Monday, October 5, 2009

Matt Madden on the Intuition and Experimentation of Comics

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“Your initial question was about writing about comics and how 
that affects my work as a cartoonist: I think the classic model of that is the artist who writes articles and books expounding on their theories, and then does works that illustrate what they’re talking about, like a David Mamet or a Sergei Eisenstein. Bresson’s notes on Cinematography and so on. They talk about their theories and explain things, and then put it into action in their work. “When I really think about myself as an artist, I’m more of an intuitive artist.”

“You know, on the way over here I was thinking about how I’ve been reluctant to do interviews for the past few years since I’ve spent so much of my time on stuff other than my personal creative work,” Matt Madden says from a sidewalk chair at Southside coffee shop in Park Slope. “The teaching thing, especially combined with the textbook, has taken my life over in a way that’s inevitable. And that’s not to mention being series editor for the Best American Comics and, of course, being a father. I’m doing what needs to be done, but it has really taken a toll on my creative life the last few years. It’s very hard to produce new stuff. It’s a time issue, about how much I have and how to justify working on stuff of my own versus paying the mortgage. It’s a transitional phase of my creative life. I really like teaching a lot.”

In the past few years, Madden has emerged as an original and distinctive voice in comics. His 99 Ways to Tell a Story and comic book A Fine Mess have cemented him as bold and experimental, while he and his wife Jessica Abel have become leaders in comics instruction with their textbook, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, for First Second.

“I’m actually starting my ninth year of teaching there,” Matt says of his main teaching gig at the School of Visual Arts. “I did a one-time summer class at Yale, one at the New School, and Jessica and I do a lot of workshops and short classes throughout the country. That led to the textbook, which is something I’d have preferred to wait until later on in my career to spend so much of my time on, but the time was so right for it. We figured that, the way things are going in the comics publishing world and with the schools starting to teach comics, if we didn’t write it, someone else might crank out a crappy one.”

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures is a thick paperback that goes into depth about the comics process. The goal was to create the definitive comic book art textbook, which wanders beyond the nuts and bolts of comic book making.

It’s hard to believe that, with his passion for comics theory, that Madden happened to fall into teaching comics upon his and Abel’s move to New York City.

“Before starting to teach comics, I taught English as a second language for eight years,” he says. “I got a Master’s degree in teaching English as a second language, with the idea of traveling around the world with it. I didn’t end up living abroad much but Jessica and I lived in Mexico City for two years and I tutored English and worked on comics. Our original plan was to travel around the world for five years, and live in a different country each year. We quickly realized we should have done that when we were right out of college and were more flexibility in our lifestyle, but once we hit thirty we were not as willing as we had been to stay in crappy hotels and have roommates.

“We came to New York instead in 2000, hoping to get illustration opportunities to subsidize our comics work. Before the dot com crash, there was really good money in illustration, and it was really appealing. Unfortunately we moved to New York the year of the dot com crash, and the magazines that managed to stick around tightened their belts. We found ourselves in New York entering a moribund industry. Ironically, at the same time, comics were taking off, and the teaching is something that came out of it and a bunch of other opportunities and jobs since.”
Through writing reviews for The Comics Journal and Indy Magazine in the ‘90s, Madden honed his critical viewpoint. A visit to France introduced him to artists like Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, leading him to become possibly the first American to write about the cartoonists.

“The reviews I’ve written are very nuts and bolts in that I’m not expounding theories about what comics are or should be, or about the state of the industry,” Matt admits. “They’re more like close readings of the comic, trying to explain to the reader what makes it work. My most recent writing gig was for Bookforum, which was cool to do, because it’s good to write for a non-comics audience, but one that likes art as well as books. I happened to meet the managing editor, Nicole Rudick, at Rocketship Comics, and she asked me to write reviews for her. I ended up doing five or six pieces. The last one was on Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button, Art Spiegelman’s Breakdowns collection, Eddie Campbell’s The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy, and Josh Carter’s Skyscrapers of the Midwest. That article might be the closest I come to making some kind of statement of my intent as a cartoonist and reader. Those books are all quite different, but they share a formal inventiveness, a playfulness, that is inextricable from the substance of the story, something I aim for in my own work. Spiegelman as a framing example was great, because that reissue of the Breakdowns brought home just what a pioneer he was in that early work. He was the only cartoonist at the time (mid 1970s) who was going to avant garde film screenings and reading experimental literature, and then trying to apply those ideas to comics. That is something that I also try to do in my own work.

