Stones skipped on the surface.

*A triptych of paraphrases, and a direct quotation.


A STORE OWNER: “People don’t always think about what they’re seeing in a book. Sometimes they’ll see an artist’s work and they’ll go ‘wow, really nice colors,’ and it’s not even that artist doing the colors. He’s not doing the inks either. Not to take away from anybody, but sometimes people don’t consider the details of the process very much.”


ASPIRING ARTIST: “Who do you think has the least appreciated job on the creative team?”

ANOTHER STORE OWNER: “The colorist. When there is one.”

ASPIRING ARTIST: “Really? I think it’s the inker. I mean, I’m an inker...”

ANOTHER STORE OWNER: "Well, you put two colorists on the same art, and they’ll look like different pages. Things change a lot. Things can change with inkers too. Letterers. There’s a whole lot that can happen after the pencils are done."


ME: “That Matt Madden book... I’m still getting my thoughts together on it. A lot of it struck me as pure surface.”

A FRIEND: “That might be what people need.”


Rather than rehashing the eternal battle between form and content, style and substance, I hope this work questions those tired dichotomies and suggests a different model: form as content, and substance inseparable from style.”

- Matt Madden, from the introduction to his recent book:

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style

It is perhaps overstating the case to declare that all incarnations of sequential art currently occupying space on our shelves and racks and hard drives must sport the most catholic of elemental coherency. That the line art and the coloring and the script and the letters and the sound effects must reflect the utmost in complimentary stance, the curvature of a character’s hip exhibiting some faintly definable yet overtly visible kinship with the curl of the ‘G’ in his or her cries of “Goddamn!” Or that the hues as applied to those lines must be sensitive, responsive to the white space (or lack thereof) on the page. Even if not intended, a measure of dissonance in the composition of the page can exist without compromising the readability or pleasurable qualities of the work as a whole. After all, some comics readers hold the opinion that stylistic differences in comics art are largely collateral anyway - so long as basic readability is not damaged, and certain expectations of broad necessity are met, Jim Lee and Jae Lee and J.H. Williams III and Frank Quitely are fundamentally but unnecessarily separable, since we can, after all, distinguish Character A from Character B (presumably, however, Kevin Huizenga drawing Uncanny X-Men would still send red flags flying - his typical style is broadly inappropriate to that sort of book).

But even to readers not possessed with such notions, does it really even stick out that the lettering in The Punisher MAX, a perfectly good book, is executed via a standard-looking font, perhaps the same one used in a number of other Marvel books? I for one don’t really notice the lettering in such a book; sure, I can pick things up if I really study it, but nothing is really impeded by the house stylings of the words in the balloons. I imagine that a few different fonts, provided that they are legible, wouldn’t have all that much effect on my reading experience. However, the lettering in Batman: Year One Hundred really bugged me, though it’s hardly difficult to read or improperly placed or anything. The trick is, writer/penciler/inker Paul Pope and colorist Jose Villarrubia had established an unusually cohesive visual approach, Pope’s slang-kissed dialogue floating around a vividly lined future filled with grim color - suddenly seeing such typical lettering pasted atop such otherwise smooth pages does neither the book nor the letters themselves any favors. What could have been unobtrusively nondescript seems suddenly out-of-touch, and distractingly so.

The point is, a deep study of the mechanics of the page won’t necessarily bear as much fruit from some books as it will from others. Eddie Campbell mentioned in that one interview in The Comics Journal (the one I simply won’t let go of) that the notion of splitting tasks between various pencilers and inkers is a product of ‘comic book culture,’ the inference being that the alternate ‘graphic novel culture’ is perhaps better attuned toward providing aesthetic dividends via elemental integration than the former (and let me also bring up right now Campbell’s disclaimer that one culture is not inherently superior to the other, and that graphic novel culture is not a medal to be handed out to good little funnybook soldiers in return for exemplary behavior). In this way, Matt Madden’s 2005 book 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style can be seen as a guide to comics creation as part of graphic novel culture: “Why is [the comic] drawn in pen and not with a brush? Why is it told in eight panels and how were they chosen... [s]uddenly it’s clear that what appear to be merely ‘stylistic’ choices are in fact an essential part of the story.” That’s Madden from his introduction, and while the lesson is probably most applicable to the brand of solo-crafted comics as Madden presents here, maybe it’s useful in certain ways to another culture; after all, I did think that the last art team on The Punisher MAX was more adept at bringing out the feeling in the writer’s script than the current one is.

That introduction I just quoted, running one page in length, is the only substantial block of text in this book beyond the three pages of annotations in the back - the education here comes mainly via immersion in comics. What Madden does is provide a ‘Template’ comic at the beginning, the one-page saga of Matt Madden heading down to the fridge, whereupon he’s distracted by wife Jessica Abel asking him for the time, which causes him to forget what he’s looking for in the icebox itself. This scenario is then repeated ninety-eight times, every variation also one page in length, with only a title provided on each opposite page to identify things. Art is often repeated, character postures maintained from one page to the next in each succeeding section’s equivalent panel, and the point is clearly to force the reader to arrive at their own understanding as to what seemingly basic choices in point-of-view or ‘shot’ arrangement or scenic detail do to alter a sequence’s impact (the annotations exclusively serve to explain cultural references and/or homages, in case you were curious). In this way we receive, in the words of the back cover hype, “...ninety nine approaches to telling the same story.”

