Theo Ellsworth's Capacity was such a riveting work because it was the first time I read an autobiographical comic that was essentially writing itself. That is, there was a reflexivity to it in that it was composed mostly of fictive elements that were a way for Ellsworth to understand and decode the world at large as well as his own imagination. Many artists talk about the the images or words in their head that they had to get down on paper; this is the blessing of the artist in that they are able to have this mystical experience yet find a way to meaningfully record it for others. Capacity was Ellsworth's story of desperately trying to come to terms with the world as a creative person, a process that was as terrifying as it was exciting. There's a definite sense of rite-of-passage in Ellsworth's stories, as he and his characters not only wind up growing but are aided by any number of companions along the way. Yes, Ellsworth creates the companions and friends and he needs to guide him through the story he's writing.
If The Understanding Monster (once again, Ellsworth published with Secret Acres) takes a step back and removes Ellsworth directly from the narrative, there's still no question that this is an autobiographical comic in an emotional sense. Ellsworth plunges the reader directly into chaos and crisis from the first page, as a mouse is revealed to be the new physical manifestation of an explorer named Izadore. Urged to keep moving in order to fend off doubt and the toxic words of the Mean Kids in the Walls, the mouse at one point is brought up to speed on how he got to be where he was. Faced with toys expressing doubt and a mummy unsure of his purpose, Izadore faces many moments of crisis but it guided through by an explorer in fly form named This Way That Way and a friendly monster named Dr Rollington. