Theo Ellsworth's book CAPACITY defies easy description. I admire Secret Acres' publishers, Leon Avellino and Barry Matthews, for taking on yet another highly unusual project of an artist whose work up to that point had only been in mini-comics form. Like with Sam Gaskin's FATAL FAUX-PAS and Eamon Espey's WORMDYE, CAPACITY isn't simply a collection of minicomics, but a fully cohesive work with all sorts of unusual thematic connections. It's part autobiography,
part transcription of a series of waking dreams, part epic and part art exercise. It is, in a sense, a senior thesis for Ellsworth's own personal art school. It's filled with false starts, left turns, haunting images, abandoned ideas and a conclusion that stitches them all together. It is the artist's way of tricking himself into getting at other stories. It is a form of ritual and sacrifice that is only concluded upon having been read. It is a nesting series of eggs that give birth to each other.
Ellworth's main dilemma, as outlined in the beginning of the book, is that he is constantly beset by the stories and ideas of countless characters in his head. He can't seem to make them sit still long enough to actually draw a story that makes any sense. He literally rearranges his life in such a way to make it easier for him to do so, without distraction. Ellsworth lives an itinarant lifestyle, one where he relishes the freedom of living out of his car and hanging out on the beach, but it's mostly done in the service of trying to find a way to get his stories to make sense. When he isolates himself in a house, he's able to begin to record a story that ends abruptly. That starts him on the path to making a minicomics series called CAPACITY, determined not only to make it but to make sure that others see it, no matter the reaction of the audience and critics. A story has to be told to activate it, and it was clear that in order to complete that part of the story's ritual, he would have to be able to face public reaction.
Ellsworth is clearly in the category of "artist who writes", meaning that he's more comfortable drawing than writing a story, and in fact the latter is clearly a struggle for him. At the same time, even when he gave up trying to write and just drew, story ideas came to him. CAPACITY, to some degree, is the story of how he tried to overcome this problem. I can't help but think of Lynda Barry once again and her solutions to the problem of writing. One can't sit down and simply write an epic (as Ellsworth longs to do); instead, a writer has to focus on a single character and/or situation and keep going until inspiration strikes and the words simply start to pour out. It's almost a sort of self-misdirection for one's right brain, a ritual giving one access to one's creativity. For Ellsworth, he reified this notion of gaining access to his subconscious as finding a way to create a mechanical egg so as to offer it to the guardian of his subconscious.
The seven issues he wrote and drew of CAPACITY were part of the process of creating this egg, even if he didn't quite understand it at the time. CAPACITY was Ellsworth's attempt at getting at the characters in his head, watching them in "skits" and recording that story. Ellsworth is constantly drawn to stories with a recursive quality, like "You Must Really See My Hat", about a guy who demands that people look at the image on his hat, which has an image of something else inside of something else, ad infinitum. "The Flash In The Woods" zeroes in on time, another of his primary interests, as the image of a fairy drew him to write a story about a man who disappears for what appears to be just a second but in fact he frolicked with a fairy for seven years. Ellsworth turns the reader around when he introduces himself as the narrator halfway through as a sort of magical creature in fairyland. Back in the "real world", Ellsworth is excited to share his secret with that character.
Ellsworth is constantly inserting himself or aspects of himself into his stories. He seems to have a fundamental need in this book to explain himself. One gets the sense, however, that he's trying to explain himself to himself rather than the audience. It's interesting to compare this book to Espey's WORMDYE, a book filled with mysterious images and enigmatic stories that still have the same kind of thematic similarities that can be found in Ellsworth's book. The difference is that Espey has no interest whatsoever in explaining anything to the audience, whereas for Ellsworth the entire book is one long explanation. Both artists' work is incredibly dense; one can sense the images pouring off the page for both of them.
Ellsworth's work is a bit more delicate and ornate than Espey's, with an underlying warmth that is evocative almost of children's illustration. That's mixed with a loopy, psychedelic design sense that makes looking at each page a sheer delight. The sense of enthusiasm and naivete one gets from Ellsworth's persona is almost palpable and is quite endearing. As one gets the sense that the epic quest that he's always wanted to write about turns out to be an epic quest about telling that epic quest, one can't help but root for him at the end. The underlying structure is almost more interesting than the actual stories he tells, as a surrogate for the reader becomes an integral part of the book and encounters all sorts of odd characters. Some of them are directly
named as aspects of Ellsworth's personality, while others are the creatures he is drawn to think about, write about and draw.
The lingering question is where Ellsworth goes from here. This sort of self-referential art-as-ritual is the kind of thing you can only get away with once. At the end of CAPACITY, we get the sense that the process of creating it has solved some of his organizational problems and that he's ready to tackle his great unfinished story. I will be intensely interested to see what his next project looks like. Ellsworth's vocabulary really is the image, and he shouldn't feel compelled to become more of a "writer". Indeed, the clunkiest strips in CAPACITY were those where he forced poetry on his images. His war comic/poem stood out as something that did not work at all; the forced and banal nature of his rhymes distracted from images that were otherwise beautiful. Ellsworth has drawn a lot of attention because what he's done is so unconventional, so one can only hope that he plays to his strengths rather than try to force himself into a creative box into which he does not fit. I hope to see a future Ellworth epic that maintains the quirkiness, eccentricity and sheer joy of this book. Such a story can only come about organically, and it will be very clear to see what is forced and what comes naturally. As Ellsworth notes toward the end, "Every thought I've ever had is all part of this big invisible project that I'll keep working on until I die". As long as each subsequent project is part of that continuum, each new Ellsworth book will carve out its own space in the world of comics.