Smash Pages Q&A: Matt Lubchansky

The associate editor of The Nib discusses their work on the recent anthology ‘Be Gay Do Comics.’

Matt Lubchansky is the Associate Editor of The Nib and there, in their webcomic Please Listen To Me, and in New York Magazine, Mad Magazine, and other outlets, they create deeply and overtly political comics that are also absurd and satirical.

Lubchansky cited The Far Side as one of their great influences, and that sense of absurdity and play can found in all their work. Earlier this year Lubchansky was a finalist for the Herblock Prize, and The Nib and IDW have just published a new collection Be Gay Do Comics. We spoke about their career, coming out, autobiographical work and the upcoming anthology FlashForward.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I was never really into superheroes, but as a kid I was really into newspaper comics. The Far Side was my jam. I was into Fox Trot. And I’ve talked about this before but I was very into Dilbert when I was like 11. I had all those Far Side books I would read incessantly. At some point I started doodling a lot. For whatever reason I never stopped and would sit around drawing comics. To my parents credit, they didn’t tell me to go outside, they bought me a drafting table for Hanukkah. I went to engineering school and was working as an engineer. I got turned down to be the cartoonist at the school paper in college. I applied with a portfolio of cartoons that admittedly were badly drawn and written. I was so self taught they were all in pencils because I just didn’t know. I gave it up for a couple years but after college I got into it more seriously. I took some night classes at the School of Visual Arts. I basically dedicated to myself to it, drawing comics nights and weekends for years, and slowly built up a base of freelance work. I had stopped working in engineering and was working as an assistant to a glassblower. I got fired the same day I had an interview to be the editorial assistant for The Nib, which allowed me to transition to that part time and part time doing comics.

When did you launch Please Listen To Me?

I started doing that in 2010. I had started another webcomic in 2009 which I will not name because I don’t want people to find it because it is very bad. Please Listen to Me was a serialized comic I was doing and did gag strips as a social thing on Fridays and then I decided to make it all that because I was having more fun doing those. 

I can definitely see The Far Side influence on your work.

I hope so.

Most people know you for your political comics and your work at The Nib.

It’s certainly the most wide reaching work that I’ve done so far in my career. 

Is making political comics something you started doing more recently?

I feel like I fell ass backwards into doing political comics. I don’t think of myself as a political cartoonist because all art is political, whether you think it is or not. I’ve always been a very political person. Even in my earlier work half the time they’re goofy and then there’s actual politics. I was doing Please Listen to Me and an old strip of mine was getting around the time The Nib launched and it was reprinted on The Nib. Matt Bors, the editor, asked if I wanted to do some original work and I realized that this is a place where I should be doing more explicitly political stuff. It just happened.

I’m not a great caricaturist, so I stay away from classic political cartoon stuff. It is generally less interesting for me to make. I try to extract the core issue of something away from the actual events happening to something I find more interesting, which is what are the root causes of this or what are the sociological phenomenon in play. That’s why I end ups with a lot of high concept nonsense. I’m trying not to write about orange man bad stuff, which is less interesting for me.

Your work is very political, but you rarely tackle an issue head-on, you tend to come at it from an angle.

That’s why I would want to read someone’s political work. It’s got a point of view and not just, what happened. I want to know where the person is coming from and not just process everything through a certain kind of political view. But yeah, I try to come at it from a more oblique angle because that is what I find more interesting. I think that specificity is the soul of narrative. It’s important for me to get really weird with it, or what’s the point?

I always think of The Nib’s main voice being Matt Bors and Jen Sorenson and you have a more oblique, more satirical approach that’s less about political figures and news events.

I’m a big fan of Matt and Jen’s work. I’ve been reading Matt since I was in college and he’s a great editor and a friend of mine now, but I could not do that if I tried. It’s just not the work I make. I’m glad we do something distinct because we work closely together and I think working with him has made me a better cartoonist. I’m thinking so much about what is a regular person involved in the world thinking about or what’s the situation on the ground rather than what’s up with this politician. The President is always going to be bad. I don’t care who it is. I’m trying to find something that sounds very high faluting, but I keep saying the word interesting because it’s true. I’m trying to find what interests me about a situation politically. Very rarely it’s the thing the President said. My work has gone more that direction the past couple years as real events tend to outpace how fast you can make fun of them. You can point out hypocrisy all day long, but hypocrites don’t care. They’ve never cared. Why would I waste my time telling them  what they already know?

