Matt Seneca is a rising star in the world of underground comics. His debut graphic novel, Affected, is an autobiographical tale set in a harsh, isolating Los Angeles. Its protagonist struggles to ﬁnd purpose after the love of his life leaves him. Against Seneca’s gritty interpretation of L.A., his character free-falls into drugs, violence, and a job as a pimp to a Muslim prostitute who dresses in a burka to satiate the perverse desires of male customers seeking retribution from 9/11. Later, the woman and protagonist become romantically involved, and ﬁnd some peace in each other.
Seneca resides in Bushwick, Brooklyn, composing his works from an old wooden drawing board in his living room. He’s a manager of Bergen Street Comics, a boutique comic book shop highly regarded in the underground comics community. He grew up in Berkeley, was born in Oakland, and has roots in Detroit.
His work is fictional, but undeniably influenced by a murky period in his life: a noirish ballad to his time in L.A.. In reality, her name was Olivia and they were 17, head over heels, when she asked him to move to L.A. where she could pursue acting. But she outgrew the relationship there and left him. He spiraled into substance abuse and found unconventional solace in a pain-based relationship with an older woman. He released Affected serially online in 2011, and it gradually developed a following. Seneca stresses the work is long behind him now, but acknowledges it was an essential part of his catharsis.
How would you describe your upbringing in Berkeley?
More or less average. I went to school, played sports. I just waited around until I was grown up, basically.
You mentioned you do not have many long term relationships in your life, however your roommate is your longtime best friend from your childhood. How important is friendship to you?
It’s good to have relationships that you can count on to be pleasant and uneventful. My few close male friendships are like the emotional ‘home base’ that all the more intense emotions and situations in my life – usually involving women – have to orbit around. I don’t spend much time thinking about them or expend much deep feeling on them, but they’re invaluable.
Would you say that when your relationship ended in Los Angeles that was the start of your life as an artist?
I had always wanted to be an artist but I guess I never knew what that meant because I didn’t know what it was to live for my art until I was done living for somebody else. I would wake up every day thinking to myself, nobody in this city cares if I live or die, and the only thing I had was whatever art I was doing. So it took me a while to figure out what that was, but that was when I started living for my art, sure.
You then got involved with drugs and an unconventional relationship.
The whole life that I had built was around the idea that I was going to end up with this one woman. It was going to be the guiding purpose in my life. Then it all gets taken away. I started getting deep, deep into substance abuse. It was like, if I don’t want to have a panic attack and cry myself to sleep, I’m going to get really fucked up. While I was doing all this I met this older woman, and she was into heroin. She was Muslim, and about 10 years older. She got me to try heroin, and that was what I needed at the time. Heroin is something that makes you feel like a normal, happy person inside.
Were you suicidal?
Absolutely. I would wake up every morning the first thing was like, am I going to go to bed tonight or am I going to take care of this for real. Anyway, I started doing a lot of heroin with this girl. We were also having sex. But after a while I decide it’s time to really step back and work on myself. She said, “Alright, that’s cool, but I really like you.” And I liked her. She was interesting and a good person. She said, “I understand if you don’t want to feel pleasure anymore, but I like hanging out with you. Why don’t you still do things for me?” I had no other interpersonal connections in my life at this point, so I told her, OK. At least I’ll still have one human relationship left. It turned into me doing sexual things for her while we would both do heroin. She’d been a professional dominatrix, so when we would fuck she had these leather gloves with nails on the end. She would scratch my back with them. When you’re on heroin any sense any input feels good. It turned into us doing heroin, me going down on her, her scratching my back with these things, and then that turned into her just cutting me with this shit and then rubbing this anti-scarring salve into my back.
