Thursday, February 27, 2014

Catching Up With Matt Madden

Matt Madden was a mainstay of the comics scene up until a decade ago, when his teaching and experimental comics interests took over actually making new comics. After co-writing two books with his wife, Jessica Abel (Drawing Words and Writing Pictures), and doing another book on his own about comics formalism (99 Ways To Tell A Story: Exercises In Style), I was happy to see a bunch of new comics arrive in the mail. Working in France, Madden is finally taking the time to put his comics theories to practical use, both on his own and in collaborations with others. Let's take a look at each comic.

Cavalcade Surprise. This is a collaboration with Lewis Trondheim and Abel. When visiting Trondheim with their young children, Trondheim pulled out some old boxes of toys for them. The trio decided to draw seven scenes in different parts of the house with the toys on their own, adding a bit of text, and then came together to try to order them in such a way as to create a narrative. While the comic is quite pleasant to look at thanks to the loose and spontaneous pencils of each artist, it doesn't really cohere. Trondheim's captions pointed to a more realistic depiction of what was happening. Abel made up a fictional story following each toy, while Madden just added a word or two in description of the toys. Unsurprisingly, the three approaches didn't mix all that well, but it was fascinating to see how the artists nonetheless tried to get things to hang together.

Tic Tac Toe Comics: This is a crazy collaboration comic in which two artists take turns filling in a panel on a 3 x 3 grid. How they proceed is based on the game tic-tac-toe, so the artist assigned "O" drew and write something that incorporated the letter O and likewise for the other artist and X. As one would imagine, the results were mixed. Some of them didn't work at all as narratives, while others tried way too hard to incorporate the X and O into the panel. Unsurprisingly, collaborations between Matt Madden and Tom Hart were among the best, if silliest in the comic. I also quite enjoyed the mix and text and image that Rina Piccolo and Tea Fougner put together, detailing a young man looking for fun at a peep show and instead getting rent to shreds by demons. The second Madden/Hart collaboration, involving an anthropomorphic couple trying to get pregnant, was especially cohesive and visually striking. Constraint-based comics can help a cartoonist think about structure and narrative in different ways, and this comic is less an attempt at a cohesive story than an exercise in thinking. What makes Madden interesting is how he can apply constraints to more complex stories on his own, like in the other three comics here.

Bridge: This is a 24-hour comic finished in 31 hours, and the constraint chosen at the beginning of the exercise was that each page would represent a single unit of time. In this case, each page was to represent a decade. Madden loves recursive narrative structures and mirror stories and he creates a compelling, emotional narrative in this short comic. Starting with a boy chasing his childhood memories of meeting an old woman who told him about a special bridge, the story follows a man, then his heir and then a young woman who finds their notes across the decades as they struggled with the meaning and construction of the bridge. The end of the story loops around to the beginning in a clever fashion, but the comic works because of the genuine pathos he draws out of following each character for a decade per page. Visually, Madden greatly varies the composition of each pages, as some have a big 2x2 grid, others have 2 panels stacked on top of each other, one page has no panels, etc. It's a nice shorthand for showing the reader that things are quite different after having moved on to a new decade. Madden's brushy style is at its loosest and most spontaneous here; even on some of the rougher pages, there's still something lovely to look at on nearly every page. His spotting of blacks was also quite effective, and I imagine it was a timesaver on the pages where there were black panels with text.

Sayonara. This is a comic published by Burlesquitas that reprints a 1999 comic by Madden. It's a handsome little minicomic that was done when Madden was living abroad in Mexico. The story of a man missing his native Japan but ultimately finding that he can't quite yet escape the pleasant pull of living in Mexico is entirely wordless, befitting a comic aimed at English speaking audiences but featuring characters who aren't speaking either Spanish or Japanese. It's almost sentimental in its depiction of character, lacking the usual dark edge one finds in Madden's comics. It's also rather conventional in its structure, as Madden hadn't yet gone full bore into his experimental phase.

Drawn Onward. This is the true jewel of this collection of minicomics, and it's one of Madden's best-ever efforts. This is a mirror comic, told in retrospect from the point of view of a woman who keeps encountering a man on the subway.The strange thing is that when she met him, he seemed to act as if he knew her and was desperate to see her. The first half of the comic finds her initially alarmed by the attentions of this strange man, who confuses and alarms her by asking why she's avoiding him. At the same time, she starts to become fascinated by the idea of him, until they meet on a train platform and kiss. Then, in a virtuoso display of storytelling, Madden mirrors the narrative, reversing it while still moving time forward. This time around, the woman comes to meet the man the next day, excited to see him--only he's standoffish. Mirroring each panel from the first time around, Madden changes the story simply by flipping the characters around, subtly altering dialog here and there. Even the last page mirrors the first, as the woman (a cartoonist) has drawn the story in an effort to figure things out but is despondent at her drawing table. Madden even mirrors the different line weights he chose for different parts of the story. On some pages, he uses a delicate clear line style. On others, he uses his more typical, brushy and black-heavy style. There are witty storytelling clues along the way, like palindrome streets such as Rorschach Avenue and Nogegon Street, as well as the woman reading a book called Le Debut De La Fin (The Beginning of the End). The second half details her mounting despair as she faces precisely the same dilemma as the man did in the first half of the book, only it's from her point of view. It's a perfect meshing of Madden's storytelling pyrotechnics and a genuinely affecting, emotional story. Clearly, living in Angouleme is agreeing with him, because he's basically picked right up at the same level of innovation and storytelling clarity he was enjoying in his old Alternative Comics series A Fine Mess.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Fundraising For High-Low: Part Two

First, I want to again thank everyone who assisted me when I put out a call for help in November. I was stunned by how quickly everyone responded. I've been hand-writing thank you notes since then, which will go out in the next week or two. Our move went well, although in retrospect the cost of the move and the increased cost of new medical expenses meant that I called off assistance perhaps too soon.  For those who didn't get a chance to donate but wanted to, or those who just feel like donating to keep High-Low going (it's been quite of late in order to take on paying gigs), just click on the Donate Now button on the right. Thanks again for your support and patronage.

