Staring at a computer screen in his Abita Springs home office, Bunny Matthews cast a critical eye on a recent depiction of his famous “Nint’ Ward” cartoon couple, Vic and Nat’ly Broussard.
“I never would have shown this in the past,” he said, surveying the scanned image’s soft contours and uneven backdrop. “Everything would have been perfect in the past. But it’s not like it was.”
For Matthews, nothing really is. Last summer, he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Surgeons cut open his skull to remove a tumor. Complications triggered a stroke-like paralysis. For weeks, he couldn’t talk or walk, much less create the crisp, tightly composed images that are his calling card.
For more than 40 years, Matthews has chronicled New Orleans culture, even as he became one of its most distinctive voices. Vic and Nat’ly are his best-known, most lucrative creations, but his body of work encompasses thousands of pieces of art.
These days, his focus is on restoring as much of himself as possible. His speech has largely recovered, though a slight slur remains. He walks with the aid of a cane.
And though the results may not be up to his old standards, he’s drawing again. Last fall, he dashed off a flier for “BunnyFest,” a benefit concert at Tipitina’s produced by his son Jude. Vic and Nat’ly adorn a new poster for the 2016 Taste at the Lake, a fundraiser for a Lakeview civic organization.
Most prominently, Vic and Nat’ly celebrate “da French Quarters” on a limited-edition souvenir T-shirt Matthews designed for the 2016 French Quarter Festival, which opens Thursday.
“We wanted Bunny to know how much we love and appreciate him,” said Marci Schramm, the festival’s executive director. “He and his art capture the spirit of our event and our neighborhood — a lot of heart and a lot of personality.”
For Matthews, who turned 65 in February, cancer has been a game-changer. “I used to be able to look at you and draw exactly like you look,” he said. “Now I draw like a child. But people like it better, so c’est la vie.”
Another change: Vic’s formerly omnipresent cigarette is gone. “Cigarettes are nice little props — it was cool to draw them with Vic,” he said. “But it’s not really right. I see no reason to give more publicity to that. I’ll never draw cigarettes again.”
Biting satire and a gleeful willingness to provoke have long been hallmarks of Matthews’ work; he both skewered and celebrated local idiosyncrasies.
But that which didn’t kill him has made him kinder. He signed off the June 23 Facebook post announcing his cancer diagnosis with, “REMEMBER: Love is the only thing that really matters.”
“I’m more modest and down to earth,” he said. “Having cancer has made me a better person, really.”
The piney woods
Since 1988, Will Bunn “Bunny” Matthews III, one of the sharpest, most insightful observers of New Orleans characters, quirks and foibles, has lived on a cul-de-sac in a piney subdivision of Abita Springs.
The quiet north shore community “is like Metairie or Chalmette or Kenner — it’s another suburb” of New Orleans, he said. “To cross the lake is not a big deal.”
He and his wife of nearly 30 years, Debbie, moved across Lake Pontchartrain to get more house for their money. They also believed the north shore offered better public schools for their boys, Jude and Noah.
Their home is tidy and uncluttered, save for Matthews’ office. There, cinderblock shelves are laden with an altar-like assemblage of books, paintings, totems and tchotchkes. Hundreds of vinyl albums are cataloged near a small drum kit.
Dominating the space is an overburdened, 10-foot-long oak table. Almost every Vic and Nat’ly cartoon was created at this table, which Matthews bought for $100 in 1980.
Its previous home was Xavier University Preparatory School, the Uptown all-girls Catholic high school that is now St. Katharine Drexel Prep. Nuns’ names are still inscribed inside the table’s drawers. “I like that,” Matthews said.
He does not own a cellphone and claims only passing familiarity with computer technology. But he frequents Facebook, posting New Orleans music and his art and photos. In one, a young Matthews, in a sport coat and tie, shakes hands with James Brown.
He also has documented his medical crisis on Facebook. “I wanted to be upfront about it,” he said. “If I can make one person think about cancer in a new light, that’s good. It’s just a disease. Don’t let the disease be your life.”
‘The way we live is art’
Matthews has expounded in public his entire adult life. Born in Monroe, he moved to Metairie at age 3. After graduating from East Jefferson High School, he enrolled at the University of New Orleans. A high lottery number decreased his chances of being drafted during the Vietnam War, so he quit college and became a freelance writer.
His first celebrity interview was a 1967 chat with Paul Revere & the Raiders vocalist Mark Lindsay at the Royal Orleans Hotel. Many more followed. A briefcase-size Sony TC-224 tape recorder was his most trusted accessory.
Working at Jim Russell Records on Magazine Street, Matthews was indoctrinated in New Orleans rhythm and blues. He met, interviewed and/or befriended such local legends as Earl King, Allen Toussaint, Eddie Bo, Professor Longhair and James Booker. Later, they turned up in his art.
Matthews wrote about music and drew cartoons for the weekly newspaper Figaro. The editor suggested he invest the cartoons with more local flavor. The result was the popular series “F’Sure: Actual Dialogue Heard on the Streets of New Orleans.”
