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January 5, 2013


CR Holiday Interview #17 -- Matthew Southworth

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imageMatthew Southworth is one of the best artists working the crime quadrants of the North American comic book field. An accomplished musician with a background in filmmaking, playwriting and acting, Southworth is also a relative latecomer to the comics field, giving him a unique perspective bolstered by experience in other art forms on the rigamarole of the American funnybook industry. His primary creative outlet thus far is the Oni-published Stumptown series with writer Greg Rucka. A fifth, concluding issue in that title's second arc is soon to be released. Where he goes from there is anyone's guess. Southworth is both creatively ambitious and financially realistic. I always appreciate running into this guy at the few shows he does and on-line, so I thought it's be fun to talk to him for this series. I was right. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: I want to talk about the theatre and film elements to your background in a little bit, but I wondered first if you could talk more explicitly about your interactions with comics and drawing. You were much too accomplished much too early when you started making comics for this to have been as casual a sideline as you sometimes seem to stress. What comics and artists meant a lot to you? What was the full extent of your training in art, your preparatory work?

MATTHEW SOUTHWORTH: I started drawing when I was three years old, and the first drawings I have are of Batman and Robin. I kept drawing and making comics intermittently all through my childhood and up through my teens, and I wanted to be either a pro comic artist or a flashy hard rock guitarist like Yngwie Malmsteen for several years. I grew up across the street from Joe Casey in the suburbs of Nashville, and we made comics together and played in bands and made Super-8 movies. These were my three big obsessions -- comics, music and movies.

The cartoonists who meant the most to me at the time were guys like Arthur Adams, who drew so beautifully; Frank Miller, who had such a powerful and dramatic sense of storytelling; Bill Sienkiewicz, whose work was so expressive and emotional. When i look back on that period--the mid- to late-80s, the stuff that most affected me was actually work I didn't fully understand yet. I'd gotten Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book and devoured that, loved the really loose, handmade quality of the art. It was drawn on ledger paper -- possibly just as roughs for another artist -- and the gray wash Kurtzman used made the blue lines show up in the printed artwork, which was thrilling to me. There was this great book by Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor von Eeden called Thriller. Thriller is one of the weirdest, most stimulating comics I've ever read -- the fact that Fleming and von Eeden don't seem to be fully in control of this bizarre, ambitious and somewhat adult thing they've created makes it one of my favorite comics ever. I feel really fortunate to have been reading comics when some of the most exciting things were happening in the mainstream -- Elektra: Assassin, Alan Moore's bold approach to what was primarily a Creature from the Black Lagoon rip-off -- Swamp Thing -- Thriller, Bill Sienkiewicz's unbelievable run on New Mutants.

During middle school my Mom got me into a life drawing class in downtown Nashville. This was pretty exciting and scary--to be a fourteen year old boy in the same room with naked adults was a shock. I remember being very nervous before going to the class, afraid I'd get an erection and get thrown out for being immature. What happened instead is that after the first three minutes of strangeness, I went into a sort of trance and it was pretty peaceful. I also took a cartooning class that was taught by a Filipino political cartoonist named Dani Aguila. I didn't learn a lot in that class, but I remember he called me a "little genius," which was both facetious and terribly encouraging.

When I finished high school -- after spending five years in school as a result of a really shitty attitude, lots of anger and turmoil at home -- I nearly went to art school in Memphis, but I'd just read a biography of Orson Welles and that led me to go to school to study acting and directing, and while I took some comics with me to school, I got so immersed in theatre that I stopped drawing them. I also stopped putting so much effort into guitar and lost the only pick I had with me there; I didn't bother to get another for a couple of years, which led to a strange evolution in my guitar playing.

SPURGEON: You're one of the few comics artists I know of with a background in theatre and in film. Do you see both influences in your work? What do you still keep with you from the Louisville days, reading all those scripts, or in a creative sense from Los Angeles?

