“Our Goal Is to Create an Audience That’s Not There Yet”: An Interview with Jessica Abel and Matt Madden

MAUTNER: Actually, that helps me segue to my next question, which is: You talk about the different ways of drawing, you talk about how your style can influence the way you tell the story, you talk about the different narrative styles, but one thing I notice you don’t talk about in the book is the idea of abandoning a narrative altogether.

I’ll give you an example: you have excerpts of art by Warren Craghead and Austin English, but they are not artists who, traditionally, have any sort of narrative at all in their stories; their work tends to be more poetic. What about those comics that break down, or avoid, traditional narrative forms? Did you consciously not talk about those in these books?

MADDEN: Definitely not out of avoidance, because obviously we like those comics a lot, that’s why they’re in there. It’s really a lot harder to talk about, what do you teach when [you're] taking away structures rather than adding to it. I guess that's one way of talking about it.

We do have an assignment to do a poetry comic at one point in the book. I think that’s where some of Warren Craghead’s stuff is. We try to mention it where we can and whenever we talk about narrative structure or the narrative arc stuff in the first book, to point out that these are the traditional structures that the majority of people would use, but they’re not the only ones out there.

ABEL: With those assignments throughout the middle of the book, the varieties of storytelling, we're trying to open up the gates a little bit and say, “There’s lots of ways to do this." We’re not trying to say you need to do it one way. And we’ve been criticized, not often but somewhat, for teaching a traditional narrative arc and not teaching modernist approaches to storytelling. I sympathize with that. Obviously I would prefer our students to do incredibly cool sophisticated work that eschews standardized narrative arcs and does all kinds of interesting things. But realistically it’s a lot to ask a beginning cartooning student to grasp. Even the basic Western narrative arc, that style, that’s a lot for them to get. In Drawing Words that’s what we teach, because we just want them to understand that and then they can go beyond it.

With Mastering Comics we don’t talk about it as directly; it’s not really the subject of the book. We try to imply that there’s plenty you can do with this and there’s too much to talk about. Teaching abstract, poetic and other alternate approaches to comics, it’s too much like a writing-specific -- I mean comics-writing not word-writing -- task. It sort of needs its own book, you know, let’s talk about how to write comics in a way that’s open ended.

MADDEN: I do feel like we point in that direction throughout both books. I never found a good way to talk about that in a structured, coherent way that would fit in the book, other than having a poetry comics assignment, and try and give examples of comics that are more visually based or have less narrative.

ABEL: We talk about that too in the portrait comic.

MADDEN: Yeah, we’ve got a portrait comic assignment…

ABEL: This is a place where we’re like, "You should really think about ways to use visual narrative art, without telling the story specifically but about telling an emotion." We’re trying to get into it there. By its nature it’s something that resists direct teaching.

MAUTNER: Is it fair to say, from what I hear what you’re saying, that mastering the narrative or mastering a certain kind of basic storytelling is essential when you first come to comics?

ABEL: I think it’s a great tool. I think that you’re going to do much better doing your abstract comics if you understand what you’re not doing. Both of us are really major proponents of the idea that you’re not going to hurt yourself by learning rules, even old fashioned rules, even rules that you don’t really believe in. Learning those rules will assist you in so many ways when you are trying to break out of them.

MADDEN: I definitely feel that way. Without wanting to prescribe something for everyone -- everyone has their differences -- most people benefit from learning rules and then breaking them rather than diving in in a free-form way and making stuff up out of whole cloth.

ABEL: Look at Matt's work: it’s all about constraints. Everything he does is about constraints, and comics itself as an artform is about constraints. There are kinds of things that you can’t do in comics and those things are strengths. That’s, in some ways, the good thing about comics. It’s going to be flat and not moving, it doesn’t have to be on paper but you can use those page turns, you can use the edge of the page, it’s gotta be 32 pages and not 33, whatever. There’s so many rules that you have to follow already, structurally, in comics. The additional constraint of traditional narrative arc—Are you asking questions? Does your reader want to know what happens next? Who’s your protagonist? What does your protagonist want? Asking those questions, even to then say, “You know what, screw that, I don’t care, that’s not what this story is about,” then you know what your story is about! Because you’ve decided what it’s not about.

MAUTNER: I want to get off that topic for a minute, get a little personal, and ask about how the two of you work together? How do you divide the work load?

ABEL: Oh! Don’t go there. [Laughter.]

MAUTNER: No, this is the good stuff! This is the gold!

ABEL: Just kidding.

MAUTNER: How do you guys work together? How do you juggle the demands of being married, being life partners, being parents and being co-workers?

