Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Exercises in Style in the classroom

2015 marks the ten year anniversary of the first publication of 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. It's never been a huge bestseller but it has slowly built an international and diverse audience made up of comics fans, designers, readers of experimental literature, and educators.

Teachers in particular have been real champions of the book. I have visited many classrooms to talk about it and I occasionally receive links to projects students have done based on my book. In a recent Twitter conversation a teacher asked me how I use my book when I'm teaching. After the jump I'll share a few ideas.

This will be a bit of a long post so here's a table of contents of what's up ahead:
I. Further variations on my template
II. Make your own template
III. Build an extended project
IV. For non-artists

The photo at the top of the page is from a project by students of the Lycée Pierre Lescot, a trade-oriented high school in Paris (which I point out only to underscore the fact that these activities are by no means only interesting to literature or art students). I visited them in 2009 only to find that they had done a whole series of activities on 99X (that's how I've taken to abbreviating it recently) including an exhibit of variations on my template page. The photo is from a series of Powerpoint photocomics (a new genre?) that told short stories based on a series of elements from my book and stuff the students came up with.

(Note: I credited students where possible but I don't have everyone's names. Happy to update if anyone wants to send info. Also, you can click on all of the images below to enlarge.)

I. To infinity and beyond
I want to share a few more photos of the French students' work because here we find an example of the most straightforward way to use 99X as the basis of a classroom activity: simply have your students make new variations of my "template" comic. It helps to show them my book first, of course, and to have them read my initial inspiration, Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style or some of the short texts I list at the bottom before asking them to come up with their own approaches to retelling the story. It can help to do this as a class brainstorming exercise which can also serve as an opportunity to further identify different classes of constraints (POV, parodies, graphic approaches, etc.) or to discuss which constraints might be more productive than others (for example: what's more interesting, copying my template page on tracing paper or attempting to redraw it from memory?). It doesn't matter if they're "artists" or not, part of the fun is finding a way to make a visual response (through tracing, collage, copying and pasting, etc.).

A Roy Lichtenstein version (with a bit of Mondrian thrown in for good measure) next to a "robo-optical" version

This "fragmentary" version shows that you can do a lot with just a little bit of drawing ability and some color.

I still hear from teachers doing this kind of activity with their students. For instance, Derek Beaulieu just sent me this new set of variations from his students at the Alberta College of Art + Design. A few excerpts"

a soundtrack version


Spot on Keith Haring version

A very simple twist, throwing kids into the mix, works very well to explain the confusion of the protagonist (and describes my current daily life quite accurately)

II. Make your own template
Another approach is to come up with a new template comic or text for your students to riff on. This has the advantage of being easily customizable for different age or skill levels. For example, I did an afternoon workshop with young French kids, between about 8 and 12 years old, at the CIBDI here in Angoulême. I wanted a very simple story for them to work with so I came up with a four panel sequence that wouldn't require a lot of drawing or sophisticated writing:

1. Mom puts food on table, calling child to come eat dinner.
2. A cat climbs up on the table.
3. The cat eats up all the food.
4. The child enters to find the dinner gone, looks disappointed.

We talked about possible approaches you could take and the kids were on their way. Not all of them entirely grasped the concept but even if they just drew a little comic roughly following my script they were having fun and probably learning something. In the end we put together a little minicomic of all the finished (and near-finished) pages. Here are some interesting ones:

This telling of the story is full of anthropomorphism. The cat talks (or "thinks" aloud) and so does the dinner.

A caveman version, why not?

This one is clever: the roles have all been mixed up

III. Build an extended project
If you're working cartooning or art students you can us 99X as the basis for an extended project. You can start with either approach I've laid out above (working from my template or making up a new one) and assign as many variations as you like. (You could also choose a one-page comic they have drawn for a previous assignment as your "template" comic.) You can have students choose their own constraints to work with or you can have them do the same ones, which has the advantage of letting you compare and discuss the results.

In 2013 I spent a week in Viborg, Denmark with the first group of cartooning students they've had at The Animation Workshop. I came up with a 6-panel sequence which we did variations on over the next five days. Here's the script:

1. Student 1 working on comic in classroom.
2. Enter Student 2.
3. S2 sits down next to S1.
4. S1 slides his/her comic to S2.
5. S1 "She's all yours."
6. S1 leaves, S2 starts drawing.

i. template
First I had them draw a "straightforward" version of the story. Of course, right there you start to see that there is no single way to tell the story "straight"—everyone already brings their own tools of drawing style, pacing, framing, and so on:

Here's a relatively straightforward, classic take on the script by Cathrin Peterslund.

