I’ve mentioned Matt Madden’s comic work a number of the times in the past, including his 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (my post on it) and A Fine Mess #2. He made a comment one of my posts, and we ended up exchanging a few emails. He agreed to answer some questions about his comics work and constraint. My questions are in bold and anything in brackets [ ] is my editorial intrusion, as are the links. This is a long one, folks, but well worth the time.
1. Can you tell me how you first discovered the Oulipo/Oubapo and how this lead to the formation of Oubapo America as well as the current state of the group (I haven’t seem much by way of the other founders (Tom Hart and Jason Little), have they published any constrained works?).
I don’t remember when I first became aware of Oulipo but it must have been in my early 20s and it would almost certainly have been because of Queneau’s Exercises in Style, which I believe I discovered while working in a book store after college. Exercises in Style led me to Zazie in the Metro and Louis Malle’s film and somewhere in there a co-worker pointed out Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, which had just come in as a remainder (I have to confess I bought it and it sat on a shelf for years before I sold it again during a move. I finally bought and read it last year though!)
I first heard about Oubapo in about 1998 when Tom Devlin who, who was then working at Million Year Picnic (a great comic book store in Cambridge MA) [I was just there last week!] as well as publishing Highwater Books, sent me a copy of Oupus 1, the first book put out by Oubapo, and sort of its manifesto. He thought it looked cool and suggested it would be fun to do something similar in the US. I don’t remember if he realized that I was already working on my “Exercises in Style” or that it was directly related to the Oubapo project. At the time I was too busy finishing Odds Off [from Highwater Books], moving back to the US from Mexico, getting married and getting established in NYC to take on additional projects but I filed the idea away in the back of my head. In January 1999 I went to Angoul�me for the massive comics convention there and introduced myself briefly to Oubapo founders Thierry Groensteen and Jean-Christophe Menu, giving them copies of the few “Exercises in Style” I had finished at that point. I mentioned that I wanted to start something related to Oubapo in the US and both of them seemed enthusiastic about it. I have maintained occasional contact with the two of them and found out recently that a certain point they had voted me in to the group as a “foreign correspondent” along with a Spaniard named Sergio Garcia (they didn’t get around to informing me until a good year later!).
Meanwhile, back in the states, I got settled in to life in Brooklyn and found that Tom Hart and Jason Little, cartoonist friends who I had known for several years, were also really enthusiastic about Oubapo (around this time Oupus 3 came out, their funniest book to date) and the idea of constrained comics. Jason—in addition to being a huge fan of Georges Perec–had used visual constraints in a number of his short works, including “Jack’s Luck Runs Out,” which is draw in the style of playing card art, and “Man Shy,”” an innocuous old romance comic whose images he whited out and then redrew, changing the setting to an insane asylum. Tom, in addition to having done numerous consistently excellent 24-hour comics, had started an anthology comic with James Kochalka and Jason Lewis called Triple Dare, where in each issue each artist chose a rule and then all three artists were required to follow all three rules for three ten-page stories.
In a flurry of activity we decided to start “Oubapo-America” (we ditched the original Oubapo-USA because we wanted to keep it continental and more generically Anglophone). Tom threw together a website and we started an e-mail mailing list and announced our first “challenge:” to create a 26-panel comic where each panel corresponded to a letter in the alphabet. Reaction was widespread and enthusiastic and we got several really good comics out of that first challenge. We did a few more challenges and well-received presentation at ICAF (an academic comics symposium) which led to a workshop the next year. However, the daily realities of being three freelance artists in the big city took their toll and we soon found it hard to keep up momentum on the web page and e-mail list. To make matters more complicated, a bunch of other “oubapo” sites started to appear around Europe and Oubapo started to feel like it needed to stake claim on its territory. After talking it over with Menu, we have decided that there should just be one “Oubapo” and that other groups involved in constrained comics should not claim the title. So at this point Oubapo-America mach one is pretty much laid to rest but the four of us have plans to create blog site —under a different name–that will act as a venue for us to post thoughts and news about constrained comics as well as other areas of experimental comics that we are interested in—meta-comics, jam comics, etc..
