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An Interview with author and artist Matt Madden

1. What drew you to comics originally?

I slipped into making comics gradually through a series of chance encounters with books and people. I doodled a lot as a kid and I read comics among other interests, but I was more into Godzilla movies and making model airplanes.

At some point I came across a stack of Heavy Metal magazines from the late 70s which featured Moebius, Enki Bilal, and weird strips like Paul Kirchner's The Bus. Later, in fairly rapid succession, I came across Head Comix, a paperback collection of a bunch of R. Crumb's work from the early ZAP years; and Krazy Kat: The Art of George Herriman, which introduced me to the world of early newspaper strips.

I didn't really think of myself as an artist at the time, even though I was steeping myself in music, world literature, and film. I played guitar a lot but at a certain point accepted I was never going to start a cool post-punk band. But music plays a role here because I was a college radio DJ at WCBN-FM in Ann Arbor MI and because of that gig, I decided to approach a local cartoonist, Terry Laban, to ask him to design a button for the radio station's annual fundraiser. Secretly, I was also hoping to learn a bit about the comics world, though, since Terry was self-publishing a series called Unsupervised Existence (later published by Fantagraphics) which I had spotted around town.

It's fair to say that the visit to Terry in his studio changed the course of my life. He told me all about minicomic and fanzines and he even gave me a few back issues of Factsheet Five, the legendary pre-internet compendium of all things self-published and underground, as well as a short-lived comics broadsheet out of Seattle called Comics F/X. He also invited me to join him and another local cartoonist, Matt Feazell, to drink coffee and doodle and chat about comics at Matt's house in Ypsilanti. Matt was also very encouraging and generous in teaching me about making and sharing minicomics in the most simple, direct way possible. Pretty soon, I was drawing and wracking my brain for comics ideas. I'm not sure I would have persisted (or even started) if I hadn't had those weekly get-togethers to motivate and inspire me.

Another way to answer this question is to say that, once I had started making comics, I compared it to other media I was into and it became obvious that comics were perfectly suited to my personality and inclinations: I'd grown disenchanted with guitar and the thought of trying to form a band filled me with dread; I considered going to film school but the money involved and the megalomania required to make a feature film seemed unattainable to me. But to make comics, all I needed was paper and ink and a local copy shop (Frank Santoro in his Hype-Pup newsletter was just lamenting the fact that young artists don't seem to know what Kinkos is anymore—that's where we all got our minis printed back in the 90s) and I was ready to share my work with the world, either face-to-face or through the mail.

Finally, comics was and is a relatively young medium. When I looked at rock music in the early 90s, it didn't really seem like there was much new left to do with guitars; film and literature had long, varied, global traditions; comics, on the other hand, was an open and inviting field which had been stunted for various reasons and was just starting to pick up steam towards what is now an acknowledged golden age: when I started making minis, Daniel Clowes was still drawing Lloyd Llewellyn, Drawn and Quarterly was a flimsy, magazine-sized anthology, and Maus was shelved in the humor section of most bookstores, alongside Garfield and Sniglets collections. I realized that I was much more likely to mine new territory and make a mark on the world striking out in this little-explored territory.

Photo credit: Alain François

2. What do comics allow you to do as a creator?

Comics allow me to create a rich imaginary universe which I can mold and change as I go, for example changing the drawing style from simple to complex or adding colors. I like how I can string a series of moments together that will coalesce into an integrated (not necessarily fluid—it might be choppy and disorienting) narrative sequence in a reader's brain. This simple process never ceases to amaze me.

I've made a bit of a speciality out of imitating different styles. The ease with which you can shift the art style (including lettering and panel design) in comics is endlessly interesting to me whether I use it for dramatic effect or as an end in itself: In 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, I basically made that malleability the subject of a book-length work.

