The Cartoon Picayune

Matt Diffee Q+A

Matt Diffee is an exceptionally funny editorial cartoonist for The New Yorker. I was so happy to have him in the last issue with his story, "Rattled! How One Man Faced Death In a Field in Southeast Texas and Lived to Draw About It." We corresponded by email after the issue came out, and he retains the rights to these images.

Josh Kramer for The Cartoon Picayune: What about nonfiction comics appeals to you specifically?

Matt Diffee: First, it’s just fun to look into new things. I enjoy researching a topic that I’ve never thought much about before. There’s usually a lot more there than you ever realized and it’s fascinating and fun to share those findings. The second thing is that nonfiction suits my style of humor, which I’m told is dry. I’ve always been a comedy guy and I like a straight-faced delivery more than a louder, over the top kind of thing. My favorite comedian is still probably Steven Wright. He has brilliant jokes and tells them in an almost monotone voice. I think my single panel gag cartoons aspire to that kind of tone. That’s why I draw things realistically rather than cartoony. I’m going for the visual equivalent of a straight-faced, dry, monotone voice. It just makes the funny part funnier to me. I got a lot of that from Monty Python too. They hit that same note with their formal, even serious delivery of absurdity and one of my favorite Woody Allen films, Take the Money and Run, is exactly that, a straight-faced documentary, but with jokes. The cello bit is still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen and the fish-slapping dance by Monty Python. Sorry to get so specific, but some folks out there will know what I‘m talking about and the rest should get on the google.

Your piece was originally published in Texas Monthly, on larger, glossy pages and in full color. Now it has been republished in a small, self-published comics zine read by mostly non-Texans. Any thoughts on how the change of venue might affect how the story is read and perceived?

Well I actually love seeing it in black and white. It holds up pretty well and maybe it even strengthens the serious/silly dynamic that I was talking about earlier. As far as it working for non-Texans, I think it should still work. I tried to write it in a way that would appeal to anyone, whether they’re lucky enough to be from Texas or not. (See what I did there) It may even work better in a way, because just as it gives you a glimpse into the little-known world of rattlesnake racing, it also sheds some light on Texas and Texanness that might make it doubly exotic for the uninitiated. I hope so at least.

I really like the idea of the metaphor of Texans as rattlesnakes. Is that something that you thought about earlier or later in the process?

It occurred to me pretty early on and that was the insight that made me think the story might be worth doing. It provided an ending of sorts and the potential for it to be at least a tiny bit more than just a wacky anecdote. It enabled me to use the story of the rattlesnake race as a jumping off point to talk about Texas and Texans and maybe America in general.

This story is obviously different from your usual work with the New Yorker. Can you talk about any differences you noticed while working on it?

I’d never tackled anything like this before, meaning I’d never done multiple panels really. I’d done a few full-page things but they were more like a single concept with examples, not a full-on sequential narrative where the reader moves from one box to the next. I had to figure out how to do that - when to show things, when to say things, how to pace the story and move the reader from one box to the next. But the biggest difference, of course is that I had to do reporting. I do a lot of that now, but at the time I had never really done it before - at least not since I wrote papers for school. My New Yorker cartoons are never based on any sort of research. I just sit down and dream up goofy stuff.

I think the layout and structure of this piece are really strong, can you talk a little about process?

Well the narrative structure was pretty simple. I knew I had the race to use as a spine. It had a built-in beginning middle and end and to some small degree, suspense. I figured if I did it right, readers would keep reading just to see how the race turned out, but as I said earlier, I was just as interested in getting into the tangential stuff about rattlesnakes and Texas and what have you, so it was just a question of finding the moments in the race narrative where I could step back for a page or so and have some fun with the other stuff without risking losing the reader.

I don’t really know what to say about the visual layout except that I thought about it a lot and wanted to compose all the visuals so that they worked with each other or at least didn’t fight with each other. I was conscious of the angles of the images and how they lead the eye into the text and how each text bubble would lead into the next one. I also spent a lot of time thinking about box size. I had a defined space to work in, six pages, and it was a task to cram it all in. I didn’t want it to be super packed all the time, so I decided which images I wanted to have a little bit bigger and then that forced me to make some others smaller to make room and I wanted to keep a nice variety going through so that it wouldn’t get boring. I worked on that a lot, because each tweak affected everything else.

While I was editing, we talked about whether or not the rattler taste conversation (above) actually happened. I added a note that the dialogue was comedic fiction based on your reporting. I do really enjoy the gonzo tone you take in this story, but I have strong feelings about speech bubbles and sourcing quotes. What do you think?

Yeah, that’s a tricky thing. I’m doing facts and jokes together - often in the same sentence. In the end I just trust that the reader will know when I’m joking and when I’m not, but you’re right about that particular bit. I think it’s the only part where people might not know for sure, at least for the first few bubbles. I’d expect most would figure it out by the time they got through the whole thing because it gets progressively more and more ridiculous. I’m not really sure though. But then the stakes are pretty low for what I’m doing. I’m going for comedy and I’m not writing about subjects that are direly serious. If I were covering serious topics, my motives and feelings about it would be different. Maybe I’ll do that some day, but probably not. Other people do that better than I would and I love reading that sort of thing, but I just feel more comfortable with humor. Always have. I’d feel like a phony if I ever got too earnest about anything. The truth is I don’t worry too much about journalistic integrity. I know I’m telling the truth where it matters and at the other moments, I’m being ridiculous and I think I set a tone that gives me that leeway. However, I can also appreciate the fact that comics journalism needs to constantly fight for respect. There are still people out there who will see a comics-style presentation and immediately assume it’s childish, artsy-fartsy, or has lower standards than other journalism. Maybe some comics artists think I’m not helping in that cause, but those folks might have less respect for comedy than I do. I think it’s very difficult to do well and I have big respect for anyone that can pull it off.

Do you have any plans for future stories?

Yep, big plans. I want to write about rodeo clowns, one man bands, competitive chili cook-offs, the invention of the corndog, the history of the plastic dog poop industry and lot’s of other important things. It’s just a question of finding the time.

Thanks Matt!

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