Wednesday, November 27, 2013

20 Lines

I recently finished a one-year drawing project called "20 Lines"

The initial inspiration was a prose book by the American Oulipo author Harry Mathews called 20 Lines a Day, which is a partial document of a period where he wrote 20 lines of prose every morning he was at his desk as a warm-up exercise. He was inspired by a quote by Stendhal to the effect of "20 lines a day, genius or not". He took that notion literally in a somewhat wry way and I did the same kind of thing: well, 20 drawn lines, how is that so different from 20 lines of writing? (It's faster for one thing, most of the time.)

I took it on once we moved to France because one of my goals here is to work on my drawing, which lags behind my writing and my structural/linguistic thinking about comics. My goal was to concentrate on the most basic elements of drawing--lines on a ground--to reflect on how lines fill space, how they fit together. Maybe not so much "reflect" as simply to put my drawing hand, my brain, and my eyes to work to see what would come out of it. How all that will translate back into my comics I don't really know, but I see it as part of a process of taking more conscious control of my drawing both at a physical as well as conceptual level.

I've been really pleased with the reaction I've had from friends and from my Tumblr and Facebook postings of these pages. I expect you'll be seeing some printed versions and maybe even some exhibits of this work in the future.

For starters, I was flattered and more than a bit surprised to receive an offer to publish a limited-run selection by No Press, a micro publisher of visual poetry and conceptual writing run by Derek Beaulieu. That should be published in the not-too-distant future, though to judge by his website I can't say it will be easy to get your hands on.

Here are a few more selections from the 80 or so drawings I have done so far:

A Sol Lewitt homage series:

You can find the whole series browsing back through my Maddn Tumblr


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Angoulême: report #2

Let me start this post by reassuring those of you who read my first report from Angoulême that things are going much better for me now, and I thank those of you that sent notes (or made comments) of encouragement. I didn't want to wallow in negativity but I did want to share frankly the frustrations I was feeling a few months ago.

Those frustrations—primarily the distractions of family life, my teaching and public speaking obligations, and the never-ending cycle of French paperwork related to setting up shop here—are still present but I have found a workable rhythm and am increasingly able to devote decent chunks of my day to drawing, writing, and reading.

I had a breakthrough of sorts shortly after that last post: the 24 hours comics day hosted by the Maison des Auteurs every year in the days leading up to the FIBD. This year I was the MC, tasked with coming up with a starter constraint that all participants were obliged to base their comics on. The constraint I finally worked up was well-received (I still run into people at festivals who mention it approvingly--I really appreciate it) and although I didn't finish my own comic in the 24 hour period I was able to do so in another seven hours a few weeks later and I was very happy with the results. You can read more about the whole experience here. What was particularly satisfying is that I quickly came up with a story concept I liked and then dove into the work (if not quite quickly or efficiently enough to finish in 24 hours). As I worked I found solutions to story problems and leitmotifs in the course of drawing and writing the pages. You can read the finished comic, Bridge, online for free here.

Though I was rather over-booked this spring I can't say it wasn't often enjoyable and even exciting: in the past two months I've been all over: In Madrid we celebrated the reprinting of 99 ejercicios de estilo with a barrage of interviews and an event at the excellent Librería El Central. I was invited to three comics festivals, in Corsica, Aix-en-Provence, and Amiens, and the latter two I was able to attend with Jessica and our kids. And I was in Paris multiple times—once even just for pleasure!

lunch with Bob Sikoryak and Jasper in Amiens

At the FIBD 2013 we inaugurated the OubapoShow and have gone on to repeat it in various forms and plan to develop it further in the time to come. It's been fun and very gratifying collaborating with my Oubapo co-members: Though I've been associated with them for years I hadn't spent time with any of them besides Trondheim and Lécroart until I arrived here last fall. I didn't know what to expect dropping in this late in the game but I've found everyone to be generous and welcoming and I feel very much part of the group, now. A highlight so far was our presentation of the OubapoShow in Paris for les Jeudis de L'Oulipo at the Bibliotheque Nationale de la France. This is a fairly long-running and popular evening event where Oulipo does readings on different themes; occasionally they invite one of the "ou-x-po"—as the associated "workshops for potential X" are collectively named—to take the stage and this was the first time Oubapo has been invited in 10 years. There was a big and receptive crowd including most of the senior members of Oulipo and the show went off without a hitch (you can watch the video here).

