DIY Drama: Ten Illustrated Stories ‘About People with Really Awful Lives’

Start with what writer Matthew Swanson describes as ten “stories about people with really awful lives,” add the delightful, Quentin Blake-ish illustrations of Robbi Behr (Swanson’s wife), chop it all up into flippable panels, and you’ve got the recombinant narrative of Ten Thousand Stories: An Ever-Changing Tale of Tragic Happenings, published recently by Chronicle Books. We asked writer Mariam Aldhahi to take a closer look at this book of fractured fairy tales.

ten thousand stories coverFlip through the first few pages of Ten Thousand Stories: An Ever-Changing Tale of Tragic Happenings and you’ll be abruptly introduced to a pretty twisted duo.

The book’s introduction, originally nothing more than the usual run-through of what you’re reading and why, is covered in red-ink redactions and rewrites courtesy of the illustrator half of this husband/wife team. We are greeted with a “Hello Sucker!!” and quickly advised that we’ve just wasted $20 on ten-thousand “god-awful” stories only saved by an accompanying ten-thousand “breathtaking” illustrations. Suddenly, you’re confused, a little uncomfortable, and yet completely taken.

The concept is simple enough—each page is divided into four turnable mini-pages that mix and match to create ten-thousand different story combinations, each topped off with its own eccentric illustration. We are handed the reigns and encouraged to “choose our own disaster” by letting the flaps fall where they may.

ten thousand books insideLuckily, the uncut versions of the stories and illustrations are offered in the appendix for an uninterrupted look. By momentarily removing ourselves from the excitement of interchangeable fragments, we’re able to delve deeper into the couple’s mischievous mindset. We see a doctor removing a patient’s insides and a group of half-naked men fighting over one half-naked woman.

Perhaps what’s most intriguing, or troubling, depending on how you see it, is that the illustrations match the narrative flawlessly. Not sure what “The Sordid Aftermath of Drunken Karaoke” looks like? You will. These Ten Thousand Stories aren’t for everyone, but if you’ve often found yourself thinking Tim Burton plays it too safe, this one’s for you.

As the brain and style behind the book, writer/illustrator duo Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr have been a professional and romantic team since 2006. Though their concept of concocting your own story may be their most original, the two aren’t new to books—perplexing or otherwise.

From the hayloft of a barn in Chestertown, Maryland, the two have churned out over fifty intricately illustrated titles published from their two presses: Idiots’ Books for adults and Bobbeldy Books for kids. This work is their first published by, in Matthew’s words, “a real-life publishing company”—Chronicle Books.

Relating to Matthew and Robbi feels natural, and the nonchalant, often self-deprecating style disarms the reader from the start. This book doesn’t tell you how to feel, it’s literally telling you to decide for yourself. Matthew and Robbi are your incredibly supportive best friends—the same ones who send you an inappropriate Christmas card every December.

Mariam Aldhahi is a design writer and graduate student in the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts. Follow her on Twitter at @mariam_aldhahi.