Exercises in Style

Writing too much about books full of pictures is probably some sort of crime with its own circle of hell, but two art/graphic/comic/something books I've read/looked at recently have held my attention: First & Fifteenth: Pop Art Short Stories by Steve Powers and 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden.

Powers's "pop art short stories" aren't exactly stories -- they're more like incidents, moments, glances, jokes. First & Fifteenth looks and feels and even smells like an art book, and it is an art book, but it's more than that, too -- it's a subtle bit of fun, a way to take a couple kicks at some of the assumptions of what a story can be and do. It's not profound, but since when did anybody go to pop art for profundity -- pop is the province of weasels and corn: it can sneak up on you, and plant roots.

99 Ways to Tell a Story is a more substantial book, and a more ambitious one. It's an attempt to do to the graphic form what Raymond Queneau did to fiction, providing a single, simple story told in various genres, forms, idioms, and styles. (Many of Madden's results are online here.) The story becomes like the joke in The Aristocrats, with the accumulation of iterations being the source of pleasure. Madden is an extraordinary artist, and his ability to copy the style of other graphic artists is particularly impressive, but it is his fidelity to the original, simple story that is the truly amazing feat here. Queneau would be impressed.

Madden's book has a strange blurb on the cover that makes it sound like some sort of touchy-feely how-to book: "An exploration of storytelling that will amuse and delight you, and inspire your own creative work -- your novel, your comic, even your film." Well, maybe -- it certainly shows that there are no limits on how many ways a story can be conceived and structured, and that each choice changes the emphasis and effect. But there's much more here than a guide to digesting the artist within; 99 Ways to Tell a Story is a true tour de force, a valuable work of art in and of itself.