SOUTHWORTH: I definitely draw on theatre and film all the time when I'm doing comics. Though I've read several tons of comics, I don't tend to think of panels or even pictures a lot of the time, I think more in terms of blocking and physical bodies. I was an acting student before I went to Actors Theatre of Louisville and worked in their literary department, and so when I read, I sort of "play" the roles. What I was doing, for the most part, at ATL was reading tons and tons of ten-minute plays for the Humana Festival. At that time -- and perhaps still -- ATL was one of the biggest producers of new American plays: plays by unknowns and by established playwrights, including John Patrick Shanley -- one of my big, big favorites -- José Rivera, Tony Kushner, Joyce Carol Oates. They had a competition called the "10-Minute Play Contest". What this resulted in was reading roughly a thousand ten-page plays by unknown writers and deciding whether they were good candidates for the festival.

I learned an awful lot about dramaturgy and how to judge whether a piece of writing is dramatically effective from a man named Michael Bigelow Dixon, who ran the ATL literary department. Michael showed me -- both in conversation about the plays I was reading and about the little plays I was writing -- that clarity was more important than style, and this coupled with my fanatical love of David Mamet's plays and his dramatic theories, particularly the "uninflected idea" -- an idea expressed without adjectives, basically -- really spun my head away from decoration. This would later be a fortunate influence since it turns out I don't draw beautifully the way some more decorative guys like Art Adams or Frank Cho or Adam Hughes or Moebius do.

I wound up in grad school for playwriting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which in turn led to my working at Tom Cruise's company, Cruise/Wagner, in Los Angeles. Again I was reading tons of material and writing little reports on it. Still not drawing, not playing a lot of music, but I wrote and directed a micro-budgeted feature film called Big Wide Empty, shot it on 16mm in Death Valley and out in the desert around Victorville, CA. I was financing it myself, while making $300 a week, so I had to be super-economical in shot selection, and I storyboarded every shot of the film. These were just little thumbnails, but drawing like that -- to communicate an image rather than to prove I could draw! was very liberating, and it led me back to the idea of making comics.

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SPURGEON: You told Jason Leivian a few years back that for the most part you hadn't grown disillusioned with comics and still had some of the sort of same affection in terms of being able to make that you had when you first showed up. Is that still true?

SOUTHWORTH: I'm totally in love with comics and with the people who make comics. I withdrew from theatre over time because I got very frustrated with a sort of superiority complex the community had about itself, that because they were doing theatre for no money in front of small crowds they were somehow doing the "important work" and that anyone who didn't get it was an idiot. Comics are simply too difficult, and the gratification is so delayed, that vanity and superiority seem to vanish. It just takes too damn long to get the slap on the back.

I had personal problems that contributed to my disillusionment with Los Angeles and the film business, but the primary reason I got frustrated with it is that it's a business designed to grind down any sort of spontaneity of expression. Films are so expensive to make that there are a gazillion people in between the artist and the camera, between the artist and the public...and so comics seemed ideal to me. You have an idea, you work on it, if you have a way to publish it, it's out there within a couple of months perhaps. And as digital distribution has become more typical and acceptable, that's becoming even stronger.

Like all love affairs, though, my relationship to comics has grown more conflicted and complicated over time. I'm frustrated to see a bizarre addictive buying pattern among readers, that everyone will scream and shout that so-and-so's being killed or the Big Two are doing another event that requires the reader to buy piles and piles of comics they don't even like, but then they go out and buy them, if only for fodder for their critical blogs. There are so many great comics out there: some of them are published by Marvel and DC, a great many of them are not. That there are readers out there who check out comics web sites every morning but still have never read an issue of Love and Rockets or who won't sit down and read something by Chris Ware or Dan Clowes or Charles Burns... that won't read Paul Grist's great superhero comics like Jack Staff or Mudman just because they don't have the Marvel or DC logo up in the corner -- I just think that's downright stupid. And I'm not saying that they should give up Marvel or DC -- I haven't, I still buy things from both companies, and I enjoy working with them a great deal -- just that there's so much else out there that is fantastic and that is withering on the vine because readers and retailers don't try it out.

