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December 21, 2012

CR Holiday Interview #4—Ellen Forney



imageEllen Forney is one of the first cartoonists I think of when I think of Comics Seattle. The author of Monkey Food: I Was Seven In '75 (2001), I Love Led Zeppelin (2007) and Lust (2008) with Fantagraphics, and the short-lived series Tomato (1994) with Starhead, Forney is also an illustration regular in a wide variety of the publications in that city's arts scene, perhaps most notably in The Stranger. If you live in Seattle, it sometimes seems as if Ellen herself is sort of everywhere, too, particularly if you've ever lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. I used to see Ellen at the grocery store.

Forney's latest book is Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me: A Graphic Memoir, a lengthy personal memoir from Gotham Books. In it she discusses being diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, the highs and lows that immediately followed, and the extended crisis of confidence she had to endure when it came to her personal and professional identity. I think Marbles is Forney's strongest work to date. I caught Ellen by phone while she was on the road in support of the work. It was nice to talk to her again. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: How has the tour been? I don't know that you've done an author's tour like this before.

ELLEN FORNEY: I've done tours on my own, but that meant sleeping on other people's couches. Fantagraphics was great about helping me set up dates, but it certainly wasn't guided or funded as much as this. Also, the publicity I've been getting -- I have a publicist who's working on this specifically. It's been great.

SPURGEON: Is it weird at all to have to talk about a work like this over and over again? You have to revisit the work and the subject matter, which is interesting in and of itself, but you also have to do it according to someone else's priorities.

FORNEY: I guess the thing that's striking to me is that it's been very, very different than I expected. It hasn't been nearly as difficult. It's been much more, I guess, exciting.

I was bracing myself for criticism. Here I'm putting out this very personal story and I felt I was putting my insides out there on the line. I was really nervous about that. I've gotten overwhelming support and… company, I guess. One of the most striking things to me has been to hear how many people have personal connections with mental disorders. It feels like I've been saying this a lot, but I'm still kind of blown away by this. It seems everybody has a story. Everyone has their own experience with this.

I feel like I'm providing a door. Not to say I feel I've disappeared in this. I think a lot of people are identifying with my story. The thing that's been really satisfying is that it's received more recognition than I expected, that everybody has their own interpretation of and take on it, that there are some universal qualities. It wasn't just my story. And it was so important that this wasn't just, "Hey, look at me! Ellen Forney! Look at my story. My nutty story." I wanted it to be broader than that.

SPURGEON: How did you expect a negative reaction to be formed? You said you expected criticism, but on what basis? People were going to be critical of you?

FORNEY: I don't know. Because it's a work of art. Who has done art that somebody hasn't gone, "Well, it lags here"? Or "It's relevant, but it gets confusing in chapter six." I don't know if it's not being criticized... I don't know! I could postulate why I haven't gotten that kind of criticism.

SPURGEON: So you didn't expect special criticism, or criticism of you necessarily, but standard criticism of the work.

FORNEY: Absolutely. I just expected that that would be difficult for me to take because it was such a personal work.

SPURGEON: Gotcha. Okay.

FORNEY: Normal criticism.

SPURGEON: With those fears, then, how hard was it for you to put the work out there? I'm deeply interested in the timing of the work, in how an author feels like they're ready to tell a story like this one -- why you do a work about this kind of thing at a specific moment. In the narrative in Marbles, it seems it took some time for you to reach a place you could talk about these things. And yet enough time passes in the book's narrative where you can even look back on the first part of the book as its own experience and kind of give advice to the Ellen that is going through that. Was it tough to engage the finality that is deciding to write about an open-ended story like this one, and did you second-guess that decision at any point while you were doing it?

FORNEY: Yes. All of those things. I remember... I think it would be a better story if I remembered specifically what I was talking about with my therapist, but I remember years ago being in my psychiatrist's office. And talking about something that was really frustrating. There was plenty that was really frustrating. And realizing, almost more like an assignment that, "Uhh! I'm going to have to deal with this in a comic." I knew that I'd have to process it, and the way I process things is through a comic.

At that point, the idea of putting that out in public was too much. I also couldn't think of how I'd be able to approach that, because I've always considered myself more of a graphic essayist: one- or two-pagers. This wasn't something that was even on my radar. It was pretty clear that I was going to have to be stable, feel like I've been stable a while, before I could come out in such a broad way, a public way. Yeah. It would have been too much for me for a million reasons. I can't imagine being in an emotionally precarious position and talking about my disorder to a roomful of people.

