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REVIEW: 99 Ways to Tell a Story

While the prospect of reading the same one-page story 99 times in a row may not sound appealing, Matt Madden's book of exercises is an entertaining and enlightening look at how comics narratives work.

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style
Matt Madden
Chamberlain Bros, 2005
publisher site | WorldCat

Inspired by the literary variations of Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, 99 Ways to Tell a Story starts with the account of a few mundane minutes in Madden and partner Jessica Abel's life: standing up from the desk, checking the time, and looking for something in the refrigerator. Madden then retells this story 98 more times with 98 different approaches that change his approach to the visuals, narrative, or both.

The retellings differ in the extent of their departure from the original, but each reveals some new way to look at the story. Switching perspectives from Madden to Abel results in a more melancholy tone, and framing it a memory from long ago makes it strangely poignant. Changing to all-silhouette artwork makes the story somber and cold, while taking a minimalist approach to the art makes it feel more like a poem than a short story. Madden also plays with genre -- romance, superhero, western -- imitates specific cartoonists -- Töpffer, Outcault, Hergé -- and even delves into absurdism and deconstruction, each with surprising (and surprisingly entertaining) results.

It would be a stretch to call it required reading, but any comics librarian will enjoy reading 99 Ways to Tell a Story and find some application in their work, whether it's a demonstration of the medium's complexity for skeptical patrons or co-workers, inspiration for programming, or a deeper appreciation of the choices that go into creating a comics story. Plus it's a fast read, and a fun one too!