Bunny Matthews' first run-in with authority figures was inspired by the Beatles.
In 1966, Will Bunn Matthews III was a ninth-grader at T.H. Harris junior high school, and had already fallen under the spell of Liverpool's Fab Four. When it came time for yearbook pictures, his Lennon and McCartney-inspired shag provoked an edict from the school: cut your hair, or you'll have to wear a girl's ribbon on your head for the photo.
The attempt to humiliate him only made Matthews more resolute. He posed for the picture wearing the ribbon, but the joke was on the school. For the teenager voted "Most Intelligent" by his classmates two years prior, the ribbon wasn't a symbol of conformity, but of defiance. Matthews' hands aren't visible in the picture, but they might as well have been, with his middle fingers extended.
Thirty-six years later, Bunny Matthews is still bucking the mainstream, through his alternately impassioned and irreverent cartooning and writing. His work has appeared in virtually every New Orleans media outlet, including Gambit Weekly, The Times-Picayune, WYES television, OffBeat, and the now-defunct periodicals Figaro and Wavelength. This year, Matthews' most famous creations, New Orleans couple Vic and Nat'ly, celebrate their 20th anniversary in print.
For two decades, Vic and Nat'ly have captured the city's imagination by carrying on like Ninth Ward cousins of The Honeymooners' Ralph and Alice Kramden. Vic's the unshaven, cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking everyman philosopher, and glamour queen Nat'ly is forever at his side to poke holes in his dubious musings. Their relationship plays out in the bar and po-boy shop they own, where they're surrounded by surreal characters and props including a wise-ass Chihuahua and a talking cockroach. Every New Orleans tradition and institution, from the Saints and the NOPD to Mardi Gras, is fodder for Vic and Nat'ly's barbed exchanges.
As a result of their popularity, the pair has graced such locales as the 1984 World's Fair, Leidenheimer bread trucks, Parasol's T-shirts, and D.H. Holmes department stores. Now, Vic, Nat'ly and their creator are headed for highbrow literary ground: The Tennessee Williams Literary Festival is featuring Matthews on March 20, in a presentation billed as "Vic and Nat'ly and Me -- The Life and Times of a New Orleans Original."
That title is accurate, but just scratches the surface of 51-year-old Matthews' storied -- and often tumultuous -- career. To his fans, Matthews is a veritable encyclopedia of local culture and music. He's the man who rode to gigs with Professor Longhair, flew to shows with the Neville Brothers, met Bob Marley in Jamaica, and showed Third World and Mark Knopfler around on their first trips to New Orleans. To his foes, he's a vitriolic critic who eviscerates any person, institution or artistic effort he finds lacking. Even in the early days of his writing career at the weekly Figaro newspaper, Matthews was capable of provoking outrage.
In the Dec. 3, 1975, issue of Figaro, local photographer Sidney Smith wrote the following letter to the editor:
"In response to Bunny Matthews' distasteful coverage of myself and the Who concert and party, I have the following to say: A review is indeed one man opinion's only. Thank God there is only one Bunny Matthews."
Perhaps only Matthews could take such an improbable career path. The self-professed loner is a University of New Orleans dropout who's been fired from or quit many of his jobs, yet remains an enduring voice in the local media. And to understand the artist behind the Ninth Ward archetypes of Vic and Nat'ly, you first have to cross the Causeway.
Matthews' modest house is tucked in the corner of a cul-de-sac in a quiet subdivision in Abita Springs. On a recent weekday, car trouble kept him from his weekday commute to his current job as associate editor at OffBeat magazine, freeing up the morning for an interview in his drawing studio. Shelves holding rows of albums fill the corner, and original Matthews drawings hang on the walls. A massive wooden table, covered with stacks of drawings, CDs and books, dominates the center of the room.
Matthews bought the table in the early '70s from a friend who obtained it from an Uptown Catholic girls high school. The names of nuns are still engraved in the drawers. "I love the energy I get when I'm drawing on this table, knowing that all these Catholic high school girls used it," says Matthews.