You mentioned The Far Side and you enjoy taking this absurd take on the news. You had one a while back about antifa busing into rural towns.

That’s an example of a recent strip that’s topical and about a news story, but I’ve got two other strips that it was a sort of weird continuation of. I did one years ago where someone went in for a job interview to become a paid protestor. It was an antifa guy in a mask and hoodie in a managers office. We also made an animated version of that. Before that there was an audition for crisis actors. They sound cheesy but I was trying to say, here’s this insane thing people are saying – that anyone who thinks about it more than ten minutes can see obviously it’s not true and on its face completely wild. What was funny to me was taking that at face value. This is a worldview of people. This is a real thing. I don’t necessarily blame your grandma on Facebook whose getting radicalized by Facebook videos. It’s interesting to say, here’s an idea that’s out in the world and what would it look like if it was real.

Yes, taking this absurd conspiracy and breaking down how it would have to work and showing all the mundane details you’re showing how insane it is.

Logistically at the bus depot people meeting at the bus depot to go to a small town in Oregon of 10 people to…take away their Bibles? I don’t actually know what they were supposed to be doing.

Or the recent comics about pundits.

That’s another running series with a character I like to call “the important pundit.” This sweater vest wearing motherfucker who has taken on many forms. This one was after a small tangle I had with Thomas Chatterton Williams. He’s taken the avatar of many a bad media pundit.

And when The New Yorker interviewed Williams, he was asked about his nasty, transphobic response to you.

If Isaac Chotiner calls me on the phone, I’m leaving the country. Why are you picking up the phone? Who looks good afterwards? No one. You look like an asshole. The morning that ran I got an e-mail from The New Yorker’s fact checking department. I was waiting that whole day to see how much of an ass he had of himself – and he did not disappoint!

In the pundit comics, you do the opposite of making the insane mundane, you take them and make them absurd.

Yeah it’s always him completely mischaracterizing what’s going on in the world. There’s so much journalistic malpractice going on with regards to opinion writing right now – and probably my entire life. Opinion writing has never been good in newspapers. It got us into the Iraq war. Now the big bugaboo is trans people and I feel an obvious pull to talk about that. There’s an older one I did right after pundits were talking about trans kids and detransitioners, which is such a low percentage of trans people and not representative of people who transition. Most people do it because of social pressure and lack of support. Anyways. These people always using junk science and never listening to any actual trans people about what their experiences are or why they would want healthcare. These people are so obsessed. The only position these people hold is “don’t yell at me.” That’s all they care about. Everything else is completely irrelevant. 

“Don’t yell at me” is a good way to sum up their position.

“I should be able to yell at whoever I want, but should never be yelled at. I should be able to say whatever I want no matter how disgraceful or disgusting, but no one should be able to yell at me.”

You don’t have continuing characters in your comics, but your sensibility and sense of the absurd is always there and is the through line of the comic.

I know that the work that I’m making is not changing anybody’s minds. That’s not how political cartoons work. There’s no way that someone reads something of mine and suddenly becomes a socialist. As much as I wish it would. It’s the sort of thing where you can be one pebble in an avalanche that changes someone’s point of view. So I understand that. The point of my work is not to convince people of things, it is to entertain people. It’s art to be consumed and enjoyed on whatever level. I don’t want to ever be flip about the actual texture of people’s lives and experiences and politics. The big trap in making political cartoons is to be flip. I think in the worst work that I’ve done, that’s what I’ve done. I inject the absurd into it because that actually makes it funny. I don’t think misery is particularly entertaining, but I live in a country whose general export and byproduct is immiseration, and I think you can talk about those issues in a way that is not dour all the time.

I’ve been reading you on and off for years, but I remember this comic you made for The Cut a few years ago about wearing lipstick and identity and it was very moving. That was at a time when you seemed to be leveling up as a creator.