This template by Jacob Thomas Canepa is already imposing its own series of formal choices: repetition, geometric shapes, grayscale...

ii. Genre
The first variation I asked them to do was to retell the story in a genre. Not just any genre though: I talked with each student and we selected genres they had never worked in before—even ones they didn't like. I thought it would be interesting to see how they overcame their dislike and their self-professed ignorance (I knew they would prove themselves wrong, as the results prove):

This war comic by Jam Aden adds a touch of tragedy to the script.

I encourage students to blend more than one genre. Here's a superhero romance comic by Julie Hauge with a healthy dose of comics self-referentiality.

iii. POV/Framing
The next assignment I gave was to play with framing or point of view. I think this might have worked better as the first variation in order to get students focused on the mechanics of storytelling...

Seat's eye view by Bob Lundgreen Kristiansen. Not very glamorous!

The framing on this page by Aske Schmidt Rose focuses tightly on the tip of the pencil, making for an elegant, quasi-abstract comic.

iv. Art forgery
Hommage, parody, counterfeit... I told the students that the goal here was to draw such a convincing copy of an artist's style (not just their drawing style but their way of framing and pacing stories) that we could go sell it on ebay afterwards for a lot of money.

Cathrin Peterslund creates an excellent evocation of Jason's drawing style but note that you can also recognize his characterstic framing, slow pacing, and low-key humor.

If Paul Klee made comics... by Clara Lucie Jetsmark Bjerre.

v. Collaborative extension: 5 obstructions
The last collaboration added the dimension of collaboration to the mix and points to various other directions you could go with this assignment. The logistics of this are worthy of a separate blog post which I will attempt to do sometime (and being a wise blogger I will neither promise anything, nor will I apologize if it takes me three years to do it). For now I'll just say that each student is given the task of coming up with 5 constraints (or "obstructions" to use the terminology proposed by Lars Von Trier, whose playful documentary is the basis of this assignment) that one of their classmates will have to use to make a final variation on their initial "template" pages. The trick to this assignment (as with all constraint-based work, I would argue) is to really encourage the students to come up with tough, even perverse constraints and no softballs. It's not about being mean, of course (and depending on your group you can monitor your students more or less), it's about getting to observe, together, that a-ha! moment when, invariably, every student comes up with an ingenious solution to a tricky constraint.

Three constraints: show only the characters' eyes, use "widescreen" horizontal panels, use only shades of blue — no black.

Just look at Emil Friis Ernst's beautiful solution.The cool blues suggest the glow of the tablet (a lot of these students work digitally) and the horizontal panels adapt easily to the one and then two-eyed framing. The cleverest part to me is the way he uses the reflection in the eyeball and then in the eyeglasses to convey narrative information. (Note two how by giving one character glasses you easily understand that their are two characters in the story despite the tight close-ups.

Now here's a set of constraints that at first glance seems unwieldy if not impossible: characters can't touch the ground? no pants? Silhouettes? Must feature Spiderman??

Yet look at Mathilde Garreau's masterful response. The silhouettes keep the "no pants" rule G-rated while of course Spiderman never touches the ground anyway!

IV. For non-artists
If you don't have time to draw comics or if you are working in a text-only context there's still plenty of stuff you can do with 99X. Recently a group of junior high school students around the city of Poitiers were assigned my book and wrote responses in the form of "exercises in criticism." There was an acronym version, an emoticon version, and even an audio soundscape.

And of course you can always go back to the source and read Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style in Barbara Wright's translation (an exercise in style of its own). I find it useful to look at a series of even shorter takes on this theme that have been done over the years by various members of Oulipo. This is great because you can find this in English, French, and Spanish at the very least. The English one is by Harry Mathews and it's called "35 Variations on a Theme by Shakespeare" (scroll down to find it among many other gems here); There's a French version by Georges Perec using a line from Proust, and more recently the newest Oulipo member Eduardo Berti made a Spanish version.

I have typically used these texts as a warm up to the comics assignment. I ask my students to come up with ten variations on a saying or famous quote of their choice. I blogged about it and gave examples here.

If you have any questions or additional activities to share I'll hope you'll comment below.

You can purchase the US edition of Matt's book here. There are also UK, French, Spanish, Flemish, Italian (out of print) and Japanese versions available and Matt's always searching for new audiences. In addition, you can find the whole work being serialized online in German and Hungarian.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Douze Morts...

