Theo Ellsworth (www.thoughtcloudfactory.com) has earned international acclaim for his massive, surreal comics and illustrations, and is about to unleash his wildest story yet.
The Understanding Monster, Book One from Secret Acres (www.secretacres.com), which will be released in October (with copies possibly available at the Small Press Expo in September), is an oversized hardcover that takes readers into a bizarre landscape where reality is constantly changing, nothing is what it seems, and weird creatures fill literally every inch of the page. We spoke with Ellsworth about his new work, bringing his subconscious to life, and more.Newsarama: Theo, tell us a little about The Understanding Monster, the concept and the format.
Theo Ellsworth: Well, with my first book, Capacity, I embarked on a quest to gain complete access to my subconscious without going insane. Asking the reader to pretend to occupy an imaginary body and bare witness to my attempt was my way of grounding my preposterous strategic maneuver to reality. I really felt that the reader's participation would lend power to something that took place entirely in my own imagination.
With my second release, Sleeper Car, I felt like I was still kind of digesting the whole thing. Did it work? Did I suddenly really have complete access to my own subconscious? I couldn't tell.
One thing I knew for sure was that it was vitally important to create a story where the existence of Gnomes is proven, beyond doubt to a robot. It sounds silly, but I couldn't get that story out of my head. It's good to follow through with those sorts of things. Sleeper Car was the dream vehicle that I road from Capacity to reach The Understanding Monster.
With The Understanding Monster, things got kind of weird. It turns out that embarking on a quest to gain complete access to one's own subconscious is not to be done lightly. Book one takes place almost entirely inside of a living house full of mutating rooms and growing toys. A multi-dimensional robot (with the help of an exorcist, a ghost dragon, a green storm cloud, a man in a fly body, and a recently reanimated mummy) is attempting to rescue a complicated, fractured being named Izadore, who's disembodied somewhere inside of the house.
Izadore faces psychological terror, mind-bending confusion, and physical danger as he undergoes a dream logic medical treatment that pulls him back through time and memory. The house itself is sick as well. The walls are infested with poisonous, psychologically influential ghosts called The Mean Kids.
It's a multi-part mystery that will probably be read as a sci-fi, weird fantasy, horror comic, but for me, it's an honest attempt to solve something important inside of myself. For me, it's a direct follow up to what I was trying to do with Capacity. I'm trying to pull off something completely impossible. By the time I reveal what I'm actually doing, it will be far too late for the Physics Police to ever stop me.
The format just sort of happened. I naturally started working larger than I was comfortable with, and I suddenly felt the strong urge to use color. Everything's done by hand, and there was a lot of cutting and gluing panels into place. I really had to explode my own concepts about how to make a comics page.
A lot of book one is done from Izadore's point of view, and he's completely delirious. The idea of the larger format, multi part story felt like the only way it could be released. Luckily, Secret Acres was totally game.
Nrama: What was your initial inspiration for this story?Ellsworth: I just sort of let the art lead the way, and trusted it would all come together. With previous stories I would have the whole story in my head and I would just sit down and draw it. I never could do thumbnails or anything.
This is the first story I've done that was too complex for me to imagine in any straight forward kind of way. It actually felt a little scary at points, like it was completely out of my grasp. I would draw entire pages, then realize later that I'd drawn something that solved a problem I wasn't aware of yet. I don't really know what the initial inspiration was. It's just what started happening when I'd sit down and try to make comics.
Nrama: How did you come to work with Secret Acres, and why do you feel it's a good collaboration?
Ellsworth: Back when I was self publishing, I sent off my work to a number of publishers I liked, but I never really felt like there was anyone out there who'd want to publish me. I remember telling my then girlfriend, now wife, that I felt like the right publisher would come along, but they didn't exist yet.
It turned out I was right. Secret Acres contacted me before they were officially a publisher, but the moment I got the letter in the mail from them I had a strong feeling about what they were doing.
Now, four years in, having gotten to know them as individuals, and with over a dozen books under their belts, I feel crazy lucky to be part of their lineup. I wish there were more publishers out there like them.
Nrama: Also tell us a little about the format of the book, which is a bit different from your average GN.
