Matt Madden, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (Chamberlain Bros, 2005)
"99 Ways to Tell a Story is a series of engrossing one-page comics that tell the same story ninety-nine different ways. Inspired by Raymond Queneau's 1947 Exercises in Style, a mainstay of creative writing courses, Madden's project demonstrates the expansive range of possibilities available to all storytellers. Readers are taken on an enlightening tour-sometimes amusing, always surprising -through the world of the story. Writers and artists in every media will find Madden's collection especially useful, even revelatory. Here is a chance to see the full scope of opportunities available to the storyteller, each applied to a single scenario: varying points of view, visual and verbal parodies, formal reimaginings, and radical shuffling of the basic components of the story. Madden's amazing series of approaches will inspire storytellers to think through and around obstacles that might otherwise prevent them from getting good ideas onto the page. 99 Ways to Tell a Story provides a model that will spark productive conversations among all types of creative people: novelists, screenwriters, graphic designers, and cartoonists."
"In 1947, Raymond Queneau—mathematician, poet, fiction writer, and member of the Oulipo group dedicated to using formal constraints imposed on one's own work as a method of generating creativity—published Exercises in Style. He took a simple story and told it in 99 different styles (as a letter, various kinds poems, moral lesson about The Youth of Today, etc.). The narrative itself is wholly unremarkable: a young man gets on a crowded bus, complains about being jostled, and then sits down when a seat becomes available; later, the narrator sees the man who jostled him in another part of town talking to a friend. In 99 Ways to Tell a Story, Matt Madden performs a kind of homage to Queneau by doing the same thing, only in comix. The narrative itself is even more unremarkable than the original: a man who has been working at a computer stands, closes his laptop, and walks to the refrigerator. His wife asks him what time it is from upstairs. He responds 1:15. Then he bends in front of the fridge, looking puzzled, wondering "What the hell was I looking for, anyway?" Madden retells that narrative in a variety of comic-book styles, points of view, settings, angles, with different characters, without one of the two leads, without the refrigerator, as a paranoid religious tract, as an existentialist parable, you name it. The outcome, which sounds like it should dreary as dust, is fascinating, stimulating, and a micro-education in narrativity. One way I know I'm reading a wonderful text is that it makes me want to go out and write, and Madden's does like few I've come across recently." - Lance Olsen
"Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story is essentially a comic-book riff on Raymond Queneau's formalist experiment, Exercises in Style, published in 1947, a retelling of two humdrum encounters no fewer than 99 times, using every possible tense and type of voice, from free verse and sonnet to exclamatory telegram.
Mercifully, Madden's comic-book homage manages to sidestep the creaking pretension of Oulipo, Queneau's 'potential literature workshop', and balances postmodern irony with genuine invention and amusement.
In 99 Ways, our protagonist takes an apparently uneventful trip to the refrigerator and peers inside, while a voice from out of frame enquires about the time. After looking at his watch and providing an answer, our protagonist stares blankly inside the fridge, having now forgotten what he was looking for. This is Madden's basic one-page 'template', to which all subsequent retellings refer, however indirectly. This nondescript scenario is developed with each new iteration and unexpected possibilities are gradually revealed. Each time, the same events are depicted, but from a different point of view or in a different visual style - from Japanese manga and romance comics to cartographic diagrams and even the Bayeux Tapestry.
Slight changes in context, dialogue and framing have surprising and sometimes funny results, and the overall effect is oddly compelling. Inevitably, Madden stretches his basic template almost to destruction, with a version as seen initially from outer space, another told as praise overheard in a bar, and another as viewed by a crime-scene investigator, complete with wrecked and blood-smeared fridge. Other notable versions include parodies in the styles of Winsor McCay, George Herriman and Fantastic Four illustrator, Jack Kirby. (For readers unfamiliar with arcane comic-book references, explanatory notes are provided.)
99 Ways is in part a demonstrative textbook on formal possibilities, and partly a wry diversion. Either way, Madden illustrates how the story and its telling are tightly braided; even a small shift of perspective transforms the most banal series of events into something that is by turns farcical and intriguing." - Daniel Trilling
"This is either the most maddening comic ever or a small work of genius. A few pages would suggest the former. By the end, thankfully, it reveals itself as the latter. One banal exchange in the illustrator's life is replayed over and over, in a new style each time. He gets up from the computer, is asked the time, answers, and opens the fridge. That's the story, but we see it refracted in every style from monologue to extreme close-up, silhouette to political cartoon. Due respect is paid to Raymond Queneau's original text, Exercises in Style, but this visual counterpart might even be better. The book acts as a primer to the different styles of illustrated novel, from manga to the "comics mainly without pictures" of poet Kenneth Koch. Madden's best decision is to give his protagonist a single last line to deliver to the fridge: "What the hell was I looking for anyway?" Innocent enough when he's staring down the mayo, but it becomes by turns poignant, creepy, suggestive and, in the variation entitled "Creationism", altogether celestial. "Yet on the eighth day, He did wonder what the hell He was looking for, anyway." - Craig Taylor
"The original 'story' is simple and banal: a man is working at his laptop, gets up and goes to another room, hears someone from upstairs ask what time it is, answers ("It's 1:15"), opens a refrigerator, and finds that he's forgotten what he was looking for. The brilliance of 99 Ways to Tell a Story is almost as banal: Madden simply retells essentially the same story again and again. Yet it is never the same story - and one of the wonders of the book is how very different a story and one's appreciation of it can be even when it has just been slightly altered.
Some of the variations are merely a change of the perspective, others relate the story in a different way or style (both drawn and/or written), or add or take away elements. A few are radically different approaches - the story presented as a graph, a map, a binary version. There are numerous homages and the story is presented as everything from a public service announcement to a part of the Bayeux tapestry.
It sounds like an amusing game, but it really is more than that. The variations are well-done (some in full colour, all as simply sketched or complexly rendered as each variation demands), and the overall effect is one of allowing -- or even forcing -- the reader to appreciate how much form can affect content. It might seem a trite point, but readers are so used to simply accepting as given how a writer presents his or her material that they often forget that, in fact, presentation plays an enormous role in how the story is perceived. Madden's book is a revelatory demonstration of how readers can be manipulated and how a text can mislead.
Working with both text and images Madden has even more to play with than Queneau did, and he makes the most of it. Astonishingly, for a book that is above all else repetitive, it never gets boring. Even the obvious is interesting, and Madden also comes up with a lot of great stuff, ways of seeing that might not have occurred to the reader.
Fantastic and thought-provoking fun. Highly recommended." - The Complete Review
"Queneau's book serves as a textbook on form and narrative. It's also a mainstay for college creative writing classes. Its popularity can no doubt be linked to its outright challenging of preconceived notions of exactly what defines a narrative. Can a telegram or a book jacket be considered a narrative - or literature, for that matter? According to Queneau, narrative and form are inextricably bound, and form has the power to completely transform even the simplest of narratives.
Madden explores these same issues - as well as other questions regarding comics' place in literature - in 99 Ways. A simple trip to the refrigerator can turn into a funky acid trip (in his "Underground Comix" exercise a la Robert Crumb) or a public service announcement condoning safe sex; it can be represented by a map or as a lesson in closure (moment-to-moment, action-to-action, non-sequitor, etc.). Madden's book is enjoyable when, as in these noted moments, he fully stretches and transcends the limits of his "template" (the name he gives the narrative basis for his exercises).