I need to back step a bit to explain why there are four of us now: at a certain point we talked about inviting other people to join the group—we don’t consider ourselves all that serious a group and certainly aren’t following any kind of secret ‘pataphysic protocols—and generally leaned towards keeping the group small and local to keep things logistically simple. However, there was one exception who we all unanimously felt should be part of the group: Tom Motley, a cartoonist in Denver who had not only been doing all kinds of constrained and otherwise experimental comics (check out his stuff on the oubapo-america site) for years, he has also been in correspondence with Harry Mathews (having taken one of his writing workshops, I believe) and Warren Motte, who has written about Oulipo.
2. Has the use of constraint affected your work (and if so how)? Has it affected the way you go about your non-constrained works? I’m interested in the way constraint as a process changes the way one thinks about artistic creation even if they are not constrained themselves (which will lead into the next question).
Experimenting with constrained comics has definitely affected the whole of my work, most essentially by making me aware of the number of choices available to me at every stage of creating a work of art. Working with arbitrary constraints really makes you question all the esthetic “default settings” you have acquired over time where their personal habits or received wisdom about what constitutes a “good” comic. Certainly “Exercises in Style” is at one level an extreme exploration of the bewildering array of approaches available to narrate even the most mundane narrative events.
I actually can’t tell you how constraints have affected my non-constrained work since essentially all the comics I have drawn over the last two or three years—from “The Bad Boys of Tinubu Square” to “The Six Treasures of the Spiral”—have been written under constraints. In fact, I’m not sure when I’m going to write a non-constrained work again, partly because I am having such a rewarding time exploring constraints and partly because comics take so long to draw. That said, I already have a vague yearning to tell a “straight story” both to show I can do it, but also to see, as you suggested, to what extent working under constraint shapes the experience. I can certainly say that looking back at work I have done to this point I have mixed feelings about the lack of organized constraint in earlier comics, especially longer works like Odds Off and the story “Night of the Grossinator.” Those comics have a lot of formalist organizational principles (dusk to dawn, New Year to Now Rooz and most of the holidays in between, etc) but in some ways I feel they could have had more deliberate constraints in them—even if ultimately I’m happy with both of those works. The triad of characters in Odds Off at this point seems to beg for the application of Queneau’s “X takes Y for Z” schema or Mathews’ Algorithm. In a way I think the book comes across that way, almost like that constraint where you make a non-constrained work seem constrained! If I can digress a bit further, what I like about those two works I just mentioned is that they follow a more organic and subtle formalism of a sort I admire in the works of Nabokov and Queneau (in his novels) and in a sense I imagine myself coming back to this sort of work later but having more confident control of all the formal elements that make storytelling so interesting to me.
3. You’re teaching a class at the School of Visual Arts called “Experimental Comics: Great Art Through Constraints, Rules, and Games”, in which you seem to be using constraint, rules, and games as kinds of exercises. In a way, a good bit of education, particularly in writing and art is based on imposed rules and exercises, I’m thinking of things like the writing exercises in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (or similar things used in writing classes) or the kinds of things you would see in a kid’s book about drawing comics. Often these “exercises” are considered to be practice or a way to get a person to improve their skills before making their “real” work. I’m curious about your feelings on this and how you go about teaching (I wish I could take the class, it’d be a good way for me to get drawing again).
When I use a game or constraint as an exercise in class, I always aim to keep the students’ eyes open to the possibility that although what they are doing is an “exercise,” there is no reason they can’t produce a valid, “real” work if they want to. (in fact, sometimes it can happen by accident, such as when doing exercises based on existing works: reducing graphic novels to one page, playing Five Card Nancy, etc. ). The context of the particular class is important, too: in my Experimental Comics class (which I will be offering again in the fall, by the way) I encourage my students to take every exercise and creative game seriously: if the comic they produce is incoherent or simply unremarkable, big deal: it’s still an educational exercise that may give them some insight; however, if they are really interested in experimental narrative, they should consider everything they do as potentially “real” works of art. On the other hand, in my undergraduate “Storytelling” class, which I co-teach with Jessica [Abel, his wife, and a wonderful comic artist], I assign students to make a constrained one-page comic along the line of a word game: anagrams, palindromes, acrostics, upside-downs, etc. In this case I emphasize the playful aspect of the assignment—most of these kids are still learning the basics of comics storytelling and very few are well-versed in narrative outside their immediate experience of mainstream comics, movies, video games, and TV—and let them discover for themselves the expressive potential latent in, say, a circular story. It always impresses me the number of kids—and not always the more apparently sophisticated ones—that come up with interesting comics that not only fulfill the demands of the constraint but also find ways to fuse form to content. Incidentally I wrote an essay about this constrained comic assignment that will appear in a new book edited by Steve Heller and Mike Dooley called Education of a Comics Artist, which should be out soon.