I'm also disappointed that there isn't a whole lot of experimentation in the mainstream. Looking at Sienkiewicz's New Mutants now is like looking at an alternate reality, it's totally unheard of that they'd do stuff like that now on a major mainstream book. I'm sad to see Vertigo shrinking instead of expanding; I'm sure DC has plenty of market data that's informing that decision, but it's frustrating to see it happen nonetheless.

Frankly, I think the business realities of the Direct Market are fucking terrible for comics, and they're totally self-defeating. That the market is financially remunerative to such a small, small percentage of independent creators, that in order for independent creators to make a book they have to finance it themselves or go hat in hand on Kickstarter is a fucking disgrace. We've built a network of bookstores that cater solely to people who love comics so much they plan their whole week around getting to the store on Wednesday; but that the market is so choked with 75 variations on the same flavor, and that as a result retailers can't afford to stock other types of material is an embarrassment.

imageSPURGEON: Follow-up: certainly lots of people have become more disillusioned by comics, or more immediately, than you've been. Do you feel like it's a different place now than even when you started? And why do you think in those ways that it is different that comics is different in that way that's driven you here after your other artistic experiences. What is it about comics?

SOUTHWORTH: I think that I may have not become as disillusioned partially due to my having worked in those other fields and in my having been able to work on some material that I really, really cared about. I have been very fortunate to work on Stumptown, which Greg Rucka has written with real heart, with characters that feel like people I know. It's not just cool-looking action scenes and convoluted continuity; that stuff can be fun but I'd imagine it gets pretty monotonous after a while if there's no actual dramatic meat in the sandwich. Then again, there have been plenty of superhero books that did indeed have that dramatic punch. Batman: Year One is in my top three favorite comics ever for that reason. But to pay the bills, you have to draw what comes your way, and they aren't all Year One.

I also read so many different types of comics, from little photocopied mini-comics to those $100 IDW Artist Editions to Mark Waid's fantastic Daredevil to Sammy Harkham's stuff, that I am still really excited about them and where they can go. The game is in trying to find a way to make a living doing them all these different ways.

SPURGEON: Tell me more about this decision to get into comics. First, what were your ambitions when you made a move in that direction? Second, what exactly did this entail? I think if I know your story you worked as an assistant some, but I wondered if this was how you got in or if this was one of many things you were doing.

SOUTHWORTH: My ambitions when I initially went back to doing comics were basically just to tell a story I'd wanted to do as a short film. I never finished that comic, which was going to be called Unbelievable Girl and which was basically about the idea that all superheroes are liars. But I did make a mini-comic of that, and the reaction I got from Erik Larsen and Steve Lieber and a few other kind souls made me feel welcome. Once I moved to Seattle, I was writing tons and tons of songs and leading my band The Capillaries, and that was my primary focus for quite a few years. I was managing an apartment building in Lake Forest Park -- just up the same street Fantagraphics is on, actually -- and I was picking away at comics, thinking perhaps that could be a new career that would indulge my writing and drawing. I worked as an assistant to Stefano Gaudiano when he was inking Daredevil and that helped me get my foot in the door, though what I wanted to do was not be an inker but be a full cartoonist, writing and drawing my own work. When my boss sold the apartment building, I was let go soon after, and instead of getting another day job, I was able to hustle and make a meager living drawing comics.

I was -- and am -- very ambitious about doing comics, actually, though my ambitions are not particularly practical, they're purely expressive or productive. In other words, I have all kinds of things I want to do and am working on right now, but finding a way to be able to afford to do them is a challenge. There's a whole new artform developing right in front of us, a nexus of digital publishing, motion comics techniques, sound, animation, etc.--and it's not as simple or unappetizing as what we've seen in motion comics thus far. I'm excited to be a part of that.

SPURGEON: You say your plans aren't exactly practical, which makes me wonder, and I'm sorry to put it like this, how practical you've been so far. [Southworth laughs] I don't mean that in an insulting way.

SOUTHWORTH: It's not insulting at all.

SPURGEON: It's a tough field.

