Smash Pages Q&A | Matt Madden talks ‘Ex Libris’

The writer, artist, editor and teacher shares more about his latest, postmodern graphic novel from Uncivilized Books.

Matt Madden has been an acclaimed artist, not to mention editor, translator and teacher, for years. His 2005 book 99 Ways to Tell a Story is not just a great book about comics, but a great book about storytelling and art. In the years since, Madden co-wrote two textbooks with his wife Jessica Abel, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics, in addition to many other projects.

His new graphic novel Ex Libris is his best work to date. As visually stunning as it is intellectually dynamic, the book tells the story of a character who walks into a room and proceeds to open the books on a shelf, all of which are comics, each of which is a very different kind of story drawn in a different style. Madden is very consciously responding to work like Italo Calvino and Julio Cortázar, but doing so in a way that its uniquely comics and doing so in a way that is uniquely his own.

Other cartoonists might be able to work in as many styles and approaches as Madden is able to do here, but he’s not interested in simply drawing differently, but in crafting a narrative and in finding ways to use that style in the service of a larger more complicated story. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give Ex Libris is that I reread the book shortly after finishing it for the sheer pleasure of enjoying how every element came together.

Madden was kind enough to talk recently about the importance of play, the influences on his work, and how the four years he spent in Angoulême were pivotal to his career and finding his place in comics.

Where did Ex Libris start?

It started with Calvino, and with his book If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler specifically. I’ve always liked comics, and art in general, that comment on themselves and are somehow self-aware or that are about the act of creation or the act of reading or engaging with art. Stories where characters become aware that they’re characters in a fiction or something like that. Calvino’s book is set up as a series of first chapters of a hypothetical novel that is the new book by Calvino. You keep on reading Chapter 1 and either it’s blank or the same chapter printed over and over again. The narrator is addressing you as the reader and you go back to the bookstore to complain, to get a different book. You go on this wild goose chase that is a combination of literary mystery novel with a real propulsion to it, but it’s also this fun romp of pastiches of different popular literary styles – the Cold War thriller, the erotic novel, the French new novel, the realist novel. That’s something I enjoy, obviously. I have a background in adopting other styles and modes of storytelling like in my 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style

Another appeal of those first chapters for me is the kinds of worlds that they suggest and give you a glimpse of. I’ve talked to at least one friend of mine who is disappointed by If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler because they just wanted Calvino to pick one of the stories and tell it. [laughs] Which I’m sure Calvino would find very amusing, and I get that, but to me it’s equally enticing to get these glimpses of very fleshed-out narrative worlds that you only see a piece of and then it’s snatched away from you. Yes, maybe he could have made a great novel out of any one of those fragments, but there’s something even more exciting about them living in your own imagination. There’s all these novels you’ve read pieces of in that book that are probably going to be more astounding and amazIng than anything that even Calvino could have finally written. I wanted to play around with that in comics form. 

I recently found some outlines from 2006 where I already had the basic structure of the book worked out. This was something that’s been in the back of my mind for a long time. I probably came up with it even earlier than that. I’m not sure it was as straightforward as: I read the Calvino book and thought, I’m going to do this comic. Which I did do with 99 Ways to Tell a Story! Someone gave me this book Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau to read and several pages in l thought, this is amazing, I want to do a comics version of it. It wasn’t that one-to-one, but pretty early in the process of making notes and thinking about this idea, I realized that I was responding to Calvino. As I worked on it, I brought in lots of other influences and references. Of course stuff from comics like Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville looms large in the mixture of different comics styles and registers. Robert Sikoryak’s work, of course. Lots of different works of art that play around with this mixture of fiction and reality blending together and winking at the audience a little bit.

The book has a structure, but it’s a structure designed around play in a lot of ways.

Very much so. We’re throwing out big names of World Literature like Calvino and Julio Cortázar—another huge influence. There is a short story by Cortázar, which I recently shared on my mailing list (that was actually published in a Top Shelf anthology in the nineties) called “The Continuity of Parks,” which is a little circular, self-referential story. It’s only a page and a half in the original, about a character reading a story who finds himself stuck inside the book he’s reading. That was a model. For a long time I wanted to put it into Ex Libris, but the rights are a little complicated with the Cortázar estate. Plus, everything in Ex Libris with one exception is entirely invented by me. Obviously there are references and riffs on existing styles, existing artists and existing books, but when I committed to that idea, I reluctantly had to let this Cortázar story fall to the cutting room floor. 