Monday, February 3, 2014

PNW Anthologies: Runner Runner #2 and On Your Marks

For a number of years, the Pacific Northwest's contribution to Free Comic Book Day was an anthology comic edited by a collaboration of different small publishers. Dylan Williams of Sparkplug, Tim Goodyear of Teenage Dinosaur and Greg Means of Tugboat Press would combine their resources and overlapping but different aesthetics to create some truly weird and memorable comics like Nerd Burglar, Bird Hurdler, Dan Quayl, and Brad Trip. After Dylan Williams' passing in 2011 and Means' decision to stop publishing his memorable minicomics anthology Papercutter, Means instead decided to publish something that was a hybrid of the old anthology and Papercutter, and he called it Runner Runner.

It's exactly what a typical Means anthology looks like: accessible narratives, art that runs from naturalistic to cartoony that's rendered in an appealing and approachable manner, and story topics that run from autobio to quirky genre fiction. It's an entirely agreeable if not especially challenging read, acting as a sort of Minicomics 101 for new readers. Tthe cover and the first story is devoted to a new short story related to the book he did with MK Reed and Joe Flood for First Second (The Cute Girl Network), which fits perfectly into that "appealing but not challenging ethos". It also helps that the story of Jack trying to escape from his locked bathroom so as not to be late to a date with Jane is frequently hilarious, like when he absurdly sends a moth to deliver a message to Jane, only to see it get eaten by a hawk. Like in his days compiling Papercutter, Means alternates between one-page strips and slightly longer narratives. The best of the former include Claire Sanders' turning a diagnosis of cancer into an unrelated punchline, Alexis Frederick-Frost's gag about quarreling flying fish, Sam Sharpe's gag about perspective leading to deadly consequences, Sam Alden's cleverly constructed strip about a future world lived entirely underground in caves, Andrice Arp's full-colore strip about losing her head and Julia Gfroerer's light-hearted "The 39 Ryan Goslings", which is exactly what it sounds like. The rest of the anthology is built around an extended Al Burian/Nate Powell piece about the relationship between two aging friends and a long Carrie McNinch piece about a day in her life. Means is a long-time zinesters, and this issue of Runner Runner is in part a way to include long-time zinesters like Burian and McNinch. Like Papercutter, the success of this mini is due to the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, especially sense Means has an uncanny sense of just how to sequence the stories to create a fluid reading experience.
By way of comparison, On Your Marks is a disjointed, messy and anarchic compendium of mostly short comics, seemingly thrown together at random by editor Max Clotfelter. Whereas one always gets the sense from a Means-edited anthology that he wants the reader to enjoy every story, this anthology is very much take-it-or-leave it, in your face storytelling. That anarchic, underground feeling is certainly its greatest strength as an anthology, as the whole thing is awash in a crude energy that makes one wonder what's next.

I'm not sure the across-the-map nature of the anthology was necessarily one of intent; rather, it seemed more a reflection of the weird diversity of Seattle's cartooning scene. At one end of the spectrum, you had the sort of hardcore punk/underground comics that might have appeared in the Tim Goodyear side of things. Bobby Madness' strip was the perfect encapsulation of amusing autobio reminiscence and political statement. Moseley Smith and Reuben Storey's is typically visceral, absurd, violent and panel-filling in its almost obsessive scribbling style. Jason T. Miles' scatological strip seems entirely improvised while sampling a number of different styles, creating something almost Dada in its execution while still being mostly shoving things up one's ass. Darin Schuler's strip about a grotesque figure skinning its cat for shamanic reasons is the most disturbing strip in the entire comic (see below).

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the more narrative-driven strips, perhaps ones that Dylan Williams might have selected. Eroyn Franklin's frank and revealing strip about getting ringworm was as funny as it was gross. The same is true for yet another excellent Julia Gfroerer story, "Spirit Hand". In 35 tiny panels, she compresses an entire story's worth of adolescent ambiguity and utter terror. Asher Craw's strip about a boy being selected as a future sacrifice for the ocean and the delicate nature of his drawings would have fit in perfectly in a Williams-published anthology. There's new blood, like Ben Horak's funny strip about the possibility of some childhood art being misinterpreted in a dirty way and Tom van Deusen's bizarre and slightly unnerving funny animal strip about an unwanted head on a newly-bought house. The intense hatching and cross-hatching in that latter strip added to its disorienting qualities. There are also strips by old hands like Rick Altergott and Pat Moriarity (a cat strip, no less), David Lasky (a meditation on superheroes and identities), and Andrice Arp (the only artist in both anthologies, her strip here uses her strange characters to explore mental illness). Clotfelter closes the anthology with a silly "history" of comics that posits them being discovered by "an enormous idiot" who found "13 jade tablets! Each containing a different prototype of comics!!". What the anthology reveals as much as anything is how stacked Short Run was in terms of its talent and diversity of styles.