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Matt Bors: Drawing Terrible Things Without Causing Despair
Cartoonist Matt Bors. (Photo: Joshin Yamada / Flickr)

Matt Bors: Drawing Terrible Things Without Causing Despair

Cartoonist Matt Bors. (Photo: Joshin Yamada / Flickr)

When I first met Matt Bors, he was appearing on a panel at the 2011 National Conference for Media Reform titled “The Future of Journalism Is … Comics?” If the question mark now seems less necessary, that is in part due to his work.

At that event, together with Truthout contributors Sarah Jaffe and Susie Cagle (now staffers at In These Times and Grist respectively), Erin Polgreen (then of The Media Consortium, now the founder of Symbolia magazine) and artist and animator Ronald “d-pi” Wimberly, Bors made the case for why independent media should be paying attention to journalists who use the medium of comics and cartoons – and paying those journalists fairly. Despite being scheduled for the early morning on a Saturday after a late-night dance party, the panel drew an audience of independent media luminaries.

Clearly, at least some of them paid attention. Truthout has been publishing Matt Bors’ cartoons for more than a year now, and we’re not the only ones who have taken notice of him. Bors has won awards for his editorial cartooning including the Herblock Prize and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award, and he was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

The acclaim is deserved. Bors combines an instinctively hilarious wit (that comes across in person, prose and art) with an unwillingness to pull punches. His cartoons almost always seem playful and clever, rather than bitter and cruel, even when he’s dealing with the grimmest topics. And his eye for detail means he can add something new even to an already-common observation: For example, the double standard evident in Rick Perry’s attitudes toward the death penalty and abortion rights is made even more appalling by the nonchalance with which the Texas governor administers a lethal injection in a recent Bors cartoon.

Nevertheless, to publish his collection of cartoons and essays, Life Begins At Incorporation – which he says “represents my life’s work” thus far – Bors turned to crowd-funding, raising money via Kickstarter. Full disclosure! I was one of the 725 people who chipped in a little to get Life Begins At Incorporation out into the world, and I have the postcard – featuring a perky little billionaire fertilized egg in a top hat – to prove it.

I talked to Bors about his approach to cartooning and writing, his political perspective, the evils of unpaid internships and “design competitions,” the future of the Avenging Uterus and more.

Joe Macaré: Can you talk a little about how you ended up as a cartoonist and comics journalist? Who were the artists, writers and journalists who inspired you?

Matt Bors: I was always into comics, so my earliest influences were Mad magazine and Image and Marvel comics. I wanted to do that stuff for the longest time (and secretly still do!). But in the run-up to the Iraq War, I started doing political cartoons for my college newspaper, and it all sort of clicked.

Comics journalism for me was just a natural extension of that. I’ve always been more interested in nonfiction, journalism and politics than I was fantasy. And doing journalistic comics is still a fairly unexplored area when you contrast it with other genres, like zombie babes and robot vampires.

JM: Your work, as the book showcases, includes editorial cartoons, graphic journalism and prose essays. Can you talk a little about why you do each type of work?

MB: I consider comics a writing job and I’ve always wanted to stretch out and make longer arguments in my work. The writing in the book came about as I started to think about a collection and realized I had a lot left to say that I didn’t touch on in my short little comics. A lot of political writing is painfully unfunny, dry and self-serious. I wanted to write about serious issues – reproductive rights, dronin’ Muslims, the economic death pit of hell – and actually have it not leave the reader in guilt-ridden despair.

Part of where I’m going with my work is trying to do more comics journalism about real people and real stories, not just react to the news with opinion cartoons. In comics you have to have all these skill sets: write, draw, tell a story, be funny. Comics journalism adds reporting (and time) on top of that. But some of the work people are doing in this field shows the results of more in-depth, longer pieces are worth it.

JM: Your cartoons often seem to prompt people to speculate rashly about your politics – most notoriously, if you criticize Obama you must be a libertarian or even a Republican, but if you mock Republicans, you must be an Obamabot! How would you describe your own political perspective?

MB: I believe in free abortion on demand and imprisoning Congress, and I am a proponent of man-dog marriage – or any marriage you can dream up, really. Marry a bookshelf. So I’m, you know, a center-left realist.

I’m not a big fan of those in power or political parties. Makes for a terrible cartoonist. You do political cartoons mostly on things that are wrong in this fallen world. And people from radical anarchists to compromising Democrats can like much of what you’re putting out. They tend to think you are all on the same page about things, and then someone will be like, “Yeah, but why aren’t you doing comics on the lizard aliens controlling the Pentagon?” And I have to be like, “Because I AM one, you idiot meatbag human.”

I’m leftist-ish of most things. Too radical or not radical enough depending on which stranger on the Internet I’m hearing from. I like to think all my positions are great and logical and arrived at through a process of rigorous examination of the evidence. I’m sure that’s true!

JM: In the last couple of years, there seems to have been some improvement in terms of how both independent and mainstream media view comics journalism. How much have the people who do this work, like yourself, actually benefited in terms of being able to make a living from it?

