October 2005

Daniel Nester


An Interview with Matt Madden

An young man sits at his desk, hard at work on his laptop. He stands up and folds the laptop down. As he walks out of the room, he stops for a second.

“What time is it?” asks a voice.

“It’s 1:15,” he says.

The voice says “Thanks!” He opens the fridge. The young man then stares at the open fridge. He thinks to himself: What the hell was I looking for, anyway?!

That’s a transcription of the “template” story for graphic novelist Matt Madden’s newest book, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. Inspired by Raymond Queneau’s 1947 classic Exercises in Style, in which the French writer tells a perhaps even more quotidian tale in 99 different styles and genres -- haiku, sonnet, cross-examination, book jacket blurb -- 99 Ways places Madden into constraints drawn largely from the world of comics. One trip to the fridge takes on Marvel superhero proportions, another delves into R. Crumb undergroundania; there’s also sharp-haired manga and cheesy strip dailies. The final panel from the Beastmasteresque “fantasy” version is priceless: “Alas, what in Necrothania’s Pits of Doom did I seek?”

Madden found himself interested by using constraints in comics, similar to the comics the legendary OuLiPo (Workshop for Potential Literature), a group that uses quasi-mathematical constraints in writing co-founded by Queneau himself in 1960. In 2002 Madden was voted the “U.S. Correspondent” for OuBaPo, (Ouvroir de la Bande Dessinée Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Comics).

Set to be released by the Penguin imprint Chamberlain Brothers in October, Madden’s book has already garnered much buzz from the posted excerpts on his website along with comics and readings. We talked to Madden over cold beer on a late summer day at the French bistro Belleville in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, fellow graphic novelist Jessica Abel. Besides talking about 99 Ways, we discussed his entree into comics and the state of the form today. A glass-encased statue of Tintin presided over us as we spoke.

Tell me about how you began to be interested in graphic novels, comics. From what I gather, this happened in Ann Arbor, Michigan?

Well, basically at the end of my college years was when I got seriously into comics. I was not a big comics geek as a kid. I read Tintin, and the only superheroes I read were actually French translations of Marvel comics, because I lived in Paris for a while when I was a kid. In boarding school in the mid-80s, I found a box of National Lampoons and Heavy Metals in my dorm’s storage room. They were from the late '70s early '80s, back when those magazines were in their heyday. And that got me more familiar with some American underground stuff, American humor comics and European stuff, that kind of high fantasy -- Moebius and people like that.

And then sometime around then someone told me about Raw, Art Spiegelman’s magazine. I actually remember seeing it in a store in the early '80s on a visit to New York and not buying it and then regretting it later.

But eventually I tracked some of those magazines down, and got really excited about the punky new wave art and the noir-ish, absurdist stories but Tardi, Loustal, Panter, Beyer and the rest. And at the same time, this was the late 80s, so I would also go into the local comic book store, and I was buying Love and Rockets, early Daniel Clowes comics like Lloyd Llewelyn. Then there were Jim Woodring, Julie Doucet, Chester Brown with his Ed the Happy Clown comics, really great absurdist stories about vampires and clowns.

So it was all a big rush in the late 80s and early 90s. And I don’t remember why, but at a certain point I started drawing on my own, trying some stuff. This was when I was an undergrad at [University of Michigan], and I met these guys, Terry LaBan and Matt Feazell, who were already doing comics and stuff, started meeting with them every week, passing sketchbooks around and talking about comics. So that was what really gave me a goal and a motivation.

How would you characterize yourself in those days. Were you more a part of a reclusive nerd set, or were there alternative art community around? A little bit of both?

I was definitely the more reclusive academic type, reading on my own. I didn’t have a lot of friends who were into this stuff. Meeting Matt and Terry, who were doing comics, was great. And then they moved after awhile. So I was the only one I knew in Ann Arbor doing comics. It was sort of a thing I did on my own. You know, at the same time, I was really into music scene, I was a DJ on the radio station there, WCBN, so I was sort of involved in the alternative scene. And I did drawings for the station’s program guides.

So you weren’t the Big Comic Guy On Campus or anything?

No. Most people didn’t even know I did comics.

You are now the U.S. correspondent of OuBaPo, which is inspired by and is an off-shoot of the OuLiPo, the Workshop for Potential Literature. It’s fascinating to read about your getting hip the whole movement. How important does this remain in your life as an artist?

Well, OuBaPo -- the Workshop for Potential Comics -- was founded in France in 1992. The idea of doing something like this in America was basically my idea along with Jason [Little] and Tom [Hart]. I’d been interested in doing something more structural in comics, and I hadn’t been able to find anybody else who was willing to do it -- it’s sort of a common thread here, isn’t it, me being all alone?!