Hugo House in Seattle -- you know Hugo House -- they deemed me a writer-in-residence, and I needed to write an original work and read it. I knew that it was time that I wanted to delve into my story. I kind of realized in some way that it was my biggest personal story... the richest, I guess. I had all of this material in my textbooks and journals. So I did that for Hugo House. It was very emotional. It was a big deal for me to sit in front of a group of people and tell them I was bipolar and here was part of my story -- kind of chapter two, I guess, plus the sketchbook drawings, which most people, even my closest friends, hadn't seen before.

So that was my initial testing of the waters. And it was okay. The earth didn't crumble, people didn't talk about it behind my back or whatever. It was okay. That was when I started putting together Marbles. 2008.

I remember showing the group of cartoonists The Friends Of The Nib my thumbnails. I didn't tell anybody until I mapped out my story. I wasn't even telling anyone it was about my bipolar disorder. That was a coming out, again, that I wasn't ready to do. I remember kind of hyperventilating, showing Jim Woodring and Dave Lasky and this very small group of cartoonists. So I've really come a long way in feeling I can talk about my story without feeling vulnerable or like I'm going to cry.

That was kind of a long-winded answer.

SPURGEON: That's the kind of answer this site lives for.

FORNEY: [laughs] Okay.


SPURGEON: I almost think that... okay, you certainly have this vulnerability regarding your disorder, and I want to respect that. But you also have that thing where everybody has something at this point, or may claim something even if they're not clinically diagnosed. Did you ever get that reaction from people? Did you ever experience one of those kind of glib self-diagnoses that people go through?

FORNEY: You mean do people say, "Hey, I'm bi-polar also!"

SPURGEON: [laughs] Yeah. Did you experience that at all? I mean, it's not 1958; people seem to me more likely to embrace a disorder as their own than to maybe even shun someone. That doesn't mean it's any less scary for you. I respect how real your fears are, but I wonder if you were ever frustrated by reactions coming from the other direction.

FORNEY: Well... I don't know I would consider it frustrating. I got a lot of fast answers: "I'm bi-polar, too! Here are the meds I'm on! Here are the cycles I went through." [Spurgeon laughs] But I haven't really felt that it's glib.

It's hard to say. Mental disorders and medications are really... they're tossed around a lot right now. Just about bipolar disorder, I think in the past it's been under-diagnosed. And right now it might be over-diagnosed. But maybe the combination of those two evens out. It's kind of a funny issue to gauge in so far as how common it is. But it seems to me the people who are telling me that that's their experience, also -- it's very real to them. I think that I'm getting... I'm probably getting a higher proportion of people that are bi-polar or have mental disorders in my audiences... for obvious reasons! [laughter]

There was something else I was going to say about that. Just because it's common doesn't mean it's not something you hold inside of you and keep private and feel vulnerable about. For instance there are zillions of people that are gay that haven't managed to come out even though there's a huge and celebratory gay culture. On a personal level it can be very difficult.

imageSPURGEON: I want to ask you about some of your visual solutions. You have a nice line, and a lot of your drawings reflect your illustration work: they have a nice look; they pop on the page.

Now, you have a lot of that kind of cartooning in this book. But you also have a lot of... I don't know, maybe call it diagrammatic work in here: stuff that you would put on a chalkboard to explain something. Simplified cartooning. Symbols and a lot of text, and the text arranged... not so much with the figure drawing.

Did you work hard on all of the information you had to convey in terms of finding visual strategies to do that? Are you happy with the way that part of Marbles turned out?

FORNEY: Yes. I really used... I felt in so many ways that I used everything that I know.

The way page design appeals to me is that it's more organic. If you look at most of my work, I rarely use a regular grid. It's just the way it rolls out of me. Of all the visual tools cartoonists have to work with, I think page design is one that's very interesting and expressive.

Are you talking about the pages that have a lot of information, like, "What Is A Mood Disorder?"

SPURGEON: Yeah. There are pages where you back away from the personal story and try to communicate a lot of information. It seems like you boil that down effectively, with simple lines and simple drawings, spatial arrangement of words, too. Not so much a cartoon movie but a cartoon... lecture, maybe.

FORNEY: Those were coming very, very directly from the "How To" comics I do: how to take a bunch of very specific information and make it interesting as a comic -- not just illustrated words, but visually interesting. So exactly as you said, there are icons, there is spacing... I could go on and on about how important hand-lettering is to me and what I like to see in other comics. Hand-lettering. [laughs] I really am saddened that so many cartoonists are turning to making their hand-lettering into fonts. I think it loses a lot of personality and expressiveness.