On the way to school this morning my 7-year-old surprised me by announcing: “Douze morts. Dix qui travaillaient au journal. Deux policiers.” (Twelve dead. Ten who worked at the magazine. Two police.) We have spoken a lot about the attack this week—I found out from another ashen-faced dad just as I was picking the kids up to spend Wednesday afternoon together—but I don’t know when she learned the make up of the body count. Turns out her teacher talked about it at school yesterday and they observed a minute of silence for the victims. That’s not something children should have to experience in CE1 (2nd grade) but I’m glad the teacher did it. Seems like most French schools are tackling this head on, even with younger children. My 4-year-old said he’s sad about the people that were killed and he thinks the bad guys are “moche” (nasty).

door of a nursery school classroom in Angoulême today

I suddenly understood better why our daughter had burst into tears this morning before Jessica left for Paris on a weekend trip that it is too late to cancel. What a world where the idea of a cartoonist going to Paris strikes fear into the heart of her child. (And in fact she’s on the TGV as I type this and there is gunfire being reported near Charles de Gaulle airport.) It’s been hard to process this awful event with two children in my lap. They understand that some cartoonists were killed for making silly drawings—even mean drawings, but that they never hurt anyone, never killed anyone. I wanted them to understand that these were artists like me and Jessica but I had to cut short when I found myself developing an extended and terrifying analogy of gunmen storming the Maison des Auteurs where I’m in residence, shooting B. and P. and then coming upstairs to shoot the artists. But that could never happen. Never. Could it?

As a cartoonist and as a human being this attack has really sent me into a free fall. I’ve been turning in circles all week trying to process it and decide the appropriate way to respond. In one of numerous online discussions I’ve perused I saw my friend Mahendra Singh talking about needing to "cultivate our own gardens” and that phrase from Voltaire’s Candide keeps coming to mind. It’s another pipe dream, but if only people would tend to their own lives and treat those around them with respect and tolerance...

one of many storefront windows of Angoulême today

I’ve never read Charlie Hebdo or much in general in the way of political/satirical cartooning. As an American (as a non-European?) it’s hard not to be shocked and fairly put off by the crude racism that characterizes the artwork even where the gags aren’t as offensive. Domitille Collardey wrote a sensitive post on Facebook about her perspective as a French cartoonist living in the US during all of this. There really is a cultural rift between France and the US (and India, just to give one other example that I was discussing with my friend and MdA neighbor Amruta Patil) that makes it hard to understand why some of these drawings are worth defending. The Je suis Charlie tagline is problematic because Charlie Hebdo is a very particular manifestation of culture that not everyone wants to be 100% on board with. I'm uneasy with it myself and have been reluctant to use it. I’ve seen at least one post saying we shouldn’t be claiming Je suis Charlie because we are thus implicitly condoning the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ bigotry.

I disagree.

I grant that this is pretty extreme as freedom of expression goes. But it’s not hate speech, it’s not incitement to violence. It’s only lines on paper, folks, as R. Crumb is often quoted as saying. And yes, lines do have power, but it’s a rhetorical power. Art is a metaphorical weapon, it is not an AK-47, and THAT’s what Je suis Charlie is about. It’s about honoring the dead, defending free speech and the ideal of a democratic society where problems are solved through art and dialogue—no matter how heated—and not bullets.

I am Charlie.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Truffaut's Farenheit 451 Comix

Sometimes a glimpse of something is more compelling and inspiring than seeing the whole could ever possibly live up to. Italo Calvino explored this idea with his novels that end abruptly after the first channel in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, leaving the reader's imagination floating in a kind of perpetual state of suspense and potentiality.

One of those little flashes that has stuck with me over the years is the fleeting appearance of wordless comics broadsheets in François Truffaut's 1966 adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451.

At various points in the film, set in a world where books and the written word are banned, we see characters reading what appear to be newspapers (or perhaps soap operas?) in the form of wordless comics. They're meant to be another sign of the decadence of this future world, a usage of comics which I find disappointing and doubly ironic: it gives comics and drawing short shrift but additionally I wonder if it can have escaped Truffaut that he was telling this story in another visual-dominant narrative medium?

The one hint I've found as to Truffaut's intentions is from an interview in the Winter 1984/85 issue of Sight & Sound with Nicolas Roeg, who worked as director of photography on the film which he claimed "was a film very much to be ‘read’ in terms of images":

[Truffaut] realised that images were things to be read. Like the scene where Montag is sitting in bed with comics. Those comics were very carefully designed; they were a form of shorthand, so that the news could be read in pictures. The beauty of the language wasn’t what was important. It was like a rather intimate film where language means a lot, but we no longer have the language. So you virtually have to read the pictures. It implies there will come a time when people will still have all those emotions, but you have to read through other indications, other signs.