SOUTHWORTH: That's a totally appropriate question, because no, somehow it's been very impractical. When I was an apartment manager it was somewhat workable because you have a lot of hours in the day when you're not doing anything. You just kind of have to be on alert. It's like being a fireman [laughs] waiting for the bell to ring. When that job ended, I was on unemployment, so I could still do comics. When unemployment ran out, it was like fish or cut bait, or sit or get off the pot, whatever goofy metaphor you want to use. Doing Stumptown was still, it was still my primary focus, but I had to do other comics to make a living. And I liked doing those other comics. It's funny, Chris Ware is probably my favorite cartoonist. He's certainly in my top three. Guys like that are the ones that really thrill me, but I still like Marvel and DC Comics, at least often I like them. I can't say I like them all by any means. But working on that stuff is really fun, because it's short-term, usually -- for me, anyway, it has been. It pays really well. It pays multiples of what doing the stuff for Oni pays, and Oni pays! If I was doing stuff for Image, a lot of the time that stuff doesn't even pay except on the back end if there is a back end. So I guess that's a rambling answer that no, the stuff I've done so far hasn't been particularly practical, either.

SPURGEON: It's not like you find a bunch of short cuts in your art, either. Looking at the Stumptown material, and you've done enough interviews now that a bunch of people have hit on this, but it's really obvious that you're doing visual research and maybe working through figure designs and trying to figure out how to get your reference and sense of reference on the page. This is not you capturing a sensibility: this is not 75-year-old Alex Toth, magnificently seizing on a mood in a few lines. It looks really labor-intensive in a very specific way. Is this a need of yours, to do art in this way? Or is this part of your learning curve? Is it a bunch of bad decisions? [Southworth laughs] It is as labor-intensive as we might guess, right?

SOUTHWORTH: Probably more so. You've obviously been around comics production for a long time, so you might have an accurate view. It's certainly more labor-intensive than a lot of people at shows might thing. That's streamlining to some degree. Some of it is... I'm not sure I'd call it an artist's ethos, but more that I appreciate when person making a comic, making a song, making a movie or whatever really means what they say. So if I find myself doing something in a comic just to get it done. I rankle at moments when I go, "Aw, nobody cares about this." If I'm drawing a record player in the background, there's a bell ringing in my head that nobody's looking at this record player, so it really doesn't matter." And then there's another bell going, "It all matters! It all matters!" [laughter] Which is maybe ethical, and maybe just bad decision-making. That's something I think about a lot recently.

The Stumptown car-chase issue was heavily photo references, although in this case I didn't do most of the reference. Charlie at Oni and James drove around town and shot video of the route of the entire car chase for me. I had driven it before it was given to me as a car chase. Everything in that issue is photo-referenced. Everything. When they take a right turn onto a street, that's what that right turn actually looks like. That was the fun of that. That was the point. If you're drawing Captain America fighting Morbius in a Nazi nuclear sub-station or something, you would pick up photos of nuclear sub-stations and tape it all together in a way. That can be fun, too. What I really try to do is make it mean something to me, just as when my band plays cover, I only wanted to do a cover if I actually bought into the song somehow.

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SPURGEON: That's an interesting way to answer that question, because one of the things I wonder about... I read both series -- what's out so far -- and a lot of what I read had some additional material to it, I assume mostly written by Greg. I also read some reviews. One thing they talked about when engaging your intense effort to depict Portland as it actually is... I'm not sure I can articulate this in the nuanced way I need to. I wonder after the nature of that strategy in terms of the wider work. The answer you get in the essays is that it needs to be Portland. I wonder what you think comes out in the story by an accurate description of Portland?

SOUTHWORTH: I haven't thought of it in a positive aspect. [Spurgeon laughs] I have thought about it in a negative aspect. There's that show, The Killing on AMC that takes place in Seattle. There was that movie Chronicle that takes place in Seattle. I don't know if you saw that, but that was a pretty interesting little superhero movie in a weird way. Both of them, they show people in a car and they pull up to a building, and it's pouring gobs and gobs and buckets and buckets of rain. And you immediately, if you've ever lived in Seattle as I know you have, go, "That's not Seattle. It doesn't rain like that in Seattle." I grew up in Nashville, and I saw references to Nashville that never felt right. It would immediately cheapen whatever story was being told. I thought about that a lot when I started Stumptown. I had the good fortune of living three hours away, so I could go down there and soak it up.

