Thursday, May 25, 2023
Mark Cave, senior historian

Disclaimer: Recently acquired collections might not be immediately available to view online or in the Williams Research Center reading room. Researchers can inquire about availability via email.

In March of 2023 The Historic New Orleans Collection acquired the archive of Bunny Matthews, the cartoonist and writer best known for his iconic characters Vic and Nat’ly. The 800-plus items in the collection provide a thorough look at the artist’s work from different stages of his professional career. Matthews’s drawings, both in color and black and white, cover a wide range of topics of local interest, including politics, language, and the New Orleans Saints, as well as local traditions associated with holidays, festivals, and the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. In addition to around 600 pieces of finished artwork, the collection includes over 200 unfinished drawings, some of them related to Matthews’s family and advertising work, as well as ephemera, notebooks, correspondence, and a scrapbook.

Not only is this archive a significant addition to our collection of 20th-century art; it will also anchor a forthcoming THNOC publication—a Bunny Matthews monograph, coauthored by Alison Fensterstock and Michael Tisserand. In addition to discussing Matthews’s work as a cartoonist, the book, provisionally titled Over the Line: The Life and Art of Bunny Matthews, will also cover his years as a music journalist and promoter, as well as his capacity for courting controversy.

A black-and-white photo of Bunny Matthews standing between drawings of his cartoon characters Vic and Nat'ly

Bunny Matthews with his classic creations, Vic and Nat'ly. (THNOC, 2022.0224.4)

Will Bunn “Bunny” Matthews III (1951–2021) grew up in Metairie, went to the University of New Orleans, and worked at Jim Russell Records in the Lower Garden District and the Mushroom record shop near Tulane University before devoting himself to work as a freelance writer and cartoonist. Matthews’s first cartoons appeared in an alternative newspaper called The Word in the late 1960s. He eventually achieved local and national renown with his characters Vic and Nat’ly Broussard, outspoken residents of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. The first published appearance of Vic and Nat’ly was in Dixie, a weekly supplement to the Times-Picayune. An earlier comic strip called F’Sure appeared in the 1970s and early ’80s and featured what would become Matthews’s characteristic unsanitized views of life in New Orleans. F’Sure ran in the weekly Figaro newspaper. Matthews also had regular comic strips in Gambit, OffBeat, and Wavelength, and he was a fixture on the local public television show Steppin’ Out.

 Poster for the 1979 Po-Boy Festival featuring a drawing of an alligator holding a po-boy as he talks to a man sitting next to him smoking. The caption above the alligator's head reads: "Gimme dat hot sauce, Cap!"

Matthews’s poster for the first annual New Orleans Po-Boy Festival features Vic and Nat’ly Broussard. (THNOC, 1979.360)

His artwork spiced up local advertising, most notably in ads and on bread trucks for the Leidenheimer Baking Company. Matthews also contributed to public art, such as a prominent mural in the New Orleans Pavilion at the 1984 World’s Fair. According to Times-Picayune art critic Doug MacCash, “He was part of the circle of 1980s New Orleans artists, including George Febres, Douglas Bourgeois, and Jacqueline Bishop, who favored highly detailed, recognizable renderings.” These artists, along with Ann Hornback, Andrew Bascle, Charles Blank, and Dona Lief, are members of a group known as the Visionary Imagists; are all represented in THNOC’s holdings. Their artworks address cultural and social issues and environmental concerns. Matthews’s work differs in its deliberate focus on working-class locals. Although the Visionary Imagists achieved renown in the local art world, Matthews’s work found broader popular appeal—Vic and Nat’ly are immediately identifiable and well known in New Orleans and the surrounding region.

Black-and-white photo of seven artists.

The Visionary Imagists, with Matthews at left in the back row (THNOC, gift of Dr. Jerah Johnson, 2015.0390.89)

As beloved as Vic and Nat’ly became, Matthews worked in caricature that bordered on the grotesque. Like the 1960s and ’70s underground comics artists who influenced him—especially R. Crumb—Bunny’s caricature work in matters of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation was complex and often controversial. “Matthews’s polarizing representation stems from his deep ideological need to combat political correctness,” writes Nicholls State University cultural studies professor Aaron Duplantier in his article “Bunny Matthews’s Worldview: Race, Art, and Love for New Orleans.” Fensterstock and Tisserand will delve deeply into this aspect of Matthews’s life and work in Over the Line.

: Poster advertising an event at Tipitina’s on May 27, 1977, featuring Professor Longhair.

Matthews designed this poster for Professor Longhair’s show at Tipitina’s (from the Michael P. Smith Collection at THNOC, 2007.0103.7.7)

Since his days working at Jim Russell Records, Matthews was involved in the local music scene. He served as confidante to pianist James Booker and was the editor of OffBeat magazine for a number of years, interviewing musicians such as James Brown, Bob Marley, Elvis Costello, Cab Calloway, Al Green, and many more. He was one of the “Fabulous Fo’Teen” who helped put Tipitina’s on the map in the late 1970s and early ’80s, drawing designs for dozens of posters for the venue. Matthews also had his own rock band called Bunny and the Playboys, and he played drums in a New Wave band called the Ballistics with members of the Rhapsodizers. He moved to Abita Springs in the 1980s and died after a long struggle with brain cancer in 2021.

Matthews’s wife, Debbie, passed away in 2018. He is survived by two sons, Noah and Jude. It was Jude, as manager of Matthews’s estate, who brought the archive to The Collection. THNOC is thrilled to be the new stewards of the work of this singular artist, a man who, as Tisserand stated in Matthews’s obituary, “helped define for New Orleans an appreciation of our own authenticity.”

Below, we present a brief sampling of drawings from the archive.

A cartoon drawing of a man and woman talking about Mardi Gras costumes. The cartoon includes a quote from poet W.B. Yeats: "Come, let me sing into your ear; those dancing days are gone, all that silk and satin gear."

Matthews quotes the poet W. B. Yeats in this Vic and Nat’ly comic from 2009. (THNOC, acquisition made possible by the generosity of the 2023 Laussat Society, 2022.0218.1.71)

A cartoon of four men dressed as Santa Claus singing and playing instruments.

Matthews used this comic as his Christmas card. (THNOC, acquisition made possible by the generosity of the 2023 Laussat Society, 2022.0218.5.3)

A drawing of a woman being frightened by a roach. The roach says "Ah, come on! I don't bite!" Text below reads "1730 - Les Filles a la Cassette ("the Casket Girls") arrive - poor but marriageable French women of good character, supplied with a "cassette" (a small chest) containing their clothing and the odd roach or two."

This panel is one in a series of large-format comics Matthews penned, called “A Roach’s History of New Orleans.” (THNOC, acquisition made possible by the generosity of the 2023 Laussat Society, 2022.0218.4.2)

Cartoon of a man and woman on a couch watching television. The woman says "The idea of 24-hour news is not to watch it 24 hours a day..." The man responds "Hey! If the Libyans invade Miami, I don't wanna be looking at Linda Evans beating up Joan Collins!!"

Matthews drew comics for TV Focus, a supplemental section of the Times-Picayune, drawing humor from TV tropes and personalities. (THNOC, acquisition made possible by the generosity of the 2023 Laussat Society, 2022.0218.12)

Handwritten text of the dialogue from a comic.

Many of the comics in the archive show the dialogue on the reverse side of the image. (THNOC, 2022.0218.1.283)

Banner image: THNOC, acquisition made possible by the generosity of the 2023 Laussat Society, 2022.0218.1.265

About The Historic New Orleans Collection

Founded in 1966, The Historic New Orleans Collection is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to the stewardship of the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Follow THNOC on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.