If you go to Mat Barton’s website — Get Happy! — and click on “About,” you will feel drawn into his world instantly. He invites you to put yourself in his shoes: “You’re a cartoonist living in Portland, Ore. You graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a MFA in animation/illustration in 2004. You’ve worked for Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. Animation. You’ve built sets for stop motion films, created illustrations for billboards and many publications, won an award for a short animated film and work as a graphic designer in the daytime. In your free time you focus on drawing comics.”
As early as the second or third grade, he realized that drawing was something he not only loved but needed. “I think that was the first time I kind of got lost in it. I’d draw Ninja Turtles nonstop on the bus just to get away from being picked on and bothered.” Barton, 33, was born in Santa Ana, Calif., but the family moved wherever his dad’s job took him. He lived in Louisiana during his grade school years, then moved back to California, where he went to junior high and graduated from Centennial High in Bakersfield. That’s where he met Jessica. “I always had a crush on her, but I was kind of shy. But we kept in touch by email.”
When Barton was at CSF in Orange County, Calif., Jessica was attending Westmont College in Santa Barbara. She was taking an elective art class, so she asked him if he wanted to go to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art with her. A few weeks later it became clear that she had always had a crush on him, too. “Mat didn’t believe it when I told him. So I showed him the copy of the Bakersfield Californian I had kept with the lyrics of a song he had written about me,” says Jessica. “They had done an article on Fat Chance, the punk band he was in. And then I showed him all these flyers he had drawn for the band that I saved.” That was the beginning of a long distance relationship that grew over the next few years, no matter where their lives took them.
* * *
During temporary internship stints with both Cartoon Network and Warner Brothers while in his senior year of college, Barton realized that he wanted something more creative, less formulaic than the production mentality of a major studio. After graduating, he started drawing signs for Trader Joe’s to bring home a paycheck, but what he really wanted to do was draw cartoons, so he started working on a comic book and longer projects in his spare time. Also, he and Adam Cooper, his co-collaborator on their four-minute film that won Best Animated Short Film at CSF’s annual film festival, spent almost two years on a more ambitious, 20-minute animated film project. “But it just kind of fell apart,” says Barton. “Maybe it was too ambitious. All that work and nothing to show for it.”
In 2007 Jessica made plans to enroll at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., with a goal of becoming an occupational therapist, so she relocated to the Portland metro area. Barton followed and got a job at a bike shop doing graphics for online promotion and some print illustrations as well. They were married in 2008. Cartooning, though always present, took a back seat to more mundane affairs and his growing infatuation with mountain bike racing — a natural extension of an earlier passion for BMX bikes when he was much younger.
* * *
On June 11, 2012, Barton was injured in a mountain bike racing competition at the Portland International Raceway. “I just wrecked, flew over the bars, flipped and landed on my neck and back,” he says, sustaining a T5 SCI. Good thing he was wearing a helmet. Jessica was there, as were his racing buddies. True to his unassuming nature, Barton’s first concern, lying there, was how would he get out of the way so he wouldn’t cause a huge pileup. He knew exactly what was happening with his paralysis. “I remember Mat telling me,” says Cooper, “I think it was on the way to the hospital, or sometime very soon after the accident, that he was grateful he would still be able to draw.”
He was taken to Emanuel Hospital, not far away, and when he was stabilized, he was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon, also in Portland, where he spent just one month before being discharged.
At first, he says, he was in partial denial. Still employed by the bike shop, he came home from RIO feeling pretty certain that he would be back on the job in a week or two. “It was horrible, quite a shock, coming home to a small apartment where nothing was the same as before. It was a full month before I could get my bearings and go back to work.”
His friends in the mountain bike racing community stepped up and raised $75,000 to help with medical costs and home modifications. He had been racing at the local pro level, competing in two or three races per week for about three years. “Bikes were like my life,” he says, “but I knew immediately that I would never go back to the same level of interest and commitment.” He and Jessica made out a spreadsheet and earmarked the money for paying medical bills, adaptive equipment, and some home modifications. Their parents and grandparents helped them with down payment money to buy a modest home in North Portland. They added a ramp and wraparound deck, hardwood floors for easy rolling, and a kitchen with roll-under sink and stove. “I like to cook,” he says, matter-of-factly.
And, oh yes, they dedicated a small room as his studio, so he could seriously pursue his first love of drawing and cartooning. “He’s got a really great light box — an animator’s tool — a computer and two monitors and some real nice pens and pencils that he won’t let me touch,” says Cooper.
“I just let mountain biking go and decided to move on,” says Barton. “I knew it was time to focus on drawing.”
Now, less than two years post-injury, Mat and Jessica have covered a lot of ground in adapting to a new way of living. Jessica’s being an occupational therapist has been a huge boost. “I knew the way everything should be set up in our home for Mat, so we saved a lot of trial-and-error time.” Also, just six months after his injury, Mat was invited by Oregon Active, an adventure recreation group, to go to the X-Games in Aspen, Colo., all expenses paid. Not only did he get his baptism in sit-skiing, snowmobiling and dog sledding, they learned the tricks of traveling and staying in motels. “We are very grateful for how things just fell into place for us,” says Jessica, “very grateful.”
* * *
It’s clear after just a few minutes of informal conversation that Mat Barton is not a blowhard, not egocentric, despite his accomplishments. “For me, I just like sitting at my drawing table and drawing something.” It’s that simple. No grand ambition, he just likes doing what he does. But it also serves an important need, just like it did in the second and third grade. Some of his work draws on his experiences adapting to the sometimes strange and challenging world of spinal cord injury — physically, emotionally, psychically.
“One of my favorite cartoons of Mat’s is ‘Walk-Ins Only,’” says Jessica. I think that was the first time he drew something that expressed what he was feeling about the kinds of things that go on in his everyday life.”
His caped para-superhero on wheels, Ted the Terrible, more than likely evolved as a way of dealing with the frustrations of finding his place in a society that tends to marginalize wheelchair users. Ted is often frustrated, sometimes angry, but his actions make us laugh and feel better about ourselves.
Underneath Barton’s humble demeanor, perhaps taking shape in some well-lit corner of his creative subconscious, a unique cartoon character is just waiting to break out of the comfortable anonymity of a quiet Portland neighborhood and leap onto the pages of The New Yorker.
It’s every doodler’s dream to see one of his drawings in the nation’s quintessential showcase for cartoonists. But Barton, perhaps a doodler in grade school, is a serious contender these days. He has partnered up with Cooper again, who usually supplies the captions for Barton’s cartoons. Their plan is to begin submitting cartoons soon, in hopes that at least one of them will land on the desk of Bob Mankoff, the magazine’s cartoon editor since 1997 and a New Yorker cartoonist himself for 20 years prior to moving to the business side of the desk.
Barton knows that getting into the New Yorker is a long-odds proposition, but that doesn’t discourage him. “I suppose you’ve heard,” I asked him, “that Mankoff had 500 of his own cartoons rejected by the magazine before his first one was accepted?”
“Yeah, I read that, too. I thought that was encouraging,” he says. Encouraging? 500 rejections? “It tells me that if you keep at it, something good eventually happens,” he says. “What’s cool about art is you’re not going to get worse, you’re only going to get better. It’s not a waste of time as long as you’re having fun doing it.”