99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden

Can a story, however simple or mundane, be separated from the manner in which it is told?
— Matt Madden, introduction to 99 Ways to Tell a Story

A man sits at his desk and works on his laptop. He then gets up to go to the kitchen, but is distracted when he hears a young woman call from upstairs for the time. He answers her, opens the fridge, and wonders what the hell he was looking for anyway.

In 99 Ways to Tell a Story, underground comic book artist Matt Madden (Black Candy, Odds Off) relays this incident — you guessed it — 99 ways. The book is an homage to French novelist Raymond Queneau’s previous exploration of narrative form, Exercises in Style. In that book, the author similarly retells a simply story in every conceivable way: from multiple perspectives and tenses, as a sonnet, even in Pig Latin and as mathematical formulas. Queneau’s book serves as a textbook on form and narrative. It’s also a mainstay for college creative writing classes. Its popularity can no doubt be linked to its outright challenging of preconceived notions of exactly what defines a narrative. Can a telegram or a book jacket be considered a narrative — or literature, for that matter? According to Queneau, narrative and form are inextricably bound, and form has the power to completely transform even the simplest of narratives.

Madden explores these same issues — as well as other questions regarding comics’ place in literature — in 99 Ways. A simple trip to the refrigerator can turn into a funky acid trip (in his “Underground Comix” exercise a la Robert Crumb) or a public service announcement condoning safe sex; it can be represented by a map or as a lesson in closure (moment-to-moment, action-to-action, non-sequitor, etc.). Madden’s book is enjoyable when, as in these noted moments, he fully stretches and transcends the limits of his “template” (the name he gives the narrative basis for his exercises).

While it’s mildly interesting or amusing to see the template switch perspectives to the subjective or tell the story in flashback, these more conventional variations have nothing on Madden’s wild experiments or his many witty homages or parodies. His references range from the obscure (George Herriman’s Krazy Kat dailies from the 1920s and ’30s) to the widely recognized (Fantastic Four creator Jack Kirby); from the reverential (a tribute to Rodolphe Toppfer’s satirical pamphlets, considered the foundations for the modern comic) to the satirical (the cleverly titled “Exorcise in Style”‘s take on the Tales from the Crypt). You don’t need to be a comic book aficionado to enjoy even the most obtuse references. These comics stand on their own because of the skilled drawing and subtle humor. And Madden provides concise, informative notes on his inspirations and objectives at the end of the book.

Because of the deconstructive, analytical approach Madden adopts, 99 Ways — much like Queneau’s book — functions as a textbook of sorts, a catalogue of comic history, writers, theory, and methods. It teaches by demonstrating, rather than merely telling or explaining. Madden, when not writing, teaches at Yale University, and he can no doubt use his exercises in the classroom setting, as a companion to the definitive encyclopedia of comics, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

The publication of 99 Ways further perpetuates the idea of comics as an art, as literature. Long considered low-brow, comics have over the years seen an acceptance and reverence in academia and art circles: Phoebe Gloeckner (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) teaches at the University of Michigan; Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) writes award-winning screenplays; Art Spiegelman (Maus) has a Pulitzer. By modeling his book after the work of a prose writer, Madden holds his work alongside works of literature — asserting comics’ place in the literary realm — but he also differentiates it, which keeps his reworking of Queneau’s thesis on formalism and story from redundancy. Just as a story changes with the manner in which it’s told, the decision to tell a story through pictures or through only words radically changes its meaning or effect.

99 Ways to Tell a Story achieves something few theoretical works do — it entertains as it provides its thoughtful analyses. Madden never lets his ambitious, even lofty, ideas burden the storytelling. And the exercises, when you strip away all their historical contexts and theories, make for enjoyable, humorous reads.