Matt Madden's 'Drawn Onward' runs forward and backward

Drawn Onward, by Matt Madden (Retrofit Comics)

I'm mostly familiar with Matt Madden as someone who writes about the theory and practice of comics, as the co-author (with his wife, Jessica Abel) of Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, as well as the sole author of 99 Ways to Tell a Story, so I wasn't too surprised that this comic would be an experiment in form. In fact, the name gives it away: Drawn Onward is a palindrome. The story, a tale of infatuation and obsession set almost entirely on the New York subway, reads at first like a straightforward tale of a woman's encounter with a strange man who keeps bothering her—and with whom she becomes obsessed. But the last page of the comic is only the midpoint of the story: The narrator tells the reader to go back and read the comic backwards, and when you do, it's the same story with the roles reversed.

In fact, the entire comic is a mirror image: The panels and compositions in the second half are the same as those in the first half, with the roles reversed and a few variations. The fact that this wasn't immediately obvious is a sign that the comic is well done—the narrative was propelling me forward so I wasn't noticing the panel configurations the first time I read it. That said, I don't think the story reads as well backward as forward. The same set of moments are presented with the roles reversed, but the presence of the narrator introduces asymmetry; her words push the story more obviously forward in one direction than the other.

That said, this is a comic that offers a lot more than a single story. Because of the structure, it's fascinating to flip back and forth and see the variations in composition and content between the two halves of the book. What's more, Madden has thrown in all sorts of palindromes and allusions, including a bottle of something called "Olde Edlo," an MC Escher poster, a panel that alludes to Bernie Krigstein's "Master Race," and a fictitious "Rorschach Avenue" subway stop. There's also a Cancrizan Square stop, a direct allusion to one of Madden's inspirations, Johann Sebastian Bach's compositions in which a single melody runs backward and forward simultaneously. Some of these little details are just winks to the reader, but some of them reinforce the story: Reading the signs in the subway scenes brings a whole new level to the narration, with messages like "W8" and "no exit" providing a sort of Greek chorus to the main action.

Whether this is a good comic or not depends on where you stand in terms of form versus content. The story, despite being all about emotion, lacks emotional depth. The characters have almost no existence outside their encounters with each other (although, again, we see more of the narrator), so it doesn't feel convincing as a story of love (or rather, infatuation) and loss. On the other hand, this is a story that reveals more of itself on each reading, as the structure and composition become clearer, and that's fascinating in itself.

Ironically, some of the most powerful images in Drawn Onward are the ones that break the symmetry, because they indicate change. The first and last pages of the comic mirror each other: Each shows the narrator's drawing board, a pointed implement, and the narrator herself, with very similar composition. But between those two pages the tidy drawing area becomes messy (and the level in the Olde Edlo bottle goes down), the pen nib with a drop of ink on the top becomes an X-Acto knife blade with a drop of blood, and the woman sitting at the table goes from alert and active to slumped over (possibly dead).

The symmetry of Drawn Onward makes it possible to read it not only backward and forward but also in pairs of pages or even panels, so so the storytelling takes place in several dimensions at once. While it's tempting to call it a "formal exercise," the form leads to something more, a deeper storytelling experience that makes this comic a compelling and rewarding read.

[Editor’s note: Each Sunday, Robot 6 contributors discuss the best in comics from the last seven days — from news and announcements to a great comic that came out to something cool creators or fans have done.]

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