The other part of it is that I'm kind of a... I don't know the terms for this, really... I'm fascinated by modern sociological archeology. Architecture-eology, whatever the word is for that. I love going to Georgetown in Seattle, and there's a distinct feeling to Georgetown that has nothing to do with anything anybody says. It's just about the way the buildings are arranged on the grid. There's this tall brewery that was built in 1908 or whatever it is, between you and the freeway. To the south of you there's a small airport, and next to that there's an old, kind of scary film noir apartment building. Trying to capture those things is really exciting to me, more exciting than a good kind of Jack Kirby kick-ass fight scene.

I see a lot of that, too, when people talk about Stumptown. It makes me feel good. It's nice to know that people, "Wow, look at this guy. He works hard." But I wonder if it has any kind of true qualitative thing for them.

SPURGEON: I think you articulated a value distinct from the narrative, but I do wonder after the narrative. What does a detective story mean if it's set in this most accurate Portland we can possibly hope for, this Portland you've given us. That means... what? I'm not sure I know enough about detective narratives to even hazard a guess, although I know there's something about the clash of culture in some classic stories that are set in San Francisco, and the way that class work in New York in others... I wonder after that with Portland.

SOUTHWORTH: It's not just a desire to get it "right," whatever that means. I hope this won't sound like a defensive answer, because I don't mean it in a defensive way at all, but how does the setting of Blade Runner improve that movie? For me, Blade Runner is all about the setting. I don't know if you've read the book, but the book is all about empathy. The movie really isn't. It makes some kind of half-assed stabs at it, but to me they feel like an excuse for a lot of really cool visuals. The character of those visuals, the character of the location to me are the parts that make it powerful. That sounds a little defensive.

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SPURGEON: That's a very good answer, I think. Now, you've changed your artistic approach over the course of the Stumptown books you've done so far.

SOUTHWORTH: Big time.

SPURGEON: Your figure drawing in particular strikes me as different. Is there a reason for that? It seems like your work holds color differently, and that there's a looseness to it that maybe wasn't there at first. Where do you think the work has changed?

SOUTHWORTH: It's changed a lot, and it's changed multiple times. The first arc of Stumptown I think is more consistent, partially because it was all done in a relatively sustained burst of starting on Stumptown #1 and working through to the end of Stumptown #4, with little detours to work on five page of Spider-Man here or whatever. In the case of this arc, we decided to avoid delays in releasing it we would bank all the issues. Get 'em all done and then put it out. This mean that there wasn't as much pressure to get issue #3 done right away. Over the course of that, I just started getting... better. I started using tools that were better. By issues #4 and #5, which isn't out yet, I was using these little Japanese markers for the most part, and working two pages on one sheet of paper so I could see the pacing -- they're smaller. I also started working with these gray markers to soften things. I found that I'm not very good at expressing softness, particularly of women's faces and bone structures. That's something that helped me out as opposed to when I was doing it with straight black and white. Then, on top of that, I started collaborating with Rico on the coloring and kind of adjusting. I think the collection of the second arc of Stumptown will show that in issue #1 I was using markers and brush, by issue #2, and certainly issue #3, it was all done with the nib. Issue #4 was done with these markers and a little bit of gray. Issue #5 it's all markers and gray and I was collaborating on the color with #4 and #5. Reading the book may be a little chaotic. I just decided somewhere along the way that I could trap myself in past techniques I wasn't all that happy with or I could keep moving forward and people liked what came out enough to sit with the inconsistencies.

SPURGEON: There's a not-inconsiderable body of crime work now. We're familiar with the superhero provenance, and who the great figures were, and who a young artist might go look at and learn from? Does that exist for the kind of book you're doing? Is there a bible of crime material. Do you go look at Johnny Craig pages the way someone might go look at Jack Kirby pages?