MB: Oh, I think there’s a big shift in how media outlets are incorporating comics, graphic journalism and infographics. But when I met you in 2011 there were hardly any sites running comics – and now, well, hey, I’m published at Truthout. Infographics has especially taken off for every interest group looking to distill an issue down to some easily shareable graphic. Turns out that gets around better than a dreadfully boring blog post.

Until a few years ago, comics journalism was just this little odd thing done by one dude, and now you have a little odd thing done by a growing number of people and a publication like Symbolia devoted exclusively to publishing it.

I spent the better part of the last decade trying to convince every progressive publication to run me, with sometimes frustrating results. Now, it’s like they get it. I did this piece for CNN – the first comic that they ran – and it was a runaway hit. It was a beast on traffic – one of the most popular things they’ve run. It’s like comics are popular or something.

JM: You save some time in your cartoons and book to be critical of other, lazier cartoonists, or rather whole styles of cartooning. What do you have against labels?

MB: Labeling is too easy. I like assuming an audience can recognize prominent politicians without name badges. I like writing jokes and making arguments. That type of cartooning is a sinking ship labeled “old-timey dumb stuff.”

JM: You’ve also been scathing about publishers and others who want to get cartooning or comics work without having to pay for it, specifically through scams like “design competitions” which request spec work. Why are these practices so bad, and why do you think they’re so prevalent in your field in particular?

MB: No one would hold a “contest” for chefs to all prepare food and then only offer pay to the “winner” whose meal they like best. Well, maybe one percenters do do that. It wouldn’t surprise me.

In creative fields you have spec work and these wretched design contests sourcing work from a ton of people because it’s viewed as creative and something you do for fun. Fun! And it is fun, but it’s also time and labor and skill. There’s so many people trying to break into design and illustration that a lot of them are willing to sell themselves short in the name of getting “exposure.”

If you want to draw your friend’s wedding invitation for free, I say go for it. If someone is making money from your work, they can afford to pay you.

Then there are unpaid internships, which are evil and should be outlawed, but labor has now been devalued to the point where unpaid internships are auctioned off to people who I guess don’t need money to live: Alleged progressive Arianna Huffington has done this for her spammy slideshow-based website.

It’s a labor issue, and people who engage in spec work and design contests devalue the work of everyone else in the field. Don’t get me started, Joe.

JM: Who are the people you look up to now – or perhaps secretly resent and envy – in terms of editorial cartooning, graphic reporting and written journalism?

MB: People I secretly resent? I’ll try to be brief. David Samuels does in prose what I’d like to do in comics journalism, Susie Cagle is doing the type of journalistic comics I’d like to do, and Jen Sorensen and Tom Tomorrow did some cartoons lately that I really wish I’d thought of.

JM: A lot of your work critiques the news media itself for what it chooses to cover and how it covers it. Is that your main response to feeling pressure to do cartoons about what’s in the news cycle even when you think a particular story might be a pointless distraction? Or is it possible for editorial cartoons to highlight an issue about which readers might not even know?

MB: I can barely stand to watch cable news. Political cartooning has to be pegged to something in the news, so often I go with how terrible the news actually is. CNN’s coverage of the so-called Hell Cruise had me so worked up I went to the drawing table that night and had a cartoon out ripping on them the next morning.

Still, I find ways to remind people that terrible things are going on. (We must never forget!) So for instance when the gulf oil spill happened, the people Obama is keeping imprisoned in Guantanamo hadn’t been mentioned in a while and I did a cartoon with Gitmo detainees mentioning America was rushing to “clean up and relocate… brown pelicans, not brown people.”

JM: The Avenging Uterus seems to be something of a breakout character for you. What are the changes we could ever see her/hir/it starring in an Adult Swim cartoon?

MB: I did do a short animation with Avenging Uterus! She’s fun and made me realize I’d dropped the ball in not creating any characters for an entire decade in my strip. I think pounding dumb idiots with fallopian fists of fury resonates with people. If I had a show though? I’d mostly want to showcase her rogues gallery of douchebag villains: Misogyno, Dr. Slut Shamer, 75% Of What A Man Makes Man and the ever-judgey Fetus Face.

JM: Are there issues you’ve changed your view on – or on which your “position has evolved,” to put it in politician-speak – where an earlier point of view you now don’t hold is captured in a cartoon? Any cartoons that you regret for any reason?

MB: I think I’ve only evolved to become more radical, to see less difference in the parties and structure of our politics and more hope in mass movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, even when they’re failures. Rome wasn’t sacked in a day, you know.

The only cartoons I regret are ones that weren’t good enough or that didn’t convey their points clearly. I’ve done over 1,000 so there’s plenty. My first few hundred are irredeemable garbage. It takes some time to be good at anything.

I’m trying to think if there’s any group I offended or anything like that I really felt bad about but I don’t think it’s really happened. At least not with anyone I wouldn’t want to offend. I did a cartoon a few weeks before the 2012 election about Obama and Romney not being any different on drones. A friend was so mad about it he ended our relationship and we haven’t spoken since. If I had to do the cartoon over again I wouldn’t change a thing.

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