"This is Turning Into a Therapy Session for Me, I Think." – An Interview with MATTHEW WILDING
Ever since Interview Content Editor Jimmy Gaspero first read and was haunted by Nightmare Man, he's wanted to invite Matthew Wilding into the Yeti Cave to chat. Matthew is finally here to talk about his newest anthology Small Bites, his journey in comics so far, his influences, his collaborators, and so many other fascinating topics!
COMIC BOOK YETI: Matthew, thank you so much for joining me in the Yeti Cave to discuss Small Bites: Short Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction, currently available to pre-order on ZOOP. Before we get into all that though, how have you been doing?
MATTHEW WILDING: Hey, Jimmy! Thanks for having me and for checking out Small Bites. I’ve been good, man. It’s been a strange spell, and I feel like I’ve been writing a ton but sort of stuck in production for a while. It’s nice to get stuff moving.
CBY: I first became aware of your work when I read Nightmare Man by you and the talented Matt Rowe. What is your origin story as a comics creator? Have comics always been a part of your life and what made you want to write comics?
MW: Oh, jeez. It’s a good question, but a big one.
I have always been a “writer,” I guess. I used to put out zines and hand them out to classmates and at shows when I was younger. A few of my early jobs were writing for newspapers. My dad’s a writer and my sister was a writer, so writing was always kind of around. Writing comics always felt pretty out of reach to me, though. More mysterious than even writing for TV or movies – at least with them, there’s the kind of vague notion that you just, like, go to LA and talk to a lot of people or something.
I’d always wanted to write comics but never really succeeded in getting anywhere until late 2019. I’d had a long bout with depression and had stopped drinking, and found myself with a lot of time on my hands. I also found myself in my mid-30s, realizing that all the writing projects I’d dreamed of doing “someday” had to be done soon or they weren’t going to get done. Initially, I started by reading The Art of Comic Book Writing by Mark Kneece, which really clicked with me. Then I wrote the first of what I figured would be a six-issue story that I’d been thinking about for about 15 years. I reached out to an old friend, who works in comics, named Michael Conrad and asked him if he’d look at it. We hadn’t spoken in probably 15 years, and he very graciously gave me feedback: Essentially he said “I’m not going to read this because I don’t really have the time, but I scanned it and it looks like you understand comic pacing pretty well, but you’re trying to do something too big. Do something smaller.”
It was really helpful advice, and prompted me to write a short story based on a kind of unfortunate reality of how the mentally ill were treated after the closure of state hospitals in the 1990s where I grew up. I went onto Reddit and eventually hooked up with Matt Rowe and we made “Little Things,” though it was a while before it saw the light of day. Around that time I was thinking about other things that scared me as a kid, and the kernel that became Nightmare Man started to form.
Then the pandemic hit, and Gail Simone was gracious enough to run her #ComicsSchool program. I did the exercises along with about 10,000 other people, and found an artist who was willing to do a crime/slice of life short I wrote called “Nothing Left to Give.” Gail was very kind and supportive of the #ComicsSchool participants that actually produced work in the program’s aftermath, and she (and to some extent Jim Zub) pumped me up and helped build my confidence. I circled back to that initial comic I wrote in 2019 and reworked it – Matt Rowe and I are doing it this year after Small Bites. I also kept doing Gail’s exercises, and the results of those stories became Small Bites.
CBY: That really resonates with me that you get to a point where all the things you want to do someday have to be done soon.
When not creating comics what else do you do? Do you have a “day job”?
MW: I do! I work in museums. I’ve worked at quite a few, but right now I’m doing program design and experience design for two American Revolution-era historical sites in Boston: The Old State House and the Old South Meeting House, which are both run by a non-profit called Revolutionary Spaces. It’s pretty great work, too. I recently worked on an immersive role-playing game where kids have to negotiate through the fallout of the Boston Tea Party and the Coercive Acts. I get to write character profiles and playtest with students, work with game design firms, and talk to leading historians about how to frame things for general audiences.
