MATT MADDEN ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
Matt’s output includes many works that are more academic in nature than is typical of SH’s interviewees. To better illuminate for the reader Matt’s interests and domain of expertise I have slightly altered the usual 15 Questions. One such alteration is that there are actually 16 questions.
Sample pages from Matt’s instructional books follow this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Matt Madden: I didn’t grow up planning to be a cartoonist. I read some comics as a kid but was never a fanboy. However, when I was in my teens I made a series of discoveries that made me realize that comics were an amazingly rich and diverse art form. Over the course of about five years I discovered (in no particular order) Moebius and other French artists from Heavy Metal’s golden age, R. Crumb and the world of underground comix, George Herriman, Winsor McCay and the legacy of early newspaper comics, early indie comics, like Dan Clowes‘ Eightball, Julie Doucet‘s Dirty Plotte, and Chester Brown‘s Yummy Fur, and the minicomics and zine scene of the pre-internet late eighties and early nineties. The minicomics and mail art scene in particular convinced me I could just start making comics and learn as I went.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
MM: I’ve had just about zero formal art or creative writing training. My background is more academic: comparative literature, languages, linguistics. I learned cartooning on my own, asking my peers for advice where I could. It took a lot of time and a lot of trial and error, and that was a big motivation for me and Jessica Abel to write Drawing Words & Writing Pictures/Mastering Comics —they’re classroom/studio textbooks but they (along with dw-wp.com) are also intended as resources for people who are figuring out how to make comics on their own.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
MM: I don’t like to define it in any airtight sort of way. Jessica and I went out of our way in Drawing Words & Writing Pictures to offer a variety of canonical examples (McCloud, Eisner, Kunzle) and leave it to the reader/student to decide. I do think comics tend to be narrative and tend to use images and texts in sequence; I also think they tend to be dependent on format and printing – and now, digital – technology. But at the same time I’m not interested in cordoning myself off from artists who work in related forms, whether it’s Saul Steinberg or Maurice Sendak; or Lauren Redniss, for example, whose book Radioactive is certainly not a “comic” in any classic sense yet which has various features in common [with comics].
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
MM: I don’t find the possibilities of comics to be limitless but there is plenty of room to do all kinds of storytelling. Many limits are not inherent in the form but in the particular artist. I, for instance, work very slowly and, even then, drawing does not come easily to me – I sketch and trace and re-draw – so there’s only so much ground I can cover, where a faster or more adept artist might be able to get more done. I suppose text has its limits on a comics page, and I tend to be pretty sparing in my use of it, but I can also think of good comics that use a lot of words without losing their visual power. I think there are whole areas of comics expression that have not been fully explored, for example, the expressive possibilities of altering drawing style within a single work to convey different states of mind, different points of view, etc. Look around and you’ll see that the vast majority of even experimental comics aim for a very unified visual style, but there’s no reason that has to be the case. Examples of people exploring this vein: Dan Clowes (esp. in Ice Haven), Gary Panter (Jimbo in Paradise), Joshua Cotter (Skyscrapers of the Midwest).
A long time ago I read an interview with Jim Woodring where he said that he didn’t believe comics could ever attain the richness and emotional depth of the greatest novels and I reject that idea on principle, even if I can’t yet say that he has been proven wrong; it’s just that I don’t see anything inherent in the medium that precludes comics from being the medium of all-time great works of art and storytelling.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
MM: I think perseverance, hard work and good organizational skills play a big part in being a successful cartoonist. I don’t think you need to be an amazing artist or prose writer. If you can marshal the multiple marionette strings of comics language you can create amazing works through the combination of words and images as well as, crucially, being sensitive to the role played by platform – pages and spreads, book shape and size, screens, and so on.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
MM: I tend to start my work with a constraint or rule that may be strict, for example, (a 26-panel comic where every panel has to refer visually and textually to its corresponding letter of the alphabet (see “Prisoner of Zembla,” in A Fine Mess #2); or a general set of principles (a silent comic where every panel shows the same room and the only action can be people entering or exiting doors (as I do in The Vestibule, a work in progress).
