Matt Madden’s 2005 work 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style is an incredibly useful resource for teaching comics. In that book, tacitly inspired by French novelist Raymond Queneau’s prose Exercises in Style, Madden retells the same simple one-page story visually, 99 different times, using various cartooning approaches: altering the panel compositions, reframing of the action, and even providing pastiches of various genres and styles. The story is in the telling, proves Madden, 99 different ways.
I have used excerpts from 99 Ways in comic book workshops with children and adults and I have found it far more useful at demonstrating comic book storytelling principles than even the much-heralded books-about-comics from Will Eisner or Scott McCloud. Madden’s stylistic variations on a straightforward sequence of minor events as presented in 99 Ways is both thrilling and pragmatic. I can’t separate it from its use as a teaching tool because I only think of it that way. I can’t imagine sitting down and reading 99 Ways as a comic from beginning to end. It seems designed for study and application, and it’s wonderful in that capacity.
Ex Libris: A Comic, is Madden’s 2021 exploration of style. This time, he strays from Raymond Queneau and veers toward Italo Calvino. Like If on a winter’s night a traveler by that great Italian postmodernist, Madden tells a story that unfolds through a series of shifting genre pastiches. Unlike 99 Ways there is no recursion here, but a linear story that has dreamlike characteristics as the depicted reality shifts in each chapter as Madden stylistically adopts the line, color, and compositional elements of various comic artists of the past.
Ex Libris begins in the first-person point of view with narrative captions. The framing style of the opening section is representational but not hyper-realistic, with ink and blue-purple wash, like an Alison Bechdel approach, but so literally through the eyes of the narrator that we can only see our “own” hands in front of us, reaching out for books on a shelf that are brought into our field of vision.
“How long have I been standing in this doorway? I steady myself as a wave of vertigo hits me…” the narrator states in the first panel. “The rug seems to float in the air as if superimposed on the rest of the scene in front of me,” the narrator continues in the next panel. And two panels in, you might already see the problem that faces Ex Libris all the way through its 100+ pages. The writing of the narration is unsophisticated and banal, even as the visual storytelling attempts to experiment in often delightful ways.
In those first two panels, the clumsy repetition of “me” and “me” as the final words in both captions is awkward enough, but what makes the narration even worse is the over-explanation of what Madden clearly depicts in the art, combined with needless words that the ghosts of both William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White would likely carve out of their personalized copies with a serrated blade. The excesses continue in the third panel, with “I already feel light-headed from the upheaval that brought me here in the first place.” Already? In the first place? Cut. Those. Words.
One might argue that Madden is providing a pastiche of Bechdel’s own verbosity along with a visual style that’s similar to Fun Home. But the writing continues to be abysmal even when the narrator explores volumes in the library and Madden slips into styles akin to Jerry Moriarty, Osamu Tezuka, Al Feldstein, and Frank Miller. The problem with the writing of the narration and dialogue isn’t that Madden parodies these creators too obviously, but that he doesn’t seem to be interested in the writing at all. Ex Libris reads like an experiment in vaguely mimicking comic book visuals throughout the history of the medium but without full commitment to the stylistic changes of the words that go along with them. There are some cursory attempts, with font shifts and movement from caption-heavy narration to word balloons and vice versa, but the majority of every sequence in the book is a variation on “here I am, in this strange story, and I am encountering these things in front of me.”
The reader is trapped inside with the narrator, and it’s a frustrating journey because the playfulness of Madden’s art is not matched by his floundering use of language. “What if I’m doomed to stay here in this room, stuck like that character who couldn’t escape from his own comic strip?” the narrator asks in the final third of the book. I wondered the same thing as I read that page and almost threw the book down and walked away, seeking refuge from its banal verbal storytelling choices. Yet, I persevered to find that Madden concluded the story in the way all of so many juvenile creative writing attempts end—after the tiresome “here I am writing the story” for page upon page—with the inevitable variation of “…and now I’m ready for the blank page in front of me” that’s perhaps intended as optimism but is crushingly depressing because you’ve seen how much of your life the writer wasted the last time they faced a blank page. I’m paraphrasing Madden’s writing here, but just barely.
99 Ways is an essential text for the teaching of comics. Ex Libris could be used in comics workshops as well, as an example of a visually interesting draft greatly in need of another writing pass. Students would be well-served by rewriting the narrative captions and word balloons to make them worthy complements to the ambitions of Madden’s art.