4. From the description of your course: “Our very sense of what a comic is–whether a newspaper strip, Sunday page, comic book or web comic–is to a large extent determined by formal characteristics or constraints such as page size and layout, panel borders, word balloons, decisions about drawing style, and so on.” I’d love to hear you elaborate on this.
This is a general statement intended to make the point that although when I talk about “constrained” comics I am talking about comics that have some kind of constraint that is deliberately imposed on them, in fact any creative work has all kinds of constraints already built into its process of creation. Jan Baetens makes a useful distinction in his article “Comic Strips and Constrained Writing” between deliberate constraints and what he calls “negative constraints” or “obstacles,” that is, constraints that are largely imposed from without such as page dimensions (determined by the printer’s specifications and available paper sizes), deadlines (determined by an editor or self-imposed), even drawing ability or lack thereof (whether this leads an artist to draw stick figures or to feel compelled to draw hyper-realistically). These kinds of constraints rarely affect the content of the final work in a direct way but they certainly play a role in the creative elaboration of a given work. In between these “negative” constraints and the more deliberate, arbitrary constraints of the ou-x-po variety fall things like traditional formats, genres, and drawing styles. It’s no more experimental at this point to create a four-panel gag strip than it is to write a sonnet since these are long-accepted forms that have become almost transparent as such. However, a sonnet—obviously—but also a four-panel gag strip have more or less strict rules that need to be followed in order for them to work successfully. Speaking of Baetens article I’m not sure I agree with his conclusion (if I’m remembering correctly) that because all of these constraints exist along a continuum that the study of “constrained” literature should therefore take all of these constraints into consideration. It seems to me that there is still a valid and useful distinction to be made between these circumstantial “constraints” and the more deliberate, self-consciously imposed constraints that we are talking about here.
5. Reading your “Exercises in Style”, they touch upon a variety of “styles”: classic constraints on comic form (“Anagram”, “Cento”), genres (“High Noon”), literary devices (“Monologue”), what I would more conventional call “style” (“Manga”), formats (“Dailies”), pastiches (the Herriman one in A Fine Mess 2), etc. Can you talk a little about the project and how you go about coming up with the new “styles”. In completed form, I get the feeling it will be very much like a stylistic reference book.
I do think that the final book can be read as a kind of reference book and it’s funny you say that because that is how Chamberlain Brothers is planning to market the book, as a kind of creative writing handbook. It’s OK with me as long as it remains clear to everyone the book was not created as a prescriptive “how-to” book. Rather it’s a creative and idiosyncratic exploration of comics and storytelling, but one which I do think has a high degree of usefulness to other artists, especially students of comics, narrative, design, and so on.
I approached the project fairly organically at first, simply brainstorming as many variations as I could think of and then drawing the first batch of 15 or so (this would be back in 1998-9). At a certain point, though, I did start to try and classify the exercises I had come up with so far—very much as you did in your question—in hopes of discovering gaps in particular series (for example, I made a checklist out of Thierry Groensteen’s “Premier Bouquet de Contraintes” (a translation of which can be found on the oubapo-america site) and that way came up with a few missing oubapian variations, such as “Plus One,” a favorite of mine which follows the constraint of “regulated distribution.” I think the only constraint I deliberately ignored was N+7, which I consider to be of minimal interest to comics ((although check out Tom Motley’s hilarious Hamlet +7 comic, also on the oubapo-america site)).). I also hoped I might discover some whole new categories, although I can’t say that really happened.
