French-language comics, or bande dessinée, are a beloved piece of media around the world. Classics are still popular today, and modern creatives continue to build on the genre's vast body of work. To learn more about popular BD culture in France, we spoke with Matt Madden, a US cartoonist and creator of "99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style" a playful exploration of Raymond Queneau's Exercices de style. Madden shares his views about the French “ninth art” and his experiences working in Angoulême, city of the second largest comics festival in Europe. As a translator, a teacher, a U.S. Correspondent of Oubapo and a French knight in the Order of Arts and Letters, Matt dives into the importance of cartoons and the opportunity they give to challenge the limits of one's creativity and imagination.
Andrea Fort 0:25
Bande dessinée or BD, as the French like to call it, is the French word for comics. The theme of our podcast episode today as we speak to American cartoonist Matt Madden, who can tell us why comics are so big in France, and his observations while working at Angoulême, the iconic city of where the International Festival of comics originated 47 years ago. With national cartoonist day coming up on May 5, we wish to give you an insight to Matt's unique profession, and also how his cross-cultural contributions have earned him the title of French Knight in the order of Arts and Letters. Matt, so great to have you with us.
Matt Madden 1:04
Thanks a lot for having me.
Andrea Fort 1:06
Yeah. So, you have this unique experience observing, working with the cartoon and Graphic Novel World in France in the US. But first, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? And what are you working on now?
Matt Madden 1:21
Yeah, so I am currently living in Philadelphia, we've been here since 2016. Since we moved to Philadelphia, my wife, Jessica, Abel, who is also a cartoonist is now the chair of illustration at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. And I've been taking these last few years to be a stay-at-home dad and just help raise our kids and run the house, we have an 11 year old boy and a 13 year old girl And I have a pretty major book that I'm putting the finishing touches on right now, and will be coming out in the fall.
Andrea Fort 1:53
So, I do have a question for you, Matt, which we talked about a little bit earlier. But I think it is important for our audience to know, what are the differences between being a cartoonist, a graphic novel artist and illustrator? Can you clarify that for us?
Matt Madden 2:09
Sure. Yeah, this is a question I get a lot and it is a little confusing, because you've got these words that have multiple meanings like comic can mean funny can be a, you know, somebody who works in comedy as a standup comic, a cartoon is something you watch on TV, it's also something you read, a single panel, a single drawing, with a funny caption under it, like in the New Yorker, for example. So in recent years, you hear this term, graphic novel, use a lot, especially in the mainstream media, to talk about more serious, you know, ambitious works of comics, like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” for example, or Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” and even there, you see, there's a problem, because those are both actually works of memoir and not really fictional novels in that traditional process. So ‘graphic novel’ is, for me, a disruptive format, you know, it's a long form, narrative, mostly fictional comic. So comics is the medium, a cartoonist is the person who draws comics, a graphic novel is a type of format the same way you could say, a floppy book or a webcomic.
Andrea Fort 3:11
Well, thank you for clarifying that. I guess I wanted to also go back to what you were saying, that, you know, you're currently right now in Philadelphia, but you were also in France, and you have a deep connection with France. Can you tell us about that?
