Matt Madden

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For three days I had been lost in the middle of the Sierra Madre, under a killing sun. It was so hot that in the evening I would eat an omelette prepared on a still-smouldering rock. I had already lost two guides and the third one would not last much longer…
But I had to get the scoop. Gregg had asked me to meet Matt Madden, a young author living in exile in Mexico, an author he had discovered in a dusy little bookshop in San Jose. And I wanted the story, no matter what…

You know, it’s when you imagine scenarios like this that you realize what a great thing the Internet is.
Actually, it was in his cozy Parisian flat that Gregg introduced me to Matt Madden’s work. And the whole interview was done by e-mail, between Mexico and Tokyo. With cool soda close at hand.

But of course, it sounds a lot less impressive that way …

[XaV|signature]

XaV : To begin with, a rather common question : how did you get into comics ?

Matt Madden : I didn’t start drawing comics until I was in college. I don’t really have any formal art training and the majority of drawing I had done up to the age of 20 consisted of doodles in notebook margins in school. Discovering Heavy Metal in high school and the Read Yourself Raw collection towards the end of college made me want to try to do my own comics.

In 1989, while I was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I met Terry Laban (Cud, Eno and Plum), and I started hanging out once a week with him and Matt Feazell (Cynicalman), just drinking coffee, drawing in sketchbooks, and talking about comics. I sometimes wonder how far into comics I would have gotten if not for their advice and example. Matt and I started co-editing a minicomic anthology started by he and Terry called 5 O’Clock Shadow, and that’s where my first comics appeared.[1] At the same time, I started publishing my first solo minicomics — which I plan never to reprint !

X : I have a few American friends, and more than once have I tried to make them read comic books — without success, as they had such a bad opinion of comics (based on mainstream publications, I guess). So, how did you discover and decide to make comic books ?

MM : From an early age I knew that comics were more than just superheroes.
Ironically, the only time I ever read superhero comics was when I was living in Paris, between the ages of 3 and 8. There, I used to read French collections of Marvel comics called Strange. However, at the same time I was reading Tintin, Asterix, and Lucky Luke. After returning to the US in 1976 I really didn’t read comics at all until I discovered Heavy Metal (see above).

X : Black Candy has just been published by Black Eye Books, after many years of self-publishing. What was the path that led you to this point ?

MM : Although I plan to continue doing occasional low-run minicomics, by the time I had done 4 issues of Terrifying Steamboat Stories I was pretty tired of all the logisitics involved in self-publishing. My confidence in my work had also grown to the point where I felt I was ready to debut outside the world of self-publishing.
I started working on Black Candy several years ago. I applied for a Xeric grant, a self-publishing grant in the US started by Peter Laird, and got “deferred” until the next round (the grant is awarded twice a year). I decided that rather than wait for the next round I would finish up the book and send it to what few publishers might be interested. Around this time, I did a “round table” interview in The Comics Journal (#192, December 1996) along with some fellow cartoonists in Austin, Texas, where I was living at the time. Michel Vrána, who is Black Eye, liked the excerpts of my comics in the interview and called me up to see what I was working on. I sent him Black Candy and within about a month he had decided to publish it.

X : Do you think it is easy or difficult for a young cartoonist like you to get started these days ?

MM : It’s never easy for a young artist to get started, especially in independent comics. That said, I feel like the situation is reasonably good in the US right now. Although Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly and Black Eye are picking up new artists pretty rarely, there is also a new and energetic group of publishers that are specializing in fostering new talent, specifically Top Shelf Productions, Alternative Press, and the rookie Highwater Books. Also, the Xeric grant is an opportunity which has never existed before and has introduced some great artists onto the scene : Jason Lutes, Tom Hart, Jessica Abel, and, most recently, Jason Little (Jack’s Luck Runs Out). Incidentally, the situation seems similar in Europe, at least to my view of it from across the ocean : there seem to be a lot of interesting new small publishers publishing young artists all over the place.

X : What do you think of the state of the independent comic books market ?

MM : My sense of the comic book market — indeed of business in general ! — is pretty foggy, but I am more or less optimistic about things right now — especially internationally. In the US, I am the opinion shared by many that independent comics — especially trade paperbacks and hardcovers — need to get into mainstream books stores and stop relying on specialty comics stores. This is nothing new : publishers like Fantagraphics have been trying to pull this off for years, with mixed results. Although The Comics Journal recently made fun of the idea (“Viva la Comix” in #206), I think internet sales certainly have potential. At a more grass roots level, there are some small distributors that are doing good work and managing to survive if not thrive, e.g Spit and a Half (USA), Bries (Belgium), Slab-o-Concrete (UK).