MADDEN: In terms of the textbook itself, it’s a completely organic and fluid back-and-forth. It’s pretty hard to find sections of the book that we haven’t both gotten our hands in.

ABEL: I would say it’s impossible to find a section we haven’t both got our hands in. What would be really hard is to find a section that quite clearly Matt drafted and I edited or vice versa.

MADDEN: The more you know the more you can pick it up, but it’s very back and forth. The illustrations too, a lot of the illustrations Jessica would pencil, then I would ink it, and then she or one of our interns would color it. We had a lot of interns helping us on the book, especially in the later sections of it.

And that also extends to dealing with the publisher and the designer, editor, and all the practical aspects of creating the book. Jessica is the Supreme General in a sense in that she has the best overall strategy and is able to think ten steps ahead, whereas I can think four steps ahead, [laughs] at any given process.

ABEL: I’m like the organizational brain.

MADDEN: Yeah. Other than that it’s a very holistic process. That blends over to our personal life too, having two kids, etc. There’s one class we teach together and we also teach multiple classes separately at the School of Visual Arts, and traveling around the country doing workshops and talks and things like that. It is a very busy lifestyle.

ABEL: The difficult thing about working together isn’t the actual working together, it’s the not having time to work together. We’re doing so many things, we do Best American Comics together, etc. Our kids are little, they’re 2 and 4 – Jasper was born while we were working on this textbook. We had a newborn baby while we were working on this thing.

MAUTNER: Oh my God.

ABEL: And a two-year-old. We weren’t doing much of our own comics, of course, but that was the sacrifice. But we were doing Best American, and put out two of those during the same time period. It’s incredibly intense. It’s really draining, it’s really hard. We are so happy [laughs] to not be working on this stuff now, to be able to have the interview with you and not writing this thing is so great. [Laughter]

MADDEN: Well, we made time. It's been six or seven years now [of working on these books], and we haven’t even talked about the website that we’re also maintaining this whole time, trying to blog regularly and keep it well designed and stuff. We finished the book just in time before utter collapse and now we’re happy to have the book out and just be talking about it and helping it find its place in the world and concentrate on keeping the website active.

MAUTNER: So there’s no third book in the works at all?

MADDEN: Not in the works, no. I think we’re gonna have to wait a few years and see how these two books pan out and get out into the world and get a foothold.

ABEL: And we do have ideas.

MADDEN: Yeah, we have ideas but they’re gonna be on hold. And especially because, as we were talking before, we have not done very much of our own work for the last few years. We really want to bring that back to the fore for another two years.

MAUTNER: In working on this book did you have any disagreements on how to proceed? What do you do when there’s a bump in the road in terms of working on a chapter or a book or a section?

MADDEN: We go out to our favorite seafood restaurant and get a bottle of white wine and talk it out. And usually by the end of the meal and a few glasses of wine we’ve come up with a solution. I'm just trying to think about how many great decisions we’ve had at that one restaurant.

ABEL: Yeah, it’s a good restaurant. I don’t know how anybody would do it differently but we don’t fight. We’re not fighters. We do disagree about stuff but when we disagree we’re both willing to have a conversation about it. At times it’s difficult. But we listen to each other and are able to judge the issue on its merits and that is absolutely essential for the way that we live and for the work that we do. You can’t do it any other way, I don’t know how anybody would manage.

MAUTNER: Can you give me a concrete example about something in this book that led to a trip to the restaurant?

MADDEN: I’m trying to think of one. I mean one trip to the restaurant would definitely be the dividing the book into two, in the first volume. But that was more of an “aha!” moment than a --

ABEL: That was a “How’re we gonna do this?” moment. ’Cause a lot of the trip to the restaurant isn’t having an argument --

MADDEN: We hit a wall.

ABEL: We needed to have a meeting. It’s not a fight. It’s, “Here’s what we need to deal with now, so let’s have a meeting and have an hour or two to sit down and really talk about it.” We’ve talked about things like when we revamped our website a year ago. It wasn’t working and we knew that and we couldn’t figure out what to do, so we sat down and thought about [the site's] needs. Why are people not understanding what’s on the site? We worked through and thought of this whole structure which – I won’t say it’s right, you never get any feedback on this kind of thing. We’ve had meetings about things like the last unit of the book, how to structure it. We came up with the idea of having four parallel tracks in the professional practice unit. One is, “What is your new project and how are you going to develop your new project?”

MADDEN: To keep going beyond the book, and sort of take off the training wheels, and become a cartoonist.

ABEL: Another track is making your own mini-comics so there’s technical stuff to learn to do. Then there’s the professional practice stuff, things you you need to know about, like publishers and agents and accountants and contract and copyright.

MADDEN: And self-publishing too.

