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It can be hard to describe Matthew Thurber‘s comics. Certain phrases like surreal, absurd and dream-like get thrown around a lot and while they’re all true, it doesn’t accurately capture the free-form playfulness of his work or the way he manages to make his work both bizarre and accessible at the same time.
His latest book 1-800-MICE, now available in stores via Picturebox, is his longest narrative yet. An epic tale set in the imaginary town of Volcano Park, the book juggles a rather large cast of characters and their competing subplots as various political and social groups strive for dominance in the town, not realizing that their actions may result in their own destruction. If that sounds rather grim, rest assured the book remains delightfully nonsensical and silly (in the best sense of the word), full of concepts like bagpipes that also serve as teleporters or rocket ships that run on urine. It’s off-kilter and disarming but never falls apart and is a surprisingly straightforward and easy-to-follow read. In short, it’s pretty great.
I talked to Thurber over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., about the new book and the challenges of doing a longer and more involved narrative:
Give me a bit of biographical background about yourself. Have you always been interested in making comics?
I was always interested in anything with a narrative. When I was a kid I made movies and comic books with my friends. My friends Tom and Jeff had this series called The Killer Pigs. It was a sci-fi story. This was when I 10. They were making comics and I imitated them but I was also interested in making more professional versions of the Killer Pigs. I’d put a little Marvel Comics symbol in the upper left hand corner. My background was being into Dungeons and Dragons and comics, making videos with my friends and reading all kinds of books.
As you grew older how did you make that transition into making comics professionally?
I guess by the time I was in high school I was already doing a little zine called the Glistening Earlobe Review. And then later it was called Knickerbocker. So I was interested in self-publishing already in high school. I moved to New York to go to art school and went down different paths and started doing animation and stuff. When I got out of school it just seemed like a very attainable, financially possible avenue.
While I was in school I was seeing more interesting comics like Chris Ware or Tony Millionaire. I was also Dame Darcy’s intern during my sophomore year. I got school credit for going to her house and dropping off her public access VHS tapes and answering your mail. She had a nervous breakdown when I was there once about losing her mail key, which I can understand. I need to check my mailbox frequently.
It’s not like I got brainwashed and rejected comics. I was still interested in them as an art form. I had seen Raw in high school and that really rearranged my brain in thinking about the medium. And right after college it seemed like there was a lot of drawing related action in the art world. In 2000 I saw Paper Rodeo and then there was the Royal Art Lodge with Marcel Zama. They were a Canadian collective. There were a lot of collectives doing graphic or comic-related art as well as music and animation and video. Comics had always been one wing of a lot of different practices [for me].
Is 1-800-MICE your first attempt at a lengthy narrative?
It’s definitely the lengthiest, cohesive work that I’ve done.
Was that a conscious decision on your part to try a longer narrative?
I was always interested in serialization and serialized stories. I thought that I could create a comic series that would go on infinitely. But then, after a couple of issues, it seemed like it could actually be contained if that makes sense. Like, refer to infinite narratives but be a mini-series. And then I remembered when I was a kid I was absolutely obsessed with the mini-series that would come on TV, and be an event. One of them was Shogun. Do you remember that?
Yeah, and the Thorn Birds.
For some reason when Shogun came on I had to tape the whole series. It came on at night past my bedtime. I don’t know why I had tapes of it. Maybe it was just something about samurai. But then I started thinking about this comic as being a mini-series instead of Cerebus or something.
And that appealed to you more, the idea of closure?
Well that definitely wasn’t something I had much experience with. I’m always starting issue one of some conceptual comic series and not following up. This the first time I’ve [done] something with length.
Did you come across challenges you didn’t expect due to the length of the story?
I tried to tie all the ends together. I wanted there to be sort of a metaphorical reasoning for the events. I wanted it to be like a Rube Goldberg machine that the trees being cut down affected the activity of the volcano and the reason the trees were cut down were to make a stage for the banjo contest, and the reason the banjo contest was happening was because tree characters from the town were trying to prove their superiority. I just wanted everything to be like a little domino game. None of these clauses necessarily make a lot of sense, but I wanted them to all affect each other. I spent a lot of time just revising the plot.