As for work process, I detailed it extensively in Mastering Comics and on dw-wp.com: from thumbs to lettering.
JM: How many hours a day do you work? Are you uniformly productive on any given day or more productive on some days than others?
MM: I teach at the School of Visual Arts on Mondays and Tuesdays so I rarely get any cartooning done on those days. I fit in correspondence and busywork around class time. Wednesday to Friday I work in the studio juggling many different projects. On a good day I spend an hour or two in the morning drawing. If I have the energy in the evenings (usually I do not) I’ll do some computer work (Photoshop clean-up, blogging).
JM: Is there a core of “fundamentals” that you address in all your classes? Do you find that the “fundamentals” have changed somewhat over the course of your teaching career?
MM: The core of what I teach in every class is that comics is a visual storytelling language first and foremost. That means that good drawing, while important, is not the be-all and end-all of good cartooning. It also means that even if you have a good story to tell it’s not worth doing in comics unless you are using the grammar of comics in an effective and ideally novel way. That is, you need to think about how the text and image interact, how each page is laid out and how the work flows from page to page.
The fundamentals have changed in a technological sense because of the growing availability of digital modes of creation and distribution. Part of my fundamental teaching used to be that you had to master all the traditional tools, from nib pens to lettering guides to using tracing paper to develop drawings. I still feel these are important techniques to understand and I also believe that many cartoonists will continue to use them. However, I have also come to acknowledge that within a few years there will be cartoonists who rarely draw on paper and I think that’s fine – it may well lead to new breakthroughs in comics art.
That said, the core lessons about comics as visual narrative remain the same and I will continue to teach them as fundamental starting points for making comics.
JM: What, in your approach to teaching your students, changes from one year to the next?
MM: I don’t think I change from one year to the next but I have observed gradual shifts in the way I interact with students over twelve years of teaching. I’ve become more generous as a teacher (I hope it’s not just complacency!). Where I used to be more of a stickler for the details of a given assignment, I am now more willing to let students interpret assignments their own way – they might not follow my instructions to the letter but if I see them pushing themselves in a way that might enrich them I’ll go along with it. I think I’ve become more confident as a leader/performer in class over the years. A lot of kids come in already drawing better than I ever will and at various points I try to acknowledge that I’m just an imperfect human like them, but at the same time I think most students – undergrad but even adult students – want someone who will guide them with a certain amount of authority; who will encourage them and get them excited about comics and about their own potential as artists.
JM: Do you, in your classes and other academic work, explicitly draw on examples, insights or readings from other disciplines – from comparative literature, perhaps, or from other fields?
MM: I think it’s very important to look at examples across disciplines – especially as comics, tends to be an insular culture. I teach a class on experimental comics at SVA where the majority of work I show and discuss is not comics, and the students really love it. I show them avant-garde cinema and Michel Gondry’s music videos, play Bach and the Magnetic Fields, have them read experimental French literature. Even within comics, I make a point of exposing students to stuff they might not have seen: old newspaper strips, manga, obscure European art comics, anything that will broaden their horizons a bit. I love seeing how students incorporate these diverse stimuli into their work.
JM: Do you provide your students with a reading list of required or recommended readings? Is Drawing Words and Writing Pictures on your book list? Off hand, what other titles or authors do you consider particularly illuminating?
MM: To my shame I’ve never come up with a good list of required reading but in part it’s due to the vast variety of our medium. Here are a few essential books about making comics specifically, in addition to DW&WP and Mastering Comics:
Understanding Comics and Making Comics by Scott McCloud – the first for its influential model of how comics work, the second for the many tips and observations of the craft of cartooning and storytelling
Cartooning Philosophy & Practice by Ivan Brunetti – concise and witty with some great exercises. Its basic structure was a big influence on DW&WP
Comic Book Design by Gary Spencer Millidge – this one came out under the radar a few years ago but I encourage everyone to track it down. The sections on book layout and design are particularly excellent.
99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by me – though it’s a creative work, teachers from all kinds of disciplines tell me it’s a very useful resource for teaching about different styles and points of view.