My initial push of public events and Oubapo-related stuff culminated in May with an overlapping series of events: the Musée de la Bande Dessinée hung a modest Oubapo exhibit from April to June and in May they featured the original art for my "History of American Comics in Six Panels" as their highlighted "page of the month". During the national "Nuit des Musées" I hosted a sort of mini-OubapoShow with Killoffer and Alex and Pierre from our occasional partners-in-crime, Éditions Polystyrène, which culminated in a diverse, all-ages game of giant Scroubabble which the museum had produced for an earlier Oubapo exhibit. I taught a 4-day masters workshop on comics and poetry forms which yielded a blogpost here about haiku comics that has caught on a bit online and even been translated by Thierry Groensteen for 9eme Art 2.0. Somewhere in there I also managed to program an evening of constrained film, including Lars Von Trier's Five Obstructions, at the Cinéma de la Cité… you can see how sometimes it's hard to get any actual comics done.

Jean-Pierre Mercier leads a game of massive Scroubabble at la Nuit des Musées in May.

But I find that the basic balance has shifted for now and I am devoting more and more time to simply drawing and writing (and editing and scanning and inking and correcting) comics. As circumstances have it, I have been able to ramp up incrementally over the last six months: I did two short strips (for the Swiss magazine Strapazin and Chicago-based Trubble Club's on-line jam comic Infinite Corpse) followed by a one-pager for Etienne Lécroart's issue of Mon Lapin, the reboot of L'Assocation's anthology title, then a TWO-pager for Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson's Flashed! anthology of flash fiction and comics. Just now I am finishing up a 10-page comic for an Oubapo project at l'Association dreamed up by Lewis Trondheim: four of us (LT and I plus Jochen Gerner and Alex Baladi) made comics based on redrawing all the photos and illustrations (ads not included) in a single issue of the French newspaper Libération.

I'll never be a lightning-fast cartoonist but I'm feeling happy about the pace I've hit and plan to maintain it if not speed it up in the years to come.

page-in-progress for Mon Lapin

So, what does the future hold? First of all, Jessica and I were recently accepted for another two years of residency at the Maison des Auteurs (is that burying the lead?) which means things are going well here for all of us and we want to keep going. My "project" for the next two years is to produce a book—not a graphic novel but a "novella" or classic French album. I have a few different ideas for book-length works that I'll be developing and reporting on here when the time is right.
Most of the comics I finished this year won't be available for a while, especially not in the US.

One comic that has been published twice is my "Pantoum for Hiram" which debuted internationally in Colombia's Revista Larva (as "Una Madeja para Hugo" and in English in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art

And here's what's coming up in the next year, so far:

Most significantly, there's my first long comic since 99 Ways, a 32-page comic called Drawn Onward. I don't have a release date yet but I'm excited to say that it's going to be the inaugural comic issue of the prestigious short story subscription-only magazine, OneStory (another buried lead!). 2013? Could be... Also forthcoming: news about how to get your hands on it even if you're not a subscriber.

a page from Drawn Onward

September will see the release of Best American Comics 2013 our final volume as series editors. It's been a fun ride and I'm proud of the work Jessica and I have done there.

My strip for Strapazin should be out in the fall and at that time I will post the English version here and/or on my Tumblr.

a panel from my TV show-themed strip for Strapazin 112

I did a 2-page comic called "Winter Villanelle," based on a flash fiction piece by Aimee Bender for and interesting book project called Flashed! that is due in 2014, sometime.