Matt Madden 3:26
Yeah. So I actually I've had a relationship to France throughout my life. And when I was sort of adding up after moving back to Philadelphia, I realized that I've spent nine years out of my life living in France, which kind of shocked me when I put that all together. But my father was a corporate lawyer, he worked for an international firm. When I was three years old, and I think largely at my mom's constant bugging and hounding him, he applied for a position in the Paris office, and so we moved and lived there from 1971 to 1976. I moved back to Connecticut, with my family, when I was eight years old, and then in the mid 90s, my youngest brother did a school year abroad in Paris, and I went to visit him and that was a really pivotal year 1994,1995, because I was already starting to make comics at that point and I'd been hearing that there was all this stuff happening in the French comic scene and independent comics scene. So in 94-95, I went to Paris and I just went to all these bookstores and bought as much as I could find, and that really galvanized me to really get engaged with French comics in particular. And I started to hear about the Angouleme comics Festival, which I went to with Jessica, my wife.. We went together for the first time in 98, I think. And that got me even more excited about, you know, being in France and realizing that I could speak French. And in 2009, I think it was, I was invited to be part of a festival that no longer exists, it was really a nice festival called Les Belles Étrangères where every year a bunch of authors were invited from a different country to come to France and tour like pretty much small towns and go to like médiathèques and places like that, to present our work. And meet just like the general public, you know, not necessarily highfalutin conferences and stuff. And the woman who ran that series, Martine Grelle, who's a cultural worker, she works at the Centre Pompidou now, she had discovered my book, “99 exercises de style”, my exercise and style book, which we'll talk a bit about more later, and discovered that in the local bookstore, wasn't particularly a comics person, but she was friendly with the Oulipo, which, hang on, we'll get to that too, later, I think. And so she kind of, you know, invited me along with mostly other novelists and poets and, you know, serious writers with scare quotes, to be part of this touring group of 10 or 12. Meanwhile, I'd been teaching in New York, at the School of Visual Arts alongside Jessica and we've been teaching there for a while and you know, getting a bit restless and ready for a change and we'd been aware for a few years of this residency program in Angoulême, which is the city that hosts this festival. A residency called “La Maison des Auteurs”, house of artists. And it's a residency, one of the few in the world, that's dedicated really only to cartoonists, although also to animators.
Andrea Fort 06:26
Well, Angoulême, I have to say, is a really impressive place of culture, of comic culture, right. I've been to Angoulême and I love that, you know, this city has really encompassed and wrapped this identity around the international comics festival and it's really impressive. Just how it interweaves the comic theme throughout the streets.
Matt Madden 06:49
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I've been going to the festival for years and eventually I realized that in addition to the festival, starting in the early 80s, they had founded first a comics Museum in town, which then expanded into a larger what they call La Cité internationationale de la bande dessinée et de l'image, the international city of comics and the image. I think, 2003 or 2004, they established this residency called “La Maison des auteurs”, so that's how we ended up moving to France. We applied for this, Jessica and I both applied for this residency for starting in the summer of 2012. And we both got accepted, so we packed up our stuff and our children who are two and four years old and showed up in France in mid August. In a city that's - Angoulême it's a small city and it's very much a little French city - there aren't a lot of people, you can't count on people speaking English there. So the school system we had to figure out. Luckily, the directors of the Maison des Auteurs were amazing, and they helped us get set up at an apartment, get us arranged with a local public school. But basically, we dropped our two- and four-year-old in a little public maternelle that was just amazing and they took them under their wings and within a few months, they were getting by just fine and within six months, they were speaking fluent French, it was really incredible.
Andrea Fort 08:07
You spent four years in Angoulême, which is obviously, you know, there's a big focus on the comic world. But I want to know, also, what you think about why comics are so important in France? I can’t distinguish that in France, I feel that everyone has read a comic, I mean, it is something that is so ingrained in the culture, you know, from all levels, right. So yeah, what do you think? What was your perception when you were in France?
Matt Madden 08:37
Yeah, I mean, there's definitely truth to that. And certainly, comics as an art form have had a very different trajectory, in France, in particular, and in Europe more generally, than they've had in the US or in Latin America or in Asia. Although at the same time, Americans, especially us cartoonists, when we become aware of the French comic scene, we tend to have this kind of rosy eyed image of like, oh, in France, comics are considered literature right up next to, you know, Balzac and Flaubert. And it's not quite that to be honest, in France, it’s something like children's literature is in the US, where, you know, anyone who's a reasonably literate, cultured person will acknowledge like, Oh, you know, Maurice Sendak, or, you know, JK Rowling or, there are lots of authors out there, Roald Dahl, who primarily work in young adult or children's work, but are considered to be top notch art, you know, artists on par with, you know, mainstream novelists, or artists. But at the same time, it's such a widespread media, much more than in the US, or I'd say in a different way than in the US, because in the US, you have floppy comic books, traditionally, and you have newspaper comics, and those appeal to a very particular audience, you have to go to a comic book store until you know, 10 years ago, if you wanted to get a comic, you had to go to a specialty store. And in France all along, you would go to the big box stores like FNAC and there'd be a huge room with bins full of these big hardcover comic books, of all different types you know, there's kid stuff, but there's also westerns and police stories and stuff like that.
Andrea Fort 10:14
And I wanted to ask you about how French comics differ from other cultural products. We talked about American style comics, but what about Asian style manga, or African graphic novels?
Matt Madden 10:26
So one thing that makes Franco Belgian comics very distinctive is just a question of format. And we talked about how American comics tend to be floppy, you know, disposable newsprint, comics, or newspaper strips. And in France, at least dating back to the 40s or the 50s, you got this tradition that they call 48 carton et couleur — 48 pages, hardcover and color. And that's kind of the standard format of albums. That's why you can go to a bookstore in France, and find bins full of all these books that aren't the same size and shape, and even the same number of pages usually. That made it very easy to distribute these things all over the country. And also, to make them more appealing to grownups: like, an adult isn't necessarily going to go into a specialty comic book store and buy pick up a $2 floppy, but it feels kind of more important if you're buying a hardcover book, you know, and also France has a much broader spectrum of genre. You know, American comics really got stuck in superheroes for a long time. Whereas in France, you find fantasy comics, science fiction, a lot of crime stuff. I think that a lot of what grownups read is like polar which is, you know, true crime or hard boiled fiction kind of stuff that is very popular.
Meanwhile, in Asia, they have a whole different tradition, which developed in parallel, very much with an eye to what was happening in the US and in Europe. So, Osamu Tezuka, who's called the column, the God of marvel of manga, who really codified a lot of the language of manga, was studying Walt Disney cartoons. And reading Tintin, and so he was incorporating that language into a very Japanese style of drawing and of course, reading from right to left, being a fundamentally different reading experience of manga, but also started to develop his own visual language, his other artist attitude, they're all kinds of strange little visual tics that you'll find in manga that are part of that language, and which are now you're starting to see turn up in French and American comics, because that influence has started to move in the opposite direction in recent years. Around the world, you'll find other comics and, in India and in Africa and South America, they tend to be a mixture of those different influences. You know, I'm looking forward to the years to come. So I do think we're going to see new waves of comics, probably on the internet, probably web comics, which is how young people are doing stuff now. You're going to see new voices coming out of Africa, Central America, all kinds of places around the world.
.Andrea Fort 13:13
So I want to go back to your experience in Angoulême, you were involved with the International Comics Festival and I do want to tell our audience that it is the second biggest festival in Europe and third in the world. There are 200,000 thousand visitors minimum, professionals, reporters, illustrators, comic book artists, cartoonists, everything we’ve talked about. What was it like to attend and what was your experience there?
Matt Madden 13:38
Well, the Angoulême festival remains one of the great experiences for a cartoonist or fan of comics in the world, bar none. Because above all, it remains after all these years focused almost exclusively on the books and the authors. You know, San Diego Comic Con has become a bigger event worldwide. And there are certainly books and authors there. But it's also become a general media event that focuses on movies and video games and toys, and all kinds of stuff that are around the world of comics, that come out of the world of comics. It always struck me than Angoulême during the festival, which is spread right downtown, it's not in a convention center. It's like they take over various plazas and buildings around the city, and with their different tents that are set up. And there's always like one little tent off to one side or by the market that's the media tent. And you go in there and it's this tiny little place and you see a couple of figurines, someone you know, offering a video game. So it's like the absolute inverse of what you find at a lot of other media festivals. And as a reader as an artist, it's somewhere where you go not just to find amazing books, but to talk to people. You can have one-to-one conversations with your favorite artists, you can as an artist easily meet publishers and editors. There's a festival itself, you know, it happens all day long. But because you're in this little city, and hopefully you found a hotel not too far in town. A lot of the thrill of the festival, the experience of the Angoulême festival happens after hours. Where there are a couple of bars and hotels right in town where everyone congregates. And they have their different characters. They're sort of like the more famous cartoonists hanging out at the Mercure Hotel. And the indie cartoonists go to this dive bar called the Chat Noir. And it's really magical: you can just walk in there and you feel like you're really part of this incredible and friendly and accessible, warm scene. That was my experience of it. I never got too close to the festival organizer because they are mainly based in Paris most of the year. But in 2016, I was invited to be a member of the jury that votes on the best books of the year. Now is the one time that I got to be part of the actual festival itself and went to the award ceremony and things like that. And that was a pretty fun experience, although a little stressful.
Andrea Fort 16:05
Yeah. You said that was in 2016?
Matt Madden 16:07
Yeah. And that ended up being a pretty controversial year. Fortunately, I'm glad that I wasn't on some other committee that had been involved with some other stuff. But basically that year, there was a big uproar, because the way the festival works is they have a kind of President every year that is selected previously by the previous presidents and it's a famous artist and sort of like an honorary title given to a well established artist. And then for the next year, they become the kind of honorary president of the festival, they get to decide what exhibits they're going to be on, what kind of activities, and over time that's become more of a popular vote. Originally, it was voted by the previous winners of that title. And for years before 2016, the festival organizers would put out a shortlist that people had to vote from and so they put out a shortlist of like 15-20 names, and there wasn't a single woman on there in 2016. And this is something that had already been, you know, an issue of contention in France and you know, the international comic scene and cultural for that matter, the lack of recognition of women artists. So there was a big uproar and protests about it leading to the festival backtracking and throwing out that shortlist and having a free for all: anyone could vote, which ended up being very imperfect. And some people withdrew their names, who didn't want to be considered. It did end up going to a man after all, to Hermann [Huppen] who is actually very classic: an old school cartoonist. Which is kind of ironic. But the second in line was a woman artist. So yeah, it was a big to do and the festival didn't always do the best job. I thought of assuaging the public’s legitimate concern about representation at the festival. They often take a combative stance against the artists.
Andrea Fort 18:08
Yeah, yeah. And I've seen up to this day, there are only two women that have been given the Grand Prix, right, which is the Lifetime Achievement Award? I also know that only 20% of women are represented as comic book creators.
Matt Madden 18:25
Yeah, yeah. It's part of a long process that extends to culture in general and into comics. I wouldn't say comics are particularly more or less sexist and discriminatory than most of the other cultural sectors in France, or in the US, for that matter. I will say that having taught for a long time in the US and in Europe, I did a lot of workshops all over Europe, and invariably, at least half and often a majority of the students working and also doing the best work often we're young women, and I definitely feel there's “the future is female” kind of thing, where, regardless of what the old guard does, or doesn't do, in the coming years, we're just going to see such an influx of women and people of color – a much more diverse group of people making comics, reading comics, writing about comics. I'm optimistic in that sense that it's going to age out at the very least.
Andrea Fort 19:25
Yeah, no, it's true. And then it is noticeable, you know, the interest of material created by women, by queer artists, by underrepresented communities, people of color, as you stated, so I hope that it will make some improvements – at least the work is out there. So I did want to shift gears, I wanted to talk about your personal work. So you had mentioned earlier, you're well known for your experimental graphic novel, I hope that's the right term. 99 ways to tell a story, exercises in style, which is based on the idea of the French novelist, Raymond Queneau. So “Exercises in style”. Can you tell us about him and why you chose to produce this BD ? So I'm using the French term here.
Matt Madden 20:20
Yeah. Well, that to be persnickety. But this book, I would not call a graphic novel, because it is a literary work of comics, certainly. I just still like to call it a comic book.
Andrea Fort 20:27
Matt Madden 20:29
But anyway, the origin of that book is, when I finished college, I was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, working in a bookstore and at that stage where I was just starting to get into comics and starting to become more interested again, in French culture in general. I worked in a bookstore that had a French book section, which is pretty rare. And one of my co-workers, who knew that I was checking out various novels from that collection, gave me a copy of Raymond Queneau “Exercises in style”, and said, “Oh, this is up your alley, you should really check this out.” And I can't remember which friend of mine it was. I've been trying to track down who it was that handed me that because it really changed the course of my life in ways that I didn't really understand so many years later – including the fact that I ended up living in France and all the stuff that's happened to me in relation to French culture. This was in 1992 or so. I fell in love with this book, which if you've never read it before, Raymond Queneau published it in 1949. It was a series of 99 short texts that all tell the same anecdote about seeing an annoying fellow on a bus one day in Paris, and he retells it from different points of view. He retells it replacing all the nouns with colors from the rainbow. He tells it as a telegram. He does it as a haiku. He does it as a blurb copy from the back of a book, all kinds of stuff. And it's really funny and really inventive. And I immediately thought, this would be a really great project to adapt to comics, because comics have the same types of games – you can play with point of view with, with format. But you also have this added dimension of drawing of all the visual stuff you could do. And I imagined how you could do a superhero version or an underground comics version or a manga version, by using all kinds of different graphic approaches, in addition to the storytelling and point of view exercises you could do. I set it aside for five or six years, cuz I knew I wasn't really ready yet in terms of my development as an artist, but I started working on it in 1998. Jessica and I were living in Mexico City at the time – it was a whole other adventure in our lives, before our, our French years. And so the apartment in the book is actually the apartment that we used to live in, in Mexico City. And I decided I was going to do this project as a personal challenge, I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to see if I could actually find 99 ways to tell a story that would be engaging and fun and challenge me. And I never had any problem with that; it was always a challenge, I could have kept on going. You know, 99 is an arbitrary number. I like it, because it suggests, of course, that you can always do one more. Because part of the point of the book is there's not only nine ways to tell a story, of course, there are limitless ways to tell a story. I started sharing these things online at the time and getting a lot of good feedback from people, which made me realize it was not just something that was interesting to me, but might actually be something that other people would want to read. Around that time I became aware of some French cartoonists who were doing similar work, a group called Oubapo, whichever you could talk more about in a few minutes. But they were publishing experimental comics, inspired by authors like Raymond Queneau as well. So on I think my second visit to the Angoulême festival. I approached a few of the members of this group, the cartoonist Jean-Christophe Menu and the academic and writer Thierry Groensteen. Trembling and very nervous, I gave them photocopies of the earlier pages of the book. Menu is also at that time, the head of the publishing collective L’association which is sort of the major independent comics publisher in France – throughout the 90s, and into the 2000s. And so I gave it, sort of scampered off, and I thought, “Well, at least I tried”. And a few months later, he wrote to me and said, “I love this series. As soon as it's done, send it to me, I'm going to translate it and we're going to publish it in French at L’association. So that was really exciting, and a real motivation for me to like, keep going. So I finished the book in 2004. It was published in the U.S. by Penguin.
It has gone on to have Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, editions. There's going to be a Chinese edition coming out this summer, simplified Chinese. So it's a work that has spread around the world in ways that I could never have imagined when I was just, you know, working in a bookstore, making photocopied comics for myself. So it's been really exciting.
Andrea Fort 25:01
Yeah, and you as a teacher, I mean, are you using this work?
Matt Madden 25:05
Yeah, that's been another really gratifying aspect of the book is that I've certainly used it myself for teaching and I've done a lot of workshops. My favorite thing is when I’ve been able to go for a full week, and I'll run the students through the wringer and have them do four or five different variations, and then come up with challenges for each other. It becomes a really interesting process in creativity and storytelling points of view. And just the working methods of creating art. Yeah. At the same time, I started getting reports as soon as the book came out, from all kinds of people that were using it, film editors, I once had a guy who was a pastor. And he was trying to write a Sunday sermon and was blocked, and he came across my book and it gave him a lot of ideas of how to write his Sunday Easter sermon. And he wrote me a thank you note.
Andrea Fort 26:02
Amazing. So just to go back real quickly to Raymond Queneau which is the origin of this work, I read that he was part of this Oulipo movement, which is where the Oubapo movement kind-of stems from that. Can you tell us a little bit about that, too?
Matt Madden 26:28
Yeah. So Oulipo is an acronym, stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle which is usually translated as workshop for potential literature. And it's a literary group that started as kind of a secret society, although now it's, you know, public concern. started by Raymond Queneau and a friend of his, François Le Lionnais who was a mathematician, and a fan of writing and poetry. And in working not so much as the “Exercise in style” book, which came out in 1947. Oulipo was founded in 1960. But in 1959, Queneau did another famous book of his, which in English is often translated as “100 million million poems”. And if you know, those children's books, the Chimera where you can mix and match the parts of an animal, and you've got the head and the torso and the legs, and the papers are cut. So you can have a lion's head and a fish's body and a monkey's arms – he applied that principle to the sonnet. And he basically wrote 10 sonnets of 14 lines each, and then he wrote them in such a way that if you recombine them in any order, they would still make sense, they would still rhyme, they would still observe the same feminine and masculine correspondences in French, it's really pretty remarkable. And so it creates a 10 to the 14th power, possible sonnets for you to read more than anyone could ever read in multiple lifetimes. So this idea led to the kind of work Queneau was doing with exercises in style led to the foundation of this group, the workshop for potential literature, whose goal is to meet once a month, which they've been doing religiously ever since going on 52 years now. They get together, they drink a bunch of wine, and they propose new ideas for ways that you could create poetry, novels and so on, using what they call constraints, different kinds of limiting rules, an exercise in style, and he's an example of that retelling a story in as many different ways as possible.
Andrea Fort 28:25
Wow. Okay, that sounds like a great creative apéro… ,
Matt Madden 28:28
The most famous example from Oulipo is the author Georges Perec, who did a book called “La Disparition”, which was actually translated or adapted to English under the title “Avoid.” And that's a 250 page crime novel. It's almost like an Agatha Christie kind of very fun story. Except he wrote the whole thing without the letter “E”. Which you can imagine in French especially seems like an impossible and foolish task. And yet he did such a good job at it. And even has female characters in the book somehow, that is famously, when the book came out in 1969, a review from a major French newspaper didn't realize the “E” wasn't there. He just reviewed it “Oh, Georges Perec seems to have written a mystery novel. It's pretty good. I'm not really sure what the point is, you know, but we'll see what he does next, through this interesting new author.”
Andrea Fort 29:19
Was it a play on words with “La Disparition” from the fact that you know, avoiding the “E” or the missing “E”?
Matt Madden 29:26
Oh, absolutely. And if you notice, Georges Perec, his name is full of “E”’s. And also famously, and off-ly his parents both died in World War II, his mother in a concentration camp, and his father fighting in the war, he was a Jew from Poland. So as much as it's a playful literary game, it's also talking about a real sense of loss like “La Disparition” is the disappearance of the letter E. But it's also the disappearance of his parents, the spirit of the disappearance of himself, of his sense of identity as a Jew growing up in France after World War II. So that's why I think it's such an amazing work because it shows that you can have multiple levels of work going on. And what's apparently, you know, a parlor game, can you write a story with a letter “E”? And by the way, I encourage everyone to try this. It's really fun and challenging to try and write something without “E” or some other vowel in particular. But it can also be almost a work of conceptual art in a way that it can address things that can't be spoken of.
Andrea Fort 30:29
Right, as it has a much deeper meaning than just a missing vowel or letter. And so the Oulipo then influenced this Oubapo movement
Matt Madden 30:39
Yeah, Oulipo pretty early on started having kind of splinter groups of people who said like, Alright, well, that's the literature. I want to do one that's all about painting. So they're one of the first offshoots was called OuPeinPo, the workshop for potential painting. There's a bunch of them about different domains. And in 1992, some of the people I was just speaking up before Jean-Christophe Menu, Thierry Groensteen, who's a historian and semiotician of comics, and some other artists, got together to have a meeting about these idea of constraints that Oulipo uses to create new works of literature and talk about how you could apply that to comics. Ironically, if my timelines are correct, almost the year that I was discovering Raymond Queneau’s work and thinking the same thing like, Oh, this stuff's great to apply to comics. So they started to develop some work using constraints, great comics, they got the blessing of the parent group Oulipo. So Oubapo is, there's a whole group of groups that are referred to OuExpo – different kinds of groups that are using the principles of Oulipo to create work in different mediums.
Andrea Fort 31:50
Amazing, amazing. And you're the only U.S. correspondent, right?
Matt Madden 31:53
Yeah. I went to France, again. In 2005 or 2006 at the festival, I ran into one of the other members of the group, and I said, “Oh, so, you know, did you get the meeting minutes from the last meeting, because you're, you're our US correspondent now.” And I said, “what I am?” Somebody decided I was an honorary part of the group. But I have kept in touch with them over the years and have become good friends with a lot of members of the group. And part of my time in Angoulême spent collaborating with them. We did some live shows together called the Oubapo show, which we did at the Angoulême festival and a couple different comic shows around France. That was a lot of fun.
There's not a proprietary sense to Oulipo. They're really about sharing this idea of, you know, creativity, which has an important message about the idea that creativity comes out of work and engagement. It's not about inspiration. You know, Oulipo came out of Raymond Queneau, who was briefly a member of the surrealist movement. His wife's sister was married to André Breton, they're actually related by marriage. And he quickly got disenchanted with this surrealist idea of using your unconscious and automatic writing and just spilling everything out onto the page, he found that that ended up with stuff that was kind of messy and boring. And paradoxically, you got more interesting, weird stuff. If you said, Well, I'm going to try writing 10 pages without using letter “E”. Because you go into such contortions, just to express the most basic ideas, that often when you read it, when you're done, you can surprise yourself with weird ideas, you know, funny situations, new words that you invented, that you never would have come up with otherwise.
Andrea Fort 33:52
You bringing forward this French heritage to American audiences, and you as well appreciating the work from Raymond Queneau, you were actually awarded with the prestigious title of night of France’s Order of Arts and Letters. What was your reaction when you received this honor?
Matt Madden 34:13
Amazing, but true, I was completely blown away. I couldn't even believe it, but because also, like with Oubapo membership, I never got a phone call or something. I opened my mailbox one day, and there was a large envelope in there. And I opened it up, and it was my certificate for being a Chevalier. And I had to call the Cultural Services. I knew it had something to do with them, because this is in New York in 2012. And basically, from my whole time in New York, as I was becoming more engaged with France, the cultural services I was doing, started doing a lot of comics programming. And through my teaching at the school visual arts, I was able to help moderate a couple of those events. And I got to know some of the people working at the Cultural Services. And then in 2000, I want to say, seven or eight. The Oulipo actually were invited to come to New York and do a series of lectures and talks and readings. You know, there's some that died, Raymond Queneau in 1976, I think, and Georges Perec died young from cancer in the early 80s. But there were several of the authors that I was familiar with and really eager to meet Hervé Le Tellier, Jacques Roubaud, Marcel Bénabou, and Anne Garréta, who's one of the few female members of Oulipo. But that's something I've also worked on improving their diversity over the years. And so I kind of showed up and got to meet members of Oulipo. I had never corresponded with them up to that point, so I was very trepidatious about approaching these esteemed French writers. But I remember I got one of the people from the embassy to introduce me to Jacques Roubaud who's a very imposing, presidential seeming French guy. And I said, my name is Matt Madden, I'm a cartoonist and, and he looked at me, and he said, Matt Madden ‘Exercises de style!’ And they all gave me a warm embrace and stuff. And I was really encouraging and very nice at times, so. And a couple years ago, when I was in France for the visit, Les belles etrangères tour that I mentioned earlier, and I even got invited to one of their famous monthly dinners, and brought a bottle of wine and a bunch of my comics to show off and tried to explain some of the constraints that I was using in my near comics that I was doing. So that was a real thrill.