X : Many people talk about the “preceding generation” of independent writers (Peter Bagge, Chester Brown, Seth, Joe Matt, Daniel Clowes, etc.) while saying that the “new generation” is not interesting. What do you think about this ?

MM : I am incredibly tired of this claim and to me it smacks more of a myopic view of history than of any reasoned critical stance. 10 years ago most of the artists you mention were doing good work but they were hardly considered a coherent “generation,” much less any kind of pinnacle of comics creation. 10 years ago I was buying Lloyd Llewelyn, Jim, and Neat Stuff out of bargain bins : I really liked it all and still do, but I got no sense that I was in any kind of Golden Age. It wasn’t until recently, when these artists became better known (e.g. Jim Woodring) and/or, more importantly, improved as cartoonists (e.g. Dan Clowes), that the consensus developed that the late 80s/early 90s was a high point in US independent comics. I see the same potential now — if not moreso — that was there when a lot of this “preceding generation” was starting out. I am incredibly excited to be part of the loose coalition of cartoonists who form my “generation” both in the US and internationally.

X : Speaking more specifically about your own work… how would you define your approach ?

MM : This is a hard question to get a handle on. Let me try to work from the inside out, that is, starting with the basics of how I write a comic. Like many writers/artists, I have both a sketchbook and a small memo pad and I am constantly gathering sketches and notes, some of which are eventually collected and arranged into a story. When I write comics, I write in thumbnails ; that is, I try to write the verbal and the visual simultaneously, allowing the two elements to play off each other. I find that this method produces ways of expression that would not be possible through writing a script in screenplay format first and then breaking it down visually. As for drawing and writing style, I certainly have my influences, but I try to let both skills develop as organically as possible, and I adjust them according to whatever story I am working on. The only generalization I can think of is that I like to keep things simple and economic, both in art, design, and writing, in order to leave as much as room as possible for the reader to had his or her own meaning.

X : Who are the artists (from comics, but also from literature and film) that you feel close to in your work ?

MM : Very generally speaking, I feel an affinity for artists who are experimental but playful : in literature, the great Latin Americans like Borges and Cortázar, OuLiPo (especially Queneau, whose Exercises de Style has inspired a similar project of mine in comics form), and Americans like Pynchon, William Gaddis, and John Kennedy Toole ; in film, the French New Wave, early Wim Wenders, Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan ; in comics, some of my favorites are Herriman, Gary Panter, Chester Brown, Carol Swain, Baudoin, Muñoz and Sampayo… the list goes on. The artists I feel “close” to and the ones I am ifluenced by are not always the same. For example, I am not really influenced by Fred, having come to him only recently, but I can see some affinities I have with his work, especially in the formal play ; on the other hand, Gary Panter and Robert Crumb are huge influences but I really can’t see much of a connection between my work and theirs, much as I’d like to.

X : Do you feel part of a kind of a movement (like Chester Brown, Seth and Joe Matt, who share the same kind of autobiographical storytelling), or do you feel isolated ?

MM : Well, in terms of my comics work itself I don’t really feel like I am part of a movement since I am still not quite sure what my work is “about” or where it’s going. On the other hand, I feel a very strong sense of camaraderie among other cartoonists of my age : I am in some kind of contact with most of the cartoonists around my age and some older ones in the US, and am constantly working on getting to know more cartoonists internationally. I see a lot of solidarity and encouragement between cartoonists — we get so little recognition outside of our little world that it seems necessary !

X : Until now, your work consisted only of short stories, whether in your mini-comics or in magazines. How did you adapt to the shift to a longer story ?

MM : I have wanted to do long stories from the beginning and have been basically waiting to reach a point in my cartooning where I felt I was good enough to give it a try. It was a very slow process at first and it was hard to get a handle on such a relatively long story (Black Candy is a little over 50 pages). It was also hard since I did not serialize the story anywhere ; I just worked on it in my free time and tried to set deadlines for myself for the various stages of the work.

X : You said that you were working on Black Candy for several years. How did you manage to maintain the coherency of the book (regarding both the story and the drawing styles) ?