And early 2014 should see three publications of mine at L'Association:
Cavalcade Surprise, a short "patte de mouche" booklet done with Jessica and Lewis Trondheim
"La Fuite" my story for Etienne's Mon Lapin
"Le Coeur du Roi", my story for Journal Directeur

pages-in-progress for the Oubapo project, Journal Directeur

It's a good start, I think.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Haiku Comics

I recently taught a workshop to comics Master's students at the École Européene Supérieure de l'Image in Angoulême, France. The subject of the four-day workshop was comics based on fixed forms borrowed from poetry such as the sestina, the villanelle, or the sonnet. (If you follow my work or this blog at all you know that this is a subject I've dabbled in a fair amount in my personal work.)

One form of poetry I have not previously played around with is the haiku. Its brevity and relative simplicity of rules made it a good candidate for a warm-up activity. So after reviewing the traditional rules and reading a few examples in French and English, the students and I spent half an hour or so coming up with quick "haiku comics".

(leer en castellano)
(lire en français)

Before starting we looked at a few examples of haiku comics that already exist to see what ways the form has been adapted to our medium. One of the things I find interesting about the 5-7-5 syllable structure is that there are a number of ways to think about how that might translate to comics.

Here are two very different haiku comics I found online. The first is by John Porcellino and you might describe it as evoking a haiku rather than adapting it faithfully: the sizes of the three panels seem to refer to the 5-7-5 structure, and the text, though not observing the syllabic rules, observe many other principles of the haiku: the present tense, a reference to nature, the obersvation of a fleeting moment. One student pointed out that the framing meta-panel could be seen as uniting the comic in a single, cosmic instant.

a haiku-like comic by John Porcellino
©John Porcellino

The next example is a webcomic by Mysh called Imaginary Encounters which uses the haiku has a base structure for a series of autobiographical one-page stories. In this case, the text is a fairly orthodox haiku (even if the subject matter, a dreamy gay travelogue, is far from traditional!) but the comics seems to mainly echo the three line structure in the form of three equally-sized tiers. One thing I particularly like about this example is the ironic counterpoint between the phrase "mountain top", a fairly classic nature reference, and the image of two lovers looking out their "mountain," the top-floor of window of a building. In another odd touch, we see that the place where they are is utterly flooded:


[NOTE: if you like what you see here, Mysh is currently trying to raise funds on indiegogo for a book collection of these strips. Please consider contributing here.]

We discussed other ways the syllable structure might be adapted, generally agreeing that Porcellino's relative size approach worked well.  As a counter-example: we all agreed that though a three-page comic of 5 panels, 7 panels, 5 panels would be feasible it would be too long and against the spirit of a haiku. We left it up to each student to decide which aspects of haiku to adapt and which to disregard.
some ways to conceive of a comics haiku
some ways to adapt haiku into comics

Here are a few examples from the class:

© Elisabeth Holleville
© Elisabeth Holleville

[translation: On the mountain/amid the high grass/of your fur]

© Timothée LeBoucher
© Timothée LeBoucher

© Lise Lamarche
© Lise Lamarche

[translation: Along with the birds/the great crane floats/above the water.]

I also made a few attempts myself. In the first one I tried to write a traditional haiku, referencing the present, a season, a moment in time, and so on (it was easy to think about nature and the seasons because it's been a long, gray spring here and in most of France). That said, I couldn't help put a modern, pop culture twist to it, since I was drawing all this in spitting distance of the Musée de la Bande Dessinée, which has a statue of Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese keeping watch along the footbridge across the Charente river:

© Matt Madden

You can see that I used the 5-7-5 relative panel height principle here, cutting the space from top to bottom as the eye descends.

