“Drawn Onward: a star-crossed comic” by Matt Madden
Issue #182 • August 11, 2013•Buy Now!
Matt Madden (NYC 1968) is a cartoonist who has also taught at the School of Visual Arts and in workshops around the world. His work includes 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (Penguin), his comics adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style; a translation from the French of Aristophane’s The Zabîme Sisters (First Second); and Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics, (First Second), a pair of comics textbooks written in collaboration with his wife, Jessica Abel. The couple were until recently series editors for The Best American Comics from Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt. This year he was named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government. He is currently on an extended residency in Angoulême, France with his wife and their two children.
“Drawn Onward” is One Story’s first publication of a graphic short story. To find out more, read Hannah Tinti’s introduction to this issue on our blog.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
Where did the idea of this story come from?
My friend Tom Motley (who does the “Tragic Strip” for the Brooklyn Rail) did a short strip in which a character is apparently assaulted by gibberish-speaking aliens. However, if you read the strip backwards (including the aliens’ dialogue) you realize that they are peaceful visitors who are accosted by the earthling hero. The final ironic twist is that the earthlings’ perceived attack is actually him falling forward in his timeline after being shot in self-defense by the aliens in their timeline. (You can read the original strip by going to http://www.tmotley.com/hector.htm and clicking on the second thumbnail down, showing the character Hector with spirals in his eyes.) I thought the idea of characters existing on reverse timelines could be expanded to a book length work. I soon realized it would essentially be a kind of palindrome and shortly thereafter came across Bach’s cancrizan or crab canon form, which does with a single melody (running in both directions) what I wanted to do with my story.
What was the most challenging part of creating “Drawn Onward”?
The hardest part of developing this story was to make such rigid formal structure read fluidly. I spent a long time working out the reading path logistics of the story: every page and panel had to be plausible and more or less natural in four different contexts: In the first and second halves of the story and then in reverse order. I did several rounds of thumbnails before coming up with a sequence that I felt worked smoothly and clearly.
“Drawn Onward” is One Story’s first publication of a graphic short story. For some of our readers, it will be their first graphic novel/short story experience. Anything you’d like to say to these first-time comic readers?
For those of you who haven’t read a lot of comics before I would recommend most of all that you read the images as narrative information instead of simply illustration of the text: in comics the text and image often work interdependently and on equal footing; one generates irony or tension in regard to the other. For example, in “Drawn Onward” Ana’s studio tends to reflect her state of mind: early on in the story it’s clean and neat, a cup of tea brewing by her brushes (on page 6—page one actually occurs later in the timeline of the story); but by the end there are scraps of paper all over the walls and she has moved through wine to a rotgut bourbon called Olde Edlo. I also put a lot of Easter eggs in there for people who know are fans of comics and palindromes. To name a few: Ana has an M.C. Escher poster of interlocking crabs above her bed that was inspired by Bach’s cancrizan (Bach or one of his critics described the compositional style as “walking sideways” like a crab); the French comic book Ana is reading in those same scenes is actually the same book being read from two directions: it’s a palindrome comic by the French author Marc-Antoine Mathieu which has two mirrored sections (the titles translate as The Beginning of the End and The End of the Beginning) that you read from either end of the book to the middle; and the last panel on page 7 is a visual quote from an old comic called “Master Race,” by Bernie Krigstein—it’s considered one of the great pulp short stories of comics and it happens to take place, like my story, entirely on the New York subway. (In fact I arguably overstuffed the story with this kind of reference but a good thing about comics is that these kind of details tend to fall into the background unless you look for them.)
A few other things to look for: When reading comics you should in a certain sense learn to “read” drawing style and composition the way you read modifiers or descriptive passages. Pay attention to the style of drawing (is it realistic? cartoony?); to the details contained in each panel; the composition; the objects and spaces that are emphasized. You should also pay attention to the design of each page and spread: how many panels are on a page? Do they follow some kind of pattern? Does that pattern vary from page to page? And how does that layout affect the story? In “Drawn Onward,” the way the pages are laid out is quite important and, I think, hard not to notice after a while.