In any case, to me these pages are tantalizing. The art is jagged and modern, reminding me a bit of Bernie Krigstein, though there's pretty much no way he could have done job. The recent reissue of Guy Paellaert's Adventures of Jodelle from that same era makes me wonder if he might not have been the artist on these pages. If anyone knows, please let me know. The fact that the pages are wordless and glimpsed in flashes only add to their mysterious allure. I even love the washed-monochromatic color scheme. They linger in my brain like the comics I some times encounter in dreams.

And notice how they seem to show a mob forming in the last few panels?!

(It's worth noting in passing that cartoonist Tim Hamilton did a very good adaptation (with Bradbury's blessing) a few years ago.)

[Update: Someone on Facebook pointed me to this examination by critic Jessie Bi of the use of comics in the film from the French film blog Du9.]

all images are screencaps from a DVD of Farenheit 451

Monday, February 17, 2014

Scenes from a workshop

I was recently invited to participate in a series of workshops with teens from at-risk populations here in Angoulême, France. The workshops are based on Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style and my own 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (99 Exercices de style in the French edition).

My colleague and friend Etienne Lécroart, who has the distinction of being the only cartoonist (and Oubapian) in Oulipo, will do a second workshop in March and then the two of us will work together for a final, all-day session, part of which will take place at the Musée de la Bande Dessinée. There are 80 students from two collèges—which is the French equivalent of junior high—on the outskirts of Angoulême. These schools are in areas with a lot of working families and immigrants and they lack the resources of private schools or even public schools in more well-off areas.

Etienne and I act more like counselors than teachers for this project. It's really the teachers from the two schools who worked their butts off to come up with engaging projects that would connect their subjects (math, French, English, art) with the theme of "Exercises in Style" and, more generally, the use of constraints, mathematical rules, and word games to create texts and drawings.

The first session started bright and early. I got up in front of a group of 80 students, their teachers, their principle, the regional education inspector who set up this event, and even a representative from the local prefecture. The kids were supposed to have questions for me—in fact many had them written down—but they all completely froze up at the prospect of talking to a "real author" in front of their classmates, teachers, and 40 other kids they were meeting for the first time! No problem, I knew that was exactly what was going to happen (even grown-ups do it, kids!) and managed to talk about myself, comics, and New York until I got a few shy responses and questions from our audience.

After my opening remarks, a quick snack decorated by oversize copies of panels from my book. Very nice, I think every school dining room should do this.

The Ministry of Education had provided copies for all the students of my book, Queneau's, and Etienne's collection of mathematics-based constrained comics, Comptes et Décomptes. It was cool and a little surreal to walk into a classroom and find all these kids reading experimental comics.

The math teachers from both schools teamed up for the day. One collège hosted this time and the other one will host Etienne and the other school in March.

Etienne did a comic where each panel has the same number of words and drawn objects as its corresponding number in pi. So: panel one has three words and three drawings; panel two has one word and one drawing; panel three as four words and drawings, and so on. Not wanting to simply repeat Etienne's constraint, the math teachers had the students work on the same principle but using the value of the golden ratio. I pointed out that you could write a text or make drawings relating to Greek architecture, sea shells and other shapes that express this ratio (much as Etienne did in his story "Trois Fois Hellás," which tells the story of a Greek vacation gone awry)

Meanwhile, the French teachers had the students writing acrostics, palindromes, and other word games. I didn't get any pictures of the English/art class but they were translating pages of mine back into English, then drawing them as comics in the style of one of three American artists (a theme in art class this semester): Keith Haring, Niki St. Phalle (the teachers weren't aware that she was once married to Oulipian Harry Mathews) or Jackson Pollock. I was skeptical of making a comic from a Pollock painting but sure enough one of the students realized he could use more and more drips in each panel to represent the growing confusion of the main character. Brilliant.

In another classroom, students are asked to make comics where superheroes have banal adventures like missing the bus or running out of hot water mid-shower. The students all contributed short anecdotes like this that could be transformed and repurposed throughout the workshop. I proposed the ides of grouping the final pieces together based on which texts they riff on but we'll see what kind of shape everything is in at the end of the series.

I'm more used to teaching in art schools or at least with older teens so this is a real change of pace for me. It's very gratifying to play a small part in all of this and to peak over kids' shoulders with the occasional word of advice or encouragement as they surprise themselves with their own ingenuity in text and image.


Monday, January 27, 2014

Angoulême Comics Festival 2014 agenda

I'll be signing several new books from L'Association this year at the FIBD, celebrating a hat trick: a Patte de Mouche, a page in a Mon Lapin, and a contribution to an OuPus.

Tuesday-Wednesday I'm participating again in the 24 heures de la bande dessinée here at the Maison des Auteurs.

