Matt Madden’s love of playful formalism, explicitly on display in 99 Ways to Tell a Story, here takes the shape of fiction. Odds Off is a graphic novel about young adults making key relationship and life decisions. Under it all is the exploration of how communication works, or more often, doesn’t work.
At a New Year’s party, Shirin wants to leave, but her boyfriend Morgan decides to stay. Shirin’s studying for the MCAT while working a cubicle job. She wants to get into medical school, but her undergraduate grades aren’t good enough. She’s surrounded by poor communicators: her boss is afraid of confrontation and is nearly incoherent in trying to correct her, while her co-worker is a tattletale Jesus freak.
Meanwhile, Morgan’s playing around, learning French, a language his girlfriend doesn’t speak. Writer Lance has a crush on Morgan, although they haven’t met. He’s badly blocked, so much so that he’s seeking medical help.
It’s a sensible enough beginning, but then things go weird. It turns out that Lance is infected with “word lice”, which is why he has a burning sensation when he conjugates. He’s supposed to stop reading and only write the alphabet. Morgan is crushing on the girl on his French lesson videotapes as she explains the language. This contrasts with the way he can’t talk with Shirin without them sniping at each other.
Lance’s condition, a physical cause for writer’s block, is intriguing. He complains and pouts about it, but I can’t help wondering if he secretly relishes having a medical diagnosis instead of a mental problem, even if he ignores his doctor’s advice. Most writers would.
Madden’s style is very natural, almost journalistic. The simple grid-style pages are easy to read, but subtle techniques demonstrate skill. For example, a usually square word balloon is distended by a word, indicating an up-and-down change in tone of voice, or a panel has a circular inset to show the focus of someone’s attention.
The setting of the college town of Austin, Texas, was a perfect choice, symbolizing a time and place where lives can take different directions and communication is foregrounded. When words start spilling out, it’s a life-changing experience.