Any advice on where our readers should go to find out more about graphic literature?
My wife Jessica Abel and I have been series editors of the Best American Comics for the last six years (we just finished our last volume in that job). It’s part of the same famous Houghton Mifflin Harcourt series that dates back to the Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, and so on. It’s a very good sampler of what’s going on in North American art comics and graphic novels. Scott McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics is an essay on what makes comics tick drawn itself as a comic, and Jessica and I have done two textbooks on making comics (Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics from First Second Books) that have lots of useful insights and explanations for the general reader. Finally, ask around to see if there’s a good independent comic book store near you. It may not be the pimply dungeon you expect! There are a lot of outstanding and welcoming stores around the country such as Chicago Comics (and its weird cousin Quimby’s), Secret Headquarters in LA, Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, Bergen Street Comics or Desert Island Books in NYC, or The Beguiling in Toronto, to name just a few of my favorites (and I should point out that increasingly a lot of independent general bookstores have well-curated comics sections).
One of the things I enjoyed about this story was how it captured the unevenness of romantic relationships. How moments of true and complete connection can be so very fleeting. Was this a conscious part of the story for you?
It was very conscious but it was also serendipitous. Once I decided to work with the cancrizan/palindrome form, I knew that whatever the story was it had to involve two characters who would have the same experience moving in opposite directions, crossing paths fleetingly in the middle. That structure almost inevitably called for a star-crossed love story. Once I hit on that idea it helped me in two ways: as arch a formal scaffolding as the comic has, I tried to use the outsize passions of infatuation to make the relationship plausible; and, thinking about the narrator’s experience I thought that the Moebius strip-like path of events effectively conveys the utter confusion we feel when we come out of a brief, obsessive affair. I also like the idea that her very obsession may have led her to impose a structure on the story that may not have existed in real life—never trust “autobiography”!
Why did you decide to make the narrator of this story a graphic artist?
Narration is tricky in comics and in fact I didn’t use it at all in my first two books. It can put too much burden on the writing to the detriment of the drawing and design. However, I also love the narrative voice as well as the structural role narration plays in building a story, that nesting of voices you find in gothic novels. I wanted to foreground the fact that the narrator was a cartoonist both to insert the Cartoonist as a figure into that tradition of epistolary fiction and perhaps to bring attention to the cartoonist as an “auteur” for readers who still think of comics as an assembly line medium. I also enjoy the way you can use different graphic styles to indicate different realities or levels of a narrative. So, for instance, the framing scenes show Ana drawn (by whom!?) in a clean line with no solid black; her “voice over” is written in cursive. When we switch to the scenes of the comic-within-the-comic she is drawing everything is drawing in a rough, expressionistic brushy style and the lettering of the dialogue is a neater font-like lettering style.
Why did you title this graphic short “Drawn Onward”?
Well, I think most readers will have figured out that it is a palindrome. I found it after looking around online for lists of palindromes (and after failing to come up with a clever one all by myself). I took it from a longer palindrome, the longest version of which I’ve encountered is “Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?” I chose it because it suggests that compulsion born of infatuation which is the driving motor of the story.
What are you working on now?
This coming year I’ll be developing two book-length works, one of which is in a formalist/fabulist mode not that different from “Drawn Onward.” The other book is a script which I’m planning to have someone else draw. That will be a first for me as I usually write and draw everything myself. Otherwise I continue to work on short stories of a mostly experimental nature. I’d like to see a collection published of “Drawn Onward” and the other short stories I’ve done over the last ten years. Finally, I recently finished a 2-page comic called “Winter Villanelle” for an anthology project that I think is really up the alley of a lot of One Story readers. The book is called Flashed: Sudden Stories in Prose and Comics, edited by Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson and to be published by Pressgang in 2014. The concept is that cartoonists and writers riff on each other’s flash fictions and short comics. So my comic is loosely based on a short prose piece by Aimee Bender and it will be reinterpreted in prose by a third author. I do a lot of teaching and I have a busy and exotic (if Eurocentric) itinerary developing for the year to come that involves workshops around France and in Finland, Denmark, and Spain.
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