Smash Pages Q&A: Matthew Southworth

The artist of ‘The Cloven’ discusses his latest project, working with Garth Stein, the intersection of his art with his music, and more.

Matthew Southworth has been working in comics for years, pencilling and inking a long list of projects, but the odds are that most readers know him for Stumptown. He and writer Greg Rucka made two miniseries about the Portland private eye Dex Parios, and while never a bestseller, the book is beloved by its fans and the basis for the current television show on ABC.

Southworth’s new book is The Cloven, a collaboration with writer Garth Stein that was released by Fantagraphics this summer. The comic is about James “Tuck” Tucker, a genetically modified human who escapes from a research lab to live in the Pacific Northwest. And while the story sounds familiar, what Southworth and Stein do with the story is much less so. Southworth has always been an artist interested in mood and atmosphere, using pacing and color to play with the tone in different ways, and The Cloven is his most masterful work yet.

To start, how did you come to comics?

That’s a good question because I can’t really answer it. I’ve always been reading comics. I learned to read form reading comics when I was a kid. They were always there. The first drawings I did were of Batman and Robin. Well, the first drawings that were recognizable as something. And I was drawing when I was three. So they’ve always been there.

How I came to do comics professionally is a much more convoluted story but I had drawn comics and written some as a kid and a teenager with my friend Joe Casey, who went on to write a lot of Marvel and DC and Image stuff. He’s one of the co-creators of Ben 10. He’s done everything. I wound up going to theater school and studying playwriting, then moving to L.A. and working in the film industry and writing scripts. I made a film. The lottery of writing something for a movie and maybe somebody reads it and maybe somebody options it and maybe somebody decides to make it and even if they do, you might wind up being fired from your own thing. I would look at Joe, and he’s writing an issue of Cable and three months later, it’s on the stands. That looked like a way better experience. That’s what started me back into comics around 20 years ago. When I moved to Seattle, I had a band and wound up slowly making comics while working as an apartment manager. 

You’ve done different things in comics, but Stumptown remains the big thing people know you for.

You can jump around your whole career, doing a fill-in issue of The Punisher and two issues of Spider-Girl. You can flit around like a fly at a picnic. Or you can sit down at the table and do one thing. And for the longest time, Stumptown was my one thing. Which is funny because it didn’t sell very well. It was an indie comic right before the Image/indie comic boom kicked in. It was interesting to be  well known for something not a lot of people read. 

The thing about Stumptown that was really interesting was at the time I was also doing some issues of Spider-Man and little Marvel jobs. I made more on royalties on an issue of Spider-Man than I did for my page rate with Stumptown. It was interesting to watch how you would do something like that, but once that issue was over, you were just another person who drew Spider-Man. Whereas fans of Stumptown were – and are – really committed to that book and that character. We had really an intense relationship with people. They were so grateful we had made the book for them. It had legs, and now with the TV show – I don’t know how to extend this metaphor, the legs are longer? [laughs]

So how did you and Garth Stein connect?

Garth had written The Cloven as a novel. He had originally written it as a short story for a benefit night and got excited about it, and then wrote it as a novel, but didn’t feel like it worked really well. Apparently his wife didn’t think it worked either. He started thinking, “Maybe it’s a graphic novel,” but he didn’t know anything about comics.

He used to have an office right up the street from the Fantagraphics store here in Seattle and wound up getting in touch with Eric Reynolds. They talked about the economics of making comics and the process. It was a fact finding mission but at the end of it, Eric said, you should talk with Matt Southworth. Eric and I are friends, and our bands have played shows together, but we’ve never worked together. Garth got in touch with me and we talked, and to be honest, I was wary. There’s that cliche – which has plenty of truth to it – of someone bringing their screenplay or novel and saying, “Let’s make it a comic!” Then you’re in this situation with someone who doesn’t understand the grammar of comics or he feels like you’re an employee.

Nothing could be further from that with Garth. He’s very humble. He’s the most enthusiastic creative person I’ve ever met. He’s really generous with praise and enthusiasm and with his time. It was an ideal situation. The best professional situation I’ve ever had. We vibed so well together from the get go and we have literally never had a disagreement. Which is a shock.

I have heard stories I won’t repeat of artists working with novelists and screenwriters, but reading The Cloven, some of the page designs and layouts suggest that he really let you take the lead and that this book was a partnership.

Here’s the thing that could have been disastrous. His book The Art of Racing in the Rain has sold four and a half million copies, and that could have meant that he came in like, “I’m a successful author,” and thrown his weight around – but he did the opposite. He didn’t have to prove anything. He regards his success as the product of hard work, but also luck. He was confident, but it was like we were making this thing in my living room when we were 15. I would make a suggestion and he would say, “Show me what you mean.” His scripts are kind of like screenplays. It never says, “Page 27, six panels.” He describes the action and the dialogue, and it’s up to me to figure out how many pages this sequence is, how many panels on a page, what happens at the bottom right hand corner of the page before the reveal. He gives me lots of room so I can do things that are more graphic. 