"This is a very long way of saying that I guess more often than not I write for specific artists a lot, but I also try not to give too much direction about how things come out visually. I try to work with artists who are willing to work with me, give and take feedback, and create something we can all be proud of."
It’s actually really important for me to have that kind of career outside of comics. I wouldn’t call comics a “hobby,” necessarily, but more of a spoke in the broader wheel of creative work I get to do. I still write prose articles, and contract for education design. Often, I see folks on Twitter or whatever asking “what would you do if money wasn’t an obstacle,” and I think to myself that the distribution of my time would be slightly different, but by and large, I’d probably be doing a lot of the same things.
Working in museums is great because you are constantly grappling with new ideas, interpretations, and discoveries of things. I actually wrote another short comic that was in Dark Matter Magazine last year called “Objects of Antiquity” that was pretty directly inspired from my time working at an art museum, and 18th-century history has influenced a lot of the things I’m working on right now.
Truthfully I would probably benefit from separating my professional life from my personal life and free time a bit more, but I guess I’m just not really wired for it.
CBY: The Mission Statement of Revolutionary Spaces states, “Revolutionary Spaces brings people together to explore the American struggle to create and sustain a free society, singularly evoked by Boston’s Old South Meeting House and Old State House. We steward these buildings as gathering spaces for the open exchange of ideas and the continuing practice of democracy, inspiring all who believe in the power of people to govern themselves.”
Working there, have you found any common misconceptions visitors have about the creation of our free society? Is there any single event surrounding the Revolutionary War that you’d like to adapt in comic form?
MW: You ask a lot of big questions, Jimmy.
So regarding the mission and people’s misconceptions about free society: I think that the biggest misconception, if we call it that, is that people, and candidly white middle-class people in particular, are under the impression that history moves in something similar to a straight line, and that improvement is constant. It’s kind of a rose-colored interpretation of MLK’s quote that the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice. I don’t think that people realize that that isn’t inherently true unless people continue to work for it. You see this in American history with some regularity--there’s a pretty strong case that race relations and civil rights actually deteriorated in the first half of the 19th century, we see the lives of laborers and the quality of those lives disrupted in the late 19th century. While some groups’ lots improve, others diminish. One of the things I really try to get people to grapple with in our spaces is that just because a rising tide can raise all ships, doesn’t mean it always does. To continue mixing my metaphors and paraphrasing other people to make my point, I’ll cite my boss, Nat Shiedley, who often talks about who is in “the circle of we” in “we the people.” That circle changes all the time, and what we believe to be appropriate boundaries of the circle changes over time depending in large part on who is working hardest to expand or contract it.
As for histories that I’d like to adapt to comics, I have a few. One of them was actually that first comic I worked on, which Matt Rowe and I will be crowdfunding later this year. Based on accounts of piracy recounted by the possibly fictional Captain Charles Johnson in General History of the Pirates (1724) and Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America (1678), and heavily influenced by the scholarship of Marcus Rediker--particularly his work in Villains of All Nations and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, I’ve created this kind of pirate mystery adventure that also explores the proto-socialist nature of the pirate community in the 17th and 18th centuries and drawn directly from the historical texts about some of the most exciting instances in the maritime world at the time.
"I also found myself in my mid-30s, realizing that all the writing projects I’d dreamed of doing “some day” had to be done soon or they weren’t going to get done."
I also have some shorts in the works, which might appear in a later edition of Small Bites, including a retelling of a famous impressment riot on Boston’s docks, and the execution of deserting soldiers on Boston Common based on research done by Serena Zabin. I’d also love to do an actual history, similar to the work David Walker did on The Black Panthers, on the Stamp Act Crisis in 1765.
