99 Ways to Tell a Story
99 Ways to Tell a Story has been billed as a how-to book, but it’s more accurate to talk about it in reference to its subtitle. Matt Madden has been conducting “Exercises in Style”, telling the same short comic story 99 different ways (inspired by the work of Raymond Queneau). Madden is known as a proponent of formalism, the idea that creativity isn’t necessarily constrained by boundaries. Instead, artificial restraints (like restricting the number of pages or requiring that a story use certain words) can inspire invention. This volume demonstrates the accuracy of that theory, reaching new heights of inspiration through an extremely artificial setup.
The basic premise is this: a man gets up from his computer, answers a question asking the time, opens a small refrigerator, and forgets what he’s looking for. It’s barely a story, but that’s part of the point. By making the canvas so boring, Madden can demonstrate how varied approaches create very different kinds of art.
In different strips, he changes the point of view, the art style, the number of panels, the storytelling technique (one runs backwards, for example, while another uses flashbacks), or adds or removes characters. One of the pages shows the stages of building a comic while another is a palindrome that reads the same backwards and forwards. He may focus on only one element of a typical comic page, such as sound effects or facial expressions, or remix his own work in absurd fashion.
Differences can be subtle, as when the basic story has emanata (symbols like floating hearts or question marks or a light bulb to mean an idea) added to it. (The reader will also learn words for things they never knew had words.) Some strips are in-jokes to those familiar with comics, as when noted creators, including Art Spiegelman and Daniel Clowes, contribute panels or Madden responds to Scott McCloud’s list of types of panel transitions.
Some pages are barely comics at all — they’re graphs, maps, ads, digital code, or calligrams (text formed into a shape) — while others acknowledge the wide history of the medium. Madden creates pages in the style of daily comic strips, manga, 60s undergrounds, Jack Kirby, and war, Western, science fiction, and romance comics. (Which puts the last line of the comic in a surprising new light.) The color section homages include the Yellow Kid, 50s EC horror, Charles Atlas ads, and Tintin. Throughout, there’s an air of playful exploration that’s a joy to share.
The book is beautifully formatted, comfortable to hold and easy to read or flip through. Each new exploration appears on the right-hand page with a small label on the left. The titles may add to the story, making connections clearer or crediting influences. There’s only one comic page visible at a time, so they don’t compete with each other, but more connections can be inferred from the sequence. There’s a new discovery on every page, making this one of the most thrilling and surprising graphic novels around.
So, back to that how-to idea. The cover says this book will “inspire your own creative work”, and that’s true enough. Any creator will find ideas here to improve or expand their comics, storytelling, or writing. This book is a fascinating exploration of the interaction of format and content, and anyone interested in the comic medium should own a copy.
The Exercises in Style website features guest artists continuing the concept, including a Reader’s Digest version of one artist’s favorite eight panels from the entire book. Matt Madden also has a site.