6. Switching gears a bit, in an email to me you wrote that you were interested in: “the everyday in art and how it is different from ‘realism’. Odds Off ended up being more ‘realist’ than I had planned but I have done a number of shorter pieces that are more observational and essayistic, just attempting to capture a mundane moment. Actually, “House Music”, the one-pager in A Fine Mess #1, is an example of that, and in an unexpected way it has become an interesting theme in Exercises in Style.” Could you talk more about the everyday in art, generally, and your work, specifically?
I’ve never been a big fan of straightforward realism in storytelling or in art, but I am interested in art that has a sense of the everyday. I like art that feels made-up and self-aware but at the same time has a kind of familiarity to it, some sense of connection to everyday life. A lot of early short comics I drew were like little sketches of mundane life; things I observed on walks, cooking vegetables, and that sort of thing. An influence at that time—although I can’t say I really understood them all that well—were these short texts by the Swiss author Robert Walser where he would describe an uneventful walk in the country that seemed somehow meaningful and poignant without seeing to try to be more than what they were—there is no symbolism or philosophical or allegorical intent in them as I remember. “Just the facts, ma’am.” In Black Candy I took a mundane world similar to the “autobio” comics a lot of my peers were doing and slowly introduced an element of Cronenbergian horror to it, hoping to create some interesting fractures in both narrative worlds. In Odds Off I tried to find a balance between a pretty straightforward grad student drama and elements of formal experimentation and implausible situations. One of the reasons I made L’Atalante the movie the characters are watching toward the end of the book was to point to Jean Vigo’s (vastly more successful) blending of different modes in that work: lyrical realism of the Michel Carn� variety, Keaton/Chaplin style humor, surrealism, social commentary, along with some achingly beautiful visual sequences. That movie represents an ideal of the kind of fusion I’d like to have in my work. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, now that I think of it, Queneau’s novels share this same quality.) [Probably also not surprising that I also love L’Atalante and Queneau. -derik] I’m not really interested in total abstraction in any medium (I’ve never gotten into abstract painting or free jazz), what excites me is trying to create an imaginary world that is evidently and openly fictional yet which still has recognizable elements of life as we experience it.
7. Any comments on the increasing visibility of comics in mainstream media, from Chris Ware’s Booker to Spiegelman’s widespread reviews of In the Shadows to Jeff Brown’s appearance in USA Today and most recently Rick Moody reviewing David B’s Epileptic in the New York Times (not to mention other stories, columns, and reviews, in the Times, the Post, and Time Magazine). Personally I see the majority of the coverage seeming to go three ways: a) comics aren’t just superheroes or for kids (except when they come in movie form, it seems) b) a tendency to cover works that are fairly traditional literary genres, particularly autobiography (Spiegelman, Satrap, David B, Jeffrey Brown, Pekar) and c) manga manga manga. It’s probably a cliched question, but it seems that the point has yet to be reached where comics are taken as another form that can have a variety of genres and styles with equal validity.
I’m not quite as guarded as you in my optimism about the reception of comics as a serious medium. I agree that there’s still a lot of ignorant and moronic commentary on comics, but the fact that “Zap! Boom! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!!” is still a frequent headline says as much about the laziness of writing about culture in general as a lack of appreciation of comics. At the same time, there is a marked increase in the number of reviews and articles about serious comics and an increasing ratio of those which are thoughtfully written, even by writers who don’t know much about the medium. A recent example is the review of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis in the New York Review of Books: the author was clearly unfamiliar with comics but she read the book without preconceptions and gave a cogent and sensitive reading of the book which addressed the way comics’ word/image juxtaposition creates meaning, plus she never resorted to the usual excuses and disclaimers: sure it’s comics, but don’t worry, it’s good anyway! I’ve also been really pleasantly surprised by number of literary blogs (including yours) that matter-of-factly talk seriously about comics without making a big deal out of it—at this point it’s really just a given, like gay marriage announcements in the New York Times.
8. I’ve posted a few times about chance and constraint in relation to the Oulipo and Surrealism, which you had a few things to say about over at Dan Green’s blog. I quoted you here. Anything more on the use of chance, perhaps in your own work? I’ve been meaning to ask more about John Cage and the I Ching, which you had mentioned.