So that for me is a major part of the storytelling, the visual storytelling and the way that I show mood. The two-page spread of the mania at the beginning of chapter three can't be contained on a page; there's too much. And then there are are more rectangular designs during the depression and back and forth. All of the different... the ebb and flow of the story: just making the page design flow with that. Yeah.


SPURGEON: My favorite page is the first page of chapter four, where you have this simple visual of your starting out in bed and ending up on the couch. I think that's a great page. One of the things that's slightly more sophisticated about the chapter is that you recall that first image a bunch of different times. How did you come up with that particular sequence, deciding to do it in that really basic language? Do you remember that page?

FORNEY: Absolutely. I would say that's the page I've gotten the most comments on. The way I came up with it is that it was in my proposal. I had two chapters in my proposal. One was the first chapter, which remains just about the same. Chapter One. And then I had a chapter that was depression, it was a lot of my sketches, but it didn't have a story. It was much more stylized. I had those figures in the corner and it could function like a flipbook. Everything lined up, so I don't mean just stylistically. I mean it actually fit together like a flipbook. Then when I was rearranging everything, I guess... where it did come from? I think for me that was just such a... that would be kind of an iconic experience for me. I was doing that as a depiction of what that was like over a span of time. So it didn't make sense to have detail in it, which would indicate one time.

What I didn't realize is that so many people would be able to see themselves in it. Its simplicity, as Scott McCloud would say, makes it universal.

SPURGEON: The way you've drawn that page really does seem to suggest it happens over and over again, which makes it more powerful. Now, in the book, you focus very much on the first period of mania that followed your diagnosis and the down period right after that. Was there something about those specific two times that made you want to depict them? Where they exceedingly typical of what you were going through? Were you more observant because the diagnosis was new? Why those two periods as opposed to a later one or a generic one?

FORNEY: That was really the turning point for me. Those were the most acute episodes I ever had and hopefully will ever have: the most acute mania, the most acute depression.

The way my disorder manifested itself was a pretty common pattern: through your 20s having the symptoms coming out more and more, but not really blossom into a full disorder somewhere around late 20s or 30. It's not like I was cycling for year and then was finally diagnosed. It was a crescendo at that point. That was a turning point for me. It didn't make sense to go back to the previous mania not quite so high and depression not quite so low.

SPURGEON: You said you showed some pages to Dave and Jim early on. Did you have an editor for feedback while you were doing the book proper? Did you have a reader?

FORNEY: I had an editor at Gotham. Lucia Watson. She was awesome. She was really, really helpful. She had never edited a comic before, so she didn't edit on that level. She didn't give me any feedback on the visuals. But I had never done such a long narrative arc. I had never done that kind of memoir, so her input about flow and sequences and how I might try different characters were really, really helpful. She has a lot of experience with editing memoir. Her experience of that allowed me to shape the story better than I would have without her.

I also had Megan Kelso... she really combed through it quite carefully. And Jim Woodring. It was important to me to have other cartoonists look at it. More than anything, they gave me a thumbs-up.


SPURGEON: The way I heard about this book even before you and I had talked about it is that someone asked me if I knew that Eric Reynolds had appeared in this book of Ellen Forney's. Now, did you give a lot of people that appear a heads-up? Eric told me that he knew about his appearance and he told you to do your worst [Forney laughs] in his laidback way and was cool with the result. Even your doctor appears... how do you work with these real people?

FORNEY: Dealing with my psychiatrist was different than working with everyone else. I talked to practically everyone that was in the book to at least ask if it was okay that I used their name and likeness. All of my close friends are in there, and with those friends I talked about what I was like during that time, and different things that they remembered.

One of the things about episodes -- I don't have a great memory anyway -- is that lack of memory is one of the symptoms. I would get impressions. I remember when I was talking to Risa [Blythe], she was telling me about how, yeah, for a long period of time, when I would walk into a party, they wouldn't know what I would be like, which Ellen I would be. Then she turned to me when I was talking to her and said, "Is it okay for me to talk about this?" We had never talked about this. Why would we? It was over. So going back, and going through that with other people, that was pretty intense.

That whole scene with being on the phone? That was all my mom's recollection. My dad didn't remember that scene specifically, but he and I had a 45-minute talk, the most intimate talk about our relationship and what we share and how much we love each other and the distance that we've also had in our father-daughter relationship. It was intense! [laughs] So Eric was one of the people I talked with. I remember calling him and saying, "Eric, do you remember that time in San Diego I kind of freaked out about the number of books?" And he said, "Yeah..." [laughter] So we talked about it.

I had also written in my journal, as I don't trust my memory. I had written down some of the very frustrated and angry things in his e-mail, and I ran that by him, too. "This is what I have that you said in your e-mail." And he was like, "Yeah, that sounds like something I would have said then."