I also enjoy comics as a print object, where the page design and book layout are also part of the reading experience. From early on I have experimented with aspects of the book as storytelling tools, from page turns to fold-outs. My most recent book Ex Libris uses the materiality of the book as a very important element of the narrative.

3. Are there particular comics/graphic novels that you like to revisit?

At this point, there are so many new comics coming out every week that I barely have time to read new stuff, much less go back and look at old work. That said, there are some formative works that I'll go back to occasionally to study and enjoy, especially Krazy Kat and the work of Winsor McCay (I'm partial to Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend even if it's not as visually mind-blowing as Little Nemo).

As a parent I've been able to deeply dive into Hergé (and other kids' books and comics) in a way I have always wanted to: while we were living in France (2012-2016), I read through the entire Tintin œuvre out loud and in French to my young children. Reading a few pages a night was a great way to appreciate the original, serial nature of the Tintin stories and of course the voices are fun, especially when Captain Haddock appears on the scene. My kids (like all kids) were very perceptive about Hergé's cartooning and would regularly point out visual gags and recurring themes.

Just to give your readers a few leads, here are a few works that I've gone back to over the years because they are enjoyably knotty:

The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James

Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes

Gloriana by Keving Huizenga

The Zabîme Sisters by Aristophane (which I translated from French for First Second Books)

Some artists who I find generally worth revisiting include Yuichi Yokoyama, Aidan Koch, John Hankiewicz, David Mazzucchelli, Julie Doucet, Edmond Baudoin, Blutch, Tom Hart…

A comics-adjacent inspiration I've gone back to off-and-on for years is the cartoonist B.Kliban, creator of Cats and several collections of sardonic, absurdist gag cartoons and drawings. And I love Saul Steinberg and Roland Topor for similar reasons.

4. Please tell us about Ex Libris (love it!) and any other work you'd like to share about.

I'm very proud of Ex Libris. It's a book that has its origins in some sketchbook notes from the mid-90s and for years I hesitated diving into it, I wasn't sure if I could pull it off or if readers would be into such a self-reflexive and self-conscious book. I was also unsure whether readers would accept a first-person POV, after all, not even Orson Welles had been able to pull it off in film, and early on a few friends were openly skeptical about the concept. But as it happens, first-person video games have become so massively prevalent in the intervening decades that once I dusted off my notes in 2013 to reassess the project, I realized that particular conundrum had vanished.

I'm not sure what more to say about it except that, harkening back to the previous question, I hope that Ex Libris is a book that will encourage re-reading. There are a lot of references and gags throughout and there are also lots of reflections on the nature of comics, of reading books, of the blurry lines between fiction and reality that will resonate differently on later readings. It's been gratifying for me to hear several people tell me that once they finished the book they immediately went back and started re-reading from the first page.

I had another important release last year which didn't get as much publicity as Ex Libris since it's essentially a minicomic: my 24-page comic Bridge was published by the Latvian publisher kuš! as part of their mini kuš! series. This is a comic I worked really hard on and I'm happy with the result. It began life as a 24-hour comic which I wrote and drew in 2013, then I re-drew the art in 2016 because I felt that the story was so strong--and even in re-drawing the art I didn't change much about the compositions, I'm just particularly bad at drawing in a rush!

I have a few notes towards some new comics projects but nothing I'm ready to share yet. My other upcoming project (tentatively fall 2023) is a collection of my best (and little-seen) short comics from the last 15-20 years. It will probably be called Bridge and Other Stories.

5. Where can we find more information about your work?

The best one-stop spot to learn about me and my work is my website, even if I don't update it terribly often:

I'd also like to invite everyone to join my mailing list where I send out the occasional news update along with previews of new work and insights about my creative process:

I'm increasingly skeptical about the usefulness to artists of social media but I don't see myself completely pulling the plug. I use Instagram the most, Twitter from time to time, Facebook rarely:

Check out pages from the books:

Ex Libris chapter one on The Comics Journal

Samples of 99 Way to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style on Matt's website:

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