Smash Pages Q&A: Matt Huynh

The artist, painter and animator discusses ‘Cabramatta,’ his latest contribution to The Believer magazine.

Matt Huynh has been one of the creators making comics without working in the comics industry. Huynh has been making comics, illustrations, animations and paintings for years. His work has been exhibited at MoMA, The Smithsonian and elsewhere. He is known for his collaborations with the writers Nam Le (The Boat) and Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Ark and On True War Stories) and the comic Magpie Magpie.

In 2017-2018, The New York Historical Society opened The Vietnam War, 1945-1975, featuring two 24’ by 6’ murals drawn by Huynh depicting the homefront and the warfront. The exhibition was on display in Pittsburgh until recently and will be on display at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City starting on Veterans Day.

In the current issue of The Believer (The Borders Issue: October/November) Huynh wrote and drew Cabramatta, an eight-page comic about the neighborhood where he grew up as a refugee in Sydney, the way that his relationship to the place has changed, and how the neighborhood and its relationship to the majority white community has changed over time. The Believer also debuted an interactive version of the comic on the website that Huynh helped to make.

Huynh just returned from Australia, and we had a chance to speak about the project.

How did you first come to comics?

I was one of those kids who read comics from an early age. When I was growing up in Sydney, we didn’t have access to a whole lot of comics. I would get the 10-cent comics from the bottom rack of the supermarket and I just had to read whatever I could get. I consumed a lot of American superhero comics, and there was a comic called Laughing Gas that was a MAD Magazine knockoff, and collections of newspaper comic strips. I was indiscriminate about what I read because I didn’t really have a choice. I really fell in love with the form and the medium first, and the content and theatrics of it second. I kind of taught myself how to draw by tracing over the pictures. My attraction to it was that everything was in this brush line where if you were a kid with a lot of time, you just stare at the brush line and you could see where the creators’ hand fell, and it told me where to move my hand and where to lead my eye.

As far as Cabramatta, had you been working on it or thinking about this before? How did this come about?

I’d been thinking about it for a long time. When the opportunity to work with The Believer and Kristen came up, because it was at the back of my mind for so long, I had something fully formed to pitch them. By that time I’d already worked on The Boat and a lot of other different visual narrative projects about migration stories from the Vietnam War. It came quite fully developed because it was living at the back of my mind, but the nuances of how it would work and how to tell it was still quite tricky for me.

Having the format and the audience in mind of a Believer audience and an American audience helped me to focus. In the past I thought a lot about my responsibility to the community back home. It is a very different community now. A lot of the kids growing up there now don’t even know that it had this dirty history. So the question came up for me a lot about what good does it do to bring this up today. Whether it’s worth talking about at all. Whether I’m doing more harm than good by bringing it up. Having an American audience in mind helped me think about what I needed to explain for the story to make sense. If I thought about the community I grew up with, I might have tried to make it maybe a lot more personal and hinted a little more at the historical and political context. It’s quite a rich background to mine.

It’s written for an audience that lacks a context for a lot of this and there are a lot of personal details, but I wouldn’t describe it as a personal story per se.

I would like to go back and tell stories that were a lot more specific to the different characters I grew up with, the dynamics, and the different sides of the community that resulted in this melting pot. With this really concise, economical story, the best I could do was hint at what was going on. There’s a lot of references to policy and legislation and quotes from politicians and hints at these much larger events that were happening at the time. I made it so that it’s self contained, and a little more intimate as well.

The Boat, based on the story by Nam Le

How has the response been to the comic?

I actually don’t really know how people are responding to it too much because I finished it and went away. I’d like to know but maybe subconsciously I’m shielding myself from it a little bit because it’s personal. You’ve read it, and even in my telling of it I’ve tried to distance myself from it a little bit. I jump from this personal perspective in my childhood to a little more of an omniscient narrative and then back to myself. Doing that helped to put a little distance between me and what I was talking about, and I feel like I kind of did that with the reaction to the work, too. I talked with some friends about this, but with this work, I’m the one that cares about it exponentially more than other people.

I’m really curious to see how both of these audiences respond to it. The reaction back home has been great because they know my body of work and that I’ve been interested in exploring this for a while. Specifically with the Cabramatta community, there’s an acquaintance who saw the work and she reacted really strongly to it because there’s all this stuff about me growing up on one side of the tracks. My parents being migrants reacted in a protective way and wanted us to study and get out of this economic situation. She told me that she grew up on the opposite situation on the other side of the tracks. In her family four of the five kids ran away from home and joined gangs. That was an experience that I was in contact with. I wasn’t part of the gangs, but I was in that community. The great benefit of recording these stories is because we didn’t have a lot of our experiences authenticated or recorded in any way. We kind of start to doubt our own memories because there’s no way of really checking them without relying on news reports or memoirs of politicians at the time. It’s a very particular perspective of this experience and this time so it’s important for me to tell these stories more.