For the second comic, I flipped it sideways, thinking that was a more natural movement for the gaze of the haiku poet, surveying the landscape around her. An unusual aspect of this art school is that it is located on a small island right on the Charente, so when you step out, as I did, to the coffee machine, you find yourself surrounded by rushing water on all sides. It is, in fact, about as haiku-inspring a moment as you are likely to find in the middle of a city. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to translate the syllable count in to drawn lines, so in this second version I drew five lines in the first panel, seven in the second, and five again in the last. I stood in the middle of the river and looked first to my left, then straight ahead, then right:

haiku #2 (version one) © Matt Madden

You may have noticed that I also used the words left, center, and right, in the three lines of text. The crane referred to and minimally evoked in the drawing is a construction crane over a new student center being built across the river. Of course, the association with the bird  is intentional. What's interesting is that my student Lise did the same play with "grue" (above), which as in English refers to both the bird and the construction equipment.

I drew both of these comics quickly, without pencilling or much planning, with a fountain pen on letter size (A4) paper. I had in mind an interesting detail I came across which is that a haiku is intended to be read in one breath: how can we translate that idea to drawing or looking at drawings?

After I scanned the pages, though, I had the idea that the second one might work better with a less rigid panel height, something more organic and evocative, again, of the haiku's syllable structure:

© Matt Madden
version 2

June 24 Update
I showed my haikus to Jacques Jouet of Oulipo and he surprised me by asking why the third panel of the Corto Maltese haiku had "2 x 5" drops of rain. I was confused until I went back and looked at the page again: as it happens, if you count the raindrops in that comic you'll see that the first panel has five raindrops, the second one seven raindrops and the last panel ten (or: "2 x 5") raindrops. Total coincidence, but in Jacques' honor I've Photoshopped a Jouetian variant featuring properly syllabic raindrops:

[A slightly different version of this post appeared on the Drawing Words & Writing Pictures/Mastering Comics blog]


Monday, February 18, 2013

Bridge: a "24+7 hour comic"

At the end of January I hosted and participated in the seventh annual 24-hour Comics Day event at la maison des auteurs. I didn't finish the whole comic in 24 hours—I only got to page 16—so I devoted another seven hour day to finishing the remaining eight pages. You can read the comic and learn a bit about it after the jump.

To quickly review: the 24-hour comic was invented by Scott McCloud in 1990. The goal is to write and draw a 24-page comic from scratch in a 24-hour period. (The original instructions stipulate that you also need to lay out a minicomic and get it printed in that time!) And additional rule added over the years is to announce a starter constraint—a keyword or some kind of rule—that all participants need to observe. At the maison des auteurs event (founded by Lewis Trondheim in 2007 when he was president of the Angoulême International Comics Festival) these starter constraints have included:

  • the first and last panel must include a snowball
  • the comic must be completely wordless
  • there must be a family dinner scene in the middle of the story

This year, I was invited to come up with the starter constraint. I thought long and hard about it and consulted with previous 24 hour MCs Lewis Trondheim and Etienne Lécroart. I'm very pleased with the constraint I came up with and I'm happy to say that most other participants have been as well:

Your story has to take place in the duration of 24 units of time: seconds, hours, days, years, etc.
The time frame must be directly related to the story. Time must be distributed equally throughout the story. That is, if you are doing a 24-year story, each page takes place during one year.
The story must be 24 pages long. The first page must contain a title and the 24th page should have "the end" at the bottom.
All the pages must be numbered from 1 to 24.

I wanted to participate myself but not have a leg up by already knowing what unit of time I was going to use so I invited the gathered crowd at the opening to give me a unit of time to work with. Lewis Trondheim spoke up immediately—almost as if he had set a trap!—and proposed: decades. Meaning every page has to cover ten years and the final story will be 240 years long...

(You can watch a video of me announcing the constraint (and Lewis pouncing on me with his tricky challenge) here, part of a very nicely-done series of benind-the-scenes videos shot and edited the same day. See them all here.)

