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CR Sunday Interview: Theo Ellsworth
posted October 28, 2012



imageTheo Ellsworth and his family recently returned to the state of his childhood years, Montana, after several years of the artist living in Portland, Oregon. He leaves the city of the cultural moment for the Last Best Place having co-founded the Pony Gallery in addition to supporting himself primarily through his instantly recognizable art. This includes comics, such as Sleeper Car and Capacity. Ellsworth's work encompasses many of the most intriguing elements of modern comics, from the personal iconography to the willingness to knead at the far boundaries of formal considerations to the deeply bizarre whimsy that emanates from his pages. His latest book is The Understanding Monster -- Book One, the first of a promised three. It's a book that strikes me in a way that I almost don't want to talk about it for fear of letting something escape. Theo Ellsworth answered my questions in a good-natured way across several weeks of my asking, and I'm grateful he made the time. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Theo, am I right in that you recently moved back to Montana after being in Portland? Why that move now? Because when I read interviews with you from 2008 or so, it seems like it was very important for you to be in a place like Portland both professionally and in terms of your creative development.

THEO ELLSWORTH: I just moved back to Montana in late July. Leaving Portland wasn't an easy decision to make, but it was time. The move was a family decision. My wife I have an eight month old son --Griffin -- and coming back to Montana to raise him feels right. My wife and I both grew up here and we love the landscape, plus both of Griffin's grandmothers live nearby now and we have a number of friends with kids the same age, so we feel like we have a stronger support system now.

Living in Portland was an important time for me and it's going to be a place I return to a lot. It's actually only an eight- or nine-hour drive from here, and I'm hoping to eventually bring some Portland artists out to Montana for some collaborative projects. Before living in Portland, I didn't know anyone who was seriously engaging in the craft of comics. It was valuable for me to meet people who were actually thinking about comics history and actively involved in the publishing world. I'll definitely have to travel a lot more to stay in touch in that world, but Montana's the perfect place to focus on the work and hopefully be more prolific than ever.

SPURGEON: How much Montana is in your work? Do you feel a kinship with any of the image-makers that settle in out there? I can see elements of western art and crafts in your stuff, but I'm not sure how significantly that can be pushed.

ELLSWORTH: I'm definitely someone who's work is effected by my location. It's on a pretty subconscious level though, I think. I don't usually draw directly from life, but it's proven impossible for me to separate my everyday life from the imaginary worlds I draw. Growing up in Montana, being surrounded by mountains, and being able to disappear into the wilderness for days at a time were all important influences early on. I was further influenced by my travels: camping in caves in Arizona, living out of my car along the California coast, and a crazy stint traveling through Europe by train. I didn't really show my work to anyone for a long time. It was more of a personal thinking tool.

I didn't get to see a lot of weirder, subconscious driven art when I was a kid. There was a local artist here named Jay Rummel who I thought was great. He still did a lot of western themed imagery, but it was mostly ink and brush or woodblock prints. There was something strange and different about his style. I think he would have made a great cartoonist if he would have taken his work in that direction. I'm actually looking in to getting a studio in the same building he worked from when he was alive. There was also James Castle, who actually lived in Idaho, but really close to here. He was more of an outsider artist. He never spoke or learned to read or write, but he made all these incredible hand bound artist books that had a real comic book feel to them, with scribbles in place of writing. My friend Courtney Blazon also lives here. Her work's incredible. When I was helping run an art gallery in Portland, I gave her a solo show and she came out for it. There's not a huge art scene here, but it's a good place to make art.


SPURGEON: Another thing that strikes me reading some of what's been said recently about you that may have not been as true five years ago is that it seems like you may be at a different point in your career just in terms of what you're making, what's making you money and how. Is that a fair assessment? Are you able to support yourself from your art right now? I get the impression that that has been important to you, or at least was at one time.

