Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review of Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story

"Can a story, however simple or mundane, be separated from the manner in which it is told?" (Matt Madden) 

I often teach a short Intercession (2 week) course on Comics/Graphic Novels at ECU, and in that class I try to stress the limitless possibilities of the comic medium.  A simple story, with a slight shift in words, perspective, shading, sound effects, color, or frames, can gain hidden depth and purpose.  Or it can simply become another simple story.  We always do an exercise early on lifted from Scott McCloud's seminal book, Understanding Comics, where I ask students to fill in dialogue and narration for a basic 5-frame story.  Depending on what words the students add, the story either sticks close to the visual narration or becomes hilarious, tragic, or disturbing.  Matt Madden takes this exercise to a whole new level in his amazing book, 99 Ways to Tell A Story: Exercises In Style (2005), where he tells the same story 99 Ways.  These "ways" include everything from changing the style, the genre, the order, and even questioning what story is being told in the first place.  It's a clever, but surprisingly captivating read inspired by Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style which does much the same thing in words.  Yet the sheer range of Madden's technique and his profound imagination make this book more than a mere exercise; it's a story in its own right, and one that changes from page to page, even if you think you know the outcome.

The book is a particular delight to the comic lover, since he pays homage to his heroes and peers throughout.  After some virtuoso exercises in style (showing the comic through the eyes of a voyeur; showing the comic only in sound effects; showing the comic in flashback) he then filters it through the style of famous comic artists.  We get a brilliant parody/homage of Rodolphe Toppfer's style, followed by a hilarious--and astonishingly realistic--take on the story via the Bayeux Tapestry.  EC Comics gets a spotlight when the story becomes a thriller, though my personal favorite is his spot-on send-up of Winsdor McKay's zany, madcap style (Little Nemo).  He also throws in a wonderful homage to Jack Kirby, as well as a oddly appropriate demonstration of his technique by mimicking Scott McCloud's 6 Frame-to-Frame Progressions.  Also delightful is his use of "Cento" (composing a work completely from the words of others), where each frame tells the story from a frame of another artist--in this case, including Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, and Julie Doucet.  

However, even if you don't catch the name-dropping, you'll be blown away by how many "exercises" he can squeeze out of this 8-frame template.  He turns it into a series of advertisements, then shifts the perspective to have someone tell the entire story at a bar as a kind of pitch for a book or TV show.  The story becomes a metaphor for life itself in a few of the exercises, and in two, it becomes an audition ("Actors Studio I and II").  Some of my favorites are when he alters the style subtly, as in "Silhouette" and "Minimalist."  At the very end, he finally begins deleting small aspects of the template--first the refrigerator, then one character after another.  The point of all this is not simply to be clever (though he certainly is!), but to remind us that a story is not what happens but how it happens and who tell it to us (fittingly, he also throws in an Unreliable Narrator).  This book is a veritable treasure trove of narrative technique for anyone trying to understand how books tell stories, or how art communicates a sense of character and story through the simplest of means.  I'm astounded by the sheer diversity of story telling in this book, and wish students could read this at a very early age to help them read everything--from Peanuts to Pynchon.  I can't wait to thumb through this book again, and even though he promises that "there is [no] requirement to read every comic in one sitting (or ever)," you will want to read it as a bona fide book--and in a single sitting.  Enjoy!  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


1.         How is the work illustrated?  Be specific: would you characterize it as sketchy, realistic, cartoony, artistic, ornate, spare, expressionistic, tight, loose, etc.?  What is the overall feel of the artwork, and what kind of tone does it create for the reader?  Do you feel it is the uniquely suited to the story being told?  Consider the differences between Crumb and Cavey’s illustrations for Pekar’s American Splendor

Exit Wounds has a very unique style, which among comics artists places her somewhere in the style of Alison Bechdel or Marjane Satrapi.  I say this because the people are stylized, cartoonish, yet quite realistic.  Modan’s characters might at first glance seem to have emerged from a children’s book, as they are depicted in soft, primary colors with a minimum of facial detail.  Their bodies, however, are rendered beautifully and expressively: indeed, her characters communicate more with their bodies than their faces.  I think this style allows her to transcend the locality/culture of Jerusalem, which some readers might be baffled by, and see Exit Wounds as a universal story about ‘normal’ people in extraordinary circumstances.  However, perhaps the most interesting comparison of her style is to the Russian artist Ivan Bilbin (1876-1942) who became famous for his lavish illustrations of Russian fairy tales and folkore: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Bilibin.  While Bilibin’s characters have more detail, they possess the same otherwordly softness/brightness.  His illustration for Sadko, for instance, might be a Modan original, particularly when comparing both artist’s palettes.  While Modan’s story would work if depicted in a more gritty, realistic style (like Sacco, for instance), I think her style creates an undercurrent of emotion and affection: it helps us get into the lives of the characters and pulls us into the narrative.  Above all, it reminds us that this is not a story primarily about politics or history: it’s about relationships and love above all. 