I think the gist of that discussion was that although Oulipo claims to be anti-chance, in fact it is virtually impossible to avoid some element of chance even in the most controlled works (Take N+7, for example: yes, you are determining a numeric shift that will lead you to new words quasi-mathematically, but the dictionary you happen to use is going to give you drastically different results). My feeling is that there is no problem in embracing that fact, and that one way to incorporate it in constrained work is to set as many parameters as possible to creatively direct where and how chance comes into play. John Cage seems like an artist who worked in that middle territory: he embraced chance but in fact there was a lot of process and constraint that he put in place first before introducing the element of chance.
As far as the use of chance in my own work goes, I’ve tried to figure out ways to incorporate it in a meaningful way but for instance I’m still in the dark as to the specific processes Cage used—I know he used the I-Ching to determine things but I don’t know how he did it. I have a comic I’m doing, a sort of side project that I am trying to have fun with but also explore the use of chance operations. I bought a twelve-sided die (the only time I’ve ventured into the gaming section of a comic book store!) and made a numbered list of twelve items: four characters, four props, four locations. For every page of the comic I role the die three times (or more if I roll the same item more than once) and the rule is that I have to use the corresponding three items from my list in that page. I’ve done about 20 pages of it so far and it’s been fun but it hasn’t really taken a clear form yet. (I printed up those first pages in a minicomic called On Faraway Beach.) I’ve told myself that if a coherent narrative forms I can drop the die for a while until I get stuck. And that reminds me of the other chance-related operation I’ve experimented with, without much result: Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards, which I found on line. I like the idea of pulling a card to help you get out of a creative dead end or problem, but the few times I’ve tried using, I must admit that I haven’t gotten any useful results.
9. Do you have any plans to do other constrained works? Anything you are working on? What’s the constraint behind your story in the second Rosetta Anthology, “U.S. Post Modern Office Homes Inc.” (Alternative Comics)?
“U.S. Post Modern Office Homes Inc.” is a loosely constrained story starting from a simple conceit: I don’t remember why but at some point I was amused by the thought of two store signs put next to each other such that they would form a third phrase and came up with the example US Post Office + Modern Homes Inc = the title of the story. I then decided that the story would be generated by using each word in the phrase as a title of a page, then combinations of two adjacent words (“U.S Post”, “Post Modern,” “Modern Office,” etc), and ending with the full phrase. It was riffing on the connotations of all the phrases and words that brought the story about. That and the fact that I remembered at one point having read that the porn star Harry Reems had found religion and become a successful real estate broker in Florida. Beyond that, I generally tried to have every panel in every page correspond to its title in some way so that, for instance, “U.S.” has only phrases with the initials u.s., “Post” has some kind of “post-“ word or object in each panel, and so on.
I’m excited about a new comic I’m working on, a 32-page as-yet untitled story that will make up the third issue of A Fine Mess. It’s a “crab canon,” a musical form credited to Bach that is basically an overlaid palindrome so that instead of:
In other words it’s a palindrome for two voices. Douglas Hofstadter wrote a crab canon dialogue in G�del Escher Bach. I realized I could do a similar thing in comics but that not only the dialogue would have to be mirrored but also the panel compositions (specifically the symmetrical placement of the two main characters). I made a few dummy booklets and figured out that it works quite well. To make matters more perverse, the 32-page story (64 if you include reading it backwards—a challenge I’m playing around with) is also a kind of palindrome so that you have a secondary mirror axis at page 16/48, which you might visualize like this:
For such a delirious structure I could only come up with a story of amour fou [“mad love” for you non-francophiles, a Surrealist concept] and suicide—if I pull it off it will be a mixture of Charlie Kaufman and Julio Cort�zar.
10. The Rosetta Anthology also contains your translation of a comic by Edmond Baudoin, “Le Wagram”. Any more translations planned? How did you end up doing that translation and how was the experience? I’ve dabbled in some translating and found a very interesting experience as far as it being a really close reading of a work.