To your point about play, I studied comp lit at school and I’m a big reader. Literature isn’t my one main influence, but it certainly is a font I keep on going back to. But the writers I like, the cartoonists I like, the filmmakers I like, and pretty much all the artists I like share a tendency to revel in playfulness. And in game-like structures and constraints. I learned that from Raymond Queneau and Oulipo, and eventually Oubapo, the Workshop for Potential Comics, which I’m associated with. Using game-like structures and puzzles to generate new works of art. There are lofty goals in there and I do have the ambition that this is a serious work of Art with a capital “A” – but it’s also Play with a… capital “P”? [laughs] It’s serious play. I’m not trying take myself overly seriously or make an academic treatise. It’s me playing around in the sandbox of stories and ideas and seeing what I can come up with to amuse people and to make people think about reading and comics and how they work, but also have a really good time and get lost in it.

Not to spoil anything, the book is about someone in a room and there’s a shelf of comics and the book then alternates between the person in the room and the comics they’re reading.

So far no spoilers! We can say that. [laughs]

You play around with a page or a couple pages with a different style, different register, different genre, and I’m curious about what you wanted to include. Were these genres and styles you liked? Ones that were a challenge?

All of the above, I guess. Another important aspect to the book that was attractive to me and that led me to commit to making it is that in some ways you can think of it as a short story collection in disguise. 99 Ways To Tell a Story was published in 2005 and this is my first book entirely on my own that I’ve had since then that’s more than a mini comic or short story. Part of that is because I really enjoy short stories. I have a book’s worth of short comics that are mostly in the same kind of playful experimental mode that I’ve been working on since 99 Ways to Tell a Story. I’ve made a couple attempts to sell it as a collection over the last few years, but no one wants to go for it. Short story collections are always a hard sell. I had that partly in my mind when I was conceiving of this book and the Calvino idea of fragments. I wanted to create a sensation, or just a book cover, where it’s cool to imagine a book like that existing. There are three or four complete short stories here. Sometimes one-pagers or as long as eight pages. Then there are fragments where you read one page or a few panels out of a given work. Some of those cohere into larger works. So there are three different things happening. One is sneaking an often already finished short story like The Man Who Forgot Time, which is a story I originally drew in the mid-nineties. It was one of my earlier comics actually. I didn’t really like the drawing and I think I’ve redrawn it three times. It reached a point where I was okay with it. It had a theme that relates to the story of the book. It even gave me some ideas as I was trying to work out the ending of the book and fine tuning the realizations the protagonist goes through in the end. Some of the themes of that little short story which I wrote in 1994-95 ended up finding an important role to play in the final structure of the book. Then you have little fragments where the reader is finding a book and looking at the cover of a book that doesn’t exist. There are a couple of montage panels where you just see a pile of manga or random comics or a bookshelf with imaginary international comics like “Afrika Comics 70” and a book of underground Russian Comics from the 1960s. Then the third general category I would say is where I’m braiding together a bunch of imaginary fragments into an actual coherent narrative that only works within the book. There are a couple of points where the reader is flipping through several books or even individual panels from different books. If you’re reading it as a comic, you the reader realize, these panels actually add up to a narrative or a dialogue of some sort. You don’t know if the narrator is actually connecting the dots necessarily. That interplay of the way you can stitch elements together, juxtapose them, and create narrative just by putting those things together. I find lots of different ways to play around with that particular strategy of comics storytelling in the book, too. 

I’m curious about playing with structures and styles like this. Was there one approach that you really enjoyed?

One of the most fun comics to do was in the first chapter. The one I called “Escape” because it kind of fulfills in some sense all three of the categories I was talking about. The initial page was published in French as a one page comic in an Oubapo-related anthology. Just the idea of this character trying to get out of a comic and they try to use action, they try to use words and finally they realize that by using the sound effects, the classic “plop”, is a way to escape the comic. I came back to that idea because it was cool, but what if you’re talking about a multipage comic? If you plop off of the last panel, where do you go? I had this funny notion, what if you just plop onto the next page? And then it becomes not an escape, but this existential, Samuel Beckett kind of nightmare. I conceived of reimagining that story as the first page of a 900 page graphic novel where every page is basically a one page comic ending with the classic plop where the character’s legs plop out the side of the panel and using the color scheme and general lettering style of these Condorito comics. 

It fulfilled that rule of getting to reuse a short story and sneak it into a larger work. I also got to do a little homage to the Condorito tradition. 

I got to create this imaginary work because you see the reader in the book holding up this massive tome, this 900 page graphic novel – which I have no intention of creating! – but some part of you thinks could actually exist. 

And then I use comics storytelling language to add multiple layers, so you have the character holding the book and opening it and then you read a few pages of the book and then exit so there’s an interplay between some of the stuff that’s happening within Ex Libris and some of the stuff that’s happening with “Escape.” That one was a lot of fun. 