Did you did a lot of preparation beforehand? To what extent did you allow for improvisation?
I didn’t do any research. My working method always allows for improvisation. Even the moment before I begin inking it I’ll still mess with the dialogue to fine-tune it. I feel like that is part of what helped the comic feel really lively. That’s another reason why I like the medium, it’s always in flux. That balance between improvisation and plot and the idea of intertwining plots would create an interesting friction. So that was intentional.
Was that tricky for you? It seems like you have this balance between wanting to make sure there’s a consistent narrative but also making sure you don’t lose the fantastical absurdist element, which I would imagine could break down the story and world you’re trying to build. Was that a difficult balance for you to maintain when you were working on the book?
I guess I just try to think of the location as being a real place and I’m like a journalist describing little subplots occurring in the town, so that it would naturally hold together. There’s a lot of visual noise or gibberish related to the setting but then also I didn’t want to get bogged down in subplots. There was a temptation to just keep introducing more and more characters. That would be a perfectly acceptable project for me. I could totally read something like that and really enjoy it — every page a new character — but I felt some obligation to have the characters play an actual role in the story. So I would introduce a character at random and later figure out their meaning in the story.
Were there any characters that surprised you as you were working on them?
Well, lemme see. Groomfiend doesn’t really change throughout the book. Peace Punk has more of a radical shift in his personality when he gets a job. I was having fun with his reluctant metamorphosis. I don’t know. I was worried that with so many characters they would all start to sound the same. I tried to work on keeping their voices distinct but also a lot of it is intentionally confusing. Like with the story of the cop who’s inhabited by another cop.
It does seem like there are points where the narrative seem in danger of toppling over. I was wondering if that was deliberate on your part or just the way the story naturally moved.
I’m just inspired by confusion, like watching a foreign film where everybody is dressed exactly the same and you can’t tell the characters apart. Or turning on a soap opera that’s being going on for 30 years and you’re completely dislocated. I find that inspiring somehow.
The book has some strong political overtones, especially in the various groups conspiring against each other. Were you trying to draw allusions to modern politics with that? Do you welcome that sort of connection?
I’m definitely interested in political readings of the book although I think that the only real message it might have is an ecological one. It’s lot to do with the health of an ecosystem versus the desire to control or dominate the environment.
There’s that one group that doesn’t seem to understand the effects of their actions, which seems to have allusions to global warming.
It’s therapeutic. It’s something I think about in New York all day long where the population density is insane and the place is covered with concrete and cars. I’m not trying to hit anybody over the head with it but maybe to address some issues in an amusing way.
I thought the terrorist group was interesting because they seemed more concerned with sowing chaos than having a political agenda.
The Creosote gang are deluded and a parody of nihilism or something.
They seemed like a parody of extremism to me.
Yeah, I think that makes sense. I don’t believe there’s any justifications for injuring other people in the name of your belief system. That group don’t even make sense. They take a drug that makes them have visions of mutilation of the environment. They’re also being manipulated by this dentist character, who for some reason that’s not really explained _ he’s probably most extremist character in that he has a scientific rationale for cutting the population down. (laughs) I don’t know, he’s sort of like a scientist that’s lost touch with reality, like Dr. Strangelove.
One of the other themes I got was the issue of sexual identity, most prominent with Peace Punk but also with the one cop, Nabb. They’re both characters struggling with their identity. Are issues of identity and gender things that interest you as a storyteller?
Ambiguity is really interesting to me. The confusion about definition of self and the way you might delude yourself. That’s an element of the Peace Punk character both in confusion about his punk identity and also his physical alluded-to hermaphrodite self. In the story of Nabb and Tom Chief, he is a cop, which is a very interesting social role to me. I was really influenced by the movie Serpico before starting to write this, which is the story of a police officer that goes undercover and in doing so starts to sympathize with the people he’s undercover with to the point where he alienates his fellow policemen and they set him up. I found that really interesting. I’m interested in the idea of what the self is. On the one hand I think Oh, I’m an individualist, but on the other hand I don’t know if there is a self.
