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Interview with Comic Artist Matt Madden

Matt Madden is an American comic book writer and illustrator well-known for his original, alternative style in particular his experimental work, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, inspired by Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. Madden teaches comics at the School of Visual Art and Yale University.

A long time Francophile, Madden grew up reading French translations of Marvel comics and later found inspiration for his own work in the French literary circle, OuLiPo.  Since September, 2012, Madden has been living with his wife and children in the French city of Angoulême, home of the world-renowned Festival International de la Bande Dessinée, where he recently completed a residency at Internationale de la bande dessinée et de l'image.

On July 11, 2013 he received the insignia of the Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, making Madden one of the few American cartoonists to be given this honor along with the great Robert Crumb. After the ceremony, Madden answered a few questions about his work, his relationship with France and his cultural adventures...

Last year, you moved from Brooklyn to Angoulême with your wife and children. It must have been quite an adventure for the whole family! What was it like moving from Brooklyn to a small city in Southwest France?    

The key word there is "children". The move was incredibly complicated because we had to account for our now 3- and 5-year-old children which mean bringing all their clothes, toys and gear and also finding a school for them and getting them adjusted to life abroad. It has worked out very well, our kids both speak French fluently, have friends, and enjoy having crêpes as a regular part of their diet. Overall you could hardly find a better place to raise kids than a small French city. By the same token our day-to-day lives aren't all that different in Angoulême than they were in Brooklyn: we work in our studios and spend most of our time working at home, running errands and ferrying the kids back and forth from school and playdates. Of course in Brooklyn we could always hop on the N train and be in Manhattan in half an hour but in Angoulême we're not far from Bordeaux and Paris is only a few hours by TGV. And because Angoulême is the French—if not European—capital of comics I feel as much steeped in my medium as ever.


Your book, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, was translated into French in 2006, under the title 99 excercices de style. During your time in France, did you meet fans of your work? Do you find that there is a difference between your readership in France and the US?

I've had a lot of positive response to my book in France from readers, fellow cartoonists, teachers, and, significantly, members of Oulipo—Ouvroir de la Littérature Potentielle or Workshop for Potential Literature, a 50-year-old experimental writing group whose co-founder, Raymond Queneau, wrote the book Exercises in Style which served as the inspiration for my own book. I was able to tour France a bit when the book came out, and in 2009 I was invited to a literary festival run by the Centre National du Livre called Les Belles Etrangères, during which I presented my work to people from all walks of life in Paris, Nancy, L'Aude, and Corsica. Now that I'm based in France I've had the opportunity to work with students of all ages doing workshops and discussions based on my work. 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style had a good reception in the US too but it's more of a cult hit admired by a mixture of writing teachers and comics fans. In France I feel like the book has been embraced more largely by the culture—surely in part since it is based on such a classic work of French literature.

Angoulême, home to the International Comic Book Festival, is the capitol of comic books in France. Have you discovered any French cartoonists or good books during your travels? What would you recommend to a curious US audience? 

The Festival International de la Bande Dessinée  comes once a year and it is indeed an amazing gathering of artists, readers, and publishers. This past year I caught up with old friends and met some heroes like Argentinian artist José Muñoz. It was also an opportunity for me to wander around and get a sense of the many different comics publishers. Another mind-blowing resource is the Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l'Image  In addition to my residency at La Maison des Auteurs they have a comics museum, library and an art house cinema. I've been able to spend some time in their archives looking at original color pages by Calvo, who is kind of a French Tex Avery, and Jean Giraud (Moebius/Gir), among other jewels. I've been using the library to explore some really inventive, absurdist humor cartoonists from the end of the 20th Century including Fred (who recently passed away), Gotlib, and Gébé—all of whom are virtually unknown in the US. Maybe I can help change that in the years to come. In the meantime, readers curious about French comics should check out Fantagraphics' reprints of Jacques Tardi's work and my translations of Aristophane's The Zabîme Sisters from First Second Books and a portfolio of short pieces by my fellow Oubapo (Ouvroir de la Bande Dessinée Potentielle--the comics offshoot of Oulipo) members in Words Without Borders' February issue.  

We're very excited about the upcoming release (October 2013) of your new book, an anthology, The Best American Comics 2013 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a collaboration with Jessica Abel and Jeff Smith. How did you work together on this book?

Jessica and I have been the series editors of The Best American Comics for the last six volumes. Our job was to look at all the comics that come out in North America in a given year and select a short list of about 120 titles, ranging from one-page strips to 500-page graphic novels. We pass these along to a well-known guest editor (Jeff Smith this year; past years have included Neil GaimanAlison Bechdel, and my now-co-chevalier Françoise Mouly) who then selects forty or so works that are reprinted or excerpted in the final volume. It's been great to have such a ringside seat to the American comics scene but it's nice to have more time to read other books now—like more French comics.

Before saying good-bye, we'd like to congratulate you on your recent knighthood! What castle do you plan to conquer next!?

Thanks you very much! I might have to aim for 99 knighthoods, don't you think?