Friday, January 01, 2016

Hello and welcome to my old blog. As of the end of 2015 I have a new blog and website here.

You can still find selected posts here. I've left some of my more popular ones live for archival reasons. However, if you are going to share or cite any of these posts please take the time to link to the new site.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

20 Lines exhibit in Barcelona

I just got back from the opening of my first gallery exhibit devoted to my "20 Lines" series of drawings that I blogged about here. 77 of them are on display at etHALL gallery in Barcelona until November 7. If you can make it by be sure to ask for the classy poster they printed up for the show, it's a freebie.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Exercises in Style in the classroom

2015 marks the ten year anniversary of the first publication of 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. It's never been a huge bestseller but it has slowly built an international and diverse audience made up of comics fans, designers, readers of experimental literature, and educators.

Teachers in particular have been real champions of the book. I have visited many classrooms to talk about it and I occasionally receive links to projects students have done based on my book. In a recent Twitter conversation a teacher asked me how I use my book when I'm teaching. After the jump I'll share a few ideas.

This will be a bit of a long post so here's a table of contents of what's up ahead:
I. Further variations on my template
II. Make your own template
III. Build an extended project
IV. For non-artists

The photo at the top of the page is from a project by students of the Lycée Pierre Lescot, a trade-oriented high school in Paris (which I point out only to underscore the fact that these activities are by no means only interesting to literature or art students). I visited them in 2009 only to find that they had done a whole series of activities on 99X (that's how I've taken to abbreviating it recently) including an exhibit of variations on my template page. The photo is from a series of Powerpoint photocomics (a new genre?) that told short stories based on a series of elements from my book and stuff the students came up with.

(Note: I credited students where possible but I don't have everyone's names. Happy to update if anyone wants to send info. Also, you can click on all of the images below to enlarge.)

I. To infinity and beyond
I want to share a few more photos of the French students' work because here we find an example of the most straightforward way to use 99X as the basis of a classroom activity: simply have your students make new variations of my "template" comic. It helps to show them my book first, of course, and to have them read my initial inspiration, Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style or some of the short texts I list at the bottom before asking them to come up with their own approaches to retelling the story. It can help to do this as a class brainstorming exercise which can also serve as an opportunity to further identify different classes of constraints (POV, parodies, graphic approaches, etc.) or to discuss which constraints might be more productive than others (for example: what's more interesting, copying my template page on tracing paper or attempting to redraw it from memory?). It doesn't matter if they're "artists" or not, part of the fun is finding a way to make a visual response (through tracing, collage, copying and pasting, etc.).

A Roy Lichtenstein version (with a bit of Mondrian thrown in for good measure) next to a "robo-optical" version

This "fragmentary" version shows that you can do a lot with just a little bit of drawing ability and some color.

I still hear from teachers doing this kind of activity with their students. For instance, Derek Beaulieu just sent me this new set of variations from his students at the Alberta College of Art + Design. A few excerpts"

a soundtrack version


Spot on Keith Haring version

A very simple twist, throwing kids into the mix, works very well to explain the confusion of the protagonist (and describes my current daily life quite accurately)

II. Make your own template
Another approach is to come up with a new template comic or text for your students to riff on. This has the advantage of being easily customizable for different age or skill levels. For example, I did an afternoon workshop with young French kids, between about 8 and 12 years old, at the CIBDI here in Angoulême. I wanted a very simple story for them to work with so I came up with a four panel sequence that wouldn't require a lot of drawing or sophisticated writing:

1. Mom puts food on table, calling child to come eat dinner.
2. A cat climbs up on the table.
3. The cat eats up all the food.
4. The child enters to find the dinner gone, looks disappointed.

We talked about possible approaches you could take and the kids were on their way. Not all of them entirely grasped the concept but even if they just drew a little comic roughly following my script they were having fun and probably learning something. In the end we put together a little minicomic of all the finished (and near-finished) pages. Here are some interesting ones:

This telling of the story is full of anthropomorphism. The cat talks (or "thinks" aloud) and so does the dinner.

A caveman version, why not?

This one is clever: the roles have all been mixed up

III. Build an extended project
If you're working cartooning or art students you can us 99X as the basis for an extended project. You can start with either approach I've laid out above (working from my template or making up a new one) and assign as many variations as you like. (You could also choose a one-page comic they have drawn for a previous assignment as your "template" comic.) You can have students choose their own constraints to work with or you can have them do the same ones, which has the advantage of letting you compare and discuss the results.

In 2013 I spent a week in Viborg, Denmark with the first group of cartooning students they've had at The Animation Workshop. I came up with a 6-panel sequence which we did variations on over the next five days. Here's the script:

1. Student 1 working on comic in classroom.
2. Enter Student 2.
3. S2 sits down next to S1.
4. S1 slides his/her comic to S2.
5. S1 "She's all yours."
6. S1 leaves, S2 starts drawing.

i. template
First I had them draw a "straightforward" version of the story. Of course, right there you start to see that there is no single way to tell the story "straight"—everyone already brings their own tools of drawing style, pacing, framing, and so on:

Here's a relatively straightforward, classic take on the script by Cathrin Peterslund.