Some of these things are styles that I’d used before in Exercises in Style. Or some of the coloring work I did for DC a long time ago using that old fashioned four color halftone overlay style I used for the Tales from the Crypt parody. That was a lot of work. I really worked really hard to not evoke a specific EC era artist but to evoke the general EC house style with the coloring and the lettering. And I always have a lot of fun getting to go purple with the narration. That was fun. The tradeoff is that it’s so much work. This book took me a long time to do. It’s a little over 100 pages but every three pages I had to get out my sketchbook and reference stuff and learn or relearn a whole new style of drawing and switch tools and figure out how to do that. There’s a whole Rodolphe Töpffer section and I’ve studied him and tried to draw like him. Some artists are harder to copy because they’re so loosey goosey in their drawing. He would just draw this noodle-y line that wanders all over the page. He also used a very particular printing process. It takes quite a bit of time to get the right line width so it plausibly looks like a printed comic from that era. 

Clearly I enjoy the challenge because I’ve been doing it my whole career. I think I should come up with a more streamlined style so I could crank out a book that just tells a story. Maybe I’ll get there someday. But I do have fun finding ways to bring in the whole tradition of comics storytelling, which is so rich. The drawing, the way that the pages are laid out, the way that the language is used, and finding ways to make them tools for myself, I guess that’s what I find most rewarding.

That’s thing about the book because once you have initial structure, you can then play around and have fun. I assume the structure was clear from the outset.

Like I said, I found this outline from 2006 recently and the basic narrative structure was in place pretty early on, which allowed me to just have fun coming up with ideas that would fit into the structure. Because there is a narrative structure. For people reading this who haven’t read the book yet, it’s not just a grab bag of random pastiches. There’s a version of the book that could have been that. You could do a more non-narrative thing. Someone asked me once if I would consider doing a Chris Ware Building Stories-type thing where it would just be a box of random comics. Well, Nabokov is another leading light of mine and I’m afraid I share his authoritarian attitude about being an author. [laughs] No matter how much you try to control a narrative, readers will bring their own truth, their own stories to it. So I’m not worried about that. What I want to give the kind of reader I’m looking for is something that has a real structure to it. Something with a bunch of ideas and images packed in, but that I’ve pretty carefully calibrated to come across a certain way. Not that I would reject ever doing another type of narrative presentation, but in this book I really wanted to have a real narrative drive. Like I said, even If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler does have a mystery novel and even romance novel drive to it where these characters keep on meeting up to try and find the original Calvino book that they’re supposed to be reading. Which of course they’re reading all along. So I had that in mind. 

The last two books I’ve had published have been short stories. “Bridge” is part of the mini Kûs series from the Latvian publisher that came out earlier this year and then “Drawn Onward”, which came out in 2014 from Retrofit. Those are both standalone short stories. 24 and 32 pages respectively. I’m 53 now and I’ve been doing comics for a long time – and for a long time I didn’t know what kinds of stories I wanted to tell or what my strengths were. There are certain things you don’t really notice until you’ve been doing it for a long time. I’ve really come to appreciate how much I’m appreciated by Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone and Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. Those short twist endings. Which ties to Cortázar and Borges and a lot of comics that I like, too. 

You also translate and with translation, especially with comics, if they use one sentence, you can’t use ten to explain the linguistic nuance and cultural reference embedded within it. You’re working within a frame. Like for a lot of poetry translators who have to keep the form. I kept thinking of Ex Libris and you have this structure and basic idea and it feels like there’s a relationship there.

It’s all about constraints and limits and figuring out the ones that are the ground rules of the game. Like translating comics where you can’t add new word balloons. Obviously if you’re translating poetry you have to respect the meter or structure. I work really hard on the flow of the book from page to page and the page turns. There are several important story moments that involve the page turn and the spread. The combination of those constraints that are native to the medium and then the self-imposed constraints that can make it more challenging and more fun. Like the idea of that “Escape” comic. Taking that one page comic and finding new ways to spin that same idea. So basically I drew a bunch of gag comics that are existential gags and deliberately anti-humor, but I still had to find a way to fill that whole page. If you look at those series of pages you’ll see that I basically took the panels and rearranged them on each page. It took a bit of geometry to get everything to work out, but it was a great boon to the storytelling. Once you have a page full of panels, you’ve got a rhythm built in. Especially the layout of this page, which was a little bit odd. It’s just unusual enough that it has an asymmetrical rhythm to it that helps you to figure out, I need a big beat here, something smaller needs to happen here. That’s very similar to what I do with translation where I have to not just translate the meaning of the word, but I have to make sure the words line up in the right order to make sense, that they’re in the right register. And sometimes you find ways that make it work for an American cultural reader. If you can do that while still respecting the original that’s a bonus.

You mentioned that you’ve spent your career figuring out what kind of comics to tell and what that means. Especially after finishing Ex Libris, have you found it?