ELLSWORTH: I've been getting by on just my art for six years or so now, with the exception of a two-day-a-week cleaning job I started doing in Portland six months before I moved. It feels important to be able to make as much art as possible. I've joked that having a normal job would be like getting paid to not make art. I really believe that dedicating myself to what feels like my real work and putting everything I've got into it should be enough. I feel like my art is a living thing that I have a constantly evolving relationship with. I actually start feeling terrible if I don't make art for a few days. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but it's true. I think I'm kind of a hyperactive thinker. Drawing helps me slow everything down to a speed where I can navigate my own thoughts and put them in front of me where I can see them. It's such a personal part of me, that in some respects, it feels like a weird thing to try to make a living doing, but I don't feel like I have a choice.

SPURGEON: Where does comics fit in in terms of the entire body of work you'd like to leave behind? How much of your work is comics? Where does it stand in terms of your other endeavors, in terms of what's important to you?

ELLSWORTH: I would love to make comics full time. Right now I feel pretty far from that as far as how much of my rent is paid for by my comics work. All of my art is storytelling to me. With my individual pieces, the narrative is usually something that stays hidden in the drawing. Making comics has always been the thing that I aspire to, but it was the hardest thing in the world at first. I was always haunted by the feeling that every drawing I made was part of a story, but it felt frozen in time, just beyond my reach. It took a lot of mental work to be able to think in comics. I'm finally at a point now where my comics are starting to take on a life of their own and it can actually feel a little frightening at times, but that's exactly what I want. I'm trying to use comics as a way to clearly comprehend my own subconscious. With my new book, I'm actively trying to pull off a strategic maneuver inside of my own thoughts by working it out directly on the page. It's the weirdest and most surprising process I've ever experienced.

SPURGEON: Given that you've just come off of this extended stint in Portland being around other comics-makers, and given that you feel passionately about comics, where do you see yourself existing in terms of comics-making more generally? Do you feel you have a peer group? Are there specific cartoonists or a specific type of comics-maker that you look up to, from whom you're learned?

ELLSWORTH: Recently, I've been totally in love with Olivier Schrauwen's book, The Man Who Grew His Beard. There's something about his work that I feel a strong kinship with. I also love the book that collects John Broadley's handmade books that came out. Matthew Thurber's 1-800-MICE made me ridiculously happy when I read it. I also love those new volumes that Jim Woodring's been putting out. I don't know if I'm the same type of comics-maker as any of them, but there's something about the feeling in their work that makes me feel charged up about making comics.

There's a lot of people in Portland I'd consider peers. Sean Christensen is probably the cartoonist I've hung out with and collaborated with the most. His work isn't as known as it should be yet, but he's been working on a beautifully crafted, long-form comic called 2005 that should change that. He's also been co-hosting a monthly comics reading and performance event called Grid Lords, which is one of the most exciting things going on in Portland right now. I got to be in the first one and read an excerpt from my new book alongside Jesse Moynihan and Malachi Ward, both of whom are making work I'm excited about. They also proved to be interesting to talk to. I was also spending a lot of time with Daria Tessler and Andrice Arp before I moved. They don't focus as much on comics, but they're work is always incredibly narrative and inspiring to me.

imageFor a couple of years, Craig Thompson shared his home studio with me and I'd walk over to his house once a week to work. Craig's own process is very different from mine, which is one of the things I loved about working with him. I learned a lot just getting to be around someone who's really honed his craft and dedicated himself to making the best work possible. He's also a great conversationalist, so he's always fun to hang out with. Right before I moved, we got together and did a six-panel collaborative comic and it was a lot of fun. David Youngblood is another cartoonist I've spent a lot of time with. He moved to Hawaii awhile back, but when he was in Portland, we started the Pony Club gallery together, which focused on narrative and illustrative art. Neither of us are part of the gallery anymore, obviously, but it's still going strong. David's been working on a big secret comic that I'm crazy excited to see, but he won't show it to anyone yet, damn it. I also got to meet a number of cartoonists who's work I'd been reading and enjoying for years, like Chris Cilla, Jesse Reklaw, and Farel Dalrymple. It's always interesting to suddenly be hanging out with someone whose drawings are already so familiar to me. I was also thrilled to be living down the street from the Sparkplug Comics headquarters. I'm really thankful that I got to know Dylan Williams before he passed away. Talking to him always made me feel like I was really part of the bigger world of comics.