Otherwise my schedule looks roughly like this:

Thursday evening, vernissage for Ancrages, this year's exhibit of artists in residence at the MdA (as we call it around here).

Friday afternoon, signing at the L'Association booth in the Nouveau Monde (New York) tent, booth N8.

Saturday at 3PM, signing with Jessica at the bookstore of La Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l'image.

Sunday afternoon at L'Asso again.

You can find more details in Jessica's blog post which is where I cribbed most of this.

I'm typing this in between quick trips to the printer downstairs where I'm printing up copies of a limited edition, freebie mini collecting the 6-panel gag strips I've been posting on Tumblr lately. It's called Walker, feel free to ask me for one.

Be sure to check out the Angoulême food guide Abby Denson put together with input from Jessica.

And it's going to be a WET four days so bring your galoshes and don't eat the brown acid.

Monday, January 20, 2014

2013 wrap-up and checklist

a recent portrait in Angoulême by Gert Jan Pos

2013 was a busy year for me and mostly a very satisfying one. I traveled all over Europe, visited the US, got knighted (really!) and made a lot of comics and drawings.

As I write this I'm laying the groundwork for two book-length projects which I plan to make headway on in the year to come. 2013 was all about short pieces as well as guiding some slightly older works to belated publication. Looking over the whole docket I' a little amazed at all the things I've had published in the past year (I'm stretching a bit to include January 2014). Here's a full list, with links, in the hopes that I'm not the only person who has actually seen all this stuff:

"Pantoum for Hiram" in Columbia: a journal of literature and art #51
Drawn Onward was the 182th issue of One Story magazine, and the first time they've published a comic. There's an interview with me about the story here.
"Six Treasures of the Spiral" was reprinted in The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which recently featured an interview with me on their website.

France (all published by L'Association and being released this week, more or less)

Cavalcade Surprise, with Jessica Abel & Lewis Trondheim
Journal Directeur, in collaboration with Oubapo.
"La Fuite", a one-pager foMon Lapin #4 edited by Etienne Lécoart.

"Verloren auf Fantasy Island" (Lost on Fantasy Island), a strip for Strapazin 112

Latin America saw reprints of two older stories of mine plus the world début (a few months before the US edition) of Pantoum for Hiram under the Spanish title "Una Madeja para Hugo"
Sayonara (1999) in the series Burlesquitas (Argentina)
"Los Otros" (2007) in Carboncito # (Peru)
"Una Madeja para Hugo" in Revista Larva (Colombia)

I did a strip for Infinite Corpse which has been expanded upon in some interesting ways
Bridge, my 24+7-hour comic from last year is available to read on line.
A comics chat in Spanish with Powerpaola about the artist's life.
I also did a quickie anecdotal comic for the website of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy to accompany an interview with me on the subject of living in France.

Oubapo portfolio in Words Without Borders February 2013 issue

Though I didn't achieve my goal of nailing down more foreign editions of 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, I did get reprinted in France and Spain with attendant fanfare and signings.

portraits of me and Jessica by Nicholas Guerin hanging at the Table à Dessin in 2013


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

20 Lines

I recently finished a one-year drawing project called "20 Lines"

The initial inspiration was a prose book by the American Oulipo author Harry Mathews called 20 Lines a Day, which is a partial document of a period where he wrote 20 lines of prose every morning he was at his desk as a warm-up exercise. He was inspired by a quote by Stendhal to the effect of "20 lines a day, genius or not". He took that notion literally in a somewhat wry way and I did the same kind of thing: well, 20 drawn lines, how is that so different from 20 lines of writing? (It's faster for one thing, most of the time.)

I took it on once we moved to France because one of my goals here is to work on my drawing, which lags behind my writing and my structural/linguistic thinking about comics. My goal was to concentrate on the most basic elements of drawing--lines on a ground--to reflect on how lines fill space, how they fit together. Maybe not so much "reflect" as simply to put my drawing hand, my brain, and my eyes to work to see what would come out of it. How all that will translate back into my comics I don't really know, but I see it as part of a process of taking more conscious control of my drawing both at a physical as well as conceptual level.

I've been really pleased with the reaction I've had from friends and from my Tumblr and Facebook postings of these pages. I expect you'll be seeing some printed versions and maybe even some exhibits of this work in the future.

For starters, I was flattered and more than a bit surprised to receive an offer to publish a limited-run selection by No Press, a micro publisher of visual poetry and conceptual writing run by Derek Beaulieu. That should be published in the not-too-distant future, though to judge by his website I can't say it will be easy to get your hands on.

Here are a few more selections from the 80 or so drawings I have done so far:

A Sol Lewitt homage series:

You can find the whole series browsing back through my Maddn Tumblr