Mar 12, 2013

Double Helix: Matt D. Smith and “Simon Says”...

Double Helix is a column written by Rachel Helie for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

Matt D. Smith and Simon Says
Rachel Helie

Think back to a time when all the cool kids wore flannel and Nirvana blasted the airwaves. Dave Grohl was still a twentysomething and Winona Ryder was still considered an ingenue and not a compulsive kleptomaniac. The innocent yet incredibly cynical age of the late 1990’s. This is the tiny window we peer through when reading Simon Says, by Matt D. Smith.

For Matthew Smith and for those of us in our mid-thirties, the nineties were a strange time. We sat on the tail end of the angsty period driven by those who sat squarely within Generation X’s wretched excess, the 1980’s high school kids of yore looking a bit like burned-out loadies in their mid-twenties. We had the benefit of their hindsight. We raised the arched brow, furrowed a skeptical forehead.

The solid self-criticism of the emerging adults of that time period resonated soundly. All of our friends were still riding the highest of lows of the grunge era, goth was in it’s bleakest infancy and was not yet a true fashion statement it is today but a musical movement of mourning. Shows were everything and festivals were high points of the long hot summers. These things had happened before for youth of a bygone era, but the rust and grime was missing. We lived with a sense of loss.

Many of us were doubtful that the decisions of the adults in our lives were sound ones. They divorced, died, or dated. We watched the parade of self-fulfillment, of “I earned this”, heard the refrains of “when you’re eighteen you’re out”, or perhaps had loving parents but hateful peers who couldn’t let idiosyncrasies in a small town high school thrive.

Simon Says opens with these slices of American teen life in the late 90’s with all of it’s insecurity and self-doubt completely intact.

The protagonist, Simon, is attempting to win concert tickets. He is in no way an exalted character, just a guy. His buddies are already going to said concert and as Simon is working his job in a comic shop one afternoon, he calls in to a radio show and wins! But he is faced with a life-changing decision in the following days that alters his fate and the fates of his friends for years to come. That one concert will lead to a series of events that changes the course of each character’s life. This is what the first three comics set up.

The characters are based on amalgams of people Matt has known in his real life. Though not strictly autobiographical in any sense, the stories could easily be mistaken as such for their relatability. These stories could have happened to anyone.Simon deals with his feelings for girls and their feelings for him. Simon maneuvers disagreements with friends and his apprehensions about their advice, his resentments of the truth in that advice. But something happens at this concert. In issue #4 and subsequent issues, those things are revealed.

I haven’t read issue #4 but I read the first three. Each cover features the characters set up in the style of a 90’s era cult classic movie; Clerks for the first, Can’t Hardly Wait for the second, and Chasing Amy for the third. There is even a little tongue-in-cheek mockery of the nod to Kevin Smith in the pages of the first issue, but like it or not, there it is.

Matthew drafted these books in 2007 in steno notebooks. He even attempted to draw them himself. When confronted by his own artistic shortcomings in perfecting his vision, he sought help from artists who could do it justice. In a way, he’s like Simon. He knows when to default to the better judgement of those who have perspective. A little over twenty different artists contribute to the culmination of the Simon Says series.

“This is like my illustrated storied mix-tape to the era and to my youth. I watched my brother and sister, who were solidly Generation X and older than me like a hawk and they exposed me to a lot of the music you find in the covers of Simon Says. At the end of each issue there is a track list. When I was a teenager, I lived for that music. Life caught up with me too.”

Matthew describes himself as more of a writer than an artist but raised by his “cool mom,” he attended his first concert in utero. At seven months pregnant his mother attended the Ted Nugent Strangelhold show. She jokes with him about that now, saying that she was the reason he wrote “Curse of the Stranglehold”.

“Simon pretty much describes how I thought and felt most of the time when I was in high school. My friends and my music were my support. The character for Nathan is actually based on my best friend and he is still my friend today. He never held back. A lot of people do, but he never hesitates to just tell me like it is.”

Simon Says is about self-consciousness and self-awareness; finding what’s real in the morass of pre-adulthood and living through the decisions that alter our lives. It’s about watching our friends make the same crucial decisions, for better or worse. It’s about the bullshit we admit and the bullshit we believe, from ourselves and from everyone else. And it’s about music. “If music be the food of love, play on.”

Get Simon Says here!

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