It led to the 1982 debut of Vic and Nat’ly in Dixie, The Times-Picayune’s Sunday magazine section. The fictional couple operates a 9th Ward bar and po-boy shop; they speak in Big Easy broken English. Vic, with his pickle nose and perpetual stubble, comes across as a cruder, older, less erudite Ignatius J. Reilly.
Matthews embellished the intricate panels with arcane quotes from literature and lyrics.
Vic and Nat’ly later migrated to Wavelength, New Orleans magazine, Gambit and the entertainment monthly OffBeat, which Matthews edited from 1999 to 2005.
In 1996, the Whann family, owners of Leidenheimer Baking Co., commissioned a Vic and Nat’ly side panel for the company’s delivery trucks. Twenty years later, Vic and Nat’ly still munch an oversize po-boy on dozens of Leidenheimer vehicles. They’ll likely still be delivering French bread long after their creator is gone. “That’s one of the best things I ever did,” Matthews said.
His cartoons, concert fliers and highly stylized art are constructed with clean, meticulous lines. His work is instantly recognizable. Women are often voluptuous and sometimes bare-chested. His wife discourages such displays of cartoon flesh, believing they hurt sales. “But I disagree totally,” Bunny said, smiling.
His art has been collected in books. The Ogden Museum of Southern Art houses his wall-size “Nint’Wardica,” a variation on Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” inspired by the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The Arthur Roger Gallery is planning a joint exhibition of works by Matthews and the late George Dureau for this summer’s White Linen Night.
Matthews wants the exhibit to include actual po-boys, Vic’s favorite food. “The way that we live in New Orleans is art,” he said. “Po-boys, raw oysters and things like that are works of art.”
‘I want to live’
In May, it was his own art that first hinted something was amiss. As he signed copies of the 2015 Taste at the Lake poster, his signature, always as precise as his drawings, kept tilting. He couldn’t force his hand to stay level. “I could feel that something was wrong in my body,” he recalled.
In June, he and Debbie spent a couple of nights in New Orleans. He couldn’t shake a persistent headache. Dining at Bayona and Brennan’s, he felt disoriented and woozy, even though he hadn’t drunk any alcohol.
Back in Abita Springs, he veered diagonally while walking to his mailbox. The next day, a Friday, Debbie drove him to the emergency room, fearing he’d suffered a stroke.
When initial tests came back negative, he started to get dressed; he wanted to go get chicken for lunch. A neurologist stopped him: There was a mass on his brain, an aggressive, malignant tumor.
Immediate surgery was necessary. A doctor, however, recommended waiting until Wednesday. “He said, ‘Don’t ever have an operation in Louisiana on Monday, because everybody is hungover,’ ” Matthews said. “I thought that was pretty good advice.”
The initial surgery to remove the tumor went fine. The remaining cancer cells were “carpet-bombed” with methotrexate, a potent chemotherapy drug.
Weeks later, though, Matthews’ condition worsened dramatically. He couldn’t walk or talk. Doctors discovered a cyst had developed on his brain. They operated to drain it.
Two weeks after that, spinal fluid started seeping from his skull. Doctors cut into his head to insert a shunt. The next day, they went in again to correct the installation.
All told, Matthews’ brain was exposed four times.
At one point in August, his survival was uncertain. But slowly, he battled back from the brink. He wanted to use a wheelchair; Debbie, his fiercest advocate, refused, insisting he relearn how to walk.
By late December, scans showed no signs of the tumor.
‘You can’t give in’
His ordeal is far from over. The shunt still extends from his ear to his stomach. He has a port in his side. Once a month, he spends five days at Ochsner Medical Center for chemotherapy.
He wears a pager around his neck, in case he falls and can’t get up. In February, Debbie finally deemed him self-sufficient enough to be left home alone.
He is no longer allowed to drive. But even before he got sick, he was a homebody: “If I had my druthers, I’d stay home all the time.” These days, he ventures out mostly for medical appointments.
But he and Debbie spent a recent weekend in New Orleans for a friend’s wedding. On Easter, they dined at the Covington restaurant Oxlot 9. A man costumed as a bunny turned out to be an oncologist. A patient of his with a diagnosis similar to Matthews’ has lived for 10 years and counting. The oncologist told Matthews, “I know it’s rough now, but you can get past it.”
He took those words to heart. “People are afraid of cancer, like it’s some weird thing,” he said. “We’ll all get it, because we live a long time now. You can’t give in. You have to fight it. You can win. I won.”
Rigorous physical therapy sessions leave him gasping for breath, but he doesn’t mind: “It’s a lot of work, but you just do it. I want to live. The alternative is terrible.”
His father, mother, sister and scores of friends, from Booker to Toussaint, have all passed on. He’d prefer not to join them anytime soon.
“There’s nothing cool about being dead,” he said. “I’d rather be alive. Living is the best.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.