The ten-year-increment structure was not a possibility I had even considered but after a few hours interrupted by various media people I had a solid story worked out. I did less well with the planning and time management and at a certain point I realized I would not finish all 24 pages so I aimed for page 16, end of the second of three parts (roughly corresponding to three eighty-year lifespans). On Friday, February 15 I sat down and cranked out the remaining eight pages in seven hours. So, not a perfect 24-hour record but I was pretty proud of myself anyway. And to top it off, I think it turned out quite well. Here's the comic in its entirety (click on it a second time to view in full-screen mode):

You can read the rest of the finished comics here. It's too overwhelming to read all in one go but check back regularly because they feature comics at random in the top right corner where it says "à decouvrir aujourd'hui".

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

4 x 4: the OubapoShow post

Recently my friends in Oubapo and some invited guests put on the first ever OubapoShow at the Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de L'Image in Angoulême (oh, and up the hill there was also some kind of comics convention going on?). We all did performances, slideshows, and live-drawing events. In my case, I came up with Four by Four, a quick but tough constraint for generating four-panel comics. As a way to make it more interactive (and perhaps also to lessen the pressure on me to come up with something excellent all by myself!) I invited the audience to participate as well.
After the jump you can learn about the constraint and see all the comics audience members turned in.

Lecteurs francophones: dans ce blog je vais montrer tout les strips qu'ont fait les participants du publique (dont certains d'entre vous sans doute) de l'OubapoShow pendant le FIBD 2013. N'hesitez pas à laisser un commentaire si vous voudriez que je mets vos noms sur vos strips. Continuons en ingueliche un peu...

The challenge I proposed was based on sets of four: four panels (which I drew years back for a different project), four sets (seasons, colors, emotions, shapes) of four words each. The idea is to choose one word from each of the four sets and make a comic strip using the four panels and the four keywords, adding dialogue, sound effects, narration, etc. You can also alter the drawing to whatever degree necessary.

I handed out colored cards to random audience members (not very rigorously oubapian, I'm afraid) and had them choose the four words based on which cards they were holding. The results we came up with were:

season: summer/été
shape: circle/rond
emotion: joy/joie
color: yellow/jaune

I also handed out about 20 envelopes containing copies of the four panels and a little sheet with instructions and the four categories. While other Oubapians did their presentations I worked at a table on the side of the stage for 20 minutes, writing a strip, showing it to my neighbor Alex Chauvel to revise the French, lettering it, pasting it up, and coming up with a title using all four words.

When I was done we collected all the finished strips and brought them onstage. I showed my strip to the crowd using the overhead projector. Not my best work ever but I got some cheap laughs out of the audience (you can make it out in the opening image). While I was doing that, the other Oubapians were quickly sorting through the collected strips to find a few more to put up on the screen.

Tony Rangeul, Etienne Lécroart, and François Ayroles read through the audience's comics

Since there wasn't time to show them all, I offered to put the remaining strips on my blog, so here we are.

Merci d'avoir supporté tout ce 'nonsense'. Voici les strips 4x4 faits par la publique de l"OubapoShow. Et Bravo!

Cliquez sur le diapo pour l'aggrandir.

Et voilà. Merci à tous de la collaboration.


Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Oubapo in Translation

I translated three short comics by members of Oubapo and wrote an introduction to the group and its principles for the International Graphic Novels issue of the literary translation magazine Words Without Borders.

original Etienne Lécroart page, photo by me

The comics I translated are a palindrome comic by François Ayroles, an acrostic comic by Killoffer, and a 4-page elegy* by Etienne Lécroart to his sister, structured on a decreasing number of words and lines from one panel to the next. This last comic is on my short list for the most innovative and powerful comics I've read in recent years. I was lucky enough to drop in on Etienne a few years ago and see the original pages right after he had finished drawing it. I wrote about the visit here.

*I had a moment of doubt about whether 'elegy' is the right term here or if it should be 'eulogy'. I think they are both applicable: an elegy is usually a musical or poetic composition in remembrance of someone while a eulogy is usually a prose reminiscence written by a loved one. Though the comic is written in prose and by a loved one, the rigor of the composition and the melancholy tone make me think that 'elegy' is the more proper term to use.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Angoulême: first report

"So, are you scared?"