CBY: You had me at "pirate mystery adventure". I love comics based, even loosely on historical events so all of that sounds fascinating to me. Turning to Small Bites, you work with several different artists as well as letterer Toben Racicot. What do you look for in collaborators when you set out to make a comic and are you specifically looking for someone whose style matches what you’ve written or do you enjoy finding a collaborator before the script is written and putting the story together with the artist?
MW: This is probably where I’m weakest as a creator, to be honest. I’ve been lucky to work with deeply talented individuals, but the vast majority of my choice in collaboration is decided by whether or not someone is willing to work with me. Matt Rowe and I have worked together on a few things now, and we continue to do so because I like his work and he likes my work. I don’t necessarily think Matt’s the only person who could draw what I write for him, but I know that he will do a great job, no matter what I throw at him. I also know that he won’t flake, which is big.
Each story in Small Bites kind of came to fruition pretty differently and so the selection process varied quite a bit. There’s a fantasy story in there I did with Matthew Manghi that was a collaboration with the goal of getting both of us a little more experience making comics. His work is gorgeous, but he just hadn’t done much sequential work yet, so we talked and he sketched a character, and I wrote a story for her. So that story was entirely collaborative. For “Advance Notice,” I’d written a story for an anthology someone else was running and it never came to anything, so I found an artist who had a kind of gritty stencil aesthetic that I thought matched the mood of the story and I hired him (Flavio Giron). On the other hand, “Children of the Ark” was written for another anthology that didn’t end up coming out, but the pages were hired out by that anthology’s editor, so when it failed, I cleared it with the editor and just bought the pages from the artist (Domenico Pagano). “Lucky that Way” was written with Raymond Lolacher in mind--we’d done a few other shorts together and I just like working with the guy. I wrote “The Lapse” specifically for C.Hess because like Ray, Manghi, and me, they were looking for a chance to experiment with the medium and were willing to collaborate with an unproven writer. J. Schiek, who did the art on “Squirrel Park” is a lot like Rowe, where his work is great, and he’s just good to work with, so I wanted to work with him. The last story being added to the collection is by Nathan Ooten, who was introduced to me by a mutual friend, and I literally was like “your work is incredible” and just banged out a 3 page short story specifically for his aesthetic.
This is a very long way of saying that I guess more often than not I write for specific artists a lot, but I also try not to give too much direction about how things come out visually. I try to work with artists who are willing to work with me, give and take feedback, and create something we can all be proud of.
"So for me, it was a combination of working through feelings of anticipated grief and nostalgia, and doing a thing I often do when I write, which is to think of a scenario where people have their minds made up about the way something is supposed to be--in this case the idea that having regrets at the end of your life is shameful--and just exploring the idea that maybe we don’t understand the situation and that it could be perceived differently."
CBY: How long did it take to put the stories together for Small Bites? Did you set out to create an Anthology like this?
MW: I kind of got the idea in my head when I’d done a story that had been slated for an anthology that never came out, and had been rejected for a few others. I knew I liked the stories I was writing, and that I had a small but pretty enthusiastic following, particularly after Nightmare Man. There’s also something about liberating yourself from the hassle of pitching to anthologies and hoping that someone else will both accept you and be able to follow through on their end that got me going this direction. I come from kind of an old punk rock/hardcore background, where DIY is kind of standard operating procedure. We always booked our own shows, put out our own records, planned our own tours, wrote and printed our own zines, whatever. We just didn’t know any better, and once you realize that the only person whose permission you need is your own, you can make a lot of the cool stuff you want to make, so long as you don’t define your success as purely financial.
So I had these stories I wanted to tell and I’d released some others for free online and people literally were just sending me money for them through a donation link on my website, so I figured “okay, I guess I should put these all out together in the future.”
CBY: I’m not going to ask you to pick a favorite story, but I believe the story that will stay with me the most is “Lucky That Way” with Raymond Lolacher and Sean Baggs. It’s a story about loneliness and regret, about a man looking for meaning or purpose, and looking into the past with rose-colored glasses. It’s a sad story and a unique take on traditional Western tropes. What do you think is the lasting appeal of Westerns as a genre and what appeals to you that it’s the backdrop for this story?
