Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Ex Libris by Matt Madden

You are reading a blog post. It is about a book. You immediately worry that this is going to be some kind of pomo bullshit, probably designed to mimic the book itself, and that the blogger thinks he's being clever.

Reader, you are so very right.

Ex Libris is a visually inventive but thematically vague graphic novel about comics and reading and creation and all of those things, unfortunately mostly on a very superficial level, by the cartoonist, editor, and translator Matt Madden. If it were about something more culturally impressive, I would say it smells heavily of the lamp. As it is, it smells of...what? India ink? Whatever a fresh piece of illustration board smalls like? It smells like ambition and comics and trying too hard, frankly.

We open with a person entering a room - we are the person entering the room, like a first-person shooter. Madden very deliberately avoids any identifying details - even as he provides the protagonist with a sad romantic backstory with "M." - to maintain the sense that this person is "me," the reader. (Madden gets more specific just before the end: I'm not sure if that's meant to be a big reveal or just an admission that no one can commit to the bit that fully and still have the thing work.)

The person closes the door and sleeps on a futon. When "we" wake, "we" notice there is a bookcase: the only other piece of furniture in the room. Leaving the room is never mentioned; it's not forbidden so much as merely outside the scope of possibility.

The bookcase is full of books, of course. All graphical in nature: comics and manga and bande dessinee and collections of strips and graphic novels and improving non-fiction and literary short stories and metafiction. Because comics can be any kind of story or book you can think of, of course!

Ahem. Yes. So can poetry. So can prose. So can film and TV and songs, opera and site-specific art installations. I hope we're beyond the "Bang! Pow! Special Pleading for my favorite artform!" '80s-style apologetic for comics, but maybe we will never get over Macho Grande.

Madden goes on from there, with a whole bunch of examples of the comics "you" are reading in this room, all of which are intrinsically connected to "your" mental state and "your" internal monologue. Unless you are thinking, "this is artistically impressive, but awfully empty," because Madden doesn't have an answer to that.

It is artistically impressive. Madden draws in a couple of dozen styles here, for a panel or multiple pages, and constructs inventive pages with multiple styles and quirky eye-catching devices and panels-within-panels and more complicated things I don't have a good vocabulary for. Ex Libris would be a great book for a course about how to tell stories in comics, since it includes nearly all of the potential ways to do that.

But the story it tells is a massive, dull cliché: "you" are a frustrated comics-maker, and "you" just need to pick up the pen and tell your story!

Well, no. Not for the vast majority of people who will read Ex Libris. Not at all. Most of us like to read books, and we like the books we read to tell us something - about themselves, about the outside world, about a fictional world. We don't much like them to harangue us to stop reading and do something else.

If you are looking for a book to inspire you to make comics, Ex Libris is your baby. If you like quirky metafiction and comics told in different styles, you'll find a lot to like here. If you just want a story, stay far away.

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