Matt Bors' JUSTICE WARRIORS Puts Comics in an Illegal Chokehold
The GOAT political cartoonist talks to FOREVER WARS about bringing his critique of our collapsing society to comic books, the medium he was born to work in. Sorry to Mr. Gotcha.
I HONESTLY GET EMOTIONAL thinking about Justice Warriors, the new comic book series by co-writer/letterer Matt Bors, co-writer/artist Ben Clarkson and colorist Felipe Sobriero.
You know Bors as the guy who created perhaps the internet's most viral single cartoon, a panel of a elderly peasant, toiling in view of a distant castle, who offers that "We should improve society somewhat." An immortal nihilist, Mr. Gotcha, emerges from the depths of a well to troll them, grinning, "Yet you participate in society! Curious." One day, We Should Improve Society Somewhat will appear in Wasteland art history textbooks to explain how people caught in the maw of early 21st century America screamed into its gullet.
I know Bors as one of my closest friends. For creeping up on a decade, there have been only a handful of days when we haven't talked. Long ago, someone on the internet called me a jihadist panda bear, so Matt drew me as one. It was my Twitter avatar for years. One time when he stayed with us, my eldest daughter abruptly referred to him as the Goodboy. When she was a baby, Matt drew her as Hope and me as Cable from the Duane Swierczynski Cable series. That was also my avatar for years.
Sorry, I got his name wrong. His full name is Two-Time Pulitzer Finalist Matt Bors. The first time, the Pulitzer committee said they honored him "for his pungent work outside the traditional style of American cartooning." That's a delicate way of saying there's political cartooning and then there's Matt. He captures the psychosis afflicting us, connects it to the structures around us, and by panel four there's a punchline. Not many cartoonists drove around Afghanistan to see first hand how people endured the war, but Matt did.
Not only is We Should Improve Society Somewhat destined for art history, Matt put 21st century political cartooning on his back. He built The Nib, the single greatest assemblage of nonfiction cartoonists, and led it from Medium to First Look to independence. If you think journalism is fucked economically, meet cartooning. Matt created a career lifeline for people whose creativity and impatience with blue-vs-red bullshit put them in jeopardy. Along the way, The Nib grew more ambitious, publishing original animation and launching a quarterly square-bound comics edition, something Matt did because he wanted to. He's even collaborated with me on journalism, and I repaid him by totally fucking up the drone numbers in this comic, as attentive readers of the footnotes in REIGN OF TERROR have spotted me acknowledging. (Use these.)
For as long as Matt and I have been friends, we've talked about how we wanted to take the critiques we've developed and put them to work in comic books, a medium that, unlike cartooning and journalism, is totally economically stable. And this month, Ahoy Comics has published Justice Warriors, his debut with Clarkson and Sobriero. This is audaciously funny, dark satire, showcasing not only the relationships between crime, law, capitalism and media but the elegance with which Bors uses the comic book format. It's also a brave and inspiring bet that my friend, who has stepped away from cartooning, is taking on himself and his dreams. Now you see why I get emotional.
Justice Warriors is something special, so the reviews have been glowing. To underscore that, I convinced Bors to go a little deeper than he has before in discussing stepping back from the cartooning that he's done expertly for his entire professional life. Many of us have looked at our work and its effects on our lives, felt dissatisfied and—despite adult responsibilities and nothing to fall back on—looked to make a change. If that sounds familiar, I hope you’ll come out of this interview with important context for Justice Warriors. So here we go: Forever Bors.
But before we get to the interview, I do want to take a moment to tell you about Bubble Drink, one of our sponsors. It's not just the top soft drink for cops and the policed because it tastes good. It was founded on Bubble City's shared values of community and inclusion. Won't you help us grow the bubble?
Spencer Ackerman: Okay. So I'm going to start off by ambushing you.
Matt Bors: Great.
Spencer: You own every issue of Spawn.
Matt: [Sadly] Yeah, that's true.
Spencer: How did it get to that point?
Matt: Very slowly. I started reading Spawn when it came out, basically. Actually I have a vivid memory of issue number four—buying that at a newsstand in Canton, Ohio when I was 9. And I loved that shit. I was the key demographic for Image Comics, and I loved Spawn in particular. I just kept reading it and reading it. And by the early 2000s… I was still reading it. And I was getting out of comic books at that time in my life, certainly monthly comic books. And the last two things on my list were Spawn and Y: The Last Man. And Y ended and I was like, "What am I going to do, stop reading Spawn?”I was in my mid-twenties then, I think. I wasn't that old. But I was old enough to be like, "Should I still be reading Spawn?”