Thank you. I feel like the same way a little bit. That was around when I first came out. That was when I made the first earnest comics of mine that were in any way autobiographical. The way I came out to a lot of my family and friends was a comic I did for The Nib. We have a feature called The Response where we ask a question of a few cartoonists and get a bunch of perspectives. We did one about transitioning generally and I did a comic for that about being early on in my transition and that was very cathartic. I realized that I tend to think in comics, so if I have a feeling or a thought, that’s the easiest way for me to express it rather than writing prose or even saying it out loud. In my work generally I don’t do too much talking about myself. I’ve not had a sort of life that could be of interest to other people. I think what I have to offer is my thoughts – as narcissistic as that is. I started making comics because I wanted to make comics, not because I wanted to make a living off of it. It was a dream but it didn’t feel realistic to me until it was. I never thought that it would happen. I never operated under that assumption. As my career moves forward, I’m interested in talking more about myself and being more earnest, or at least transparent, about my personal life. I was always resistant to mining my trauma for content that I just stayed away from it entirely. I’m at a point now in terms of my relationships and my mental state and my transition where I’m far enough along that I think that I could realistically put more of that in my work. I did a longer comic for the Be Gay Do Comics collection The Nib is putting out this fall about more personal things. I’m working on a book proposal now that is more fictionalized autobio that has more about my life than other work does. That’s something I want to do more of – more longer form work, more fiction work, more work connected to who I am personally.

I was going to ask about new Nib collection, Be Gay Do Comics. Which is a great title.

Matty G, who did the cover, thought of the cover more than a year ago. At SPX last year I talked to Io Ascarium, who’s the progenitor of “Be Gay Do Crime” and runs an abolitionist comics series. When I mention the book I like to give them a shout out because they do great work and have comics from incarcerated people and incarcerated trans people. We talked to them about using that as at the title and got their blessing. I talk in the forward about why we went with it. There’s so much great work happening by queer artists in the indie comics scene, so many people are contributors of ours at the Nib, and it felt very natural to organize it like this and highlight it. We try to give lots of different voices a platform and to try to do more of that in print was something we wanted to do as a publication. I think it’s really great. I’m really happy with it. We have over 30 cartoonists. It’s 245 pages. It’s a big beautiful hardcover book.

You’re the Associate Editor at The Nib. What does that entail?

We all have job titles because it’s a publication and you need job titles, but I’m third in command basically. Matt Bors is the Editor in Chief and he runs everything. Eleri Harris is the Deputy Editor. Sarah Mirk and Andy Warner are Contributing Editors. Matt runs the show. Eleri handles editing the longer form work, as do Sarah and Andy. I run the social media, write the newsletters, get the posts together, and edit the shorter form and satirical work. Mostly I’m the Swiss army knife making sure the website updates every day. Right now that’s part of my day and I spent the rest of the day doing freelance work.

I know you are also co-editing the upcoming anthology FlashForward. So what is FlashForward?

I am really excited about this book. I’m working on the cover right now. Flash Forward is a podcast that my friend Rose Eveleth has been making forever. It used to be on io9 and then she went independent. Every episode she imagines a potential future. She asks a question and then it’s half radio drama and half taking to scientists and futurists about what it would entail for society. I have been drawing episode art for five years now. Forever in internet time. Maybe three years Sophie Goldstein, who’s a great cartoonist, messaged me because she was a huge fan of the show and asked, do you want to do a zine for conventions where we get a couple of artists to draw scenes set in the world she describes in the show? I spoke to Rose about it to get her blessing. She said that she was thinking about doing something similar, but as a book. Comics are a great medium for talking about this because you can tell great short stories in comics because you can establish the world so quickly. The three of us got to talking and we pitched it around. It’s an anthology of stories form the podcast where Rose writes about what the futures would mean and we have this lineup of great artists doing stories set in these different scenarios that Rose has come up with. Abrams is putting it out next year and it’s going to be a really good book. Sophie and I split the editing duties for the comics portion of the book. She’s such a good editor because she has a great handle on speculative fiction and the nitty gritty of what sort of stuff you want to talk about when you’re telling a good short story. You want to be able to predict things. She has such a good mind for that and so does Rose. Fiction is something I’m trying to do more of in my career and it was so rewarding to work with the both of them on it. I learned a lot during the process.

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