The scenes of his escape, those two-page spreads — it’s hard to script something like that. It was clearly the product of a close collaboration.

We were able to do something that doesn’t happen all that often in comics, which is we were actually physically able to work together. When he still had that office, I would go down there. He started to come up here and would hang out for several hours and we would work together here. I really liked that.

Tell me about the process. He wrote it out like that and you handled all the art and coloring.

It wasn’t even like that. We worked on this for over two years and it took a long time for plenty of external reasons, like my mom got sick, but Garth writes and rewrites a lot. He sent me an e-mail today about a scene that he cut out of a script I have, but I’m not near the scene that he cut, so it’s not an issue. Occasionally I would redraw things. There are sequences that didn’t click. There was a lot of revision but it was never him saying, “Matt, you need to redo this.” It was us looking at it and saying, “This would work better if this happened.” There’s a scene with Tuck faces off against the thugs with baseball bats. There’s this big spread where he headbutts the guy and I redrew that. I had drawn it before and it just wasn’t good. I did it totally differently and now I like that spread. 

I would imagine that in comics that back and forth is rare.

I haven’t worked in a graphic novel format before – it’s always been issues – but yeah. We have long-term deadlines instead of monthly deadlines, which is good in many ways, but it’s also easy to fritter away a lot of that deadline time, which is what I’ve done this year. I haven’t heard of anybody working the way we work together. Most of the time in professional comics it’s more efficient than what we did. We weren’t efficient at all, but that wasn’t a problem. We were able to make it work.

I’m curious about the coloring, because this was not colored on a computer, and there’s a lot of red and blue.

I did not want to do the standard “coloring on a computer in Photoshop” process. I find that really tedious. Something about coloring in a computer, even if you’re doing it on a tablet, it’s very left brain, as opposed to right brain, which is the creative side. I hear that’s a disproven theory, but one thing is a technical exercise and the other is like a kid on the floor with crayons spread out around him. I wanted to try the crayons and colored the book with watercolors and coptic markers. That meant that I didn’t have an unlimited palate, which was useful. It meant that I would go, “The sky is going to be blue and it has to be one of these seven blues.” I discovered that I seem to like this mauve bruised purple color and greens. I don’t know why that is. I use a lot of pinkish colors. I don’t own anything pink, but I really like that color as a storytelling color. I wanted to use the color like music. Obviously it still has to be tethered to reality, but the farther I went into that, the farther I treated it like scoring, the happier I was. And the happier Garth seemed to be, too. He was really excited when the book came together and he said the color goes in waves from scene to scene. 

The colors are gorgeous. Do you draw everything by hand?

I did on this project. I wasted a lot of time early on trying to figure out  a way to draw this on my iPad. It wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. I drew the whole thing on paper and then I would go to a Fedex/Kinkos and photocopy the pages onto Bristol board because it would have to be a hardy paper for the markers. I made it as low tech as I could. This time around I may get a photocopier to streamline it a bit.

For all the tools and options you have, it’s a question of how can an artist find a way to make the process fun.

Yeah. There are potentially some big rewards in comics. If you get a movie made of it or you sell a million copies, you can make some money. But for the most part, you’re not going to make a lot of money making comics. So the only reason to do it is if it’s fun. Or nourishing, somehow.

The corporate comics assembly line takes the fun out of it. It took me years of doing it the “proper” way to go, “Why is this so difficult? It’s not that difficult, so why am I dreading doing this?” I realized that a lot of it was the process. Coming back to the little kid with crayons, the kid says he’s going to draw a house and then he draws a house. With comics I’m going to get a script that tells me there’s a house so I have to draw a house. Then I’m going to thumbnail the house, draw the house, ink the house, erase the pencils, scan the house, flat the house, color the house – what a terrible way to draw a house. [laughs] I wanted to eliminate that as much as possible.

I’m still trying to figure out how much drudgery I can take out of the process and still do professional-looking work. A good example would be hands. For a long time I obsessed over the fact that I didn’t draw very good hands. Every time I had to draw a hand, it looked really labored. One day I started looking at Mort Drucker or Jack Davis, who draw great hands, which are so expressive and loose. I realized it’s more important that’s loose. I tried to let go of the things that were stressing me as best I could and find ways to enjoy them.

I forget which artist told me this, but he said that what I think of as style is often the artist figuring out how to draw what they want and avoid drawing what they hate. 