While it's mildly interesting or amusing to see the template switch perspectives to the subjective or tell the story in flashback, these more conventional variations have nothing on Madden's wild experiments or his many witty homages or parodies. His references range from the obscure (George Herriman's Krazy Kat dailies from the 1920s and '30s) to the widely recognized (Fantastic Four creator Jack Kirby); from the reverential (a tribute to Rodolphe Toppfer's satirical pamphlets, considered the foundations for the modern comic) to the satirical (the cleverly titled "Exorcise in Style"'s take on the Tales from the Crypt). You don't need to be a comic book aficionado to enjoy even the most obtuse references. These comics stand on their own because of the skilled drawing and subtle humor. And Madden provides concise, informative notes on his inspirations and objectives at the end of the book.
Because of the deconstructive, analytical approach Madden adopts, 99 Ways -- much like Queneau's book -- functions as a textbook of sorts, a catalogue of comic history, writers, theory, and methods. It teaches by demonstrating, rather than merely telling or explaining. Madden, when not writing, teaches at Yale University, and he can no doubt use his exercises in the classroom setting, as a companion to the definitive encyclopedia of comics, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.
The publication of 99 Ways further perpetuates the idea of comics as an art, as literature. Long considered low-brow, comics have over the years seen an acceptance and reverence in academia and art circles: Phoebe Gloeckner (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) teaches at the University of Michigan; Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) writes award-winning screenplays; Art Spiegelman (Maus) has a Pulitzer. By modeling his book after the work of a prose writer, Madden holds his work alongside works of literature - asserting comics' place in the literary realm -- but he also differentiates it, which keeps his reworking of Queneau's thesis on formalism and story from redundancy. Just as a story changes with the manner in which it's told, the decision to tell a story through pictures or through only words radically changes its meaning or effect.
99 Ways to Tell a Story achieves something few theoretical works do -- it entertains as it provides its thoughtful analyses. Madden never lets his ambitious, even lofty, ideas burden the storytelling. And the exercises, when you strip away all their historical contexts and theories, make for enjoyable, humorous reads." - Raquel Laneri
"Matt Madden has created his own Exercises in Style in comics form, and I'm here to say that it stands as an equal to Queneau's linguistic masterpiece. Matt tells a simple story:
Matt gets up from working at his computer. He walks into another room of the apartment. From upstairs his wife Jessica asks for the time, and Matt answers her. He goes to the refrigerator and opens it. He can't recall what he was looking for.
That's the story, and we read it ninety-nine times without getting bored.
The first comic in the book is the "Template," the stylistically generic form of the story, though, as Matt points out in the introduction, after reading the others, even this generic comic begins to show its stylistic decisions.
Though it is futile to try to categorize the 98 variations that follow, it is also an inevitable draw to make some attempt--certainly many of the variations work in linked groups or have similarities in their type of variation. Early on, a group of pages vary the point of view: Matt's first person view, third person from upstairs in the apartment with Jessica, a view from the refrigerator, a voyeur's view from outside the building. Matt does an extensive group of generic (as in genre) variations: fantasy, romance, police procedural, horror (a four-color EC Comics pastiche), superhero (one example where Matt's mimicking skills fail him with the drawing), manga (complete with right-to-left reading, excessive speed lines, and a gratuitous panty shot), political cartoon, and more. Many could be considered as variations on framing both formally and content-wise: reframing the original drawings to all hands and punctuation marks (which is a powerful statement on how much can be said with such a little amount of information), shrinking the original panels and adding absurdist images outside the borders, telling the story as a scene with actors and a director, the story as a flashback, the story as overheard in a bar... A number of pages fall under formal game playing (anagrams, palindromes) or structural variation (one panel, thirty panels).
My favorite group, and one where Matt really shows off his chops, is a sequence I'll call "Matt Madden's History of Comics." Matt pastiches a hall of fame of important historical creators: a "newly discovered" piece of the Bayeax Tapestry, Rodolphe Toppfer, Richard Outcault, Winsor McCay (the emulation of his Rarebit Fiend is amazing), George Herriman, Herge', and Jack Kirby. This sequence (sadly not all in order, because a few of these appear in the color section of the book) alone is worth the price of the book. As with any other art, I believe it is important to know some of the history, and Matt kindly shows us why.