And I decided that I would. I was like, "I'm going to just keep reading it forever and see what happens."
Spencer: At a certain point, reading Spawn became an act of will.
Matt: Yes. And I would say that over the years, us elite Spawn readers, we'd certainly say that there's been some ups and downs in the series. I wouldn't recommend, at this point, anyone starting from issue one and reading all the way up to the present. But I've gone through love-hate cycles with it. And now I've settled into: I actually like Spawn. And I love it for what it is, and it's fun to read.
Spencer: Talk a little about the transition from political cartooning to comic books.
Matt: Well, yeah, from my perspective, the transition to writing and drawing proper comic books is not at all difficult or surprising. It's something that's been in the works really my whole life. I'd always wanted to draw comic books, but I think the kind of comic I wanted to draw changed over time from Image-type comics when I was young, to Fantagraphics- and Drawn & Quarterly-type stuff when I was a young adult.
And then in the run-up to the Iraq war, I just started doing political cartooning. I had no prior love of the genre. And I basically became obsessed with it and felt really fulfilled as an outlet for my expression and political rage and opinions about what was going on at the time.
I did one [political cartoon] for the school newspaper in art school in 2003 in the run-up to the Iraq war. I did 'em every week for 18 years then and had sixteen hundred and something of them. I’d quickly become obsessed with the form, particularly the alt-weekly style cartoons of Derf [Backderf] and Tom Tomorrow and Ruben Bolling—that whole school of people—and wanted to make it my career. I had plenty of material throughout the Bush era. And the Obama era too, to be honest. But in the background of my life that whole time, I was reading Spawn. I was reading Spawn through the Global War on Terror. It wasn't until the pandemic that I came out as a Spawn reader to the public.
Spencer: You drew a political cartoon every week for 18 years.
Matt: Well, a lot of weeks, it was three cartoons.
Spencer: And you burnt out.
Matt: Yeah. At The Nib, I spent a lot of time publishing many thousands of political cartoons and nonfiction pieces, and hopefully we established ourselves as a known quantity in the field—we’re really the only place devoted to publishing that kind of stuff and trying to elevate it. But I was burning out on political cartoons for a variety of reasons. It’s why I ended up doing the Wasteland stuff [a Mad Max-style sci-fi setting for many of Bors’ comics that is uncomfortably similar to the real world], trying to inject genre comics and the type of stuff from my roots that I'm really interested in—dystopian science fiction, mutants, cyborgs—to make political cartoons more interesting and fun than just… drawing Mitch McConnell's weird-ass face again. It's still very obvious, and it's a political cartoon so you're just doing the issues of today in the Wasteland. It's not adding too many layers, but at least I’m not just drawing my 40th cartoon about Obama ordering a kill strike on somebody and not knowing where to go with it.
I was getting a little bit burned out with political cartoons in the beginning of the primary in 2015. I remember kind of dismissing it and being like, I don't wanna do election cartoons. It's the worst. I hate election cartoons because people get so worked up. And if you're not doing boosterish stuff, which I try not to do, and you criticize Democrats, you fall into this trap, right? The liberal Democrats who are supportive of the establishment don't want any criticism, it's helping a Republican win. If you're only criticizing Republicans, it feels lame. If you're doing anything that even feels supportive of the Democratic candidate, the left thinks you're, you know, being a simp to them. You just end up in this space where you can't produce something that everyone likes—I mean, that's the job, that's political cartooning, but it gets a little tedious after years and years and years, particularly on social media and particularly during an election.
Anyone who spends time in media and online remembers that 2016 was a breaking point for a lot of things. The political arguments that formed during that time persisted for years, and persist in a lot of people to this day. Once Trump was elected, it was an emergency. At The Nib, it was a deluge of pitches about very important issues that needed to be covered. We were publishing stuff on immigration, stuff about racism, the rise of white nationalism.There was no letting up. And then the pandemic just made everything so much worse for everyone.
