Autism Interview #151: Matt Dunford on Comics, Literacy, and Autism

Matt Dunford started his love of comics before he could even read and has attended every San Diego Comic-Con since 1994. This inspired him to pursue a career in comics, leading him to be an editor at Semantink Publishing, Senior Editor of Keyleaf Comics, and the President of Little Fish Comic Book Studio. In 2017, he was unanimously elected as Chairman of San Diego Comic Fest and continues to spearhead the convention. He has taken up an active role in the community with a focus on WWII history, serving as the PR & Marketing Director for the video game publisher Crytivo, and as a member of the Non-Profit organization, Creators Assemble! Matt’s passion for the comic book medium is only surpassed by his enthusiasm for sharing it with everyone. This week Matt shared how his love of comics helped him understand the world and make friends and how he now works with individuals on the spectrum who might also benefit from this medium.

When/how did you first become aware of your Autistic identity?

It wasn’t always awareness or even a label; it’s just who I was and who I still am to this day. I was different, but I wasn’t told that I was different. I had been attending private school up through 5th grade, but then in 6th grade, I was switched into a program that was more “accommodating to my needs” as they would say. The private school noticed that I was getting good grades in certain subjects and not so good grades in other classes. This is fairly typical of others like me where you will excel at things you are enthusiastic about. But on the other hand, you can completely shrug off things that don’t interest you and act like they just don’t exist.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of school when I got into some trouble. One of the teacher’s assistants assigned to me said something along the lines of “Oh, it’s not his fault, he has Asperger’s Syndrome.” You hear the term thrown around and avoid it like the plague because you don’t want to be associated with a certain kind of “burgers.” Around the time when I was in college, I finally started looking into what it really meant. I started understanding why I have bad eye contact, why I’m picky about foods, and why I’m so into some specific interests, but shrug off everything in the world that I don’t like. I stayed in the spectrum closet for a while, but when I finally came out, everyone already knew my worst kept secret.

In a recent article, you described comics as “the gateway drug to a lifetime of literacy.” What first drew you to comics as a child, and how has comic reading helped you learn more about the world?

Being on the spectrum, there are always going to be things that I was drawn to and want to learn more about. My first area of interest was pirates, which led me to an obsession with Lego Pirates, and all hell broke loose when a Lego Pirate comic came packaged with a set. Playing with the Legos, I had to make my own stories, but suddenly I had this comic that told their story. I was so thrilled to learn this story because it looked so cool, but there were words inside the little balloons, and I couldn’t read. So after begging my parents to read it to me eight times per day, they got me Hooked on Phonics.

It wasn’t long after that Lego Pirate Comic that I came across a character called Spider-Man and soon became hooked on his adventures. Spidey is a cool character, it’s easy to see why kids can get hooked on his comics, and he’s a great role model. Superhero comics aren’t always going to be trashy battles against evil supervillains; they have the opportunity to explore a variety of themes. You have the chance to explore not only right and wrong, but world cultures, science, politics, and limitless other stories. I may have only seen these as surface topics, but if I didn’t understand them, I would just ask my parents about them and get an explanation. So you end up a little bit more cultured and experienced from every story you read. But comics are a gateway drug to a life of literacy because they are so entertaining and so addictive. To all the parents out there, if you get your kids hooked on comics, they’ll never have money to spend on drugs.

I remember being told when I was young by my teachers that comics didn’t count as real books. What do you think is the reason/cause for this perspective? Do you see more willingness to accept this medium as valid today?

Reading a comic book is still reading, and a comic book is still a book. I believe this stems back from this erroneous research back in 1954 from Dr. Frederick Wertham who demonized comics in his book Seduction of the Innocent. He basically interviewed a small group of kids in juvenile hall and asked them what was their favorite activity? Their answer was reading comics, so Wertham thought he had a clear scapegoat. But if he asked kids on the honor roll the same question, their answer would also have been reading comics. The comic book has had to dig its way out of the hole since then, taking little baby steps along the way. Comics have gone from being accepted to being harmful to been seen as childish, then trashy, and then nerdy. Comics just can’t catch a break.

