Matt was born in 1963 in Landsdale, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia, and started drawing at about age 5. His mother encouraged his artistic interests, and he cited the comic strips Peanuts and Li’l Abner as his earliest influences. After working at a burger chain and a broom factory, he decided to eschew “normal” life and therefore, as he wrote in an autobiographical letter to MariNaomi’s students (reposted on her Patreon), “I wanted no part of what was deemed ‘a normal life.’ I renounced materialism in all forms—except for books, which I consider something altogether different—and to this day, at age 49, I'm still the same. I've never owned a car, cell-phone, computer, credit card, you name it.”
He majored in illustration at the Philadelphia College of Art and after graduation, tried to establish a career in magazine illustration in New York. He began working at Fat Jack’s Comicrypt, a Philadelphia comic shop, and started thinking about his future. As he wrote to MariNaomi’s students,
If you're lost, career-wise, and haven't a clue what to do wit your life—I think it's crucial to metaphorically "sit perfectly still and do absolutely nothing" for as long as possible. Jobs, friends--just about anything could be considered a distraction. But, if left to ones own devices (like I was) I think eventually one begins to hear their calling. Passions, interests--these things all lead you to it. And for me, it was just doodling in my sketchbook and eventually making autobiographical vignettes. You can't go looking for money or success--in fact, you have to act as if you already have those things and still don't know what to do with yourself--and then it'll come to you. At least that's how it happened for me.
Peepshow #1 was nominated for the Eisner Award for Best Single Issue in 1993, and over the years Matt was also nominated for a number of Harvey Awards. The comic also gained praise from fellow cartoonists Matt Groening and Robert Crumb, as well as musician Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, whose 1997 interview with Matt is preserved on Weezerpedia.
In 2004, Futurama producer David X. Cohen began developing a series based on Peepshow for HBO (see “HBO Developing Joe Matt’s ‘The Poor Bastard’”), but the series never materialized.
In addition to his own work, Matt was a colorist for Matt Wagner, whom he met when they were both students at the Philadelphia College of Art. His work with Wagner included colors for the end of Mage and much of Grendel ,including the Batman/Grendel crossover.
New York Times, he talked about his collection of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley strips, on which he estimated he had spent $15,000. Many of them were included in Drawn & Quarterly’s multivolume collection of the comic, Walt & Skeezix.
In a Twitter thread announcing Matt’s death, Grendel creator Matt Wagner wrote, “Anyone who knew Joe knew that, yes, he was often as frustratingly stubborn and neurotic as he portrayed himself in those pages...but he was also charming, funny, insightful and loyal to the few friends he deemed worth the effort.”
Indeed, as the news of Matt’s death spread, friends and fellow creators took to social media to offer tributes to both his talent and his friendship. Matt had, among other things, been a cat-sitter for a cat named Seymour, and Seymour’s owner, Mike Hickey, posted his own remembrance on Facebook, saying, “I'm heartbroken by the loss of my friend Joe Matt. One of the kindest, most uniquely hilarious people I've known. He had a ONE OF A KIND personality and worldview… Joe had an almost childlike enthusiasm for the things he cared about, and I really appreciated that about him. A rare trait.”