A Fine Mess 2 by Matt Madden

Madden, Matt. A Fine Mess. Issue 2. Alternative Comics, 2004.

Matt Madden is one of the only American comic creators I know consciously working within the field of constraint (a few others’ examples can be found at the Oubapo America site such as the Transformative Exercises). As far as I am aware this is the first print publication of his to feature a number of works created under constraint. This issue contains four shorts (from 1 to 14 pages) and five more examples of his “Exercises in Style.”

The first story, “Prisoner of Zembla”, consists of twenty-seven panels across three pages. After the first title panel each of the subsequent panels is saturated visually and linguistically with the successive letters of the alphabet: sentences, sections of dialogue, and/or just a large number of the words begin with the same letter, while the images hold the forms of the letters, both on the macro and micro level. The fifth panel (page 1), for instance, has an image of the profile of a woman’s head drawn so her face is mostly a straight vertical while her chin, the top and the back of her head form the rightward curve of a capital “D”. Within the same panel the frames of her glasses form smaller capital “D”s on her face, and her hand, index finger pointed up, creates a lower case “d”. On the next panel one section of dialogue reads “Her exclamations were even more egregious then I had expected.” (1) The story itself — following Roubaud’s Principle wherein the work under constraint speaks of the constraint — concerns the alphabet of the fictitious Zembla (borrowed from Nabokov) being replaced by a roman transliteration. The comic itself, in its form, already showing the preeminence of the roman alphabet.

The second very short story is a one page gag strip/cocktail recipe called “Happy Hooligan” (the main character and the drink). The character himself is borrowed from an old newspaper strip, and oddly enough was also used in Spiegelman’s In the Shadows of No Towers as “Hapless Hooligan”. I’ve yet to see the charm in most of the old newspaper strips, and found this pastiche no more amusing (though the drink sounds like it might be tasty), though it is another example of Madden’s ability to pastiche other artists (in further evidence in many of the “Exercises in Style”, see below).

The next and longest story is called “The Six Treasures of the Spiral: A Comics Sestina”. This story takes the poetic form of the sestina, wherein six end-words are permutated through six six-line stanzas of a poem. Madden has adapted the form to comics by permutating the end panels of each three panel row across two nine panel pages (i.e. on every two pages the six panels that form the right most panels on the pages are repeated in a different order). The six panels each feature one of the main characters in the story and make use of simple phrases (to lead into other dialogue), exclamations (all around useful), and phrases with the possibilities for multiple meanings. The story itself involves a treasure hunt and a whirlpool with an odd sacrifice. Madden uses the repeating panels to a comic effect that had me laughing out loud. In the last page he manages to put all 6 panels in direct sequence, which is a common way of ending sestinas (in the poetic form all six end-words are used in one two line stanza).

These first three stories’ art is somewhere between realistic and cartoony, iconic but not excessively so. While the art is not amazing, it does the job for the stories, it is neither distractingly good or bad. And this makes the next story all the more different. “La Mulata de Cordoba: A colonial legend” is a 9 page story done with broad expressive strokes in numerous shades of grey (or is just printed in grey and was once in flat colors). It is a striking shift from the previous pages. The layout uses larger panels, at most six a page (compared to the previous pages’ nine panel grid) but frequently just one large image. There is an economy to the telling of the legend that gives enough information but makes one follow more closely. This is the stand out piece in the issue. I hope to see more of this style in the future. It is painterly, and, I think, shows a more individual style, where the other stories are a more generic comic style.

The book ends with five more of Madden’s “Exercises in Style”, which I have posted about previously. Based on the idea of Queneau’s book of the same name, Madden is retelling a banal story in comics using a wide variety of styles, concepts, methods, etc. In this issue we get ones based on manga, Krazy Kat, McCay’s Rarebit Fiends, and Queneau himself (retelling the story from Queneau’s EiS mixed with Madden’s EiS). Like Queneau’s book these are much more interesting in juxtaposition than individually, but I think Madden’s will prove to be a sort of lexicon of comic styles when he finishes it. As mentioned, he is also quite adept at pastiching other artists/styles.

Madden claims there will be some documentation on the constrained works posted at his website (click on the “comics” link), but as of this writing not much has appeared.

In comparison to the previous work I have seen (such as A Fine Mess #1 and his graphic novel Odds Off), this issue drifts away from the slice-of-life/auto-bio-esque/realism that I have seen Madden do. I find this a positive swing and wonder if the use of constraints and the style exercises are opening him up to new vistas. There is another of his constrained comics in the new Rosetta anthology (Amazon link where you can see some of the inside of the book), and I’m looking forward to getting a copy of it. Here’s hoping it won’t be two more years until we see another book from Madden (the Exercises in Style book is projected for late 2005).