The studio's large plate-glass windows provide a clear sightline to Matthews' backyard, which is dotted with camellias and multiple varieties of bamboo trees. "Nothing really beats sitting here in Abita Springs looking out the windows at trees and admiring nature and drawing pictures," says Matthews. "That's my ideal heavenly world, if I could just do that and make a living. But that's not always possible."
Matthews first felt his calling when he saw his byline in the Dallas Morning News -- as a 7-year-old. His family had briefly moved to Texas when he was a child, and for a class project, Matthews drew a cartoon detailing what he would do if he was president for a day. He pulls out the original, which promises gifts for all children, including candy and a Ford Falcon.
"This is 1959, and the Ford Falcon hadn't come out on the market yet, so I thought I was hip," says Matthews. "It's a pretty good drawing, but I really liked seeing my name in print in the newspaper. I was like, 'Whoa.'"
An early hero was Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, the creator of the cartoon Rat Fink, and a custom artist for hot rod cars. The whirling dervish Rat Fink character, a twisted rodent version of Looney Tunes' Tasmanian Devil, became a popular T-shirt image in the early '60s. "I was really into hot rods when I was a kid, and that whole look," says Matthews. "I liked Roth because he had a little goatee, and he was a Jewish guy but he drove around with a German Nazi helmet on in his car, and he was really outrageous. When I was a little kid, I would always mimic him and do my own monster T-shirts."
Those Roth-inspired shirts led to Matthews' first paid artistic job. A French Quarter shop owner spotted the teenager one day, and asked where he got his T-shirt. When the man found out that the skinny kid had done the drawing himself, he offered him a job designing T-shirts for the shop. Considering that the proprietor had an earring and the job would mean taking the bus from his family's home in Metairie to the French Quarter, Matthews figured his parents wouldn't let him accept the offer. But his father had studied art in college and encouraged his son's creativity. The store owner came to the Matthews' house dressed in a suit and tie to pitch his case, and it sealed the deal: Matthews was about to get his first real look at New Orleans counterculture.
"It was a real hippie beatnik kind of place," he remembers. "The guys in the shop used to sit around all the time and guzzle bottles of cough syrup to get high, but I had no idea what they were doing. I told my parents one day, 'These people are always drinking cough syrup, but none of them ever seem sick.' I think that's what made my parents make me quit that job."
So Matthews began pursuing other avenues. In his senior year at East Jefferson, he became editor of the school paper, taking advantage of the position's perks. "I had this hour or two every day where I didn't have to report to anybody, I could just take off in my little Mustang, and supposedly go to the printer and do what I was supposed to be doing, so that was my little scam."
His movements didn't go unnoticed -- especially after he ran a picture of Jimi Hendrix in the paper. Matthews was called to the principal's office and chastised for running a black man's picture in the school newspaper. "I couldn't believe it," Matthews remembers. "I told the principal, in case you haven't noticed, there's black students in this school."
Problems such as editorial meddling didn't deter Matthews -- especially after he had an opportunity to interview Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & the Raiders.
"That was very exciting because I was 16, and I got to leave school, go down to the Royal Orleans Hotel, and meet this famous person who was on TV every day, because he had that show, Where the Action Is, and he was always on American Bandstand. Then they had a big old stack of Paul Revere and the Raiders albums, and you could take as many copies as you want. They also had free pastries and croissants and stuff, so I said, 'Man, I want to do this.'"
After graduation, Matthews enrolled at the University of New Orleans, primarily to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam war. His college days didn't last long. "Everybody in this one class, they were all pretty talented writers," remembers Matthews. "And the professor finally told us, 'Why are you all going to college when really all they tell you is which books to read, and you all read anyway. If you want to be writers, you need to go out and experience life.'" After drawing a high lottery number that would likely keep him out of Vietnam, Matthews left school -- and entered the janitorial business.
"It was one of the few jobs you could have in New Orleans at that time where you could have long hair," he remembers. "They'd give you a van, and you'd have to go clean office buildings in the evening. So we could go to rock concerts, and then after that go clean the building, as long as it was finished by the next morning."
Figaro editor John Newlin gave Matthews his next break. As a film reviewer for the UNO Driftwood newspaper, Newlin had received a fan letter from a high school student named Bunny. Newlin, an East Jeff grad, went to his alma mater to speak to the journalism class and meet the fledgling writer. The two became friends, and when Newlin went to Figaro, he hired Matthews to write record reviews and music stories.
