One of the things I find most exciting and challenging about creating comics is trying to figure out how best to lay out the narrative. There are numerous factors which might affect how the story is told. These factors can include the perspective from which the story is told, the amount of panels used, the style in which the comic is drawn and so on.
Recently I have been studying silent comics and the methods which comic artists use to lead a narrative without the use of words. This method of visual storytelling brings it’s own challenges and questions as the artist decides how best to convey the information in a way that feels natural and is satisfying to the reader. As a part of my studies I read “99 Ways to Tell a Story – Exercises in Style” by Matt Madden.
Matt Madden’s book I feel is a must read for comic creators and storytellers in general. Madden was inspired to create the book after reading Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises in Style”. Queneau’s book takes one core story and retells it in numerous ways by changing tenses, perspectives, formats and styles. Madden felt that it would be interesting to apply this idea to the creation of a comic and this led him to the creation of his own book.
Madden’s take on the idea is to present a single narrative in 99 different one page comics, each created within a specific style. Madden begins the project with the first representation of the narrative being named “Template”. This first version of the narrative is told in a neutral “fly on the wall” manner which familiarises the reader with the narrative (Figure 1).
The story is then retold on each following pages in numerous different styles including Manga, Linge Claire, comix, map, superhero, flashback and humour comic. The story is also told in at least two ways which may be considered completely silent. For example in one version of the narrative called “Reframing (Hands and Punctuation Marks)” the story is told through the use of only hands and punctuation marks (Figure 2).
The take away for me, however, in reading this book is focused on how Matt Madden manages to tell the same narrative in so many styles and perspectives. The story is considered in numerous ways and reinvented time after time. It is also to understand how those various styles and choices affect the narrative. Madden ends up with some really interesting results as a matter of experimenting with the style and thinking in different ways about the story.
One of the big challenges I find when creating silent comics is solving the problem of how to convey the narrative without the use of words. Madden show us that there are numerous ways to convey a narrative and if we spend some time with it considering the different perspectives and possibilities we may end up with far more engaging results. I think the temptation will often be to accept the first idea which comes to mind, especially if working within a time constraint, but Madden’s work shows us that if we challenge ourselves to explore alternative styles we may hit on ideas which are far more pleasing to both ourselves and the reader.
Madden, M. (2006) 99 ways to tell a story. London: Jonathan Cape.