We all moved to New York around the same time, around 2000. The group experiment was to meet regularly to discuss constraint-based work we were doing and to come up with new constraints. And that’s what we did for the first year or two. But we sort of overreached ourselves a bit -- we started up a website. And we put a bunch a stuff up there, but it started to fizzle out after a while.

You do have a “Constraint Challenge” feature on the site, I see.

Yeah, and we did that, although there’s really only a few. The abecedarian constraint was my idea, and we got 12 comics. Some of them are really good. But basically none of us had the time and organization to keep it going.

The organization still exists, though?

The French guys are still going strong. We decided there should just be the one OuBaPo, the group in France. So I’m the Harry Mathews figure of OuBaPo [Mathews is the one American member of OuLiPo]. Tom and Jason and I along with our friend Tom Motley in Denver have vague plans to start a blog site but we’ll see what comes of that.

Have you talked to Harry Mathews about this honor?

Yeah, I did, and he congratulated me as one of the few foreign members. He said at first he was a “correspondent,” too, and that just quickly changed to member status. As far as he was concerned, he said, I was now a member. If I move to Paris, maybe that will happen, but it’s a big commute just to talk about palindrome comics.

It seems that you wanted a mainstream publisher for Exercises in Style. Can you explain why? Or, let me put this another way: Why did you choose this title to produce through a big publisher?

The basic answer is with a major publisher, you get the major distribution, and major promotional channels, wider exposure on the whole.

The longer answer is that this is my third full-length book. I’ve done two graphic novels with smaller, independent publishers before this -- Odds Off, which I did in 2001, I’m very proud of. But even that one, I’m not sure it’s something a major publisher would take on. It’s a little bit too much of a niche, cultish thing, and it was probably better off with a small publisher like Highwater Books -- even if that has since gone out of business.

Were you conflicted about making this choice? I guess this is the indie rock cred question, right?

Right, and no, I’m not conflicted about it, because, I’ve had enough “indie rock” experience working with well-intentioned but basically incompetent publishers and editors to know that the trade-off is not just a matter of getting a good advance. The goal is to get the book published well and on time and to see it distributed all over the country and get well-promoted. My experience with smaller publishers is that they have the commitment to make the book look great -- which is not something to take for granted -- but they often fail under all the other criteria to various degrees. I’ve never seen a sales statement or received even a token royalty check for any of my independently published books. So no, I don’t feel conflicted in that sense, especially since there was never any question about the content of the book. Chamberlain Brothers bought it “as is” and did not have any input on the content.

Now, the title is kind of a different story. It’s going to be called 99 Ways to Tell a Story, and not just Exercises in Style. Fortunately, I was open to the idea of not calling it just Exercises in Style, because I was thinking about the confusion with the Queneau book. So now it’s the subtitle. And I have certainly come up against some problems in working with a publishing house as large as Penguin. Even with a good agent, I have trouble getting ahold of basic information and I have ended up having less input in the production process than I had hoped. Still, when the book comes out, it will be all over the place and I have an actual publicity department helping me out, which is going to be great.

Tell me about how you started putting your comics into these -- ahem -- constraints.

It’s ironic because, when I started Exercise in Style, I did it entirely for my own amusement. And one of the reasons I took a long time to get started on it was that I was wondering if this would even keep my attention, or if it was too ridiculous an idea to pursue.

But as soon as I started working on it, I got excited about it. And at that point I figured I’d finish the book, apply for a Xeric Foundation grant, which is for comic book self-publishing. It would never make any money, but I’d just get it out there.

Then some excerpts started showing up places, and on my own website, and I got great reactions, not only from comics fans, but friends and family members who were otherwise generally indifferent to comics.

There’s also the non-comics writers who are fans of the OuLiPo movement.

Definitely, and it’s heartening when I tell people that I’m working on this book called Exercises in Style, and they say, ‘Oh, it’s based on Queaneu’s book.’ It’s amazing how often that happens. That book is far more popular and appreciated than I ever imagined.

How closely do your follow or mirror the Queaneu exercises?

Pretty much in title, the fact that there are 99 of them. Beyond that, as in Queneau’s book, I chose a humdrum nonstory. There’s not much that happens. His little nonstory is even more humdrum is even less narrative than mine. There’s actually a bit more of a narrative arc in mine -- a guy going to the refrigerator and forgetting what he’s looking for. Which, I have to say, ended up being useful in giving a sense of drama to some of the comics, especially the genre pastiches. But I tried to make it as neutral a set of occurrences as possible.

When I first started, I didn’t consult his book at all -- I wanted to see how far I could go on my own. There were some I remembered from the book -- different tenses, points of view. I went back to the book recently, and looked through his book to compare and see how it all shook out. And I came up with maybe 20 or so that use similar rhetorical strategies. Like obviously there’s first person and the monologue. But also like the ROYGBV comic, the colors of the rainbow, he has one in there called “Rainbow,” that incorporates all the colors in a single story.

I have to admit, I’ve learned about a couple priceless terms used in comics you use in Exercises in Style -- there’s self-explanatory terms like “30 panels” and “dailies,” but then there’s one like “Emanata,” which refers to those lines that denote emanation of a substance. Are these from Mort Walker’s Lexicon of Comicana? To what degree do you see this book as a primer of comics for comics-challenged people such as myself?

Yeah, it did occur to me as I worked on the book that it could certainly function as a primer demonstrating some of the principals and tropes of comics. Even something like the emanata and the sound effects comics, which are side by side. Those are different things. Sound effects are the Poom! Zap! Pow! And the emanata express motion and feelings with squiggly lines and marks. Those are tools that comic artists use, and they are kind of funny and over the top -- but they are also very useful, expressive tools.

What connection, if any, do you see in the recent interest in forms and restrictions recently -- I am a fan of Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions, in which the crazy Dane himself makes his old film professor remake his short film five times under five different constraints. Do you see a constriction craze happening?

That really seems to be the case, although I can’t say there’s a guiding force behind it or a convergence. There’s also three French movies, The Trilogy, where each one tells the same story -- one’s a thriller, one’s a romantic comedy, and the third is a cop film. Even something like mash-ups, where people take two pop songs and blend them together, can be seen as a kind of exercise in constrained creativity. It’s like it’s a hidden zeitgeist.

And there’s something about comics, with its mixture of images and text, that makes it particularly well-suited to quasi-mathematical rearrangement.

In an interview with Derek Badman over at MadInkBeard, you say that you’re not sure when you’re going to write in a “non-constrained work again,” partly because you were having “such a rewarding time exploring constraints and partly because comics take so long to draw.” You also have a desire to tell a “straight story.” Where do you see the difference? Not to sound too much like a graduate student here, but isn’t every work of art under some sort of constraint? Couldn’t you tell a straight story with all these constraints?

That is the ultimate goal for me in most of my work and that’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve been thinking about what my next longer project is going to be. I have some short stories in the works, but I’m always thinking about what my next long work might be. I want to come up with something that will be satisfying to the reader as a superficially “straight” story, but which is generated by constraints of various sorts, which a reader might still pick up on who is attuned to such things. I’m pretty happy with my sestina comic [included in A Fine Mess #2]. In fact, I did a public reading of it, and it got a big laugh. It seemed to work well as a story, an entertainment, and only afterwards did we go back and talk about the structure.

I know that you and your wife, fellow graphic novelist Jessica Abel, are in contract to write and are working on a “how-to” book on comics and graphic novels. Any updates? You got a title?

That’s going to be with First Second, the new comics imprint of Roaring Brook, and we do have a working title, which is Lines on Paper, inspired by the Robert Crumb quote -- “It’s just lines on paper, folks!” I’m not sure if we’re going to go with that. It won’t be out before 2007. We’re doing the first half this year, the second half the following year. There’s lots of stuff to do, even though a lot of it is based on teaching materials we have developed over the last few years. We’re writing out the chapters and exercises, and figuring out what art we need from other artists. I imagine it’ll be out in late 2007.

How do you feel about the prospect of comics artists and graphic novelists being part of the academy? When the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s School of Art and Design hired Phoebe Gloeckner [The Diary of a Teenage Girl] as part of its faculty, it seemed to be a watershed moment or something. Right? Is this a validation, institutionalization, or both?

I see it as a validation that’s not without its problematic side. Comics is a self-described lowly medium, and it’s been up until recently been considered lowly by other people. There’s a feeling, especially among underground and alternative cartoonists, that comics should remain lowly so that it remains under the cultural radar and thus stays more authentic. You see the same feeling with punk rock -- the more despised we are, the better, it’ll just let us just do what we do. And although I think there’s some truth to that, it’s also ultimately self-defeating when applied to the medium as a whole.

Teaching comics at a university is hardly going to mean that nobody is going to be able to do anymore crappy minicomics and bad, cheesy superhero comics. There’s always going to be room for lowly stuff and there’s always going to be people who support things under the radar. I don’t think validation from the ivory tower is going to really hurt that aspect of comics. It’s just going to add a new side to it.

So I’m all for it. It’s just another area that the form is being discussed. They’ve been teaching punk rock classes in universities practically since punk broke, whenever that was. It’s not like it’s killed the music -- it’s done plenty on its own to kill itself.