Reading Comics This Way and That Way

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Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (Penguin), a comics adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, is a fascinating analysis of and a treatise, of sorts, on language in comics. Madden started self-publishing minicomics in the early 90s. His first graphic novel, Black Candy, was published by Black Eye Books in 1998; his second, Odds Off, was published by Highwater Books in 2001. He also translates from French and Spanish. His translation from the French of Aristophane’s The Zabîme Sisters (First Second) was published in the fall of 2010. In 2002 he was named foreign correspondent of the French avant-garde comics group, OuBaPo (the Workshop for Potential Comics). I recently questioned him about 99 Ways to Tell a Story, and his answers were intriguing and insightful (thank you Matt):

What was your impetus for this book?This book was directly inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947), where Queneau, himself inspired by a performance of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, set out to write a suite of variations on a very simple narrative theme. So he tells a short anecdote about a character on a bus in 99 different ways, such as “backwards”; “antonyms”; “sonnet”; “blurb”; “botatnical”, where all the nouns are replaced with fruit and vegetables; or “Poor lay Zanglay”, which is written phonetically to sounds like French with a strong English accent. There’s an excellent translation of it by Barbara Wright that’s still in print from New Directions.

I discovered Exercises in Style in the early 90s, when I was in my honeymoon phase with comics, reading, drawing, and absorbing as much as I could. I realized right away that the concept of this book could be adapted to comics with really interesting results. Obviously, in addition to still having text to play with, I would have the range of drawing styles and techniques to play with. But I would also have the structural elements that hold comics together: design, in a word.

“Design,” I agree entirely. So, what is the key thing that makes this different from all other books on comics and visual storytelling?99 Ways to Tell a Story isn’t a how-to book or an essay, it is a work of comics art. But its very subject is the language, style and rhetoric of comics and visual storytelling. By dipping into it and reading a few comics, even at random, you can’t help but get drawn into a conversation about what makes one story different from another. There is, of course, a purely playful aspect to it, along the lines of “one of these things is not like the others”, but the more you read, the more the work forefronts the tools comics and visual storytelling use to tell you “you’re reading X genre,” or “you’re reading something full of emotion”, or “you’re reading something authoritative”. And we see these tools swapped out and varied from page to page: voice-over narration, black-spotting, panel size, line weight, compression of time, even reading order.

Now, tell me YOUR most revealing part of the experience of putting the book together?What was most revealing to me about the experience was the sense of constant wonder and engagement I could find reworking this simple “non-story” of a comic 99 times and more (I worked on about 20 more that never made it to completion). I started this project as a challenge to myself: both to see if I could pull it off but also to see if I could plumb some of the richness of visual narrative that I was looking for. I chose early on to limit myself as much as possible with my process:

1. Every page would be one page only (Queneau’s stories vary) to concentrate attention on page layout and composition.2. every page would include all the dialogue in some form or other.3. every page would try to change as little as posslble from the “Template” comic: number and placement of panels, position of characters in the panels, props used, and so on

My idea was that for the project to work, it had to have as much overall integrity as possible. And what I found was the each new approach I took revealed some surprising solution and sometimes even offered a new interpretation of the narrative.

That is fascinating. At first glance I felt like I was in a comics “groundhog day,” and then I was hit by the visual and linguistic shifts, some very subtly.

Each comic is instantly recognizable as the source template, many of them at first glance appear to be exactly the same, which encourages a kind of enhanced reading which I value highly as an author and as a reader.

(Illustrations: Each represents a method of telling the same story (from top): Welcome, Retrograde, Flashback and Unreliable Narrator.)

(To order 99 Ways to Tell a Story go here.)