2.         Why was this story written as a graphic novel?  What might this story lose if translated to a novel, short story, or even a film?  What elements of the story almost require the juxtaposition of words and images? In other words, what does the comic format allow us to see and experience that a traditional novel wouldn’t?  Again, be as specific as possible. 

To me, this is a story about the small details: little clues that emerge only after careful notice, or are missed and forgotten entirely.  The graphic novel teaches us to read expressions and body language, or look into the corner of a frame where an essential clue is lurking in the shadows.  A great example of this is on pages 110-111, when Koby and Numi are alone on the beach after his taxi has broken down.  They really don’t have much to say as they enjoy their picnic lunch, yet their body language expresses the awkward, tentative steps they are taking toward one another.  Modan shows this in a long frame that captures the boundless sea and the empty beach, with our two characters sitting apart—yet almost touching.  Their only words are “It’s so beautiful here” and “Mm-hmm...how about a sandwich?”  Yet Numi’s feet are reaching out toward Koby, while he, with a single arm supporting him at an angle, seems poised to catapult into her.  Modan is also clever at making the mundane aspects of life—a telephone call, for example—reveal hidden depths of character.  While in a novel the call would simply be lines of dialogue, in Exit Wounds, we see one character primping before a mirror, indifferent to the entire conversation, while another paces and throws his arms around, unable to communicate his despair in words. 

3.          Who narrates the story?  One person? More than one?  How do they do this?  Traditionally, narration is told from either a third-person or first-person perspective; how does a graphic novel challenge this approach?  Consider how the form of comics ‘tells’ a story and allows us to see multiple points of view within a single narrative frame. 

Exit Wounds employs traditional narration, centered mostly on Koby’s perspective and immediate surroundings.  However, the narrator is careful to show us details far beyond Koby’s awareness (as with the phone conversation mentioned above), and in one important scene, shows us the inner world of Numi’s household when he calls her for the first time.  The graphic novel works extremely well here, as this entire world is colored in shades of pink and red, which contrasts sharply with Koby’s blue and gray world.  Interestingly, when Numi leaves the room and talks to him in the hallway, the background is rendered in pastel pink (which isn’t the color of the hallway).  Numi, who is not at all a girly-girl, seems trapped in this environment, and of course Koby is completely unaware of this inner struggle.  Only the narrator, with a few visual touches, is able to communicate this to the reader. 

4.            Describe one scene in the novel, either a single frame or a single of frames, that you feel is particularly significant.  Why is this moment so important?  Do you admire this passage more for its narrative (the words) or its art (the images)—or both?  Make sure we can not only see what’s going on here, but we see how it relates to the story at large.

My favorite scene in the novel occurs when Numi has just leanred that Koby’s father (her lover, who has disappeared), actually had another lover, a woman he had known for over 40 years.  So instead of being killed in a car bombing as they assumed, he merely dumped Numi for another lover, another life.  Koby warned her of this earlier, but Numi persisted and even Koby’s resolve began to falter.  Now, however, the truth is unmistakable; Numi bawls in Koby’s taxi as they drive away, saying “How could he!  And with that ugly old hag.”  Behind this statement is her desire to be attractive, or at least somewhat desirable the way her mother (a former model) and sister (whom Koby tells her is “hot”) are.  However, if Koby’s father shacks up with women so indiscriminately, then she has lost all claims on beauty or desirability; she was merely convenient.  Also, she fears that the end of their journey will make Koby leave her, too.  At this point, she clearly no longer cares about the old man but is using the adventure as an excuse to hang out with Koby.  She goes on to lament that “I wish he was dead.  I wish it really was his body.  I’m so sorry, Koby.  Maybe I am crazy.”  The folly of the whole enterprise comes crashing down on her, though unexpectedly, Koby crumples at this sign of vulnerability.  He responds, “He’s the one that’s crazy.  Only a lunatic would walk out on a girl like you.”  This entire conversation takes place in the cramped quarters of a taxi, so we can only see their torsos and faces, and as the scene reaches its climax, the faces become more prominent.  The final three frames are wordless, as she realizes that Koby has feelings for her, and their necks crane toward one another and kiss.  Lest this become too sentimental, the final frame zooms out to the nighttime traffic jam they’ve created, with rows of cars frantically beeping at their stalled taxi.  The juxtaposition of sentiment and humor—and sentiment and tragedy—is a constant theme of this book, and is done with such flair and delicacy that only the finest novelists can achieve.