It will quickly become clear that not everything in here actually works as a singularly valuable way of telling a story; upon squinting my eyes as tightly as possible and turning the book this way and that, I still can’t imagine how a section titled ‘Inventory,’ comprised entirely of differing elements of the page (the refrigerator! Matt Madden! the word balloons!), can possibly be considered a workable manner of telling a story in even the most liberal sense - it’s a toolbox opened on the page, a way of taking stock of things before Madden delves deeper into formal experimentation, but it’s not a story. Really, that’s how this book works - obviously, few people are going to draw their stories entirely in movie storyboard form, but the technique can logically be employed as one part of a bigger story, and it’s still instructive to compare/contrast the utilization of such a technique to a more typical technique (that of the Template). It’s altogether better to view this book not as differing approaches to telling one story, but as a series of possibilities regarding the execution of a single scene within a larger work, 99 Ways to Approach a Moment, if I may.

And on this level, there’s some good things to be found. At times, Madden maintains the exact form of the Template, merely altering the expressions on character faces and the presence or certain word balloons to create portraits of an ‘Unhappy Couple’ and a ‘Happy Couple.’ Sometimes exactly the same scene is depicted in a ‘Minimalist’ style, or with the characters replaced with anthropomorphic animals (‘Furry’). The page is contracted into One Panel, and padded out to Thirty Panels, and presented in all Horizontal, then all Vertical panels. And the reader must decide for themselves what these differing approaches seem to accomplish, how the mood changes, how the message is delivered. It’s disarmingly effective to notice how such simple things as the addition of extra iconic flourishes (Emanata) can make an entire sequence seem much more lighthearted than it’d be when stripped down to its component parts. Even sometimes when Madden drastically changes things, like reconstructing his page entirely from panels taken from the comics of others (Cento - a poetry term), can interesting effects be observed.

But the compartmentalized nature of the book, only really capable of offering variants on certain instances of approach, chafes badly with a fair portion of Madden’s exercises, specifically his many indulgences in homage. It’s one thing to wonder what would happen if a page did not involve so much crosshatching, or if it was seen through the eyes of an outside voyeur, but it’s something else entirely to tackle the page in the style of Winsor McCay. My immediate reaction to that is: “Well, which of McCay’s styles?” Madden selects a fairly simple set-up from Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, with a fixed viewpoint becoming the stage for increasingly absurd happenings. But I ask, why not the famous plays on perspective that McCay specialized in? Why not something akin to Little Nemo in Slumberland? It’s here that the book’s limitations come to light: it’s only really prepared to offer substantive food for thought in surface elements, basic positioning. When it then moves to adopt the ‘style’ of certain noted cartoonists, only a random selection of surface elements which partially constitute said cartoonists’ styles appear.

Take the Superhero page, which tosses out a collection of exaggerated lunges and oddly fragmented close-ups of fists and gritted teeth - it doesn’t really serve any instructive purpose, or even much in the way of entertainment, especially if one has been exposed to a wide variety of superhero comics. It just comes off as a clumsy take-off of a certain fraction of a wide grouping of comics, all of them possessed of their own formal qualities. This sort of thing, this homage might work as part of a larger work, but context would be everything; the presentation of certain superhero tropes would have to reflect (or contrast with) what’s come before. But this book can’t do that, so only the surface (and merely certain bits of the surface at that) comes through, and not in any sort of instructive way.

The Manga page is frankly a bit embarrassing in this regard, as if an entire nation’s culture of sequential art can be reduced to larger eyes, bigger hair, oddly-shaped panels, fan-service, and right-to-left reading (still, any of you out there who’ve been itching for a Jessica Abel panty shot - your dreams come true on page 43). You can argue that this is indeed a valid collection of specifically Japanese comics tropes, but it’s undoubtably playing toward stereotype, to the point where the page is no longer very interesting to anyone familiar with a lot of Japanese comics - it’s distracting in the worst way, and what lesson is taught there? What valid comparison can be made with the Template? Are we meant to break the exact mechanics of that page down several levels by ourselves? Big eyes plus odd panels plus underpants? Perhaps then anything put in this book will successfully complete its mission, so much is the reader left to do to fill in the instruction (which is, after all, what this tome is being sold and marketed and packaged as). The book also doesn’t consider the simple factor of annoyance, and its reach thus exceeds its grasp.

Still, the good parts of this book to perform their stated duty, making you consider small parts of the page as big things after all. I’m not sure if these good parts entirely justify the book’s short length, $16.95 price tag, and copious detours into overly broad mimicry. I’m not even sure if there’s much in this book that couldn’t be puzzled out by a thoughtful reader going through their comics on their own - I guess putting it all under one cover makes things handier, and I did find bits and pieces of this book handy. Surely in a visual language, style can dictate substance, or at least prop it up, or even subvert it. It’s indicative of subtleties than can suffuse an art form like comics, merely by creating ripples on the surface.