This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2006.
Ellen Forney is a hard cartoonist to pin down. Her work is charming and disarming, but isn't easy to categorize. Her first collection of strips, Monkey Food, compiled her "I Was Seven in '75" strips. These autobiographical comics were about her childhood in the free-spirited 70's, replete with tales of Unitarian services, attending nudist camps, her parents smoking pot, and wild parties where she might discover a couple of guests fooling around in a spare bedroom. They're also about kid stuff: games played, Judy Bloome books read, bedroom set-ups and arm-wrestling boys. Even the racy material in the book is drawn with a gleeful, childlike innocence; she makes the reader believe that there's nothing salacious about any of it. There's a refreshing quality at work here in reading a memoir about a happy (if not entirely conventional) childhood: Forney genuinely enjoys being around her parents and brother and has a great time as a child.
That sense of her well-adjustedness pervades what one might call her new, more "grown-up" collection, I Love Led-Zeppelin.. Forney is fond of titling her collections rather tangentially. This book got its title from a strip where she talks about her death fantasy: dying in a car crash, being flung from her big muscle car as Led Zep plays dramatically over her car radio. Of course, she immediately starts worrying that instead of Plant & Page blasting, some less cool band (that she still secretly likes) will be playing instead (Don Henley?). It's perfectly illustrative of her breezy style that can broach any topic, no matter how heavy (or sexy).
For example, consider her series of "How-To" strips that appeared in assorted weekly newspapers. Instead of typical topics like cooking or home repair, she worked with collaborators on topics like "How to sew an amputated finger back on", "How to fuck a woman with your hands", "How to become a successful call girl" and even more mundane topics like "How to tip your server". What makes these strips successful is that while the topics may be slightly outrageous for middle America, she both approaches the ideas with complete seriousness (there's actually lots of useful advice) and a healthy dose of humor. Her light touch, cartoony & expressive line and clever page composition make each strip fun to look at. For example, the call girl strip is presented as a board game. Some of these strips are kind of a tough slog to get through, especially if you're not interested in a particular topic. For example, "How to roller-skate backwards" is pretty much all diagrams. I think each individual strip probably played better in context in its original source, but their collected weight drags a bit here.
On the other hand, the material that Forney does solo is delightful. The highlight is "My Date with Camille Paglia", an account of Forney's attempt at collaboration with the notably wacky author and media figure. While Paglia had no interest in collaborating with Forney, she did mistake her attentions as asking her out on a date! Further hijinks did not exactly ensue, but Forney did have a bizarre phone conversation with her and got a funny story out of it. Other delights include another tale of her parents from the 70's and a costume-party blowout (including one man who dressed up as a penis and balls), a kinky photography tale (that seems quasi-autobiographical) involving three women, and the search for a white alligator.
Forney's also quite adept when she's just the illustrator for someone else's stories. That list includes Dan Savage (of Savage Love fame), Kristin Gore (the daughter of Al and a fine comedic writer) and David Schmader. Schmader's "What The Drugs Taught Me" series is both funny and a pointed alternative to anti-drug propaganda. The openness he has with his parents on the issue and the discoveries he made about the pros and drugs of the assorted drugs he tried made this an enlightening piece.
Ellen Forney's comics inhabit a space where sexuality is an understood, comfortable part of daily life. It's something that's talked about casually and in everyday conversation, and this comfort pervades every aspect of her art. Talking about sex is as normal as talking about roller-skating, and the simple but expressive flow of her art creates an aura of relaxation for everything she does. It's interesting to see a cartoonist who is not a part of the R.Crumb tradition of scrawling down ones' neuroses on the page, but who still has an interesting point of view and a compelling way of bringing it across to the reader.