The Theo Ellsworth Interview

The Understanding Monster

SOBEL: In your Newsarama interview, you mentioned that this story been building for years, even while you were finishing Capacity. Can you describe the story’s origins and genesis, in terms of the concept and characters?

ELLSWORTH: I think that Newsarama interview is the clearest I’ve been able to talk about it. I’ve had friends ask me to summarize the story and I feel like I just babble the most confusing stuff to them.

There’s so much I would like to get to in this story, but it’s the first thing I’ve done that’s truly character driven. A lot of the Capacity stories were more idea driven. There’d be a concept I’d be thinking about and then I’d figure out how to make it into a story, but there was not really any recurring characters. The characters were just invented as a vehicle for whatever idea I wanted to explore.

But with The Understanding Monster, there is a cast of specific characters that I’ve been trying to understand. They’re characters I’ve been trying to figure out how to work with for a long time. To me, they feel like these complex, multi-layered characters that I’m trying to be true to, but I’m also trying to explore certain sci-fi and fantasy concepts by taking things from my subconscious.

The process of creating this new book was challenging. Nothing was straight-forward. I didn’t do any thumbnails or pre-writing, although I did fill some sketchbooks with drawings based around it.

SOBEL: You mean Logic Storm?

ELLSWORTH: Yeah, that was basically a sketchbook that was filled with drawings about the different characters in The Understanding Monster. It was me trying to figure out the characters and get inside their heads.

While I was making The Understanding Monster, a scene would come to me and I would start drawing it and then I would finish a page and suddenly realize that things needed to happen between those panels. So then I would end up cutting out all of the panels and spreading those out. I went through this period where I had note cards of almost finished panels that I would spread around and rearrange. Like two panels that started out next to each other on a page would suddenly be five pages apart because there was all this other stuff that had to happen in between. So it ended up being this weird organic process and the outcome was something I couldn’t have thought of linearly. It was the product of just following my artistic impulses, but it definitely went through a stage where it seemed like a complete mess and was never going to be a cohesive story.

The reason I originally started making comics was because every time I drew a picture, I would be haunted by this feeling that something happened before the picture and something was going to happen after. It always felt like this sequence that I wanted to unlock but I could never quite get at the stories. I felt like I could see them, but I couldn’t hear them, or I couldn’t understand what they were saying or what the characters were about. I would just have these fleeting glimpses.

So with The Understanding Monster, I was exploring that notion. For example, there is this werewolf character that was constantly appearing in my sketchbooks, so I started asking myself questions about him and trying to figure out who he was. Then suddenly these other characters started appearing and I was trying to unlock what their relationships were and what they were trying to do.

The whole time I was working on it I felt like I was completely in over my head but hopefully it’s turned into something somewhat cohesive. I think the process for the second book is going to be completely different.

SOBEL: How so?

ELLSWORTH: Well, basically, I was trying to tell a story that I couldn’t see clearly in my head at all, and through the process of drawing it, I was able to uncover it and understand what the story was about. So now, with the second one, I’ve been seeing whole sequences in my head. I have the whole first sequence of the book in my head and now I just need to sit down and draw it. Whereas with this first one I felt like I couldn’t see any of it. I would start drawing a page and then I kept running into walls so I would start another part. Eventually I was able to form a puzzle piece mosaic out of it, and then it all finally pieced together in my head. I don’t know why I have to work the way I do, but it was a very startling and strange project.

SOBEL: So, regarding the second and third books, have you written out any kind of outlines or is it all just in your head at this point?

ELLSWORTH: There’s an arc, or direction that it’s going, but every time I’ve tried to do thumbnails or even write out a story sketch, it turns into a mess. I feel like I’m best working right on the page. I don’t really know how to hold myself back with drawing. If I try to do a thumbnail I end up putting so much detail into it I might as well just have been working on the actual page. I’m pretty into just rolling with the way it wants to be even if that ends up being kind of awkward.

SOBEL: One of the things that really struck me reading The Understanding Monster, which also seemed like it evolved from ideas in Capacity, was this concept that human consciousness is transferrable, meaning everything from plants to animals to machines, and even the house that the story takes place in, is infused with the spark of human thought. Does this reflect a particular philosophical viewpoint of yours, or where does this idea come from?

ELLSWORTH: Huh. I’m not sure. I don’t feel like I have any specific philosophies necessarily. What I do is just do everything by feel. But I guess that is kind of how I end up feeling about the world. Especially when I was travelling and living out of my car, there was something about just existing out in the wilderness. Places would start to feel like characters to me. Even different cities that I have had extensive experiences in, like San Francisco or Los Angeles, there’s a certain feeling there that I have never felt in other places. There are certain feelings that I’ve had in those places that are completely linked to their specific location on Earth. So, to me, it’s almost like they’re these living, breathing entities.

With The Understanding Monster, I was really interested in the concept that where the story takes place is this living thing that’s shifting and changing. I talk about that in Capacity too. I always felt like it was hard to get grips on my own thoughts because the landscape was always shifting so by the time I got back to an idea, it would be a different thing. I guess making the setting a living being was my way of trying to tell a story about that instead of getting overwhelmed.

SOBEL: In the Newsarama interview, you said that you consider The Understanding Monster “an honest attempt to solve something inside of yourself.” Can you elaborate on that?

ELLSWORTH: It goes back to what I was saying about drawing being a way to slow down my thoughts and really look at the way I work. I feel like the details of the story itself are a kind of strategic maneuver, like if I could steer the story a certain direction, I’d be changing the way I work inside myself, too. The actual drawing helps me see things clearer. The story is a way of trying to maneuver my thoughts to a new direction. I’m not sure if I’m explaining it very well.