MW: I’m really glad you like that story. I’m pleasantly surprised that I’ve heard that from a few reviewers, because I really love that story but I didn’t know if it was going to hit. “Lucky That Way” is funny because I wrote it as a pitch for an anthology I didn’t get in. The editor was incredibly gracious and full of praise, but felt it just didn’t fit in his collection. I wanted to make it anyways because it came from a very real life situation for me--my grandfather was ill at the time and I was really concerned that he was going to die. He’d always been kind of a romantic and fun character in my family, and there was this half-joke in my family that he sort of regretted not just being a drifter. He had also articulated to me a few times in the past year or so how regretful he was that he’d outlived all his siblings and friends. This kind of heroic figure in my life felt very, very alone. He also loved westerns and the majority of the limited knowledge I had of the genre came from him. So for me, it was a combination of working through feelings of anticipated grief and nostalgia, and doing a thing I often do when I write, which is to think of a scenario where people have their minds made up about the way something is supposed to be--in this case the idea that having regrets at the end of your life is shameful--and just exploring the idea that maybe we don’t understand the situation and that it could be perceived differently.
I think Westerns are a uniquely American skin we can use and recognize our own stories and struggles. It’s a very real time and place, but almost feels like a fantasy world. I see westerns and sci-fi/fantasy as really similar in a lot of ways. Their relationship is kind of similar to that of war games and fantasy role-playing games. They’re different skins, but their core mechanics and what makes them fulfilling are largely the same.
CBY: The stories, “Among Primitives” and “Children of the Ark”, are reminiscent of great episodes of The Twilight Zone, a show that had a big impact on me when I’d stay up late to watch it. What are some of your bigger science fiction influences and are drawn toward the more dystopian or hopeful?
MW: Yeah, hugely influenced by Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. Also some of the horror/sci-fi mashups in comics like Amazing Fantasy and other EC books. I lean bleak but very human, and I think that’s where I do my best work. Sci-fi is a great genre for that, because you can create preposterous, huge problems, but then you can really drill down on individual experiences in the midst of that. I think that N.K. Jemisin does that particularly well, though much like with westerns, I think that my ability to write it actually comes from a lack of wide knowledge and experience in it, in a way.
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of my work is dystopian and hopeful simultaneously. Certainly in the case of “Advance Notice,” it’s straight up bleak, but in “Children of the Ark,” “Lucky that Way,” and even “Among Primitives” and the kind of silly “Squirrel Park,” there’s something bordering on hope, or at least serene resignation, informed by the idea that situations change for you based on things you can’t control, and that new world you’re faced with can be met on your own terms.
This is turning into a therapy session for me, I think.
CBY: Well, there's nothing wrong with that. I love the work of N.K. Jemisin, by the way. Do you put any of yourself into your characters or draw on personal experience to write about character relationships or are you more interested in story and exploring ideas or social issues in your writing? Or both?
MW: More the former than the latter, I think. I certainly do take on social issues in some of my work. “The Lapse” is an arguably heavy-handed farce addressing injustice in American sex crimes, and “Little Things” from my last book is, in its way, an indictment on the way our society deals with mental illness. But I think my strength, to the extent that I have one, is in finding sincere voices and reactions to circumstances. That comes a lot from me, and from my experiences with people around me. Nightmare Man and “Little Things” are both definitely stories where if I’m not the main character, I certainly could have played him. In this collection though, I think most of what you see is me trying on the personalities, struggles, and fears of people who have been in my life, and who have influenced me to some degree.
CBY: Nightmare Man definitely has a sense of humor to it with all of the horror. There’s a similar sensibility to “Squirrel Park”. The line “Keep it away from the potato salad!” really made me laugh. What makes you laugh, is there a person, movie, tv show, book, comic (stand-up or floppy), or Internet meme that you turn to when you need to laugh?