And I realized I was quite miserable having my head in the news and social media, juggling all these things, being constantly tired. My wife and I had our second kid at the beginning of 2020, and that really turned the screws a lot. Now free time is nonexistent. My life was extraordinarily stressful with work-from-home stuff on lockdown with a newborn and a three-year-old—I mean, you both have kids. These are ages that are unmanageable. And I just had been thinking anyway, for years at that point, “How do I get back to doing all the things I want to do in my career?” Which unfortunately for me includes a lot of different things. It includes fiction comics. It includes nonfiction, graphic novels. How do I get to do those things before it's too late?
Spencer: So given that you've had such a long professional career and thus many opportunities to deepen your critique, what is the origin story of Justice Warriors?
Matt: Well, the summer of 2020 was a particularly chaotic time in the country and in my personal life, and Ben Clarkson DMed me about this project that he had—he wanted to do Justice Warriors as animation. I briefly looked at it and then moved on because my baby was crying and there were wildfires and protests in downtown Portland every day, with police on the verge of killing someone and then kidnapping people off the streets. And when Ben sent me a follow-up, I looked at it a little more and I immediately loved it and recognized somebody who had the same sensibility as me, artistically and satirically and politically. We hit it off pretty quickly. And he's an animator and an illustrator; he doesn't really come from comics. This is his first comic that he's ever done.
Sam Thielman: Wow.
Matt: Yeah, I think he's a fantastic artist.
Spencer: Yeah, in storytelling as well as rendering. This is paced so incredibly well, which, as I'm soon to learn for real, is really only something that can be achieved when a writer and artist are locked in.
Sam: You guys are doing Frank Quitely stuff in here, with the progressive panels inside the letters of the "CRUNCH" sound effect.
Matt: Yeah, that was good. That was all Ben. We have like a real collaborative process where we're both contributing stuff to the writing and the art. The "crunch" was entirely him just, you know, doing layouts, trying to be inventive. As I think a lot of artists know, you're trying to keep yourself entertained while you're sitting at the drawing table and picking images to be as interesting as possible. There are a ton of background jokes everywhere. If you look at posters on the wall and little names of businesses and everything, it's just crammed with details. That's mostly not in the script either. We're adding stuff at various points in production. I’m adding things during the lettering. We’re making changes on the final pass. So it's great. We decided for various reasons that a comic book was going to get this thing made and get us paid decently to produce it, rather than basically self-financing animation, which was gonna be an excruciating lift. We pitched it and we had immediate interest from some people. And here we are.
Spencer: So what is Justice Warriors and what does it say about the world?
On the surface it’s a dystopian buddy cop satire, at an unknown time and place, in a world that appears to be just an endless underserviced slum with packed to the brim with mutants of every conceivable variety, and that landscape is only offset by a Bubble City that has a protective shield over it and is filled with skyscrapers in which people live a kind of techno-utopia of bliss and prosperity, and no harm comes to them. And there's no crime.
Spencer: None at all?
Matt: There's no known crime in the bubble.
Matt: Well, you know, what is a crime? That's one of the things that we hope to get into.
Spencer: Is it, as GZA said, Criminals Robbing Innocent Motherfuckers Everytime?
Matt: Right. And the Bubble City PD polices the border—the UZ, or Uninhabited Zone, which is the name of a vast slum.
Spencer: That's weird. Why would you need to police a zone that is uninhabited? Who might live in the uninhabited zone around Bubble City?
Matt: The Uninhabited Zone is very densely populated. In fact, it’s implied that it goes on forever. We might get answers in future series about what this broader world looks like, but for the sake of this series it’s a city that appears endless. This is a buddy-cop drama comedy starring Schitt and Swamp Cop. They're mutants. Most of the cops are mutants, because it's one of the only good jobs in town.
Swamp is a veteran of the force whose partner dies, and he gets paired with Schitt. Swamp is a swamp-monster-type person and Schitt is a, uh, shit person. He has a poop emoji head, and he's from section four near the sanitation dump. If that sounds weird, you know, this is a world where any kind of conceivable mutant can exist. We can have rock people, tongue people, bird people, but it's even crazier, a little like the Toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And a lot of this is really Ben Clarkson's crazy psychedelic imagination. We want this place to be as weird as possible, which then gets to your second question, which is what is this really about?
Obviously it is about police, but it’s really about the structures of capitalism and society. The economics of the city are the engine for a lot of the plot—it’s what creates the crime. It's sort of a place where weird economic schemes happen to keep the Bubble afloat, to keep capital flowing. And that dictates what happens in society. It creates crime waves and investment waves; waves of hysteria; weird rebellions that happen later in the series that could be related to various things happening in our world, but have their own strange UZ flavor to them.
