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!  

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