MM : Although I made notes and sketches for several years, the final writing and drawing was mostly done within a one year period, after doing a lot of preparatory sketches to determine the style and look of the art, as best I could control it. Even so, I think my drawing changed — hopefully for the better — somewhat during the course of the book. I re-drew a number of panels at the last minute, and there are still a few drawings I’m not very happy with.

X : Do you intend to make another book of this length ?

MM : I am working on my next book and it’s already up to about 70 pages and growing, in the thumbnail stage. In the future I plan to do both kinds of work : long books as well as shorter pieces which can appear in anthologies and eventually be collected themselves into books. In an interview in the magazine Destroy All Comics, Ben Katchor (Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer) wondered if comics were really suited to telling longer stories, and claimed that he didn’t think readers were interested in following a story that was more than a page or two (he was talking specifically about newspaper serials). I totally disagree with this, and would use Katchor himself as an example : as great as his half-page Julius Knipl strips are, there is a richness and thematic complexity that only comes out in his longer stories. We Westerners also have a lot to learn from the Japanese in this regard : I just read and really enjoyed Osamu Tezuka’s Adolf, which is a relatively short work for a manga, at about 1300 pages !

X : At least once, you have worked from a script written by somebody else. Given the way you describe your work method, isn’t this a little contradictory with your vision of the medium ? How did the collaboration go ?

MM : I don’t find the idea of collaboration contradictory to my idea of the artform at all. I think it’s extremely difficult to pull off and there are few examples of great collaborations, but it certainly can be done : look at Muñoz and Sampayo, Dupuy-Berberian, or Avril’s work with Petit-Roulet or Götting. I think there is a difference between the kind of collaboration these artists do and the faceless, assembly-line style of production used in superhero comics and other commercial stuff. The one collaboration I have done to date was for Duplex Planet Illustrated (Fantagraphics), and what happened was that the writer/editor David Greenberger sent me some of the Duplex Planetfanzines[2] and asked me if I would like to do something for the comic. He usually selects a text for the artist to adapt, but I found this random transcript of lunchroom conversation that I really liked and asked him if I could use it. Although David has the writing credit, it’s not really a collaboration so much as an >adaptation

X : It seems to me that American cartoonists enjoy “performances”. You yourself have made a “24-hour comic”. What did you get out of this experience ? Is it something you would like to try again ?

MM : The 24-hour comic exercise is really fun and educational, especially if you do it with other people. I did mine one weekend with Tom Hart (The Sands), Josue Menjivar (Broken Fender) and Warren Craghead (Speedy). It was interesting to compare work methods and rates. Tom was scribbling furiously and would constanly cut out panels and drawings and paste them back together until he had a finished story. Warren was the most exacting, planning things out very carefully, and the end result was pretty similar to his regular comics. I made sketches and wrote bits of dialogue, then wrote thumbnails which I inked from directly (I usually do thumbnails-rough pencils-tight pencils-inks). Josue wrote his story in about the first 3 hours, but then it took him the rest of the time, and then some, to draw the thing, while Tom spent about 15 hours writing, sketching, cutting, and pasting, and then drew the final version in what seemed like a few hours. The results of 24-hours comics are of course variable, although there have been some really good ones, like all of Tom Hart’s and Dave Lasky’s recent Minutiae. Regardless, I found it a valuable experience which I would recommend to other cartoonists. I learned a lot about different working methods and I think working so quickly helped loosen up my brushwork in my other comics. I don’t plan on doing another one anytime soon, but I am always open to new and similar projects. For instance, I just finished the back cover for Triple Dare (Alternative Press), a title by Tom Hart, James Kochalka, and Jon Lewis in which each artist has to observe three rules or constraints in their stories. The book’s not directly inspired by OuBaPo, but it certainly shares an interest in game-playing and generative constraints — something I, too, am very interested in.

X : Along the same lines, there was this anthology called Dirty Stories, which could be seen as a “genre exercise.” What were the ground rules ? What was your reaction and how did you handle the subject ?