By 1975, Matthews' byline was appearing regularly in Figaro. More importantly, that year he debuted a comic strip titled "F'Sure -- Actual Dialogue Heard on the Streets of New Orleans." Each week, Matthews would draw characters and fill their caption balloons with real-life conversations. For the text, Matthews started phonetically localizing the speech, a foreshadowing of Vic and Nat'ly's dialect. In an early strip, one man says to another, "A small pahty -- my wife jus' invited deese two udda couples ova -- I figga dat 150 pounz uh crawfish will be suhfishin't."
"Part of the thing about language in New Orleans is people are real lazy, because it's so hot and humid, so they really shorten everything," says Matthews, "and eliminate any vowels or syllables they can eliminate."
"I think 'F'Sure' helped [Bunny's following] enormously," says Newlin. "We'd all feed Bunny stuff for the strip -- what we heard, what people looked like. It was a pretty accurate social mirror of the times."
Matthews' music writing at Figaro also reflected the local scene. Since the Times-Picayune didn't have a local music writer at the time, his weekly column made him the primary chronicler of R&B legends like Professor Longhair and Earl King, as well as the formative years of the Jazz Fest. He also joined a group of locals who started Tipitina's nightclub, and married his love of cartooning and music by drawing the posters for the venue's concerts.
He didn't hesitate to lampoon acts he deemed subpar. In an October 1975 review of a Rod Stewart concert, under the headline "Perhaps Bunny's Getting a Little Jaded," Matthews wrote: "... [The band] looked tired, Rod looked tired, and me ... I was daydreaming about how rock 'n' roll once jolted me like speed. It will stand ... on crutches with artificial limbs, hobbling along."
Matthews' sharp tongue earned him devoted readers, but it also led to his demise at Figaro. After making a strident written demand for a raise, he was fired from the paper.
In 1981, the Times-Picayune began planning a relaunch of Dixie, its Sunday magazine supplement, and Dixie's new editor wanted Matthews to do a weekly cartoon. Matthews intended to make the most of his chance. "I knew if I was in the T-P, a million people would be seeing it, and that it would be a successful venture. And I had already done all these cartoons that were New Orleans people talking, so I didn't want to just draw random characters. I wanted to draw characters that would be my Mickey Mouse, and I could market, because I saw some good potential here."
Matthews drew on a number of local references for his proposed new strip. He wanted a two-name title, to reflect his love for similar New Orleans cornerstones like F&M Patio Bar, Rocky & Carlo's, and Clarence & Lefty's, a po-boy shop on Franklin Avenue.
He decided on a male and female couple, with the man, Vic, modeled after former New Orleans mayor Vic Schiro. "I always thought Schiro was really a fantastic person, because he started out being a bit actor in B movies in Hollywood, and someone suggested he run for office, and I don't even think he was registered to vote," says Matthews. "The greatest thing was during a hurricane once, he said, 'Don't believe any rumors unless they come from me.' I remember watching that on TV as a kid.
"And the hairline mustache, that's a Vic Schiro thing. I always admired people that could leave that one little strip of hair right around their lips."
For Vic's companion, Matthews used exaggerated female symbols. Sitting at his Catholic schoolgirl desk, he takes his drawing instruments of choice -- a Derwent graphic pencil and Rapidograph #2 pen -- and draws what looks like a seagull silhouette on a blank page. "Her nose is a perfect V," says Matthews.
He adds what looks like three hot-rod flames above it -- Nat'ly's towering hair. "Then I'll do real outrageous earrings as part of the look, and these glasses," he says. "She was very fat and obese when I started it, and eventually I had the idea of making Nat'ly into a bombshell, and giving her really nice breasts and stuff, because I thought, if I have to draw this picture for the rest of my life, I want it to be attractive and good-looking."
Vic and Nat'ly debuted in Dixie on Jan. 3, 1982. The cartoon was an instant success, and spawned two books (now out of print) in 1983 and 1985.