SOUTHWORTH: Not really. When I started the book I had been Stefano Gaudiano's assistant, and so there was a heavier Michael Lark influence because Stefano had been inking Michael and I had picked up on those techniques. It wasn't a deliberate thing, it was just sort of... Gotham Central was something Greg had done with Ed [Brubaker] and the look had worked on that, so I started out thinking in those ways. But I wouldn't look at an issue of Daredevil and say, "Well, that's how Michael solved it. I can use that." Over time... even less. I read about guys who say, "Yeah, I always keep a copy of whatever open on my drawing table." I've never done that. Not because I'm too good for it, I'm just too distractible. I find myself turning more to... I have 30 years of reading comics crammed in my head along with music and movies and they all kind of make a stew. I go, "Maybe I'll do an Alex Toth thing here." I'll do it, and it looks nothing like Alex Toth. If I actually looked at an Alex Toth page, I wouldn't have done it that way.

I found that when I was writing songs, too. When I was writing lots and lots of songs, which I finally started doing again, I would get "Lovely Rita" by The Beatles stuck in my head. I would write a song that was a pastiche of "Lovely Rita" but I wouldn't go listen to it. I would bring it into the band and not tell them it was kind of a "Lovely Rita" thing. Then by the time we got done it bore no resemblance to that but it was a nifty, new little song. I'm a crappy mimic, is basically what I'm saying. [laughter] It works to my advantage.

SPURGEON: The photo I'm running of you is at 2012's Emerald City Comicon, where you're in a tie and sitting at a table. Have you grown accustomed to that end of being a comics pro, the seeking out of gigs and the presenting yourself to the public parts? You have a pretty active social media presence, or at least I see you tweeting. A lot of artists shrink away from that end of things, and some feel like it's a requirement. You seem good at it. Have you grown accustomed to that part of your career yet?

SOUTHWORTH: I think so. I think I'm weird in this regard, without sort of overplaying the mythology of me having been an acting student and then directing and then having band -- particularly having a band -- I got really comfortable with presenting. I like it. It's fun for me to be a miniature public figure in that way. Ever since the Newtown shooting, I've been talking -- arguing with a lot of people -- about issues like gun control. I try not to come across as a dogmatic asshole about it. It's interesting to me when having these discussions... I draw a crime comic with a lot of guns. [laughter] I noticed while carrying on these conversations that my avatar was a picture of me holding a gun that I had taken for reference. I thought, "What kind of asshole..." [laughter] "... says there are too many guns in comics" -- which is an issue I believe in, to totally sidestep for a second. I'm tired of guns in comics not because of any real-world shooting or their consequences. I'm tired of them because I think they're the most boring prop going. It's why I stopped watching The Walking Dead as a TV show. It seemed like twice an episode somebody would stick a gun in somebody else's face and go, "I mean it." And then the other person would back down and that would be a big, dramatic moment. How many times are we going to see that? Anyway... a long digressive answer to say, "Yeah, I'm pretty comfortable with it." I like meeting people and I like arguing with people, I guess.

imageSPURGEON: The criticism of guns is interesting to me. I know there's a widespread belief held by a lot of people that to ask questions after what effect the media overplay of guns might have is a no-go. And I really do believe as that belief maintains that the entire issue gets used as a dodge to keep criticism away from more pertinent solutions, more pressing problems, and that's it's not the important issue. Still, I'm suspicious when people suggest sexist portrayals in media have a significant effect on our culture but seem to also believe that somehow portrayals of violence don't. I can't help but wonder what values might get inculcated with some people when you constantly show guns as a solution to problems -- if that at least doesn't make more people comfortable with thinking in terms of guns as a potential solution. Do you have questions, or qualms about the kind of material that you work on? The violence of it, or the effect it might have -- leaving aside the small-p political point of engaging that question instead of others.

SOUTHWORTH: I do. It's funny, I was a heavy metal kid in the '80s when the whole Parents Music Resource Center and Tipper Gore were trying to... I thought that was nonsense then and it's nonsense now.

SPURGEON: Me, too.