This template by Jacob Thomas Canepa is already imposing its own series of formal choices: repetition, geometric shapes, grayscale...

ii. Genre
The first variation I asked them to do was to retell the story in a genre. Not just any genre though: I talked with each student and we selected genres they had never worked in before—even ones they didn't like. I thought it would be interesting to see how they overcame their dislike and their self-professed ignorance (I knew they would prove themselves wrong, as the results prove):

This war comic by Jam Aden adds a touch of tragedy to the script.

I encourage students to blend more than one genre. Here's a superhero romance comic by Julie Hauge with a healthy dose of comics self-referentiality.

iii. POV/Framing
The next assignment I gave was to play with framing or point of view. I think this might have worked better as the first variation in order to get students focused on the mechanics of storytelling...

Seat's eye view by Bob Lundgreen Kristiansen. Not very glamorous!

The framing on this page by Aske Schmidt Rose focuses tightly on the tip of the pencil, making for an elegant, quasi-abstract comic.

iv. Art forgery
Hommage, parody, counterfeit... I told the students that the goal here was to draw such a convincing copy of an artist's style (not just their drawing style but their way of framing and pacing stories) that we could go sell it on ebay afterwards for a lot of money.

Cathrin Peterslund creates an excellent evocation of Jason's drawing style but note that you can also recognize his characterstic framing, slow pacing, and low-key humor.

If Paul Klee made comics... by Clara Lucie Jetsmark Bjerre.

v. Collaborative extension: 5 obstructions
The last collaboration added the dimension of collaboration to the mix and points to various other directions you could go with this assignment. The logistics of this are worthy of a separate blog post which I will attempt to do sometime (and being a wise blogger I will neither promise anything, nor will I apologize if it takes me three years to do it). For now I'll just say that each student is given the task of coming up with 5 constraints (or "obstructions" to use the terminology proposed by Lars Von Trier, whose playful documentary is the basis of this assignment) that one of their classmates will have to use to make a final variation on their initial "template" pages. The trick to this assignment (as with all constraint-based work, I would argue) is to really encourage the students to come up with tough, even perverse constraints and no softballs. It's not about being mean, of course (and depending on your group you can monitor your students more or less), it's about getting to observe, together, that a-ha! moment when, invariably, every student comes up with an ingenious solution to a tricky constraint.

Three constraints: show only the characters' eyes, use "widescreen" horizontal panels, use only shades of blue — no black.

Just look at Emil Friis Ernst's beautiful solution.The cool blues suggest the glow of the tablet (a lot of these students work digitally) and the horizontal panels adapt easily to the one and then two-eyed framing. The cleverest part to me is the way he uses the reflection in the eyeball and then in the eyeglasses to convey narrative information. (Note two how by giving one character glasses you easily understand that their are two characters in the story despite the tight close-ups.

Now here's a set of constraints that at first glance seems unwieldy if not impossible: characters can't touch the ground? no pants? Silhouettes? Must feature Spiderman??

Yet look at Mathilde Garreau's masterful response. The silhouettes keep the "no pants" rule G-rated while of course Spiderman never touches the ground anyway!

IV. For non-artists
If you don't have time to draw comics or if you are working in a text-only context there's still plenty of stuff you can do with 99X. Recently a group of junior high school students around the city of Poitiers were assigned my book and wrote responses in the form of "exercises in criticism." There was an acronym version, an emoticon version, and even an audio soundscape.

And of course you can always go back to the source and read Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style in Barbara Wright's translation (an exercise in style of its own). I find it useful to look at a series of even shorter takes on this theme that have been done over the years by various members of Oulipo. This is great because you can find this in English, French, and Spanish at the very least. The English one is by Harry Mathews and it's called "35 Variations on a Theme by Shakespeare" (scroll down to find it among many other gems here); There's a French version by Georges Perec using a line from Proust, and more recently the newest Oulipo member Eduardo Berti made a Spanish version.

I have typically used these texts as a warm up to the comics assignment. I ask my students to come up with ten variations on a saying or famous quote of their choice. I blogged about it and gave examples here.

If you have any questions or additional activities to share I'll hope you'll comment below.

You can purchase the US edition of Matt's book here. There are also UK, French, Spanish, Flemish, Italian (out of print) and Japanese versions available and Matt's always searching for new audiences. In addition, you can find the whole work being serialized online in German and Hungarian.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Douze Morts...