I could go on and on talking about various variations, but I'll restrain myself and let the reader find them. In the past couple days, I've read this book twice through and browsed a good number of the pages more times than that. So many times reading that same story... yet, it's never the same.
Narratology, the study of narrative and how it works, is an area ripe for comics exploration, or perhaps an area ripe for comics readers and creators to explore. Narratology, among other endeavors, differentiates between the "story"--the "raw material" of the events in any narrative--and the "plot"--the final arrangement, order, and duration of the narrative as it is conveyed to the audience (I'm simplifying a bit). At a most basic level a story can offer up hundreds of plots; the raw material can be reworked over and over again. The author John Gardner once said that all novels have one of two plots (in a narratological sense he means "story"): someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Think about it a moment: his two stories apply to a great number of cases.
How does this all relate to the comic in front of me? Matt Madden has materialized this concept in comics. The vast range of "plots" he creates from the same "story" is not only fun to read and interesting to contemplate but also a veritable textbook for the comics creator. With this book, he has shown how far the imagination can take us from the simplest of beginnings. Comics is an extremely versatile art form, and there is no need to be stuck with the same old same old. Even a simple autobiographical event doesn't have to stay a straight realist autobiography.
Looking at all these variations also exposes the choices that are made in each comic. Compare the "Horizontal" variation (all thin panels that stretch across the width of the page) to the "Vertical" variation (all thin panels that stretch across the height of the page). The latter focuses much more on the human figure, probably because the tall thin panel more clearly fits a figure, while no matter how you try, fitting a person into a thin wide panel is a piece meal process. Once we have seen all the variations of viewpoint and distance (longshot, extreme close-up) from which the story can be told, we must reevaluate the viewpoint of the template (a mid-range third person) and wonder: why that view? Why that distance? Each variation in juxtaposition with the others opens a space for questioning and learning.
I'll leave off here. If there is any justice (or taste) in the comics world this book will be both a big seller and a hot topic of conversation. Read it, laugh, marvel, enjoy, and then put it alongside books like McCloud's Understanding Comics and start really thinking about comics.
You'll come to the next comic you read with a keener eye and a sharper appreciation." - Derik A. Badman
"Writing too much about books full of pictures is probably some sort of crime with its own circle of hell, but two art/graphic/comic/something books I've read/looked at recently have held my attention: First & Fifteenth: Pop Art Short Stories by Steve Powers and 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden.
Powers's "pop art short stories" aren't exactly stories -- they're more like incidents, moments, glances, jokes. First & Fifteenth looks and feels and even smells like an art book, and it is an art book, but it's more than that, too -- it's a subtle bit of fun, a way to take a couple kicks at some of the assumptions of what a story can be and do. It's not profound, but since when did anybody go to pop art for profundity -- pop is the province of weasels and corn: it can sneak up on you, and plant roots.
99 Ways to Tell a Story is a more substantial book, and a more ambitious one. It's an attempt to do to the graphic form what Raymond Queneau did to fiction, providing a single, simple story told in various genres, forms, idioms, and styles. (Many of Madden's results are online here.) The story becomes like the joke in The Aristocrats, with the accumulation of iterations being the source of pleasure. Madden is an extraordinary artist, and his ability to copy the style of other graphic artists is particularly impressive, but it is his fidelity to the original, simple story that is the truly amazing feat here. Queneau would be impressed.
Madden's book has a strange blurb on the cover that makes it sound like some sort of touchy-feely how-to book: "An exploration of storytelling that will amuse and delight you, and inspire your own creative work - your novel, your comic, even your film." Well, maybe -- it certainly shows that there are no limits on how many ways a story can be conceived and structured, and that each choice changes the emphasis and effect. But there's much more here than a guide to digesting the artist within; 99 Ways to Tell a Story is a true tour de force, a valuable work of art in and of itself." - Matthew Cheney
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