Famous Artists Cartooning Course – don’t laugh, you can find a lot of this stuff online now. I think it’s copyright-free but I’m not sure… and it’s a treasure trove of how-tos, elegantly illustrated.
Comics as a Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative by Will Eisner – a lot of newer books listed above are more practical and clearly written but Eisner was among the first to try to codify our art form, and the recent re-issues are full of great illustrated examples by Eisner and others.
How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema – pretty corny and lightweight but it does, in fact, have some good pointers in there, especially if you want to make superhero comics.
JM: What do you feel is most compelling or influential about you as a teacher? What aspects of your teaching do you imagine students respond to or connect to most deeply?
MM: My students have told me that I am very open to the different kinds of interests that they have but they appreciate that I am frank in my critiques of their work. I don’t judge their comics based on whether I like them or not or whether I think they’re serious or frivolous. I try to understand what they are trying to get across and help them make their work as clear as possible (even when – especially when – they want their work to be murky or ambiguous). I do reserve the right to be merciless about sloppy lettering, however!
I like sharing art (comics and other stuff too) with my students and I try to expose them to stuff they haven’t seen. I’ve changed a few lives just by putting a certain book in a certain student’s hands at the right time.
JM: What, in the best of possible worlds, would you hope that a student takes away from your class, course and books?
MM: I hope students come away from my teaching with the confidence that they are on the right track and that they have the critical, as well as the technical, tools to make comics. I also hope they come away with a broader perspective on art and life: within comics I want them to have found new artists, styles, and traditions that broaden their own approach to work; I also hope they are more sensitive to the links between comics and other media. Finally I hope they gain an understanding of the challenges or difficulties of making it as an artist—both financially and creatively—but that they’ll also have a sense of the rewards.
JM: Many teachers feel that there are areas in which they would still call themselves students. Are there any such areas you would identify in your own development as a teacher that you would care to share with us?
MM: I’m always learning new stuff from my students and co-teachers. Comics is particularly challenging because you need to draw from so many different domains of knowledge. There are very few areas where I feel like a true master, but two subjects I’d particularly like to improve on if I had time to take classes would be figure drawing and web programming.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
MM: Oulipo, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature), is a group of French writers and mathematicians who propose rules and constraints as a way of stimulating creativity. For example, if you try to write a text (this interview, say) without using the letter e, you’ll find yourself writing all kinds of novel phrases and expressions you would never come up with otherwise. Comics lends itself well to this kind of approach. Imagine trying to make a comic where every panel has to be a close-up of a hand; where each page has twice as many panels as the previous one; where each panel has to have a letter of the alphabet hidden in the drawing… Certain readers’ eyes may be glazing over at this point but others, I guarantee you, are crying out “I need to try that right now!” (Welcome to the club!) Anyone interested in further exploring this world should run out and buy Daniel Levin Becker’s new book, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard University Press), or rummage around online for the recently out-of-print Oulipo Compendium by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
MM: Digital publishing as a whole is a good thing, and, more importantly, an inevitable thing. You can grouse about it but it’s here to stay. I love books on paper and I expect I will always have print editions of much of my work available but I am excited about the increased accessibility provided by digital platforms. “Motion comics” and that sort of thing are gimmicky but I like the idea of a Criterion Collection DVD approach to digital publishing: extra features, author commentaries, alternate versions that are offered alongside a straightforward digital edition of the original book. I don’t know how or when it’s going to happen but you can expect to see a lot of my comics becoming available in digital formats someday. Drawing Words & Writing Pictures will, incidentally, be available digitally as part of Macmillan’s new Dynamic Books line of enhanced on-line textbooks, which will be out soon. Teachers will be able to select which chapters they want to teach, add new material and annotate the existing texts while students can also annotate, upload images, and share with their peers. It’s going to be an exciting new way to use our book—we’ve always wanted it to be useful in as many contexts as possible—and that flexibility is something that digital publishing has the potential to excel at.
Photograph by Santiago Garcia.