One of the personal details that jumped out at me is toward the end where you talk about leaving and going off to school and being surrounded by rich white kids who have a very different relationship to the ocean and what that means.

Yeah it’s not as simple as good/bad or rich/poor. It’s a very complicated thing for me. I just came back from Australia for the first time in years and having left the area and doing a bit better, going back with my partner, we’re seeing the city and living a life and staying on that beach in areas I didn’t have access to growing up as a kid. I don’t really know how to express it, but it does feel strange that we’re enjoying this life now that felt like it excluded my past. Even going back to Cabramatta, which is a place that I should still feel very comfortable in, that’s shifted under my feet a lot.

The Ark, written by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I can imagine, and in the last page of the comic you talk about how this once poor neighborhood has now become a foodie touristy area.

There’s a weird parallel that happened, and I’m quite careful with how I express this but there’s a way of looking at it like it’s just a different kind of not exploitation but consumption or use of a community and culture. I guess that as the communities accept each other more, it forces a coming together. At the beginning there was violence and the drug trade, and now there’s tourists coming there to eat exotic foods.

You also make the point that xenophobia hasn’t gone away.

It’s easy to forget because Australia is delightful and everyone is nice and it’s known as this laid back culture – and it is – but there is quite a bit of racism in Australia. In some ways its more malignant [than in the U.S.] because it’s so casual. It makes it kind of pervasive. It’s definitely a different kind of like racial tension than what exists in America, which I think is much more pointed. I think people have a greater awareness of racism in America, but in Australia it’s a little more casual, which makes it hard to call out.

Recently you made these murals for a large exhibition that people may have seen at the New York Historical Society that’s gone out on tour.

That was a very involved project. I did not anticipate that project to be as intense as it turned out to be. I’m in the fortunate position where I have these interests in the subject matter that I’m exploring and clients that will help fund and support these projects. Or they think of me when they have projects that match. This was a case where I felt like I could have a lot of time and resources to explore my family’s history and the Vietnam War from the American perspective. The project was two really large panoramas. One from the homefront and one from the warfront. Just those names situate the American perspective. It really filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about the Vietnam War from the American perspective that I only had from popular culture like war comics and movies and the odd book. They had me sit down with a military historian every few weeks so we could do consultations on these panoramas. It’s the historical society so everything is very exact and accurate. I learned way more about guns and tanks than I really needed to. [laughs]

As far as Cabramatta goes, you mentioned that The Believer approached you about doing something. How did the process differ from other projects and how did it help you tell the story?

I got a lot of freedom from Kristen and The Believer, and they came in more at the editing stage, which was good for me. You don’t get too much of an editorial process in comics. It let me step back and see what I was taking for granted and what I needed to explain more and what I had to take out completely. That was really valuable.

On the interactive, working with Ivan Safrin on the programming and Kevin Adams on the sound design and music – they were both old studio mates of mine. They’ve both moved away and Ivan’s in London right now and Kevin’s in L.A. so it was great for us. I was really familiar with their work and how they work and we really hit the ground running even though we’d never worked together. It was really great to work with them because we’re friends and so they found out more about this part of my history that they didn’t know about at all and they got to engage with it in their creative languages. That was way more engaging than I was expecting. It was really special.

It sounds like you want to return to a lot of the ideas and issues you raised in this story.

Definitely. A lot of it is figuring out the language. Even though this has been at the back of my head for a while, I didn’t have the resources to present it this way. I couldn’t have done this interactive in the past. Even when I did The Boat we weren’t ready for mobile at the time and people are still discovering The Boat. Someone sent me a Reddit thread where they discovered The Boat and the comments were about how it didn’t work on mobile. This time that was something we could consciously address form the start. It’s a topic that I’d like to revisit in the future, not just the Cabramatta community, but what happens when migrants settle and what it means to make a home and the tensions that come up between a host community and a migrant community.

One point you raise is how Australia has had and been defined by these waves of refugees and immigrants and in that way, your story and your family’s story is part of this much larger narrative.

That’s what I was alluding to earlier about the value of telling this story for my community. In telling this really specific story, hopefully people can have a very, very clear-eyed example to draw a parallel to other migrant experiences. And contemporary migrant experiences. That’s the continuing frustration and disappointment with Australia’s policies today for me.

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