I think that’s absolutely true in some sense. For example, I love Alex Toth and one of the things I love so much about him is silhouette. It so happens that silhouettes are faster, in a lot of cases. Whenever I can draw a silhouette, there’s a double dose of joy because I get to draw this thing I like and it should be relatively easy.

One of the things I had to learn about making comics was how much of it is exhausting, so you have to conserve your energy and find ways to save up for the exhausting stuff. I have a scene that I’m about the draw in The Cloven Book Two that is a couple of guys going through the streets of Seattle and they get on the streetcar and go under the freeway. It’s almost like a travelogue. That means there’s a lot of people in the background, buildings, stores, cars, so I have to figure out how to make this fun. Because it’s going to take a while and will be, to some degree, drudgery.

You mentioned before about being in a band and that was how you knew Eric. Do you think there’s a relationship between your artwork and your music?

I do. It’s a corny metaphor, but it feels accurate to say that it’s all part of the same river. I studied playwriting, I’m an amateur photographer, I paint, I build guitars – all these things run into one another. Certainly it’s not like I build a guitar and then draw something on it, but there’s a flow. It’s interesting because there hasn’t been a lot of flow this year with any of these arenas. So there’s definitely a connection, but I also think about stories the way I think about music. Maybe it’s less that they’re connected in terms of the drawing of an object and more that they’re connected in the way I tell stories. I think of things as having movements, louder parts and softer parts, how do I make this subtle and how do I bring this out?

So this is The Cloven: Book One. How many will there be?

There are at least three. Maybe there’s a fourth? We’ll see how things look after the next two, but Garth is already started writing a fourth one. We discussed it as there’s three of them – and maybe a fourth.

It sounds like you’re enjoying it.

I am. I’m really enjoying it. I’ve had more fun with this than anything I’ve ever done. Garth is my favorite collaborator. He’s patient, encouraging. I like the character. I like the story. I like that it takes place in my town where I can go get reference. I love Fantagraphics. It was not a given that we were going to take it to Fantagraphics even though Eric had put us together. When it became clear that they were an ideal place for it, it was staring us in the face. This second volume is a little different in that we have a planned release this time next year. Before we just worked until it was done and then figured out when it would come out.

I’m sure the plan was every year release a new volume to debut at San Diego. Which didn’t work out obviously, but it was a great original plan.

Yeah. I used to go to San Diego every year and loved it. I would go and hang out. Then I stopped going because it got so expensive, but this year we were going to be guests and have a panel – but then everything fell apart with the pandemic. All of those plans have been extended to next year where we’ve been reinvented as guests. I’m looking forward to it – assuming it’s possible.

Are you depicting the pandemic at all in the current book?

This volume was written before COVID came along, but for this sequence with the guys in the streetcar, there’s going to be people with masks. It’s interesting to have something so fundamental and significant change about your story when you’re in the middle of telling it. We’ve already done one volume that has nothing to do with the pandemic, but it doesn’t make sense to draw people just going about their business like they were in 2018.

I understand. I can’t imagine what it’s like to try to depict “now” and have to decide what that means.

One thing that I haven’t drawn yet is the first scene of the book, which takes place in the office of The Stranger, which is the free newsweekly here. Or maybe it’s bi-weekly now? When we first started, I knew the offices of The Stranger, but now they’ve moved offices and are in a totally different part of town. How do I draw a business meeting? A group of people meeting around a conference table? Or do I draw a group of people on a Zoom call? It’s a strange series of problems.

And will it seem dated when it comes out?

Exactly! That’s the central problem for me. Nobody’s going to want to read about the pandemic once it’s over. Not in any literal sense. I don’t want to just reconcile everything so it fits into right now, but how long is “right now”? Is it a few month thing in 2020? Or will it still be like this in 2024, and it’s weird to not do that? It’s a weird problem because what’s “normal”? [laughs]

Just to close, I’m curious how you describe the book. Because the book has a plot, but it’s so much about atmosphere and is this feverish dream.

Yeah. The book doesn’t feel like what that longline describes. At least not to me. It’s about a guy who’s genetically engineered and people say, “I know what this is.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, but to me, there’s this element that feels like a coming-of-age story. It’s a weird hybrid. I’m too close to it to be able to assess it.

I think that some of that is you. It’s similar to what you did in Stumptown. Greg wrote a realistic, straightforward private eye story, in many ways, but you didn’t tell a realistic straightforward private eye story.

I think that’s true. I like those kinds of things. I really like Sean Phillips’ work, but I’m not as good at that as he is. And I’m not as disciplined as he is. My artwork is not disciplined in that way. I think there’s something about the way I work where I’m constantly trying to goose myself and say, “Do something interesting, Matt. Don’t just do your job. Do something cool that might blow up in your face.” For the most part, I think I’m getting away with it. 

Thanks so much, Matt.

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