SOUTHWORTH: I don't think that the majority of people, most healthy people, 99.99 percent or whatever, seeing Taxi Driver go, "I want to be more like Travis Bickle." Taxi Driver may be my favorite movie, and I watch that movie and I go, "Thank God I'm not Travis Bickle." I've been close to being that disassociated from people, and being that lonely. I just wasn't trained to be a killer in Vietnam or whatever. It would never occur to me to buy a gun and make a friend of my new gun. I'm a guitar player, I get that from my guitars. I fetishize guitars and movie cameras.

You said "qualms," and I don't have qualms but I do have questions. I don't play a lot of videogames, but I do play Grand Theft Auto sometimes. That's a very violent game, but it doesn't make me feel violent at all. What it does do is make me a more aggressive driver in real life. I was shocked when I discovered that. I thought, "Nah, that's can't be." Then a couple more times and it was clear that it was true. Or it should say it supports an impulse for me to be a more aggressive driver. If it can do that, and it most definitely does, then I can imagine that if someone has impulse control problems with their anger. I've had that before, I was a very, very angry person for a long time. That it could potentially have an effect. I certainly don't think the effect of Grand Theft Auto anywhere near approaches the threat of the ubiquity of guns, and how easy it is to get one. Not that I even think guns should be outlawed. Many guns shouldn't be outlawed. I just think it should be very, very difficult to get one. You should have to prove competency and responsibility as best as those things can be measured. The same way that you have to get a license to drive a Vespa, you don't have to get a license to own a gun. That seems insane to me.

SPURGEON: You're new to comics, relatively new. Looking back on 2012, there was a lot of back and forth on creators issues, and contracts, and what's fair, and exploitation. Do you appreciate that we're having these discussions, as an artist? Do you appreciate their direction, even if your goals aren't defined that way, are you happy that we're having these discussions?

SOUTHWORTH: [laughs] What I think is that a lot of the discussions we're having are often less informed than they should be and overly simplistic. But, I also believe that generally speaking corporations have no interest in giving their employees a fair shot. I'm not even blaming them for that, I just think it's smart to remember that. If you work for Kraft, designing the new macaroni and cheese product, they're not worried that you might get diabetes and need healthcare, even if you did a great job designing their box. That's not their problem. I think that's fair. I think... I'm sort of more answering your question about the discussion, rather than the issues themselves. I think there's so much hero worship of creators, particularly older creators, because they do this stuff that means so much to us. That when you find out that whatever, Gene Colan is going blind, there's this righteous anger about him not getting a better deal. He wouldn't have gotten a better deal working for Kraft or Ford, either. I agree. I think that it's been a pretty creator-unfair business for many, many years. I'm glad that seems to be changing to some degree. I hope that it continues to change. I just want there to be a little more level-headedness about the discussion.

SPURGEON: Are there people you look to, where you think, "If I'm like that guy in 25 years, that will be okay." Can you point to people like that, role-models in a career-building sense, or is it like your artistic influences in that you just kind of have to feel your way through?

SOUTHWORTH: I wish I could say that there was. The people that I see... I think about this fairly often. I've had health insurance for about six months in my adult life. If I had something happen to me like when you got sick, I'd be ruined. Then again, I don't have that much to ruin. [laughter] I'm not unduly concerned. It's one of the gambles I'm taking. As far as looking at guys who have succeeded, I don't see a lot of guys in comics and go, "Oh, that guy is set for life because of comics." There's certainly Alan Moore and a couple of guys that are the tip-top level of success where you can go, "That's great." There are ton of people who aren't that, guys that were drawing Iron Fist back in the '70s, who are now destitute or nearly so. I'm not answering the question.

SPURGEON: It does seem to be really isolated examples of guys doing well at this point, almost every one of which is divorced from comics to get there, at least in some crucial way. There's no middle-class of not-destitute cartoonists. There a roving free agents, people that escape. There's no group, no class of people.