SOBEL: There always seems to be a push and pull in your work, or at least this is my impression as a reader, of you trying to steer your thoughts and your thoughts trying to steer you. Would you agree with that?

ELLSWORTH: Yeah. Definitely. I guess for the most part, I want to be at a point where I’m completely open to my thoughts, but also grounded and solid enough in the world that I don’t fly off the deep end.

SOBEL: Is that a fear of yours? Do you fear insanity?

ELLSWORTH: I feel like I used to. There’s a lot of stuff about that in Capacity. Like wanting to have full access to my subconscious without going insane; the “not going insane” part was the really important part of that equation. <laughs>

But now I feel like my art and my life are merging a lot more. Before it would feel like this polar opposite realm I would go to. If I would sit and draw all day and then leave the house, I would feel like I didn’t know how to interact with people for a little while. It would take this weird kind of acclimation and I would feel really awkward out in the world at first, but then I would suddenly switch back to that mode and feel like, “ok, I’m a socially adept person.” It was this weird transition between two very different states of mind, or two separate parts of my brain that got engaged.

Now, through the process of getting my art out into the world and figuring out how to make a living with it - and I have a wife and kid now, too - I feel like my art is part of that. Every time I draw I still feel like I’m stepping way off into this other place, but now I feel like it’s also so much a part of my everyday life and it’s part of my family life, too. The things I draw and the stuff I think about are all pretty inseparable from the details of my daily life.

So, with the push and pull you mentioned, I feel like the real goal of The Understanding Monster is to bring myself to a place where I am able to be in harmony with my thoughts. Not in a silly, new-age kind of way, but in a way where I can really look at all the weird dark stuff in my head, and ways that I feel and react to things, and be able to put everything into a personal mythological context. That’s what I love about a lot of ancient art and old traditional storytelling. I feel like they were understanding their day-to-day lives by telling a myth, or some kind of fantastical, dream logic tale. So The Understanding Monster is my attempt to look at the way I exist and put it into mythological context where I can understand my own life and my way of functioning in reality.

SOBEL: Do you identify yourself with Izadore in the story?

ELLSWORTH: Yeah, in some ways. I don’t really feel like he’s a version of myself necessarily, but I relate to all the characters in certain contexts. In the next book, I’m definitely going to elaborate on all of the characters. They all symbolize different things in me which I don’t know if I’m even ready to put to words necessarily, but every character in that story feels very specifically important to me. And they all have these different connections to each other that I haven’t really talked about yet. Part of the mystery of the story is going to be this pulling back and revealing the interconnectedness between the characters and how they got to the situation that they’re in and what that can all lead to.

SOBEL: What are some of the other creative challenges you’ve had working on a long-form story compared to the shorter pieces in Capacity?

ELLSWORTH: One of the hardest parts for me was where to actually start. I basically started right in the middle and I was working on all three books simultaneously for a while. I didn’t really know what form it was going to take or how it was going to be published. I was just trying to draw whatever part of the story I was clear about. So there’s some finished pages that aren’t in the first book and there’s tons of stuff started and different things on various pieces of paper. But trying to work my way back to where it would actually begin was a challenge. I think some of the first pages I drew are towards the end so it was completely drawn out of order.

The biggest challenge was the fact that the story was clarifying itself to me as I went and it became a challenge to not paint myself into a corner. I really wanted to get the details right in the first one and hopefully not realize I did something completely wrong while I’m in the second one <laughs> that would derail the direction of the story.

SOBEL: Do you have a specific endpoint in mind that you’re working towards?

ELLSWORTH: Well, there’s definitely places that I want the characters themselves to reach, but I don’t quite know what that’s going to look like. I have this feeling of what the last pages will look like, but I won’t be able to really see it until I’ve done the work of drawing it. I’ll get pictures in my head but it’s sort of like turning a focus knob on a camera; it will become clear as I’m actually doing the work.

But secretly, I don’t want there to be an end. It became a trilogy because it seemed logical to just focus on the first three and see where that went, but ideally I would love to do more of an ongoing series and just keep on world-building, creating a bigger and bigger story.

SOBEL: Like “The Giant Creation”?

ELLSWORTH: Yeah. So, if the first three books turn out ok, I’ll probably see if Secret Acres is up for putting out more. Maybe it can become a trilogy of trilogies, so there will be nine. And then if there can be nine, I’ll see if I can go for twelve.

SOBEL: So you really would love to explore this as an endless universe?

ELLSWORTH: Yeah. I guess it goes back to reading comics as a kid, like reading Jack Kirby’s Fourth World or the X-Men when I was little. The same person wrote the X-Men for fifteen years (Chris Claremont) and it was this giant chronicle. Sure, there were all kinds of plot gaps and stuff he started and never went back to, but I loved the idea of this building epic. Still in the back of my head I feel like comics are supposed to be these ongoing, ridiculously gigantic types of stories. So there’s this part of me that wants to be able to create something like that and follow these characters through all these different changes and see how far I can take it. But if it just ends up being the first three and I find I have to switch gears, that’ll be its own thing, too. For now, just focusing on three books feels like a digestible portion. I’m going to try to put out one new one each year and probably do a few smaller pamphlet sized comics in between each book.

SOBEL: Like a Sleeper Car follow-up?

ELLSWORTH: Yeah. For some reason, I really want to do something smaller like that between each book. So I’ll probably work on a smaller black-and-white comic just to get some other stuff out of my head, too, while I work on the next one.