I have never had a negative view of comics and always given the medium the respect it deserves. To improve public perception of comics, please remember that it is a medium, not a genre. It is not all spandex-clad superheroes–you can tell any kind of story that you want with comics. People accept writing, and they also accept art. However, when you combine writing and art into one as a comic, then suddenly it is no longer acceptable? I’m happy that comics have grown to be appreciated and accepted by society, but they still have a long way to go. Over the past 30 years, comics have been classified as “graphic novels” in order to gain acceptance by readers, but I object to the term. I don’t go to the graphic novel store, I go to the comic store. I don’t go to graphic novel cons, I go to comic cons. I’m not afraid to call a comic what it is and not going to dress it up the way that a movie would be called a “motion picture.” Embrace comics for being comics because they are awesome.

You’ve said that your interest in comics helped you make friends. Can you explain this?

Spectrum kids are not exactly known for their exceptional social skills. But if you get them talking about something they are passionate about, then getting them to stop talking will be the only issue you’ve got. I was a voracious comic reader, and as soon as I found fellow fanboys, it felt like I met someone who could finally speak my language. I was always afraid of telling other kids that I liked nerdy stuff back in the day because I was afraid that they would make fun of me. Now kids live in a golden age where they can let their geek flag fly and be embraced for being a nerd instead of being mocked.

Back then, other people who read comics were the ones willing to be my friends because they were the only ones who could deal with my non-stop talking. These days there are online groups, comic conventions, and local comic stores where you can meet like-minded readers. Reading comics is fun, but when you finish, the first thing you want to do is talk about it with someone. It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to keep it to yourself, especially when you can chat about it with someone.

In what ways have you used comics to support or advocate for individuals on the spectrum?

For individuals on the spectrum, I use comics as a common ground to start up a conversation. I see a lot of parents put their kids in special programs, but I’ll just go up and talk to them about what they are interested in. From there I’ll end up with a long conversation with these kids about their very narrow interests where they begin opening up with every little detail. Sometimes, I’ll slide in and say “There’s a comic you might like on that subject.” All too often these kids will read that comic until it falls apart.

The cool thing about comics and spectrum people is that you can be sneaky with comics. All too often spectrum people might be hesitant to get into new subject material, but if it’s in the form of a comic, suddenly it becomes enticing and entertaining. I have used this as an educator and sometimes the process of getting children into something new can be slow, but ultimately rewarding. I have found that stepping out of your comfort zone is something that is difficult for those of us on the spectrum, not for fear of disappointment, but instead, for fear of enjoying it. This is because if we enjoy something, then we feel this pressure to learn every last detail about this new thing.

What role do comics play in your life today?

Comics still play a major role in my life as my main source of entertainment. I never get tired of reading them, talking about them, or meeting the people who create them. I am happy to see all different kinds of comics emerge and thriving from superheroes, manga, editorial cartoons, webcomics, and a new generation of self-published creators. I love cultivating an environment for people who love comics, and I love educating on comic book history and creation. I was glad that I was able to pull off the event San Diego Comic Fest right before the quarantine hit; many other conventions weren’t so lucky.

I would love to keep moving ahead with a career in comics because I jump around from many roles from editor, historian, educator, and convention organizer. It would be nice to settle into a role where I’m not running around so much and I can focus my abilities on a single thing. But for now, I’m happy helping comic creators in roles at Little Fish Comic Book Studio and Creators Assemble! I would love to bring back San Diego Comic Fest, but I can’t in good faith start planning a convention while the pandemic is still going on. Until then I’m just happy to sit inside and read comics. I just wish that I could finally read everything that I have in my collection, but there aren’t enough hours in the day.

What are some ways society needs to change to improve autism acceptance/understanding? 

Treat autistic people as people. Yes, it’s a spectrum, and everyone on it is different, but people really don’t understand the potential you can unlock when you nurture this gift. Autistic people may not be the most social creatures in the world, but they are among the most intelligent. Be accepting of them and what they are most passionate about because that is what they are going to excel at. It is good to see the representation of autistic characters in comics, TV and movies, but I would love to see some changes. I would love to see autistics show their personal strengths and what they are good at. I don’t want them depicted as antisocial victims, but to see them as the superheroes they were meant to be behind their secret identities.

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