Ellsworth: I guess I already mentioned that the format chose itself. Secret Acres really wanted to do it hardcover. I probably would've settled for an oversized pamphlet comic, but I couldn't pass up the offer to do something nice and sturdy. Each installment will be 70 pages, including the end pages.
I've tried to make the best possible use of every inch of space. The original pages have art all the way to the edges of each page, so the whole page had to be reproduced floating on a white background. I was really thankful that Secret Acres wanted to print it oversized, because there's lots of tiny details.
Nrama: Your art is extremely detailed -- tell us a little about your process, from how you created the story to how long it takes to do a full page.
Ellsworth: I always tend to get lost in the details when I work. I'll look up and it'll have gotten dark out and I suddenly realize I'm late for something. I never know how long a page takes. Especially with this book, because it was drawn so non-linearly.
I don't mean to make everything so detailed, but it's the process of drawing details that allows me to enter the space of my art. The detail makes it alive for me. This book got really ridiculous because there's lots of wall paper in the living house. It all probably looks insanely tedious to people, but drawing wall paper is incredibly calming to me. It makes my brain feel fantastic!Nrama: Who are some of your biggest influences as storytellers and as artists?
Ellsworth: Oh lordy, there are so many artists and story tellers I love. I could go on and on I think. One person I keep coming back to is Adolf Wolfili. I probably think about him more than almost any other artist. He was in an isolated cell in Switzerland for most of his life. He wrote a 10,000-or-so-page narrative called Giant Creation.
He wrote pages and pages of mathematical calculations, drew intensely layered images filled with music notes, ghost birds, buildings and mustachioed faces with raccoon-like masks everywhere. I got to see some originals of his when I was in Switzerland and it was a religious experience.
I also love Henry Darger, who seems to have become a bit more known to the art world in general. What I love about Wolfili and Darger is that they both created epic illustrated narratives directly from their subconscious. Neither of them will probably ever have their entire stories published because they're too strange, huge, and incomprehensible.
One of the first alien experiences I had looking at comics as a kid was with a copy of Jack Kirby's New Gods #9. I clearly remember the weird, unsettling, but excited feeling I had looking at that comic. I'm still head over heels for everything he did. He had so much energy. I've been pretty excited about all the old, often never-before-reprinted material that's been resurfacing too.
There's such a wealth of imagination and invention in the history of comics. I've been feeling more and more connected to everyone who blazed the trails before me.
Nrama: The book is part one of a trilogy -- how do you see this story unfolding?
Ellsworth: Book One was an emergency situation. I had to get Izadore to a certain place before I ran out of pages. The little guy was in some serious danger. Book Two will pull back and show you some of the events from other character's perspectives.
The scope of what actually took place in Book One will slowly become clear, while simultaneously continuing a forward story arch that will lead to an impossible but necessary, victorious solution.
Nrama: You've been posting some collaborative comics you've been doing with other artists like Craig Thompson. What's fun about doing those, and what do you learn from those collaborations?
Ellsworth: I love collaborating. It's fun to have projects that are completely about hanging out with a certain friend. I've learned a lot from every person I've collaborated with. You have to be open to them and respond to their ideas without trying to force the direction of the work.
It's like a conversation. Listening is the part of a conversation that can introduce you to something new, and stir a surprising reaction from you, but not many people seem to be open like that. The people who are fun to make collaborative art with are usually people who are also fun to talk to.Nrama: What's next for you?
Ellsworth: We'll I finished book one, then did a solo art show at Giant Robot, and moved with my family back to my home town in Montana. It's been a whirlwind. We're house hunting now. Just today, I found an art studio that I'll probably be setting up shop in. I'm anxious to get back to working on book two. I've also got a few illustration jobs to finish, like an album cover and a little commission piece.
I'm also planning on making another smaller, black and white pamphlet comic about the size of Sleeper Car, because why not suddenly do that too, right?
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Ellsworth: There's probably so much we haven't talked about. Important stuff that I'll suddenly wish that I'd told you later, but I should probably go now. . I'm happy to say that I will definitely be at SPX in September. And if all goes as planned, I'll have Book One with me. See you there!
Learn more about The Understanding Monster at thoughtcloudfactory.com, thoughtcloudfactory.blogspot.com, or www.secretacres.com.