Matt gets up from his laptop, steps out of his office, and into his kitchen. From the top of a spiral staircase, Jessica calls down and asks “What time is it?” Matt looks at his watch, and then up, saying “It’s 1:15.” “Thanks!” Jessica calls back as Matt opens the door of the small refrigerator. Surveying the insides, he squints his eyes and wonders “What the hell was I looking for, anyway?”

Matt relives that exact scenarios ninety-eight more times in his collection 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style; it’s as if Groundhog Day was shot in different film styles each time Bill Murray wakes up. In some strips, Matt merely switches perspective (switching to Jessica), only has the word balloons, or add captions. Others are drawn in styles ranging from Manga to superhero; he also does stylistic homages (with the Winsor McKay one replicating the legendary cartoonist’s lettering and pacing to a T). Rather than dryly write about theory and approaches, Madden’s application of them to comics is his work, as the eight years spend on 99 Ways attests.

99 Ways is very much on the surface and entirely about the experiment,” Matt says. “You can basically do it like a compare and contrast thing, where you find the little differences on each page. Again, part of the fun of reading the project is that it’s entirely about the process and experiment.”
Madden discovered his 99 ways over an eight-year period, posting pages online, as well as in his two issues of his comic book A Fine Mess. Madden’s occasional comic book is a showcase for his different theories and approaches in comics, but not in an overt tail-wagging-the-dog manner.

“I think people are skeptical about experimental stuff like I’m doing, like it’s only a dry experiment with no flesh to it. For me, it’s like building a human body from the skeleton out, and you build the organs and then muscles, with the skin coming on at the end. I have this empty skeleton of a work that I’m trying to fill in.”

“In other stories about mine, the experiments might be more deeply buried.,” Madden reveals. “The stories in A Fine Mess #2 are not as overtly formalist as 99 Ways, but if you study 'Prisoner of Zembla' or 'The Six Treasures of the Spiral', you’ll find that there’s an underlying structure. For example, I know that many readers have read 'The Prisoner of Zembla' without noticing the underlying alphabetic constraint. Look at the first panel and you’ll find the letter ‘A’ hidden various places in the drawing, and the word balloon starts with ‘A. The second panel is a ‘B’, and so on. There’s an alphabetical structure underlying the comic. When I was working on it, I was worried that it would be too obvious, so I’m thrilled that people can read the story and enjoy it on its own terms, without even noticing the underlying structure there.”


“The Six Treasures of the Spiral” utilizes a sequential translation of an old poetry form, the sestina, to comic effect.

“The sestina is a French poetry form from around the 12th century, and is written in six stanzas and a closing ‘envoy,” Matt says. “I love this structure and I think that it could be a regular structure people use in comics. Each stanza has six lines and instead of rhyming, the end words are repeated in each stanza. There’s no A B rhyme, instead you have these six end words that repeat in a different order each stanza.”

“Spiral” follows a scholar with a treasure map, who convinces a millionaire to fund a treasure hunt. The cast of six characters set out on their voyage, and soon find the terrifying and hilariously ironic truth behind the treasure.

“The analog in comics that I came up with was a two-page spread using 9-panel grids,” Madden says. “If you look at the last panel in each tier you’ll see that they repeat from spread to spread. Each of those six repeating panels features one of the main characters, and their names are coded to their numerical order: Einiger, Twopenny, Teresa, Forsythe, Captain Sank (from the French for ‘five’), Sixto. There’s an algorithm which shows you how to shuffle the order of the panels so that they are in a different sequence on each spread. So on the second spread you get 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3…and so on. The last page is called the envoy; in the poem it’s three lines where you have to use all six words. On the last page, you have use all six panels, leaving only three empty panels to fill.”

