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99 Ways to Tell a Story Review

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden
Chamberlain Brothers, 2005. 208 p. (black and white with 8 color pages). $16.95.

I first found Matt Madden’s Exercises in Style (sample pages through that link) online a couple years ago and now finally there is a complete book under the title 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. Matt has let a number of these pages trickle out on the web and in print (his A Fine Mess (Alternative Comics) features some in both issues), but even for someone who’s been following them, there are plenty of surprises.

Back in 1947 French author Raymond Queneau (if you haven’t read him, go, find, read, I place him above all others in my literary pantheon) published an unusual book called Exercises de Style (for more go here). In this book he tells the same banal story about two chance meetings with the same fellow in ninety-nine different ways. Queneau’s variations (as they are translated, that is) include those such as “Abusive”, “Cockney”, “Haiku”,”Mathematical”, and “Antiphrasis.” The whole book is an amazing tour-de-force of the versatility of language and literary expression.

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.