ABEL: We had all this stuff we wanted to fit in and we couldn’t figure out how to do it. I don’t know why you would teach the last section of the book in a class. You could say -- “Let’s all talk about what our next project is going to be” -- and it’s useful to do so, but it’s not particularly compelling in a classroom sense.

MADDEN: Here’s a disagreement for you right here. We have a checklist on how to get started on a new project that’s kind of an early draft of in the book, but we worked on it some more and did a workshop on it at MoCCA and the following weekend at TCAF, and we got a great response. It’s just the creator side of it, things to keep in mind if you’re gonna start working on a one-pager or a graphic novel or whatever it is. Getting the lay of the land.

At SVA there’s a class on professional practice and the business side of publishing and certainly this stuff [in the book] would be useful there. But it’s almost like a separate little handbook that goes along with the rest of the more practical parts of the book. Don’t you agree Jessica?

ABEL: Yeah, I think so. I’m just saying if you’re in an ongoing fifteen-week class, you would talk about this stuff, you would have lectures about it, but I’m not sure what you actually do with it.

They’re not activities. We do make comics in our classes, all that stuff is there, and the professional practice sections are stuff people need to know. You need to be able to talk about it, so this is a way to have people read something and talk about it.

MAUTNER: Jessica, you mentioned constraints earlier. My sense is that, Matt, your interest in making comics tends to lie more towards putting constraints on yourself, towards formalism and experimenting and exploring the limits of the medium. Whereas with Jessica, I get the feeling you’re much more interested in characters and having them interact with each other, and creating dialogue and the more storytelling aspects of comics. Is that accurate and, if so, do you two feel like those interests complement each other, especially in terms of putting this book together?

ABEL: Yes, it’s accurate.

MADDEN: I think it's yes to both questions. It’s definitely accurate, and they are complementary impulses. I think if you look at a lot of Jessica’s work, especially the shorter stuff in Artbabe there’s lots of interesting formal stuff that’s she’s played around with. In that story “Oh! My Sisters!”, which is a sort of splitscreen comic, where a guy catcalls this girl and then you see two different scenarios playing out in that splitscreen effect. So that’s been in her work all along. I like to think with my work I’m doing this formalist kind of stuff but I’m very much a classicist in a certain way too. I do like story and characters. My ideal comic is one where someone can pick it off a bookshelf and read it and not necessarily realize that there’s some kind of formalist constraint under it. They might be aware that it’s carefully structured but not like, “Oh! Every third panel has a penguin in it!” [Laughter.]

ABEL: I want to see that comic.

MAUTNER: I was just about to say that, I want the penguin comic.

MADDEN: Some version of a penguin comic is always one of my throwaway constraint examples, and I might have to do it someday. But basically I like to have a story structure there, I love plot and narrative. I like characters that are interesting more than realistic or plausible. I don’t mind cartoony personalities sometimes. I love Nabokov. I love really tight narrative structure. I think it’s very important to me.

You were pointing out the lack of addressing a more open-ended or poetic or image-based cartooning [in the book], that’s perhaps one joint failing that we have as teachers. This doesn’t fall in our mutual area of interest and passion as much as all this other stuff. We’ve a pretty good range between the formalism on my side and story and character on Jessica’s side, but not necessarily super-visually oriented in terms of the fine art or strictly abstract kind of thing.

ABEL: Or just thinking about composition for its own sake. I try to think about it but it’s always, “Oh damn! Gotta think about that!” Then I gotta go back and review what I’m doing and make sure it’s coming up to some standard.

MADDEN: It’s really something I want to work on in years to come, come back to the visual a bit more. Andrei Molotiu invited me to do something for the Abstract Comics anthology. We’re friends from long ago.

MAUTNER: Oh really?

MADDEN: Yeah. I knew about it for years and I wanted to do something, but because of Drawing Words, Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics I just didn’t have any time to take on any extra stuff. But I’d love to try that sometime to stretch my creative muscles in that direction a little bit. So yeah, I’m open to it. But it is more of a language I can understand but cannot speak I guess. [Laughter] I love Warren Craghead’s work, I like Austin English. These guys are really pushing boundaries in interesting ways. They have a different perception of visual narrative and visual comics.

MAUTNER: Well, it can be hard to write about these comics too. Certainly from a critical aspect I find it can be a struggle to talk about Austin’s or Warren’s work in any kind of intelligent manner, especially if you don’t have a training in, or a lot of exposure to that sort of work outside of comics.

How does your time as the editors of the Best American Comics series affect or influence your work on these textbooks?