Why does ambiguity attract you?
There’s a lot of traps by which you can hopefully identify yourself in our culture, a lot of ways in which your existence is at a disadvantage because you can be marketed to or pigeonholed. There’s a lot of group political activity that I think is very positive but in my personal experience it’s been hard to fit in. Say in a music scene or a comics scene or the art world, the workforce, a baseball game, there’s all these situations in which people feel like they have to adapt their personalities. I think people who either transgress that or can’t cope with that are really fascinating. People who masquerade as another gender for their whole life, or someone who pretends to be an Indian and is received in an English court. I want to make another comic about identity post-Internet. The confusion of trying to create an identity at this time. Or the independence of your internet existence that you keep separate from your actual life.
I wanted to ask you about some of the issues you were discussing at the surrealism panel at SPX. How important is absurdity and surrealism in your work?
It’s not necessarily important for me to be in that category or in that lineage, but it’s a really inspiring strain of literature and visual art for me. I can’t think of too many other movements — maybe the underground comics period was similarly inspiring to find out about — I guess it’s the feeling you can have absolute freedom in your drawing and writing. You don’t have to be funny. There doesn’t have to be a resolution or a structure that is familiar. Comics are so new that I feel like a lot of experimental there are already traditions but there’s no reason anyone has to accept those. They’re only very new. I feel like long-form comics doesn’t have a burden of thousands of years of examples. I’ve been thinking a lot about humor and the absurd.
Well that was one of the things I wanted to talk about because while the book has a very dark ending, there’s a lot of humor in the book, drawn out of these characters bumping into each other, which keeps the book from getting too dark, despite the drama.
Yeah, I think that’s a necessary approach. I think about having to be funny every time I draw a comic. I was worried this comic would start funny and then realize it was becoming a bit “Graphic Novel” and dreadfully serious. The end being serious is kind of absurd too. It was kind of a joke on Watchmen.
So humor is pretty important to you.
Oh yeah. The surrealists were the most humorless people in some ways. Andre Breton was a dictator. On the one hand they believed in convulsive humor, and on the other hand they were so serious. I think that comics are just inherently the best thing about them is they’re funny. My favorite cartoonists are funny, like Ben Katchor and Gary Panter. I think those guys are hilarious. I feel that humor is my favorite way to bridge serious stuff.
It’s interesting you name those two guys because they’re not the first two people that might come to mind when thinking of funny cartoonists.
It’s very dry.
It’s very dry and very subtle. It’s there but you have to spend time to see it.
Maybe it’s a tradition of dry humor that goes back to Hogarth or somebody drawing fine drawings. I don’t know what I”m talking about. I’ve been rereading some Milt Gross stuff and just the way he’ll draw someone with crossed eyes will make me laugh out loud.
Do you want to produce the same results with your own work? Certainly your characters have that look to them.
Chracter design is such a great place to find humor. It’s hard to make humor without making fun of people. I’ve been puzzling about that. You don’t want to draw a stereotype but you want to draw a funny character, so what’s funny? There’s a lot of characters with pinched noses in the book. I don’t know if that’s funny. Part of it is just how people move, their hand gestures or how they float around can be inherently funny. If you try to express something serious through these inherently funny characters, it can be really dumb or really, really interesting.
Well it can make the messages more palatable to the reader.
I think it’s easier to dilute ideas through making a mixture. Cartooning is like the special potent juice you’re’ mixing up your ideas with.
You mentioned the idea of working in the universe. do you see the possibility of a sequel or at least a story taking place in the same world.
I don’t think I’d do a sequel, but unfortunately the way my brain works in trying to figure out a new series I’m essentially doing the same thing over again. I feel like it will be I’m not terribly attached to the characters. In a way they’re like the characters in a play that don’t have too much personality. Maybe that’s something to work on in the future. Even so, Shakespeare didn’t make hamlet 2.
Well maybe if I get letters like L. Frank Baum did from crying little girls. “Please bring back Groomfiend!” Then of course I’d have to do that. (laughter).