Everybody was very supportive of my going through all of this. If it meant telling their story as well, everybody would say yes. Acquiesce isn't the right word… they would give me their blessing.


SPURGEON: You talked about the concept of "company" early on in this interview, and it's something you talk about in the book. When I talked to mutual friends of ours about the word Michelangelo in the title, we suspected you were going to make a connection to artists that have struggled with various mental issues. Something that I can see coming from people that don't know you is a criticism that this is almost an affectation, making this connection to artists and art making and the idea of the troubled artist. But I thought that part of the book was very graceful and affecting, how you find commonality with other makers. I wonder if you could talk about why the idea of "company" is important to you, and how that helped you process this whole thing.

FORNEY: It sounds like there's a couple of questions in that question.

SPURGEON: [laughs] Yeah, sorry.

FORNEY: One was about writers and artists with mood disorders. That's a really tricky one. I wound up feeling like I didn't have particular answers. I hope that it didn't seem in the book like I answered things definitively, the value of unmedicated madness might be. I wanted to have something in there, Munch at least, that he didn't want to lose his suffering because that's where his inspiration came from. That's exactly what I was afraid of. For a lot of people that may be true. Anne Sexton, I don't know her work well, but it was a quote that was really thought-provoking, that it's the artist's role to feel pain and express it in our art so that people that aren't artists can have a way to understand it. But then she committed suicide.

Do we have to be martyrs? You can kind of chase your tail and come up with a lot of questions. Hopefully I let the questions exist and at the same time be able to say, "Regardless of all of these questions I can't answer, they our company. We have this thing in common. We have dealt with it in different ways, and feel about it in different ways. But we're still company.

SPURGEON: You mentioned the Hugo House, and The Stranger recognized you this year. How much do you consider yourself as a Seattle artist? You're one of the cartoonists that comes to mind for me when I think of Seattle cartooning. Do you think that's part of your cartoonist DNA? Do you find common ground with artists like Jim and Megan on that basis?

FORNEY: Yeah! I do! It gets back to company in a way. Seattle plays a large role in Marbles for a reason, because Seattle plays a large role for me. You mention people like Megan and Dave, one of the things we have in common is that we were in this group. Did you know about the young cartoonists group?

SPURGEON: The story ark, and Thor Jensen -- the mid-'90s.

FORNEY: James Sturm and Tom Hart and Megan and Dave and me and Jason Lutes. This group... it almost seems like this roundtable now. We've all stuck with it, and we were all really devoted. Having that kind of energy around in Seattle is important to me. And then also from the town in general, I always felt like it was a comics-reading town. Partly Fantagraphics, I think. Pete Bagge maybe had something to do with the connection that comics and music had in the '90s.

I would definitely say I'm a Seattle cartoonist.


SPURGEON: You talk in the book about the reality of having your mom help you out with your treatment financially. A lot of cartoonists work so close to the bone. You write about losing momentum because of what you were going through. Do you worry about other cartoonists being able to deal with something like you went through? I find myself worried about this for my cartooning friends. Since you went through an experience like this, and had some help, I wondered if you had an opinion on that.

FORNEY: I have a lot of opinions on mental health care, but also health care in general. I could go on about mental health care and how it is that general practitioners are doing diagnoses and handing out meds and it's not as effective and not holistic and needs to be changed.

Then I think there's a broader issue, which is that if you're able to accept this idea I've come to believe is true, that a lot of artists are crazy, that there's a correlation between mood disorders and creativity. That just feels intuitively true working in an art school, for instance.

So we're talking about a whole bunch of people who are inclined to have mental disorders who are also inclined to not have much money and not much in the way of health insurance. From the get-go it's kind of... very problematic. And then broader: anybody who doesn't have health insurance and is getting older and not making a lot of money. Most artists aren't making a lot of money and don't have health insurance. It's a very scary prospect.

I can't tell you how many benefits I've gone to for artists that go into a terrible accident, or have breast cancer, and don't have insurance. And a fundraiser will raise, what? $2000? And their treatment is $50,000 or more. A lot is wrong with the system. A lot of it is that artists don't have a lot of money, and health care for people without a lot of money is a grim situation.

SPURGEON: [pause] Well. That's a cheery place to end it.

FORNEY: I know! [laughter]


* Ellen Forney
* Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me: A Graphic Memoir


* cover to the new book
* a self-portrait from late in the new book
* a really cute panel from early in the book
* the page in question
* the CCI meltdown, complete with Eric Reynolds cameo
* "company"
* illustration
* classic Forney short comics essay (below)



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