MADDEN: I can’t say I see much influence there, expect that they compete for time with creating comics. We have to write a foreword for each volume of Best American Comics and I think being in the mode of writing a textbook and articulating ideas about how comics work and how they’re interesting, I tend to think of those forewords as a little bit of a complement to Drawing Words and Mastering Comics in that each one has a topic that they’re trying to introduce about comics for a general reading public. The most recent one was about comics as a medium that exists for reproduction, and just making people aware of that as a factor.

ABEL: We do discover new work that way I guess, but no, not directly.

MAUTNER: I guess what I was thinking is that with the Best American series you guys obviously have exposed yourselves to different kinds of comics, and my feeling from reading the series is you both try to include just about every aspect of comics as possible from minis to superheroes and beyond. Does doing that affect how you approach writing a textbook about making comics? Does it broadening your approach? Do you say, “Oh we need to talk about this because this guy over here is doing something we haven’t thought about”? Or “Okay, our approach is right, there’s only so many ways you can do X”. Does that make sense?

ABEL: I think there’s an element of broadening. We’re always trying to make sure our language is not exclusionary, and that people feel like we’re talking to them. That’s really important for us. But that’s also a product of teaching. Because when we’re teaching we’re also confronted with students’ work that's all over the map in terms of the stuff they’re interested in. And we have to deal with that. That’s part of what we do.

MADDEN: I think all these books are very democratic and general, public-oriented. Our goal is to have as much integrity as possible and not dumb this stuff down, but to address a general audience and bring people in, and not try and set up walls and boundaries. With Best American Comics, I think the ideal reader is someone who hasn’t read much comics before, or maybe stopped reading comics when they were younger and just want to see what’s going on in the comics world now. It’s not really intended for comics insiders, you know. Most people who are super comics fans are going to be “I already read that.” Although I think I can guarantee anyone who picks up Best American Comics will be surprised by at least one entry in there. I think we have a pretty good track record of getting at least a few pretty obscure things in front of the guest editors that they end up choosing. Or sometimes that they find themselves.

MAUNTER: Do you feel like doing that series gets your finger on the pulse of what’s going on out there? And do you see any trends that strikes your fancy or calls out to you right now?

ABEL: I think to a certain extent yes, it does help us understand what’s going on in the world, what people are interested in and what they’re doing. I’m not sure about going further than that. What we’re not very good at keeping up with, although we try, is the so called mainstream, superhero action-adventure comics. They’re not very good at letting us know what’s going on, and it's not our usual area. We try, we reach out and say "send us stuff" and often it just goes nowhere and you’re like, "Okay, well, I don’t know what I can do about that."

And then of course it’s all American. So there’s at least two other major wings of comics that we’re aware of, but like not fully aware of. And they have a huge e­­ffect, especially now since there’s so much communication between European comics and Japanese comics and American comics, and we’re too busy to be fully cognizant of everything.

MADDEN: Yeah, I think my general feeling is one of being completely overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that's coming out these days, and not really being able to process it. Especially now over the past couple of years there’s not like a Fort Thunder moment or something like that going on in indie comics. There's at lot of stuff in that mode that's influenced by it, some of which is good, but a lot of it is pretty derivative at this point.

There’s this young adult graphic novel kind of stuff coming out from First Second, Scholastic, and Abrams and all these all other publishers. Again, some of it’s good and some of it’s not. But I don’t see one major, notable trend that’s really exciting right now. It's just a lot of people putting out comics, some which are very good, some which are just so-so. [laughter] I think that’s healthy. It's a growth phase for comics. People are at their drawing boards putting out a huge amount of stuff, more than any one person can keep up with.

With manga I’m fairly hopeless. I read stuff that comes across my desk when I can, but there’s so much to keep up with. Trying to keep up with Latin American and European stuff too; that’s taken a hit in the past few years because I’m having to read so many American stories. I feel like I’ve lost a bit of my contact with the Europeans.

MAUTNER: I was just curious if you felt working on Best American afforded you any unique perspective at all. Because that’s my perception too. I remember a time not that long ago when you could keep track of almost everything that was going on in comics, and now I have absolutely no foothold at all.

ABEL: It’s a good thing that you can’t though.

MADDEN: The reason this job is good for us is that we are people who like to do this anyway. Even before we had this job we were always trying to keep up with everything that was going on, the many different spheres of comics. Neither of us are huge on mainstream commercial stuff in American comics, manga, or European comics. Pretty much everything else we try to follow. And we’ll keep doing that once we’re done doing this job, we’ll still read this stuff. So there's a slightly higher quotient of North American comics that we’re reading because we’re getting paid to now, but it’s stuff we’d read anyway. I don’t feel like it’s changed our perspective on comics or our access in a particularly dramatic way from what we were already doing.