That was the emotional closeness that I could have with a person. When we would be done I’d be gasping and panting for breath and still so fucking high and she’d just be rubbing this stuff into my back. One night we did the same thing as usual, but she got a little too deep. I was bleeding too hard and she was rubbing this shit into my back. She said, “I don’t know what the fuck this is for you anymore. I don’t think you even like me.” And I was like, “I don’t really know either.” She said, “So what the fuck is this for you? Do you want to die?” and I’m like, “Yeah.” She says, “I’m not going to do that for you. I don’t think we should see each other anymore.” I said, “I don’t think so either.”
This was a turning point?
I walk out and I’m still so fucking high and I’m wearing this white shirt. It’s raining real hard and my shirt has this red blood soaking into it. I can see these blossoming pink spots on my shirt and I’m looking up at the sky. “I’ve got to change my life,” I told myself. And I guess that was the big moment for me and comics. I was like, Alright, I’ve got to follow the only path that seems worth going down, and that was the art that I do. And Affected is kind of based on that relationship.
You chose to seek purpose in your art?
I wasn’t like, “Oh! Comic books!” but it was like you go home, you take a bath, you kind of think about it. You sleep through a couple of nights, and it’s sort of like, what’s left at that point, you know?
You hit rock bottom?
Yes. But, you know, plenty of people have gone further.
How would you describe the basic plot of Affected to a reader?
American Catholic boy from the Heartland moves in with an Iraqi prostitute in Los Angeles and gets his eyes opened to what’s really going on in the world, in his country and elsewhere.
What were its origins?
It had been a novel I wanted to write from way back when. I thought I was going to write prose. And I had always been interested in pornography for lack of a better term. I’d always wanted to write prose that was against society, against all known convention. I was a big fan of William Burroughs, of Dadaism, of any transgressive art movement.
The way I saw it, the one big medium or venue for transgression that exists in this historical moment is pornography.
Simply because there’s still a societal stigma around it and there’s no art being done in it. Any art that happens to be done in it is going to be viewed as something dangerous. But prose is an inefficient medium for pornography because prose cannot describe the true beauty of the human figure. It just can’t do it. I love prose fiction. There are works in prose fiction that I love more than any comic ever, but there are certain things that it’s not suited to describe. One of those things is sex and lust and the body.
I thought I was going to do a serious comic just about getting cut up with razorblades by this girl, but I decided I should do this whole transgressive porn novel I have in my mind and combine the two. I was going to exorcise all of my demons, put out all of my hate out and all of my negativity. All of the black bile in my heart out on the page, and it was just going to be this crazy porno comic. Because it’s not just Olivia that I hate. I hate the war that we’re in. I hate living in a society that I think is so wrong — market capitalism. Like, I’m a fucking Marxist. I’m not even a fucking socialist. I’m a fucking communist.
It took you a long time to finish. Some would even say you were obsessive.
It was never supposed to take that long. But I realized the real thing I’m doing is this long book about America and Islam, and sex and abstinence, and good and evil, and hate and love, that I’ve had in my head for so long. So I just put pen to paper and it never really came off until I was done. It became my obsession immediately. Nothing had ever felt right like that did.
How influenced is this comic by your life?
The whole thing is about my life and about experiences I’ve had. But I didn’t want to tell it literally. I didn’t want to give my autobiography. It’s a little too close, but more importantly, because it’s not as interesting as what you can do with fiction. I thought it would be much more interesting to give a kind of metaphorical reading of things that had happened to me and connect them out to bigger ideas. It was a question of finding the pressure points of what I had experienced and polishing them up a little for a narrative that people could really attach to.
So it’s about me but at the same time I never had any illusions about letting my own experience spoil what I was trying to set out as being a narrative that would satisfy people. The narrative came before my own personal life. But good God did I feel that comic inside me. It was so much about my emotions, and my real emotions informed everything, but narratively, structurally, what’s going on in the story was for you, and everything that I felt drawing it and writing it, that was all for me.
I know this is a tough question to answer, but what do you want readers get out of Affected?