Each character’s “envoy” line of dialogue comes together in the climax, providing humor through repetition with lines like “Impossible!”, “Give it up.”, and “…going down.”

“When I started working on this comic, I was tinkering in sketchbooks, and it took a while to come up with six repeating panels. They had to be open-ended enough to work in a variety of contexts. Once I had those, I laid them out on grids with the rest of the panels blank, and then it was a matter of reading it to figure out what would fill in the story.”

In the process of breaking down the poetry form, Mattt found the theme of the story first, then almost reverse-engineering it into a story:

“I mentioned that there’s an algorithm that you do to rearrange the repetons and you can think of it almost as hopscotch, where it goes from 1-2-3-4-5-6 to 6-1-5-2-4-3. A visualization on that website that I found very useful is a spiral, where you go from the 6 to the 1, down to the 5, and then to the 2, the 4, the 3,” he takes a pen and my notepad, and starts scribbling out a diagram. “If you do that on each row of numbers, you get a spiral shape that also gives you the sequence of panels. For me, that also told me that it was a visual motif to work into the story. The spiral can suggest delirium or craziness, and in physical sense, it suggests a whirlpool.

“I decided early on to give work the numbers into the characters’ names, and to have a whirlpool. That was the beginnings of the actual story and characters. An initial plan was to work it into a version of Descent into the Maelstrom, the Edgar Allen Poe story. That didn’t really work out, but I liked the idea of the whirlpool, and at some point I came up with the idea of a treasure hunt. A treasure at the end of the spiral. The spiral appears in a map discovered by Einiger, and he thinks it will lead him to something called the Six Treasures. I worked out a whole map, where they start in Brest in the north of France and circle up to the North Sea and past these six islands. At the end, they’re getting closer to this whirlpool.”

As the characters whirl inexorably to their fate, they are victims of the most improbable of circumstances, an example of a “Twilight Zone type twist ending” that Madden is fond of. “Six Treasures” also showcases a Herge influence on Madden, making him realize that the impact of Tintin’s creator is about as inescapable as a whirlpool.

“I have to say it’s much more the experimentation than the theory that motivates me,” he reflects a short bit later. “I’m not interested in laying out a theory about how comics or the world works. I’m much more interested in the process and the surprises that can lead to…

“I don’t believe in a unified theory for anything. If there’s anything I want to say is that there’s everything and nothing to say all the time. Any creative venture for me is a matter of coming up with an empty and even sterile structure, and filling it through the process of working it, and trying to figure out how to turn this potential structure into a living and breathing comic.

“When it works, I’ll surprise myself by what notions come out of the final product.”

“Recently, lines are blurring between what’s destined to be online and what’s to be print,” Matt notes. “Like with my recent short story The Others, more people are probably reading it on iPhones using Panelfly than in print, so does that make it a webcomic? It’s ultimately irrelevant as it’s legible and works well in the platform.

“Some comics would be hard to read on a computer screen or an iPhone screen. I am a tried and true print guy, and I always think in terms of books. I’ve never been seduced by the infinite canvas of the Internet. I like reading that stuff when I see it, but I still think in terms of it being printed in a book. It’s so ubiquitous and so easy to read everything, but like most people I find myself spending more time on computers than reading books, so I am starting to think of doing something specific for the platform like the iPhone or online, and wondering what that would involve. Would I change the art or use Illustrator? Would it be completely mechanical? It’s something I’d like to explore some day, but it’s too much to take on right now.”

The biggest hurdle that web and electronic comics must overcome is one of format: without a standard reader, and with several companies all trying their one approach towards making the iPhone the norm, they’re still very much undergoing a metamorphosis. However, because of this, they are ripe for experimentation.

“Even in the best of circumstances, comics are a slow process, and I think every cartoonist has a backlog of books that they would do if they had the time to sort it out,” Madden says. “I am starting to look at each of those ideas and ask if they’re anything I can tinker with, where the format would be appropriate to electronics.