Spencer: So you're saying… that there are… economic relationships that determine what it is to be policed and to not be policed. If I'm understanding you correctly.
Matt: [Laughs] Yeah. I think a lot of storytelling in comics in particular is about heroic narratives and characters you can relate to, or want to identify with, or represent something, a heroic ideal, of how you should behave. There are characters you want to be like, and they’re modeling certain behavior. And that's not exactly what we're doing here. Swamp and Schitt aren’t literal heroes in any sense of the word. They might do things that are heroic, but what does saving the city mean? I've been thinking about cop shows and crime movies obsessively since starting this series. We're obsessed with this as a society and it goes back to Westerns, which are all about law and order versus criminals, and this battle over who is allowed to use violence. And the answer is “the state.”
Sam: Speaking of media about police, there’s this genre of superhero cop comics and sci-fi cop comics, and a lot of the writers and artists are British. And to the extent that they're satirical, the satire is ambiguous. Like Judge Dredd is clearly a fascist, but he's also shootin’ bad guys. It’s bad that he's a fascist, but the guys he’s shooting are bad, too. Top 10, which I love, has a lot of stuff that reads differently if you’re American. But you and Ben have turned the dial all the way up in a way that I don't think I've ever seen anybody do before. And I'm just wondering how much of those comics you guys absorbed when you were going into this, and whether you wanted to amplify some of that stuff or react against it.
Matt: Top 10 is a good reference. I do remember loving that series and I guess I don't consider it a huge influence, but come to think of it, that city is sort of similar to what we're doing. Everyone's a superhero there. They have some totally weird character design, and we're trying to sort of meet and exceed like those ideas about cities—like Neopolis in Top 10 and the city in Transmetropolitan. The city is a living character and really forms the basis of the world. But to your question, I'm a Judge Dredd freak. I might have read more Judge Dredd than Spawn. God knows how many pages of these things I've devoured over the course of my lifetime.
There is a sort of tension between what to depict and what to allow the readers to connect themselves. Like you said, in his stories, Judge Dredd at least seems necessary to the world, but if you have any sort of analysis or awareness of what's going on, even though John Wagner plays it straight a lot, it’s very much a critique of what a world would be like where the cops are the government. I think Mega City One is really interesting because it is a fascist state, but without a national identity. The people there do not actually support the regime and they don't have any sense of national unity.
In Justice Warriors, I think each issue sort of ramps things up to a place where I think people will take notice of some things that we're doing, hopefully, and the reading experience will be surprising. This series of economic boom-and-bust things that happen issue to issue sort of drive the plot: We start the first issue with a buyback scheme for vinyl records, and at the end of the issue, there's a raid at a record store.
What starts to come out of it is an armed, rebellious movement that has its own ideology and aims, which are not of our world. They are of the Bubble in the Uninhabited Zone. They're not explicitly good. And they're definitely not explicitly leftist. But I don't think at any point is it confusing whether the cops are a competent and necessary force for good. No one group has their shit together and has all the answers in this world. And it's a violent, violent, chaotic world.
Spencer: One thing that shows your devotion to craft is your decision to letter this book. I'd like you to talk about that, because I love the way this book is lettered.
Matt: Thanks! I hand-lettered my own political cartoons for a long time. I only stopped the week my first kid was born five years ago. I decided it was time to cut down on the labor a little bit, and I made a font based on my hand-lettering, like a lot of artists do. I like lettering. I have strong opinions about it; I want it to look as if it was created by, if not the artist who drew the actual comic, then an artist who can make it look a little bit like it was. Mainstream comics lettering just doesn't do it for me. It pops off the page so much, and it looks so computer-generated (which it is). The lettering for Justice Warriors is really based on old 1990’s Punisher and X-Men comics, which is slightly different from modern comics lettering, but it's very familiar. I'm doing sound effects and as time goes on, you know, there are different characters—some of them are robots and stuff—and I’m trying to do different balloon styles for everything. I just wanted to give it a fine touch.
Global War on Terror doesn’t quite work. Much, much better is Total War Against Terror. Just saying. Precision in language and all that.
And if we’re talking genuinely politically correct comics, I must refer all to the first couple of arcs of American Flagg, by comics’ great cranky old lefty, Howard Chaykin.