SOUTHWORTH: If I was going to address the really big and scary thing about comics is that every year it seems to get a little bit more like having a band. Everybody growing up that gets a guitar at 13 goes, "I want to be in a band. I'm going to be like Pete Townshend." Or "I'm going to be in KISS." Or "I'm going to be Kurt Cobain." Or whomever. This ignores the fact that most bands making albums, the albums don't sell. A lot of people are making albums at home -- or used to be, this is becoming increasingly outmoded -- that basically having a band is having an expensive hobby. Even if you view it as an art form. That's what worries me about comics, and digital publishing, and the rise of smaller publisher who I'm really glad are out there. That's the weird thing: I don't want to sound like I'm criticizing Image's model. I think Image's model is fantastic... except that it's basically a self-financed business model that in many cases won't pay off for the artist and/or writer. So you see these guys busting their ass to do their work and it's not sustainable.

To loop back to your question, the guys that I see are guys that have done tons of comic work, like Joe Casey, but who made money by creating a cartoon show. That will permit them to live reasonable lives of comfort. He doesn't have a swimming pool. He drives a Saturn. He's not living the Beverly Hillbillies life. [laughs] What troubles me is that as a kid I read that John Byrne wrote and drew four comics a month. This was when I was big John Byrne fan. I used to think "Man, he must live in the biggest mansion." Now I know that a) he probably wasn't making that much money, although the money from the Big Two is better, but b) there are all sorts of people killing themselves to make less than minimum wage. That's very troubling to me. What's troubling about it is that we're in this era where I can take a month and make a comic at my house, publish it, through Image or on the web, and it's available all over the world. I get messages from people like in Macdeonia. [laughs] That's based on a little Oni comic that sold 6000 copies an issue or whatever. That's great. The problem is that it doesn't pay well enough to make a living -- or you have to pump it out really, really fast. I'm getting relatively quick at doing this stuff now, so it's just now getting to a place where maybe I can make a living doing a tiny, indy book. But probably not.

image

SPURGEON: So what gives you hope? What keeps you at it? You don't sound to me like a pessimistic guy, or a willful denial-of-reality type, when I deal with you on a more everyday basis. What puts you at the board?

SOUTHWORTH: Part of it is a desire to do the things I want to do that I haven't had the chance to do personally. I've got this thing about this child-criminal in Pittsburgh that I want to tell. I think it's a story that will excite people... it excites me, so I want to do it. I'd like to be able to do it and not sweat over how I'm going to make my rent payment. Part of what keeps me going is, to be totally honest, my girlfriend is in nursing school and when she's out of nursing school our plan is that she'll be able to pay more of the bills and I can do more personal stuff. Assuming I don't fuck this relationship up before that happens. [laughter] My ship will come in, and I'll be able to do it. More is that it's just how I think. I made records with my band and I'm making music now because that's what I like doing. If I can't make a living doing that I'll try to make money doing something else so that I can do it.

One thing I would like to do more of... I'm not sure I referred to this in our previous conversation, but I did this thing for Microsoft that paid me as much for three weeks of work as if I had done both arcs of Stumptown and then a third arc. It was the most fun I ever had. They treated me really well. I worked hard -- I overworked my hours, I was having so much fun. I don't want to make commercials. I want to make comics and I want to make movies and I want to make music. And maybe some commercials. [laughter] If ever six months I could get one job like that I would be set. I could do whatever I wanted, because that would more than pay my bills for the year. I could spend the whole time doing something totally uncommercial. I don't want to do things that are inherently uncommercial, but given the way the market is set up, almost anything but -- this isn't a new idea -- a fairly limited subject matter is all uncommercial.

That's what worries me, and not even in a financial way. I want people to know that when I do this Depression-era story, Day For Night, I want people to know that it exists. Then they can choose to buy it or not buy it. The way the system is set up, it's not really designed for that. I don't blame that on anybody, that's just sort of how it is.

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* Matthew Southworth
* Stumptown at Oni

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* an image from Day For Night, I believe
* photo of Southworth from ECCC 2012
* recent spread showing off changes in art style over the nine issues of Stumptown done
* panel from very first issue of Stumptown
* portraying Portland accurately may be its own value
* how Southworth has worked on the art, two different stages on a single page
* a page with a gun in it
* a beauty of a page from Stumptown
* a showpiece spread, with a narrative moment inset on a researched backdrop image (below)

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image

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