“I have one idea that comes from a Samuel Beckett quote, something to the effect that all drama consists of people walking in and out of doors, coming onstage and off. I ran with that idea and am working on this wordless comic with a bunch of different characters who come in through three different doors. The panels are all the same size, and show a vestibule with three doors (one in the back wall, and two on the side), and different characters come and go. Through that, I’m trying to develop power relationships without any words or actions beyond people coming in and leaving. It’s all who they meet with, who they come back in with, that suggests these developing relationships. Because of that, the format’s going to be the same from panel to panel. When I saw this Panelfly thing, I thought ‘That could work as an iPhone comic that you can click through it, and the panel almost has an animation feel.’

“That’s something I can work on sooner rather than later, because I can have a pre-drawn background template that I can trace, and then I could draw the characters and even ink it in a cafĂ©, then scan it and put it online. In that format sense, it’s a simple way of getting my comics out to my world.

“I can remember Dan Clowes saying about David Boring that he wanted to make a book that would only make sense as a comic. There’s no way you could ever do it as a film. At some point, I might like to do something that only makes sense as a webcomic, and where the fiction of it has to deal with it being a digital reality.”

“Jessica and I have been together for twelve years and married almost ten. We know what each other’s viewpoints are, and there’s a checks and balances there, as well.”



Madden and his wife, Jessica Abel, are both established and critically successful cartoonists in their own right. They also work together as editors of the Best American Comics yearly anthology, as well as teachers.

“Basically she does her comics and I do mine,” he points out. “Where we collaborate is on our, and we collaborated on the textbook, and on the Best American Comics series as editors.

“A lot of time, we’re increasingly working together in a very intensive way. It works great. I know very few couples who spend as much time as we do and are still together. I often marvel at the fact that we’re lucky to have bought a place in Sunset Park, which is a brownstone with two floors, and a very big studio, as well as a student assistant that comes in each week and helps us out. We basically work in the studio every day and help each other out. We have a very good back and forth. In terms of our work process, like writing a textbook or the intro to Best American Comics, we’ll have a bull session where we brainstorm some ideas, and one of us will do a first draft, and then it’s more handing the stuff back and forth. We’re always going back and forth and making decisions on the fly. Where it becomes difficult is that sitting back to back it’s very hard to have that continuous chunk of undisturbed time for concentration on one project, because we’re working on the same projects, and it just makes sense to be like ‘Oh, can I ask a question about this chapter we’re working on?’…

“We work great together in the critical sense of pitching ideas, delegating stuff, and finding a way to have both of our voices come through. We’re very lucky that way, and it’s just a fluke chance that we’d end up having that kind of different yet compatible sensibilities.”

Matt Madden came to New York City hoping to expand on his work as an illustrator and cartoonist, but fate decided to push him more towards teaching. When he does get back to the drawing board more often, chances are he’ll have a greater arsenal of tools, techniques, and theories at his disposal.

“If I went back, I’m sure I could talk about certain comics that my students turned me onto,” Matt admits. “Sometimes it’s specific studio stuff, like Photoshop tricks. Pretty much year-round, we have student interns who work at the studio, and we don’t pay but will make them really good lunches. It also does them good to be around working artists, but it goes both ways. I’ll learn stuff from them, like some Photoshop trick that I didn’t know that they learned from a different class or from another kid. But being around students [and] young artists is a way to keep my mind open.

“I live in fear of becoming a crusty older artist who’s jaded about the new stuff, and can’t abstract themselves from the situation to see that webcomics, to take one example, or the latest generation of indy cartoonists, that aren’t doing what you were twenty years ago, have value to them. Being around kids, I have to constantly justify my beliefs in what makes comics good. It’s a good way to measure myself and keep an outside perspective on my own work. In an even more intangible way, I feel like being around these people who love comics and are finding their voices, it somehow trickles back into my own work. I often feel, not like an undergrad, but like a grad student in comics at this point, working on my dissertation.”