I feel pretty confident about that now. Again, 99 Ways to Tell a Story was a big turning point for me. Up until that point I’d published two other graphic novels – Black Candy, which came out in 1998, and Odds Off, which came out in 2001. I think those first two books are solid early works. If you look round you can still find them in better comic book stores or online. I did a mini comic series called Terrifying Steamboat Series. That was really my testing ground of, let’s just try something out. Some people either have a thing they want to do – gag comics or memoir/autobio – and I’ve done that but that wasn’t my thing. I don’t have a Maus or some overarching massive saga to tell either. I want to say everything and nothing. Tom Hart and I have talked about this a lot over the years. It’s something that we share. Although our work is very different, we share that feeling of constantly taking in new information and having new ideas. We both have lots of notebooks and sketchbooks full of story ideas and notions. It’s very hard to just pick one and run with it. When I discovered Exercises in Style and that led me to Oulipo and I learned about using constraints and rules as a way to force your creativity, my friend Josh O’Neill described it as throwing a rock in the pool and watching how it changes the current. You can’t really predict it, but it can take you in interesting new directions. 

It’s true that discovering Queneau and Oulipo was an a-ha moment of feeling like I’d found my tribe in terms of work methods and philosophy of art-making: play and experimentation, constraints and all that. But another aspect of my anchoring, which ties into my love for Calvino, Borges, Cortázar – but also McCay, Kurtzman, Spiegelman, etc. – was embracing comics and storytelling itself as my main subject matter. Sometimes I feel like an abstract artist whose materials are plots and characters instead of color or geometric shapes. And it depends on the comic. “Drawn Onward” and especially “Bridge” forefront the story and can be read as conventional narratives at the same time as experiments in form. Ex Libris is maybe my most ambitious fusion of that approach to date. You can consider almost any given sequence as a kind of essay in comics form yet – I hope, I intend – all of those experiments and asides are woven into a driving narrative which itself revolves around the drama of reading.

I’m glad that you’re being productive and having fun. Those don’t always go together.

It’s part of a career process and evolution, too. The 2000’s were an incredibly busy decade for me and for Jessica Abel, my wife. Odds Off came out in 2001 and 99 Ways To Tell a Story in 2005. I did have a bunch of short stories that appeared in different anthologies, but by the end of the decade we were better known for teaching at the School of Visual Arts. I was teaching more than full time for eleven years to the point of burning myself out. We also made two textbooks, which came out in 2008 and 2011. We became the series editors of The Best American Comics. Those were all very rewarding gigs in their way, but they were gigs. It’s the challenge of trying to be an artist and make a living at it when art does’t really make money. [laughs] I feel like I started to lose my identity as an artist for a while because I was doing so much other stuff. I was leaving myself very little time to think about – much less work on – these more ambitious comics that I wanted to be doing. Jessica was in the same boat. We ended up getting a sabbatical from SVA and eventually leaving SVA and went to France to La Maison des auteurs in Angoulême, which is this international residency for cartoonists. That was amazing. We went for one year and ended up staying for four. We put our kids in French school. It was an amazing experience in countless ways. But creatively and professionally it was pivotal for us as a family because it allowed us to have that breathing room of being out of the New York City grind. We did the Best American Comics for a year or two and then handed it off to Bill Kartalopoulos. Jessica was working on multiple books at the time, Out on the Wire, and Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars, which was published in France and then here by Super Genius, an imprint of NBM. At a certain point we realized that both of us scrambling all the time doing freelance jobs and gigs was not really sustainable and we decided that I would be the stay at home parent, the primary parent. In return, the time that I do have, I can just work on my comics. That’s how I got started for real on Ex Libris. Drawn Onward is a 32 page comic and it took me as long to finish that as it took me to finish Ex Libris, this 100 page full color graphic novel! That was also a real low point because I started Drawn Onward thinking, this will be a quick little palette cleanser between projects. For people who haven’t seen Drawn Onward, it’s designed as a palindrome book and has a mirrored structure to it. That was more of a challenge than I planned on. Beyond that, just finding the time to sit down and work on it and bring it all together and then find a publisher for it ended up taking years for just a floppy. That was really discouraging. I was feeling uncertain of whether I’d be able to be a cartoonist and do what I want to be doing. So having those four years in Angoulême were pivotal. I committed to doing Ex Libris and then we moved to Philadelphia in 2016 and I inevitably lost a bunch of momentum as we set up here. But then we got into a rhythm where I’d take my kids to school, come home and draw all morning, and then after lunch do the usual busy work and correspondence. I don’t think I’ll ever be a fast cartoonist, one of those people who has a new 200-page graphic novel out every year, but I feel like I’ve turned a corner and I’m going to continue this somewhat faster pace of releasing new comics. I’m in a good place.

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