MW: Oh jeez, thanks. I appreciate that, and yeah I definitely try to be light sometimes in the horror. I spent a good deal of time in comedy clubs like Improv Asylum and Comedy Studio, trying to find my voice and be funny. I wasn’t great at it, but I was lucky enough to work with some really funny people over the years. For people I actually know, I think that Rob Crean, who is an old friend and writing partner over the past 25 years, has been really influential. We have very different styles and tones, but he’s great at getting my gears going and helping me find the joke. I also learned an incredible amount from comedians and comedy writers at Improv Asylum, who I took classes with and was on casts with. There are literally dozens of straight up geniuses I got to learn from there, but the folks who immediately come to mind are Jeremy Brothers, Marty Johnson, Kylie Fitzgerald, and Patty Barrett. I also never got to work with him, but Ritchie Moriarty (now on Ghosts) was an exemplar of support for comedians who didn’t know what they were doing, and the few times I got to play on stage with him were really instrumental in where you can find comedy.
As for stuff that makes me laugh, for comedy comfort food, there is nothing on earth that is more reliable to me than 30 Rock. A masterfully written show that captures a time in the world that I unfortunately now associate with “normal,” Tina Fey is one of the funniest, smartest writers of all time in my opinion.
CBY: I love 30 Rock. My friend and fellow Delawarean Keith Powell played Toofer. Are there any comic creators working today whose work inspires/influences you?
MW: So, so many. It’s kind of incredibly that we’ve gotten this far in this interview without me mentioning Neil Gaiman, but the answer for me is always, first and foremost, Neil Gaiman. I remember the first time I read his work--I remember where I was standing in the Walpole Mall when I picked up a Sandman reprint off a spinner rack while my mom was Christmas shopping, and how that one comic totally changed what I thought comics were capable of. And then he did it, and continues to do it, again and again and again. Just an incredible talent. Anyone writing horror and fantasy who doesn’t say Neil Gaiman influenced them is either lying or not as good as they could be if they just read some Neil Gaiman.
Now that that’s out of the way--I’m influenced by a lot of the big and obvious names for people my age: Morrison, Ellis, Brian Wood--and I’m aware of the current baggage that comes with the latter two but I can’t deny their influence on me--were big. For folks working now, I’m a huge fan of Phillip Kennedy Johnson, who I think captures a very specific American voice right now. I think Jordan Thomas is incredible and that his work on Frank at Home on the Farm is fantastic. Tynion is great. Rosenberg, Ram V, and Joshua Werner are all doing stuff I’m really into. I’ve been reading Becky Cloonan’s stuff forever. We’re living in a pretty fantastic time when it comes to creators who can reach and influence you. It doesn’t seem like most of us can make a living doing it, but it’s definitely easier than ever for stuff to get made.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
MW: I’m a museum professional, so my question is “what is the mission of the museum and what is the exhibit about?”
But generally, if it’s “what do I think is must see important books that need to be enshrined,” I think it’s probably something like Maus, Contract with God, and Dark Knight Returns? I don’t know, man. You’re going to get the whole internet after me!
CBY: The mission is to get the folks I interview to tell me the comics that they believe are important to the medium of comics, I guess. Or that are important to them? Any other projects CBY readers should check out?
MW: All the projects on Zoop! It’s a new platform that’s just for us. Let’s help it succeed.
Abyssal Albion, Morsels, and Tomb of the Black Horse all seem cool as hell.
Other than that, keep your eyes on projects by Fell Hound, Jordan Thomas, Brian Hawkins, and all the Phoenix Comics Collective folks.
CBY: Where can you be found online?
MW: Twitter: @matthewwilding | @seqdec
Email: SequentialDecayComics [AT] gmail [DOT] com
CBY: Thank you so much, Matthew!
MW: Thank you. I love the Yetis!