The strip had its share of detractors, including some who felt that Vic and Nat'ly reflect the Ninth Ward about as accurately as Snuffy Smith represents the Ozarks. Dixie editor Jeannette Hardy addressed those critics in her introduction to the 1983 book: "We have some readers who don't always share our enthusiasm for Vic and Nat'ly. They write occasionally to say that the cartoon is a mean joke on New Orleans and some of its people. But for the life of me, I cannot understand the concern. I can only think of Vic with a corkscrew attached to the top of his head, dressed up like a mosquito for Mardi Gras."
Many local businesses share Hardy's sentiment, commissioning Matthews to create original Vic and Nat'ly artwork for ad campaigns. "It's always amazing to me all these companies that have given me jobs using Vic and Nat'ly, despite how funky their image is," says Matthews. "I've never smoked cigarettes in my life, and think they're obnoxious and terrible, but I like to put the stub of a cigarette in Vic's mouth because you can get away with it. I think that's a good, obnoxious New Orleans thing, to be making po-boys and have this cigarette hanging off your mouth, dropping ashes into the fried oysters.
"I've always been dying for the American Cancer Association or somebody to protest Vic and Nat'ly," Matthews says. "That'll give me a lot of publicity."
Companies featuring Vic and Nat'ly artwork through the years include Barq's, Liuzza's restaurant and the Audubon Zoo. The most prominent campaign is for Leidenheimer bread: Vic and Nat'ly are painted on the company's fleet of delivery trucks. "We wanted something that appropriately celebrated our 100th year in business, which was 1996," says Sandy Whann, president of Leidenheimer Baking Company. "New Orleans isn't squeaky clean, it's not a sterile place. It's a place with characters, something I hope we never lose as a city. Vic and Nat'ly was perfect, because the two characters are vintage New Orleans, they love po-boys, and they hang out in the places that we serve."
There was only one item that made Whann nervous. "Natly's cleavage was an issue," he says. "That's why we have her turned to the side."
Vic and Nat'ly's commercial viability translated into more editorial jobs for Matthews. In a highly unusual scenario, Matthews at one point was appearing in the Times-Picayune, Gambit, New Orleans magazine, Wavelength and WYES television, all at the same time. In almost every case, Matthews' outspoken style has provoked controversy and tempestuous relationships with his readers and editors.
Matthews stopped cartooning for Gambit in the mid-80s, after the paper refused to run some of Matthews' cartoons -- one of which commented on the murder of a local teenager for his shoes. "My attitude with Gambit was that it's the alternative to the Times-Picayune, so it should be a little wilder, right?" says Matthews. "The way it worked at Gambit then, they would run my cartoons, but if they didn't run it, I didn't get paid. So about every other week, there was some problem with the cartoon. And after it not running for a couple weeks, I stopped doing them." (Matthews has since contributed cartoons to Gambit sporadically.)
Meanwhile, over at Wavelength, the now-defunct monthly music magazine, a 1986 article Matthews wrote titled "Playing in the Band" was sparking outrage among local musicians. Under the subtitle "Everyone should be in a band -- but no one, especially in New Orleans, should depend on it to make a living," Matthews made the following argument: "Ideally, one's music and one's wage should be two separate and remote beasts. Making a living from music or any other form of art usually strangles its purity: the rent is due so you play garbage to get the funds. ... I beseech thee, however, do not muddle thy head, O young musicians, with success."
If that sounds like an outrageous statement, especially coming from a fellow artist, Matthews' view likely stems from his own struggles for artistic independence and financial security in a small media market like New Orleans. When Matthews started drawing his weekly cartoons for the T-P in 1981, he made $75. By 2001, incremental raises pushed his weekly earnings to $150. That may not sound like a lot of money, but for a freelance artist, it can be a lifeline. Then, in January 2001, Matthews was unceremoniously fired from the paper.
"About a year ago this last December, one Sunday I go out and pick up the paper, and my cartoon isn't in it," says Matthews. "I called the editor the next day, and she said, 'That was a mistake.' So then the next week, it didn't run again. Then she says that the first week was really a mistake, and the second week they decided to conduct a test and see how many people would call and ask about what happened to your cartoon. And this was during Christmas and New Year's holiday."