I want people to know that Los Angeles is the most important city in the United States of the 21st century. That is where things are happening like things have never happened before and like things may never happen again. That Los Angeles is where people are experiencing now most closely and most personally. And I want people to think about how they treat one another—especially men and women and women and men and Westerners, whether they’re Christian, Jewish, even Muslim if you’ve grown up in the West and the Orient. How we really think about each other. There’s no deeper message besides: think for a second. Take a minute and think about how we abuse each other. There’s abuse happening on both sides.
The title Affected, why?
Number one, to be affected is to be in love. Feeling affection. But this is a negative way of putting it. If I had called the comic “In Love” it would sound positive, but Affected doesn’t sound nice. Two, an altered state of mind—drugs, sex, love, insanity. You’re out of your mind. And three, it’s not my real life. By the end, most people who were following it seemed to have figured out: OK, this is not exactly what really happened. But for a long time lots of people at least seemed to think it was, step for step, my real life. So it was kind of my way of telling people, no, this is an affectation, this is affected, this is not real. It’s a statement about what the book is. The whole book is affected, it’s not a real thing. It’s this fiction about myself and my environment.
What was it like finishing Affected? Was it a big cathartic moment, or uneventful?
Both. It was a big moment because I knew what I had accomplished, but even now I don’t think that book is the best work that I had done. I don’t think about it that much anymore. I’m on to other things. But it was the first big significant thing that I had ever finished. I was happy to be done with it. I never intended to spend that long on it. It took up more of my life than I wish it would have, but what was good was all of the feelings that were in that book: the pain, hatred, rage. I knew I would never have to feel those things again. And also that I could make art as a normal person. Make art as someone without this huge weight wrapped around my shoulders anymore. You know, just make things as the artist I was always supposed to be. That’s the thing: it’s not the work of a complete artist. It’s how I got there. It’s always going to be the prologue to whatever comes next.
That hate, is it all out of your system?
It’s not. I think hate is important. I always want to carry some hate in myself as an artist. If you ask me this question a year from now, let alone in ten years time, that might not be the same. But right now I feel like hate is important to my creative process and I always want to have some hate inside myself. But all of the negative aspects of hatred, I wanted to get rid of. Now all I’m going to have is the fire in my belly that hate provides. I’m not going to have the corrosive thing where I wonder if I can get out of bed in the morning anymore.
It’s is not yet published as a book. Would you like it to be?
It’s out there for free. If anybody wants to pick it up, please, God, give me a publishing deal. There are a lot of internal comics world politics that I’m not really willing to go through for that material because I know it’s not my best, even now. If I were given a deal right now, I would absolutely re-draw and might even re-dialogue, re-plot some stuff, but as a record of the time it’s from, I don’t really want to mess with it. That’s the thing. It is what it was always supposed to be. It’s this picture of myself in LA when I was still figuring out how to do this whole life thing and I like it how it is. If it wants to get in shops, if somebody wants to pick it up, I’m here, and it’s only too easy to get at me. But I’m doing other things now, and this is probably how it’s supposed to be. It was only ever for me. It’s the very beginning of something rather than what anything was ever supposed to be.
If LA is the most important city in the United States of the 21st century, why did you relocate to New York?
It’s just easier to make a life out here. I was involved in a lot of craziness and weird mental states out in LA, whereas New York always felt nice and stable to me, like I could move myself forward more easily here.
When you want to escape the city, where do you go?
I don’t. I haven’t taken a vacation out of whatever city I live in – LA or New York – since I left home. When I want to get outside my usual routine, I just sit down and draw. My imagination is a lot more interesting to me than any place I’ve ever been in real life.
When you go out, do you have any favorite spots in NY?
Five Leaves in Greenpoint is where me and all my cartoonist bros quorum up every week. That’s my only favorite spot, really. Other than that it’s just dive bars in Bushwick and Williamsburg, smaller art museums like the Nicholas Roerich uptown, and any and all movie theaters.
Matt, thanks for talking to us about underground comics. Read Affected and take a look at his other comic work here.
Photography: David Engelhardt
Interview & Text: Alex Vadukul