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the Complete Review
the complete review - graphic fiction

Ex Libris

Matt Madden

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To purchase Ex Libris

Title: Ex Libris
Author: Matt Madden
Genre: Comic
Written: 2021
Length: 105 pages
Availability: Ex Libris - US
Ex Libris - UK
Ex Libris - Canada
directly from: Uncivilized

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a clever use of form in/as story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/12/2021 Ed Park
Publishers Weekly A 24/6/2021 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ex Libris is a work of purposeful sprawl. It's an existential locked-room mystery -- Memento with a bibliophilic twist (.....) It's a perfect vehicle for Madden's talents and obsessions (.....) Insider wit abounds." - Ed Park, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) postmodern puzzle narrative that's equal parts playful and penetrating in this dexterous adventure. (...) Madden calls attention brilliantly to the medium's building blocks (...) in a kind of comics theory course with the punch line of the protagonist declaring that "drawings have a greater power than words to get under your skin." This endlessly inventive work is a metafictional master class in comics." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ex Libris opens with the narrator entering a fairly bare room. The narrator enters this space of respite, retreat, and escape -- a separation from the outside world -- noting: "I am an exile from my own life". Here, in this small, closed-off isolation is an opportunity for the re-making of the self:

I need to heal myself, I need to find the new thread of my story again and start a new chapter before I can open up the door and leave.
       There is practically nothing in the room -- but there is a bookcase. To the narrator's surprise, all the books in it are comic books -- of every imaginable kind. Curious, and with little else to occupy the time, the narrator turns to this vast collection -- and we learn a little more about this figure, of whom we see just the hands, as both narrative and the images are from a first person perspective (i.e. as seen through their eyes). The narrator reveals an unhappy relationship they're trying to get over, with someone referred to as 'M.' -- and notes:
It's ironic for me to seek solace in books when I consider how responsible they are for my current unhappiness.
       The panels reproduce what the narrator is seeing, in the room, leafing through the books, or then also reading them more closely, in which instances the panels are entirely of/from the various comic strips -- many of which relate stories mirroring at least parts of the narrator's own experience and situation, in isolation, inexplicably cut off from the world. In one comic the lone protagonist expresses his uncertainty about identity and circumstances: "I can no longer remember why I am here. I may be a border guard, a researcher, a prisoner ...". The narrator similarly seems to potentially fill a variety of roles -- and be similarly uncertain about them.
       The protagonist struggles with the books, and the narratives (and mysteries) they present, uncertain even if they are, so to speak, doing it -- reading them -- right, and resolving then: "From this point on, even if the rest of my life is a shambles, I'm determined to learn how to read a comic book !" The variety on offer offers ample examples of all sorts of styles and story-telling-approaches, which Madden nicely leads his narrator (and the reader) through in a stream of different panels that reflect and illustrate all these. Among much else, Ex Libris is a gallery of comic styles and genres, leaning on and borrowing from everything from manga to Scooby-Doo.
       The narrator also wonders: "What if I lived in a comic book ? What kind of adventures would I have ? Who would read me ?" -- exactly the situation the reader finds themselves in, reading the adventures of this particular character in a comic book ..... Ex Libris works with and on several self-referential levels, including this topmost one.
       The narrator moves back and forth between immersion in the comic books and a monologue of close description of the experiences in the room (including reading the comic books ...). There's a feedback loop that seems to feed on itself -- "it seems like every comic book I look at ends up directing me back to my own failures in some uncanny detail or other" -- as the comic-stories are a constant source of reflection and commentary on the narrator's own situation. The range of comics considered is incredibly large, and much of the pleasure of the book is in how adeptly Madden presents these different styles and stories, and moves across them
       Looking into one of the comics, the narrator wonders: "And what exactly are the stakes ?" Its characters literally drawn into the story (stories), Ex Libris is a looping tale of finding and reässerting identity, of coming into one's own. The narrator, like many of the characters, is stuck, as it were - most obviously, in one place; even if they entered the room (or, for the various comic-characters, their various similar situations) voluntarily, the ultimate goal is escape -- moving beyond the limited bounds of the panel-frame, to be able to reënter the world at large. Part and parcel of it, for the narrator, is a reckoning with the failed relationship with M., part of the past that has to be dealt with.
       Madden's story suggests that fiction -- both in consumption and creation -- is central to the exercise, of understanding and of moving on. We have to avoid simply getting mired in our stories, and should instead step back, in one form or another, and consider them from that perspective -- becoming our own readers, as it were (so that we can also become the ones who write (or draw) -- i.e. control -- our futures).
       Drawn in such a variety of styles, Ex Libris is a clever and appealing metafictional foray, looping through its many layers. It utilizes and plays with (the comic) form very well, in an engaging story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 October 2021

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Ex Libris: Reviews: Matt Madden: Other books by Matt Madden under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Matt Madden has published numerous comic books.

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© 2021 the complete review

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