SPURGEON: Talk to me a bit about the creative process employed in making a book like this one. Where does the basic germ of the process come from, and at what point are you able to start producing pages?

ELLSWORTH: I don't do thumbnails and I don't really do preliminary sketches. Trying to write out the action and dialogue usually turns into a mess. I have to do everything right on the page. With past work, like "Norman Eight's Left Arm" from Sleeper Car, I just pictured the story in my head as clearly as I could, then sat down and drew it. With The Understanding Monster, I was trying to do something much more layered and complex and the process kept taking unexpected turns. I would picture a page and draw it only to realize that something more needed to happen between the panels, so I would cut them out, re-glue them to a new piece of paper, and draw more panels in between. Suddenly two panels that were right next to each other would be several pages apart. I tried to let the story grow in a completely organic fashion, trusting that it would all come together if I faithfully followed the characters. For awhile, it looked like it might not turn into anything readable, but the end result ended up being something I couldn't have just sat down and thought of. The story was found in the work.

SPURGEON: How much rewriting are you able to do, given how elaborately executed a lot of your pages are? Do you work with an editor at all, do you let people see your work in progress?

ELLSWORTH: With previous work, I don't feel like I ever did much rewriting, but with this new book, I tended to leave the lettering in pencil for as long as possible so I could change the wording at the last minute if I needed to. On some pages, I erased the words so many times that you can see the pencil smudges beneath the inked lettering. In some parts, getting the new wording to fit into the already drawn word balloons was a challenge. Writing this book felt more like solving a puzzle on each page. My writing always feels awkward to me, no matter how much rewriting I do. I've never worked with an editor. I know it'd probably be slicker storytelling if I did, but I feel like my work just needs come out how it wants. It needs to be an honest representation of how I actually think. My publisher has corrected spelling mistakes, but besides that, they've let the work be what it is. I feel lucky that I'm able to just do my thing. The fact that a publisher like Secret Acres exists and wants to put out my books is such an amazing thing to me.

When pressed, I'll usually show someone what I'm working on, but I rarely volunteer to. I feel a weird natural urge to hide my work while I'm working on it. I have to stop myself from covering it up if someone walks into the room. The Understanding Monster feels like a very private and personal work to me, so there's definitely a certain amount of discomfort involved in having it read by people. I'm going to try to be less secretive with book two.


SPURGEON: Theo, the book itself... I'm not exactly sure how to engage the story you're telling in this book, and maybe even more so than that because this is the first of three. Let me just jump in, with some of the things that struck me. First of all, the presentation of The Understanding Monster reminds me of children's books maybe more than most comics. Is that a conscious choice on your part, or is that just an outcome of how you approach comics generally, or maybe even this story?

ELLSWORTH: I didn't know what the format of the book was going to be when I started out. I needed to just get lost in the work for awhile and not think of it as something that would be published and read by people. When I finally reached a point where I could start thinking about it as a publication, the format just seemed to make sense, and Secret Acres was completely on board with it. I like that the format has a storybook feel to it. It wasn't necessarily a conscious choice, but it makes sense that it turned out that way. It's not written for children but the terrain I'm trying to explore definitely goes back deep into my own childhood fears and fascinations.

SPURGEON: One of the striking things about the narrative is how it's told in an ongoing, kind of forceful dialogue between two characters, one instructing the other on things to do next. It's very compelling, and I think it kind of bleeds over into the book's relationship with the reader. How did you come up with that instructional dialogue as a binding factor of the story being told?

ELLSWORTH: Writing that dialogue might be one of the trickiest things I've ever done in a comic. With this book, I felt like I was delving into an incredibly elusive headspace where the slightest distraction or random thought could throw everything wildly off course. Izadore's predicament felt very real and important to me while I was working on the book. It was like a slow motion emergency that I could only attend to through the act of drawing. I felt like I had a mythological puzzle in my head and I needed to find the correct sequence of events to untangle it. In some ways, I was just as dependent on Inspector Gimbal's instructions as Izadore. The story looked like a complete mess until I figured out the dynamic between those two characters, then everything suddenly snapped into place.