I knew exactly what Lewis Trondheim was asking me, even though he said it out of the blue during a dinner at our house in Brooklyn last August. I was about to take a year's sabbatical leave from SVA and move to France to do a residency at the Maison des Auteurs in Angoulême. A year-plus of theoretically open schedule to work on whatever I want and the only thing I have to do is: not screw it up or, worse still, fail to produce anything. The pressure has been on as of August 29 when we (Jessica and I and our two children, Aldara and Jasper) arrived—barely intact—at the Angoulême train station to start this new phase of our lives. (You can read Jessica's account of the adventure here.)

So: yes, I'm scared.

And to lead with the discouraging news, I've been quite unproductive these first four months, at least when it comes to producing any new comics. The nadir came when I recently backed out of an anthology project I'd said I'd contribute to. I wasn't finding enough time to work on it (though it was only a page) and when I did I was creatively stumped to a point where I just had to cut it loose because it was depressing me as well as distracting me from other projects. All of which is particularly humiliating because I thought it would be a quick amuse-bouche to get myself geared up for longer, more ambitious work.

It's a rude way to begin this residency since in fact I've produced very little of my personal work in recent years and there are all kinds of muscles and reflexes that have become dull and stiff. So the small set-backs that happen in every artistic endeavor feel more devastating right now because I feel like an awkward combination of has-been and rank beginner, trying to find a foothold.

I was fully expecting to lose a month or so to paperwork and getting the kids set up in school and that sort of thing but everything got compounded and time flew by as it tends to. All that said, here we are in early January 2013 and an end (not THE end, no, never) is in sight. So rather than linger on my failures thus far I'm planning for the open swaths of time in the coming months when I'll achieve some real momentum. (And you can bet I'll be posting about it here.)

I've had a lot of encouragement: from Jessica of course, as always, but also from friends here like Lewis, who despite his impish pleasure in making me squirm has prodded me regularly, going so far as to make me and Jessica sit down with him over the course of an afternoon (New Year's Eve, in fact) to crank out a book of drawings (about which more some other time) just to show that it could be done (well, and also because Lewis Trondheim can't help but draw and create things all day long).

I also got to have dinner recently with one of my heroes, Edmond Baudoin, and he reminded me that he didn't start drawing comics until he was 30 and had his first book published at 40—which puts me 2 books ahead of him at the same age. Now if I can keep up with him and make 60 more books in the years to come... (Not incidentally, this is one of the many reasons I wanted to live in France and in Angoulême in particular: comics luminaries come through town regularly and you get a chance to spend real time with them, not just shake hands at a festival or big city bookstore opening).

Last but not least: I love my new life in Angoulême at la Maison des Auteurs! Here's a shot of my studio, where I would happily lay down a futon and spend most of my time if I wasn't a good family man:

The MdA (as everyone calls it here)is an amazing resource, something that I'm not sure anyone could pull off in the US unless it was some kind of for-profit venture or lottery-winner indulgence. Pili and Brigitte, the director and administrator of the MdA, have done an amazing job in facilitating our move. We were both able to get well-appointed individual studios (there are also group studios for anywhere from two to six artists) and I'm relishing private space and the quiet—or the noise—in which to draw, write, and get lost in reverie. Jessica has a bit of a different take on the new set-up here. I haven't gotten to know my fellow residents well for the most part and I hope they don't think me too antisocial but with the kids to run home to all the time I have neither been able to go out for drinks much nor willing to spend much time hanging out while I'm at the studio. There's a nice camaraderie, though, and I'm forging friendships one at a time.

So I'll end with a photo I took in a moment of optimism but which now taunts me a bit. It's an empty art box I'm planning to fill with new pages in the year(s) to come. Well, it is hungry and I am going to feed it: