Ex Libris

Writer / Artist
Ex Libris
Ex Libris graphic novel review
  • North American Publisher / ISBN: Uncivilized Books - 978-1-941250-44-0
  • Release date: 2021
  • UPC: 9781941250440
  • Contains adult content?: no
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: no
  • Positive minority portrayal?: no

More than anything else Matt Madden is interested in the mechanics and possibilities of telling stories as comics, how the graphic form can be varied to instil different feelings or follow various paths. However, while formal experimentation isn’t every reader’s cup of tea, Madden recognises dry examination of techniques is unsatisfying without content.

Ex Libris contains plenty of experimentation, but framed by the thoughts of a narrator who’s unseen apart from their hands picking books from a shelf. They’re deliberately anonymised for most of the story, so the source of perspective remains undisclosed, but they reveal they’ve never been a great reader, and pulling random selections from shelves of graphic novels is perhaps the start of rectifying the failing. The unifying theme of their choices is characters seeking a form of freedom, much like the narrator themselves.

For those that choose to seek them out, Madden peppers the story with references. There are allusions to comics, to novelists, to artistic forms, production… layer upon layer of them. The sample page screams to comic historians with a character named Clint Flicker, two words never to be used in older comics in case the lettering ran together as the ink blurred on pulp paper. The final panel’s author references the term applied to Latin dummy text, while playwright Henrik Ibsen initiated a new school of realism on stage. That’s in just two panels, and Ex Libris is packed with such cleverness. However, it’s only icing on the cake, and the story plays out fine without readers picking up a single reference.

Madden is just as much the artistic magpie, but here the sense of wonder is his ability to draw in both the charcoal expressionism employed by Edmond Baudoin, assorted forms of cartooning and many other styles. The core narrative is drawn in a simple, but tidy manner, minimal if you will, supplying just what’s necessary to accompany the narrative caption, but no more. By contrast, the writing is deliberately wooden, echoing the dialogue found in the old comics being mimicked

The boundary-breaking story is eventually revealed as inspirational, fittingly for something created during periods of artist in residence, although there’s also an inevitability about the ending, Madden becoming as trapped as his characters. As an exploration of style and form Ex Libris manages to merge experimentation and accessibility. It’s sometimes funny, often clever and always thought-provoking.