Andrea Fort 36:49
I like that you mentioned that the bottle of wine was absolutely crucial.
Matt Madden 36:54
Oh, yeah, definitely, definitely. So, I developed this relationship with the Cultural Services. And around that time, they got a new, I forget the title of the counselor, but the Cultural head of the Cultural Services was a man named Antonin Baudry, who was there for I guess, for the usual four to six years, you have the rotating terms and in the diplomatic corps. I met him at a literary festival in Tribeca, around that time, 2008 or nine. And someone's like, Oh, you got to meet our new boss Antonin tonight. He's a really nice guy. And he was and we were chatting and. And he said, Oh, I hear you're a cartoonist. And I was like, Oh, yeah, but you know, you probably wouldn't know my work. He says “No, tell me, I read some comics”, and I'm thinking there's no way he's going to know. I said, “Well, my name is Matt Madden”, and he said, “Matt Madden, Exercises de style!” And he too, as it turns out, was a huge fan of my book. And from then on, we were fast friends, and we did a lot of stuff together. And he said, “Oh, you know, I've been drawing some comics of my own.” And I thought, “Oh, my God” you know, he's been doing like little cartoons that he makes all of his employees read, you know, humorous Dilbert type humor or something like that. And it turns out he is now a well known figure in France. But at that time, he was quite notorious because he had been using the pseudonym Abel Lanzac to write a series of comics, called Quai d’Orsay. Drawn by Christophe Blain, who is an amazing artist as well. So the timing was weird because I got the certificate in the mail, like, months before I was moving to France, ironically to go to Angoulême on this residency. So we corresponded by email and the following summer in 2013, when I was back visiting, he organized a ceremony in the great Hall of the Cultural Services Building up near Central Park, and gave a really nice speech where he did a kind of exercises in style version of a speech where he did you know, 10 different things I like about Matt Madden, including the he admired my haircut, which I thought was really hilarious. And, yeah, so I got my little metal and my little lapel pin.
Andrea Fort 39:24
And what about your, your metal today? Is this something that you tell people and any French people that you meet? I mean, I'm sure it's a little, you know, it's humbling, but it's also kind of a unique story to tell.
Matt Madden 39:39
Yeah, I mean, it's a story. It's not something that I certainly don't brag about it, and I when it's appropriate to come up, like of course in an interview like this, I want to talk about it to people who understand what it means and who care about it. You know, I haven't worn the metal out in public ever, but I've worn the little lapel pin, there's a little sort of green and gold lapel pin that you can wear. That's a much more subtle kind of indication. And several other of the members of the Oubapo are also Chevalier. So, I know one or two times maybe we did some when we were doing important events, we would wear our lapel markers. But, you know, it's odd. It's extremely flattering, but also a little, like, I don't know what to make of it. You know, there's just this guy in America doing comic books, who's been knighted? You know? I get a good laugh out of it every once in a while and depends on the company.
Andrea Fort 40:47
I just think it's funny that, you know, I could picture you as a kid playing around and you never really thought you'd actually be a real knight as an adult and as a cartoonist, it's really amazing and well deserved.
Matt Madden 41:09
One other thing I would say is that it's a delicate balance for me as an American to have this honor. Because I know that in France it can be a very politicized kind of thing. And in comics alone. I know that there are cartoonists that have either turned down or returned that honor. So I'm mindful of that. That's another reason I don't talk it up a lot. Because I feel like as an American, I feel very honored that people that I know, they're actually friends of mine. We're able to give me this honor and an expression of respect, for me and for and for French culture, and I really respect that. But I also respect French artists having a different take on that and respect how they might choose to react to that or not.
Andrea Fort 41:56
I have really enjoyed speaking with you, Matt. It's been great to hear your impressions, your expertise of the “bd” and the comic book world that really exists between France and the US. It's been a great conversation. Thanks, Matt.
Matt Madden 42:11
Thanks, Andrea. I've enjoyed it, too.