Matthews tried his friends at the paper, but couldn't get any straight answers. Finally, he was told to call new Living Section editor James O'Byrne. "I'd never met or seen him in person, so I called him and he said, 'We're not going to run this cartoon anymore.' And I asked if I could come in and have a conversation with him or [editor] Jim Amoss, because I knew Jim Amoss since I started there. And he said, 'Nope.'"
Matthews says he then asked if the cartoon, which had been running in the TV Focus supplement, could appear in a different section of the paper. "And he said, 'This cartoon is not going to run anywhere in my domain.'" O'Byrne did not return calls for comment for this story.
"When I have to go talk to kids, I'm always trying to discourage them from being an artist," says Matthews. "I tell 'em, you should really become a plumber or an electrician, a good trade where you make good money, and then do this for fun. Because it's bad when you always have to depend on your art for money."
The phone rings at Matthews' house and, in a strange bit of synchronicity, it's his car dealership. The news isn't good. Despite the fact that Matthews has an extended warranty, the catalytic converter is broken in his Honda -- and it's not covered. Fixing the car will cost $1,500. "I don't have $1,500, so I don't know what I'm going to do," Matthews says resignedly.
Solving his new transportation dilemma is just the latest adjustment Matthews will have to make. He acknowledges that it's been a transition for him from life-long freelancer to full-time employee at OffBeat. He commutes to work every day from the Northshore, and says that routine -- and working in an office with fellow staffers -- has been beneficial for him.
"My wife Debbie and I drive across the lake every day, and that's kind of a Zen experience," he says. "I can zone out and listen to whatever CD I have to write about, then I drop her off Uptown, then drive down Magazine Street through the French Quarter to get to OffBeat. I like that drive through the Quarter, just seeing how people look. It gives you this picture of America that I'd never experience if I was just around here in Abita.
"I guess in my maturity," he adds with a laugh, "I'm trying to be nice to people."
Yet a full-time job hasn't softened Matthews' editorial stances. One of the most recent controversies concerned a 2000 Vic and Nat'ly cartoon in OffBeat that skewered overcrowding at Jazz Fest. To illustrate his opinion, Matthews drew Vic -- in a dream sequence -- being herded into a concentration camp. That particular cartoon drew the ire of the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, and it's safe to say it wasn't warmly received in the Jazz Fest offices. Matthews remains unrepentant; for him, lines are meant to be crossed.
"I think you should be able to joke about anything," he says. "I don't think I'm ever allowed to go far enough. I just like to pick on the Jazz Fest somewhat, because they're the big sacred cow in New Orleans. They're the thing nobody ever attacks, because everybody wants to go and wants favors and stuff. Sacred cows are meant to be butchered."
And as for a cartoon that evokes the Holocaust? "My attitude is, they had Hogan's Heroes, and that was a pretty popular TV show, right? That was set in a concentration camp.
"I want to push readers' buttons, because I want them to react, and I want them to think and change. To me, if you're reviewing music or art or movies or anything, your obligation is to educate and enlighten that reader. I want there to be high standards in New Orleans. I think we have low standards; people are too accepting here as part of that good-time Jazz Festival feeling, where everything's cool."
"I'm one of these people that really doesn't play well with others," he says. "I've always been a solitary kind of artist."
Yet through his creations Vic and Nat'ly, Matthews has learned how to reconcile a loner's sensibilities with an unforeseen level of recognition -- even popularity. When he signed posters at local po-boy shops to promote Leidenheimer's ad campaign, he was struck by his reception. "It was pretty cool, because you had really Uptown rich people coming in, and cops and cabdrivers, and I like that when they all go, 'Hey! Bunny!' One of my big role models would be Pete Fountain. I'd like to be like him when I'm old. You know, where everybody likes you even if they really don't know you."
It's a somewhat contradictory statement from a man who has built a large part of his career on drawing, writing and saying what he wants, consequences be damned. Asked about the dichotomy, Matthews is silent for a moment, and stares off into his backyard. "I guess we all want to be popular," he says. "I feel like I've always been on the outside. I've never been this person that hung out with all the guys out drinking or anything.
"Even when I was a kid in bands, I was always kind of a pain, because you can be creative, but you have three other people you have to deal with, and that's difficult. If you're alone, you don't have to compromise."