towards but in a way that doesn't anger anyone. Is that a fair assessment of your situation, do you think, that you're going out to get the work as much as counting on what must be rapidly disintegrating infrastructure to bring the work your way?

BORS: In a word, yes. Not to be too dramatic, but I felt some personal and professional responsibility to go to Afghanistan. Like, "Here I am working with Rall and Axe who go to these places, and here I am drawing editorial cartoons about world affairs from Portland -- I need to fucking go there myself." And you are ultimately a tourist. Because you can leave and they can't. But what's the alternative? To never leave America? To spend your entire life being an editorial cartoonist with an opinion on every matter of importance (and on many of none whatsoever) but never having seen anything for yourself. It sounds like a dishonest. I wouldn't suggest everyone go to Afghanistan or that you have to in order to have an opinion about it. But I really wanted that experience.

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SPURGEON: Is it as bad out there market-wise as the conventional wisdom about your kind of cartoonists suggests it is right now? What was 2010 like from your perspective for you and your peers?

BORS: For the profession? Horrible. For me professionally? Great. I came out with a book, cartooned from Afghanistan and landed the gig with Cartoon Movement. For me financially? Not my best year but not my worst. Editorial cartooning is imploding. Lay offs everywhere. The staff position numbers will never climb back up.

I lost a lot of clients in the two years after the financial meltdown and only picked up a small number. Dailies aren't hiring, alt-weeklies won't run as many comics as they used to, print rates are shit, web rates are worse and multi-millionaires like Ariana Huffington build sites with thousands of contributors who work for free while they write books with titles like Third World America. The web turned out to be harder to monetize than everyone fancied during its inception -- or maybe it just turned out it was easier to exploit people. Still, this is the reality we live in. It seems like there's nowhere to go. But I'm still going to draw cartoons.

I go to the AAEC conventions and I'm practically the only one under 30. Most staffers are in their 50s and they lived through a different era. These guys make good money and have families and houses to think of. They find the idea of working the hours I do for the money I do frightening. We like to talk about political cartoons as if they are some grand necessity to a free and democratic society. They're not. If they were, we'd live in one. Truth is, people can go through life without editorial cartoons. But I don't want to let them. I want to stop them and make them laugh at the things they are outraged about and scream at them for the things they aren't.

*****

* Matt Bors On-Line
* War Is Boring: Bored Stiff, Scared to Death in the World's Worst War Zones, David Axe and Matt Bors, Penguin, softcover, 144 pages, 9780451230119, August 2010, $12.95
* Cartoon Movement

*****

* photo provided by the cartoonist
* two examples of Bors working in a relatively exaggerated style
* a two-panel sequence that takes advantage of Bors' style
* another style for Bors
* three panels showing the variety of material that spun out of Bors' trip to Afghanistan, including sketches/character studies
* comics journalism of the kind Editor Bors now seeks
* a self-portrait (below)

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