I’ve been interested in translation since college when I was majoring in comparative literature and took a class in it. I’m fluent enough in both French and Spanish to be able to translate passably well in both (I’ve know French longer—off and on since childhood—but I’ve been more thoroughly immersed in Spanish in recent years). Before Baudoin I translated a few short comics from French and Spanish, a few of which were published by the French publisher Stereoscomic (Big Ben’s The Hairdresser and Aur�lia Aurita’s Angora). I even translated a comic from Portuguese, the great mini-comic The Apocalypse According to Dr. Zeug by my friend Fabio Zimbres, which he published (in the original) as part of his “mini-tonto” series in Brazil. That remains unpublished and now that I have some free time I should really dig that up and do something with it. As for future plans, I translated 25 pages of a Spanish comic by an artist named Angel de la Calle called Modotti, a provocative comics biography of the photographer Tina Modotti. We have an agent showing it around right now so if that pans out I will translate the rest of the book (and even get paid for it).
I don’t remember how the Baudoin translation came about but I think I might have offered my services to Suat as he was putting together Rosetta #2. I am always trying to get Baudoin published in English—I think he’s one of the most significant cartoonists alive—and I’m happy to have had the opportunity. Translating that particular story was pretty straightforward since it’s part of a collection of stories that are kind of modern fairy tales, but I did admire his efficiency in telegraphing the story with a minimum of dialogue and narration. I will likely translate some more French stuff for Rosetta #3, but that’s in early planning stages right now.
My most dizzying translation experiment so far was attempting to translate a few pages of Perec’s La Disparition/A Void (without looking at the Gilbert Adair translation)—talk about constraint! It was really fun and I was actually pretty pleased with how my version compared to Adair’s.
11. Can you recommend any other comic artists using constraint or similar experimental forms or processes. While we’re at it, who are your favorite authors/artists/creators in any form, genre, or medium? Who do you think has being most influential on you?
Beyond my immediate Oubapo-America cohorts, some artists that are doing interesting experimental work or one sort or another would include, in no particular order, Marc-Antoine Mathieu (Dark Horse published his book Dead Memory, but that’s his least successful book, unfortunately; virtually everything else I’ve read is great); John Hankiewicz, whose Tepid has some of the most peculiar and beguiling comics out there right now—we have also had a very interesting and encouraging correspondence over the years. Among the French Oubapians I particularly like the work of Fran�ois Ayroles, and Killoffer’s nightmarish, quasi-oubapian fever dream 676 Apparitions of Killoffer is going to be published soon by a new British publisher called Typocrat—a promising new venture which is apparently particularly interested in promoting Oubapo and experimental comics in general.
Rather than try and give a list of influences I think I’ll give myself a constraint and limit myself to three artists in each medium who currently interest me a lot and who I feel some esthetic connection to.
–Comics (not including the Oubapo artists I’ve already covered): Dan Clowes is one of the best cartoonists out there, for my money he’s better than Chris Ware, and Ice Haven (just out from Pantheon) is a new high-water mark in comics; Kevin Huizenga has been blowing my mind with almost everything he’s done recently, especially “Gloriana,” the suite of stories reprinted in Or Else #2. Joann Sfar is a French cartoonist who I adore. His stuff is very different from mine, I’m more inspired by his example: his originality, his energy and his confidence in creating a very idiosyncratic fictional world (Two of his Little Vampire books are available as children’s books from Simon and Schuster, and his more adult-oriented The Rabbi’s Cat is coming soon from Pantheon).
–Film: Alain Resnais, a consistently original and surprising filmmaker, Atom Egoyan in his more experimental mode ( I watched Calendar again recently and it’s great.), Guy Maddin—almost the opposite of “constrained” artist—his films are completely unbridled in fact–but I really like him and his hothouse melodramatics definitely influenced the characters and the general horniness of “Six Treasures of the Spiral.”
–Literature: Queneau (It’s funny how I keep coming back to him, and the more I read the closer I feel to him as an artist); Perec I think sets the gold standard for anyone doing constrained writing of any sort. I’ve been reading a lot of Nabokov in the last few years… sorry those are all obvious choices but I stand by them!
Thanks so much to Matt for the great replies (and the leads to some new reading for me). I hope the readers will read some of his work and keep their eyes open for the forthcoming Exercises in Style book (from Chamberlain Brothers in October).