MM : Editor Eric Reynolds’ brief was very simple : do a sex comic. The interesting part isn’t so much in what he asked for as much as in who he asked, i.e. cartoonists who don’t usually do sex comics and maybe don’t feature sex in their comics at all. For my part, I didn’t want to attempt to actually draw sex, not out of squeamishness (cf. Black Candy) but just because it’s almost impossible to do well. The majority of sex comics published by Eros are total junk, and I can’t think of any artists who I think can really pull off sexy comics, except maybe Manara. Also, pornography is of course pretty debased as a genre : you can basically choose between The Story of O and Debbie Does Dallas. I didn’t want to do an easy parody or a “serious romance” with a sex scene in it, so I tried to come up with another way of thinking about a “dirty story,” something that was a bit more challenging but was still-depending on the reader, of course-sexy.

X : In France, independent comic book publisher L’Association launched “OuBaPo” (an acronym for “Ouvroir de Bande dessinée Potentielle”, “Workshop for Potential Comics”) which gave birth to books like Moins d’un quart de seconde pour vivre (JC Menu / Lewis Trondheim. A story told by using only eight different panels, again and again) or La Mouche (Lewis Trondheim. A wordless comic told in a rigid 9-panel grid). Are you interested in these kinds of restraints ?

MM : I’m really excited about OuBaPo. When the book first came out I started telling everyone about it ; I even translated a kind of summary of Thierry Groensteen’s catalogue of constraints. I have been interested in OuLiPo and other experimental groups for a long time and how these different ideas can be applied to comics. I have done a fair amount of formal experimentation in my work and plan to do much more. 24-hour comics (24 pages in 24 hours) and Triple Dare (3 artists, 3 stories, 3 rules) can both be considered Oubapian experiments, even if they were not consciously created as such. One of my newest projects — inspired in part by OuBaPo — is a comics version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de Style : I came up with a banal, one-page scenario and have started coming up with as many variations on it as I can think of.

X : Some people feel this approach focusing on the formal aspects of comics is sterile because it is too theoretical. What is your opinion ?

MM : There’s always a danger of formalism being used as an end in itself, ignoring content completely. I think if the experiment is rigorous enough, it can be justified as what it is. For example, many of the comics in OuBaPo’s OuPus 1 can’t really exist outside the context of the “workshop,” but they have lots of value within that framework. It is more difficult when you move into independent and especially album-length works. I have a high tolerance for experimentation and formalism, but even I can think of plenty of works in various media that are ultimately hollow since they favor formalism at the expense of any kind of human interest. I have no problem doing strictly formal experiments in my shorter strips, but in my longer work I try to integrate my formalist tendencies into a larger framework of the kind of stories I want to tell, the kind of characters I create, etc.

X : And now, as for the future … What are your current projects ? Who are the artists you would like to work with ?

MM : I am currently working on two main projects, which I have already mentioned : one is my new long work (which incidentally has a French working title : L’Amour Foutu — I won’t use it in the US because no one will be able to understand or pronounce “foutu” !), which I am hoping to finish sometime next year ; the other is my project Exercises in Style, which I have begun work on and am looking into seeing serialized on the Web, in English, Spanish, and maybe French. I am hoping to ultimately come up with about 100 variations and put them out in a book. Part of the project involves collaboration : I have invited a group of other artists to create a one page comic using the basic scenario I have come up with.
Otherwise, I have various short stories coming out in 1999 : in Stereoscomic #1, a new anthology out of Paris, in Coober Skeber #3 from Highwater Books in the US (this will be a 16-page, 2-color story), in Spoutnik #2, another anthology from a new publisher in Montreal called Editions de la Pasteque, the Triple Dare back cover strip, which will be called “Una Ballata de Malo Cortese”…
Here in Mexico, my girlfriend Jessica Abel and I have been talking to some local cartoonists (mostly from El Gallito Comics) about doing a series of small format comics in the manner of L’Asso‘s “patte de mouche” collection. The first batch should be out in the Spring.
In addition to all of that, I am working on developing some children’s comics for US magazines, and doing lots of illustration work, both of which actually earn me some money !

As far as working with other artists, I don’t plan to do any collaborations artistically (although I am open to it), but I do enjoy collaborating on projects like Exercises in Style and the Mexican minicomics series.

[Interview made through email over Dec. 1998-Jan. 1999]

Notes

  1. 5OS is still published occasionally by Matt and Sean Bieri.
  2. For those who don’t know, this is a long-standing fanzine chronicling the lives of senior citizens at a number of nursing homes around Boston, consisting mainly of poetry and transcripts of interviews and conversations ; a few years ago he started a comic book based on the texts in the fanzine.
Site officiel de Matt Madden
Entretien par en octobre 1998