SPURGEON: You mentioned the very organic process by which you created the work, adding pages between pages. How much are you concerned with a rhythm and flow page to page? Because I think that's a strength of the work, how you move from these very standard comics-panel type pages, to more complicated pages in terms of a number of competing visual elements, and then to single-images.

ELLSWORTH: Rhythm and movement feel vital to me. I've been more and more fascinated by the way a comics page functions. I had to explode my sense of page layout in order to express certain things in this book, but it was also important to me that there always be a narrative pathway to lead the reader through. Comics are all about making these static pictures somehow flow, so I tried to approach every page as a kind of maze for the eyes to follow. I love working with this larger format because it allowed me to play around with drawing really tiny scenes contrasted with giant fill page images. I wanted the reader to have to get really close to the page in some parts, then have to pull back their gaze to see the next larger scene. I'm also fascinated by the physical act of turing a page on the reader's part and I like that the hardcover makes it so the book can lie open.


SPURGEON: For that matter, how conscious are you of color in terms of mood and with narrative? The alarm page, for instance, I thought was really compelling for its use of red, but you also appear to be using spot color in a way that tells the eye to stop or at least change how you're reading a specific moment. Are those conscious choices? How much do you have to play around with color to get the effect you want?

ELLSWORTH: I feel like I was pretty conscious about my color choices. I tried to use very limited color through a lot of it. Almost everything inside of the house is just a few shades of blue and each of the characters have their own set of colors that represent them. I definitely feel like the colors were an extension of the writing. I like to think the colors are conveying information that can't be put into words. I probably would've never delved into the insanity of making hand-colored comics if it didn't feel necessary to the story.

SPURGEON: What do you find compelling about the body images that drive Understanding Monster, the move from houses to bodies to other bodies, to the head moving away from its body and so on? It seems like if there's any compelling single element, it's the distrust of the body, or at least the fluid state between bodies.

ELLSWORTH: I'm definitely interested in exploring the idea of consciousness and identity being something that isn't limited to a physical vantage point. The toys in the house are all potentially inhabitable bodies for spirits. The house itself is a kind of living body. Inspector Gimbal's body is different every single time you see him, but it's always recognizably him. It's as if he has to recreate his own image over and over again in order to stay visible. There's a space traveler on a distant snow planet who projects a piece of his consciousness into a fly body so he can lend help to the situation. There's a girl who enters the house as a green cloud. The characters all have alternate forms and different aspects of themselves.


SPURGEON: Maybe my favorite visual flourish is how you use space between panels or outside of images as a kind of super-space that connects what we're seeing. How did you see those moments where there are elements or characters in those spaces that we usually see as being "between" moments?

ELLSWORTH: Exploring the boarders of the page and the spaces between panels was my way of trying to depict something multidimensional. I like the idea that there are many unseen layers to any series of events, and to fully understand the cause and effect of the events, you would have to be able to view it from many different points of view until a bigger picture is understood. It's thrilling to try to depict something with my comics that's difficult for me to comprehend with my thoughts alone.

SPURGEON: Have you been happy with the initial wave of reactions? Has any reaction surprised you? Has any disappointed?

ELLSWORTH: My friend David texted me a couple of weeks ago saying, "Congratulations on the good and bewildered press you're getting." [Spurgeon laughs] For the most part, people really seem to be engaging with the story, which feels great. I like that there are readers who are willing to spend time with it and think about the details. I was a little worried that people would see it a weirdness for weirdness' sake, because it's not. It's a personal mythology, and everything in there has meaning to me. It's also a mystery, so I suppose it's right for people to be a little bewildered by Book One.


* The Understanding Monster -- Book One, Theo Ellsworth, Secret Acres, hardcover, 72 pages, 9780983166245, 2012, $21.95.
* Thought Cloud Factory
* Thought Cloud Factory Blog


* cover to latest book
* photo of Ellsworth from SPX 2012
* a piece of art created by Ellsworth
* Ellsworth jamming with Craig Thompson
* three different images lifted from The Understanding Monster -- Book One, hopefully explained contextually
* video from a recent reading of the material (below)