On the way to school this morning my 7-year-old surprised me by announcing: “Douze morts. Dix qui travaillaient au journal. Deux policiers.” (Twelve dead. Ten who worked at the magazine. Two police.) We have spoken a lot about the attack this week—I found out from another ashen-faced dad just as I was picking the kids up to spend Wednesday afternoon together—but I don’t know when she learned the make up of the body count. Turns out her teacher talked about it at school yesterday and they observed a minute of silence for the victims. That’s not something children should have to experience in CE1 (2nd grade) but I’m glad the teacher did it. Seems like most French schools are tackling this head on, even with younger children. My 4-year-old said he’s sad about the people that were killed and he thinks the bad guys are “moche” (nasty).

door of a nursery school classroom in Angoulême today

I suddenly understood better why our daughter had burst into tears this morning before Jessica left for Paris on a weekend trip that it is too late to cancel. What a world where the idea of a cartoonist going to Paris strikes fear into the heart of her child. (And in fact she’s on the TGV as I type this and there is gunfire being reported near Charles de Gaulle airport.) It’s been hard to process this awful event with two children in my lap. They understand that some cartoonists were killed for making silly drawings—even mean drawings, but that they never hurt anyone, never killed anyone. I wanted them to understand that these were artists like me and Jessica but I had to cut short when I found myself developing an extended and terrifying analogy of gunmen storming the Maison des Auteurs where I’m in residence, shooting B. and P. and then coming upstairs to shoot the artists. But that could never happen. Never. Could it?

As a cartoonist and as a human being this attack has really sent me into a free fall. I’ve been turning in circles all week trying to process it and decide the appropriate way to respond. In one of numerous online discussions I’ve perused I saw my friend Mahendra Singh talking about needing to "cultivate our own gardens” and that phrase from Voltaire’s Candide keeps coming to mind. It’s another pipe dream, but if only people would tend to their own lives and treat those around them with respect and tolerance...

one of many storefront windows of Angoulême today

I’ve never read Charlie Hebdo or much in general in the way of political/satirical cartooning. As an American (as a non-European?) it’s hard not to be shocked and fairly put off by the crude racism that characterizes the artwork even where the gags aren’t as offensive. Domitille Collardey wrote a sensitive post on Facebook about her perspective as a French cartoonist living in the US during all of this. There really is a cultural rift between France and the US (and India, just to give one other example that I was discussing with my friend and MdA neighbor Amruta Patil) that makes it hard to understand why some of these drawings are worth defending. The Je suis Charlie tagline is problematic because Charlie Hebdo is a very particular manifestation of culture that not everyone wants to be 100% on board with. I'm uneasy with it myself and have been reluctant to use it. I’ve seen at least one post saying we shouldn’t be claiming Je suis Charlie because we are thus implicitly condoning the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ bigotry.

I disagree.

I grant that this is pretty extreme as freedom of expression goes. But it’s not hate speech, it’s not incitement to violence. It’s only lines on paper, folks, as R. Crumb is often quoted as saying. And yes, lines do have power, but it’s a rhetorical power. Art is a metaphorical weapon, it is not an AK-47, and THAT’s what Je suis Charlie is about. It’s about honoring the dead, defending free speech and the ideal of a democratic society where problems are solved through art and dialogue—no matter how heated—and not bullets.

I am Charlie.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Truffaut's Farenheit 451 Comix

Sometimes a glimpse of something is more compelling and inspiring than seeing the whole could ever possibly live up to. Italo Calvino explored this idea with his novels that end abruptly after the first channel in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, leaving the reader's imagination floating in a kind of perpetual state of suspense and potentiality.

One of those little flashes that has stuck with me over the years is the fleeting appearance of wordless comics broadsheets in François Truffaut's 1966 adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451.

At various points in the film, set in a world where books and the written word are banned, we see characters reading what appear to be newspapers (or perhaps soap operas?) in the form of wordless comics. They're meant to be another sign of the decadence of this future world, a usage of comics which I find disappointing and doubly ironic: it gives comics and drawing short shrift but additionally I wonder if it can have escaped Truffaut that he was telling this story in another visual-dominant narrative medium?

The one hint I've found as to Truffaut's intentions is from an interview in the Winter 1984/85 issue of Sight & Sound with Nicolas Roeg, who worked as director of photography on the film which he claimed "was a film very much to be ‘read’ in terms of images":

[Truffaut] realised that images were things to be read. Like the scene where Montag is sitting in bed with comics. Those comics were very carefully designed; they were a form of shorthand, so that the news could be read in pictures. The beauty of the language wasn’t what was important. It was like a rather intimate film where language means a lot, but we no longer have the language. So you virtually have to read the pictures. It implies there will come a time when people will still have all those emotions, but you have to read through other indications, other signs.

In any case, to me these pages are tantalizing. The art is jagged and modern, reminding me a bit of Bernie Krigstein, though there's pretty much no way he could have done job. The recent reissue of Guy Paellaert's Adventures of Jodelle from that same era makes me wonder if he might not have been the artist on these pages. If anyone knows, please let me know. The fact that the pages are wordless and glimpsed in flashes only add to their mysterious allure. I even love the washed-monochromatic color scheme. They linger in my brain like the comics I some times encounter in dreams.

And notice how they seem to show a mob forming in the last few panels?!

(It's worth noting in passing that cartoonist Tim Hamilton did a very good adaptation (with Bradbury's blessing) a few years ago.)

[Update: Someone on Facebook pointed me to this examination by critic Jessie Bi of the use of comics in the film from the French film blog Du9.]

all images are screencaps from a DVD of Farenheit 451

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.