“I feel like comics chose me, rather than the other way around,” Matt Madden says from his home in Philadelphia. His wife Jessica Abel, an acclaimed cartoonist in her own right, and a chair at the illustration department of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, hurries by on her way to work. After years of teaching the art and theory of comics, Madden is a stay-at-home dad, refocusing on being a cartoonist who sometimes teaches rather than a teacher who sometimes draws comics. His new graphic novel, Ex Libris: A Comic, published this month by Uncivilized Books, channels a lifetime of comics scholarship into a playful metafictional mystery.
Born in New York City, Madden grew up primarily in Greenwich, Connecticut; his family also lived in Paris for five years, which left him with a lifelong connection to French language and culture. He became seriously interested in comics as a student at the University of Michigan, where he discovered classic strips, such as Little Nemo and Krazy Kat and the alternative comics published in National Lampoon, Heavy Metal, and Art Speigelman and Françoise Mouly’s legendary art comics magazine RAW. While working as a radio DJ, he met indie cartoonist Terry LaBan, who introduced him to minicomics—photocopied comics zines—and creators such as minicomics pioneer Matt Feazell.
“I started hanging out with those guys for coffee once a week,” says Madden, “and we would doodle and talk about comics.” The 1990s zine review magazine Fact Sheet Five introduced him to a vibrant underground of DIY cartooning and inspired him to try his hand at making comics of his own. “I was getting into storytelling, I was getting into filmmaking, and I was also into drawing and doodling,” Madden recalls. “Comics hit all these buttons in the same time. It was a community and an art form that felt wide open.”
After college, Madden stayed in Ann Arbor, working at the original Borders bookstore and drawing minicomics, then moved to Texas. He began work on his first graphic novel, Black Candy, about a man who takes a job as a human guinea pig at a lab but experiences strange side effects from the black pills he’s given. He began corresponding online with Abel, who was already self-publishing her comic Artbabe and had recently won a Xeric Grant. He moved to Chicago to be with Abel, then the two moved to Mexico, where Madden taught ESL.
The Mexico sojourn was “one of several foolhardy, over-ambitious plans we’ve gotten involved in over the years and managed to come out okay,” Madden says, and laughs, but the experience provided Madden and Abel with fodder for comics and the chance to mingle with a broader community of artists and writers. “There was a sense that we were part of a larger cultural community, which is a feeling you don’t always get as a cartoonist, especially back then in the 1990s.”
During this time, Madden began drawing his 2005 graphic novel, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. He was inspired by French novelist and critic Raymond Queneau’s book Exercises in Style, which retells the same anecdote through 99 different literary approaches. Madden wondered if he could do something similar with comics.
“The visual element of different drawing styles opened up a whole new field,” he says. “Even the graphic design element of the comics page seemed interesting for me to play around with.” In 99 Ways to Tell a Story, Madden draws himself walking downstairs to the kitchen (actually his kitchen in Mexico City) 99 times, employing different page layouts, art styles, materials, and genres ranging from superhero comics to religious tracts to the Bayeaux Tapestry.
After Mexico, Madden and Abel moved to New York City to teach at the School of Visual Arts. While teaching, they collaborated on two expansive textbooks on comics, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (2008) and Mastering Comics (2012). Comics were becoming more widely accepted as art, and Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story was one of many graphic novels showing up in comics curricula. Suddenly, Madden recalls, “there was an excitement about this medium and a desire to have textbooks about how to do it.” Though Madden worried that he might not have enough published work under his belt to tell others how to make comics, he and Abel decided that their classroom experience gave them the know-how to help other teachers approach this deceptively complex art form.
Madden finds that teaching comics involves constant “code-switching.” His classes address art, writing, the blend of storytelling elements unique to comics, and the craft and business of comics publishing. New technologies and computer art techniques are increasingly part of the curriculum, forcing instructors trained in traditional illustration to look beyond dip pens, brushes, and hand lettering. “Pretty much everyone can find something they can latch on to,” Madden says, whether it’s drawing, writing, publishing, or pushing the frontiers of the field.
Teaching aspiring creators is invigorating but challenging. “Sometimes you find yourself in a room and everyone there has a different aesthetic approach, a different technical approach, a different idea of what comics is, a different idea of what they want to do with it,” Madden says. “It can get a bit exhausting.” But teaching has given him the opportunity to expand his own work and keep up on what other artists are doing with the form.
After 11 years at SVA, Madden and Abel received a Maison des auteurs residency in Angoulême, France. Home of Europe’s largest comics festival, Angoulême offers this residency to comics and animation artists looking for space to work on long-term projects. Madden and Abel stayed for four years, returning to the U.S. in 2016. During the last two years of the residency, Madden developed the outline of Ex Libris.
In Ex Libris, an initially unseen protagonist awakens in a room containing a bookshelf full of comics, from graphic novels to vintage comic books to collections of comic strips. To figure out how they got there and how to escape, they must learn how to read comics and, eventually, create their own. Madden’s original inspiration came from Italo Calvino’s postmodern novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, in which a reader traces a story through a series of literary fragments from imaginary novels. “I got drawn into that world of potential,” says Madden, “where whatever you imagine is more exciting than what the actual unfolding of that novel would be like in real life.”
Madden calls Ex Libris “a bit of a puzzle box” that offers readers multiple ways to experience the story. “Some people might enjoy spotting easter eggs and references to other works,” he says, “while others will go down the rabbit hole with the protagonist as they try to solve the deepening mystery.” Madden is fascinated by the idea of creating comics that exist mostly in the reader’s mind, like the novel fragments in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler or the “fictions” of novelist Jorge Luis Borges. One of the comics the protagonist flips through, for example, is a 900-page graphic novel called Escape. Even though only a few pages are shown, the reader’s mind can full in the gaps and, “in some sense, in your imagination, that book really exists now.”
Ex Libris gives Madden the chance to experiment with art styles and genres to an even greater extent than in 99 Ways to Tell a Story. He’s especially proud of the four-page excerpt he created for Library of Terror, a pastiche of 1950s EC horror comics introduced by a cackling hostess called The Librarian. Other genres represented in Ex Libris include action manga, vintage comic strips, funny animals, superheroes, and an assortment of modern graphic novel styles. The most challenging panels, he says, were the brief glimpses of comics that he had to invent from whole cloth, rather than replicating an existing style. Though he considers himself mostly a traditionalist working in pen and ink, he used digital effects on Photoshop to give the comics-within-comics the right vintage look.
Though Madden is happy to be known as a formalist, he wants to tell engaging stories, too. “I love the experience of opening a new book and reading the first few pages, trying to figure out what kind of world we're in, who the characters are, and what’s going to happen,” he says. “So I decided to make a book where that experience repeats itself throughout, while at the same time serving to move a compelling narrative along.” With Ex Libris, he hopes to share his love for comics and perhaps call others to the form.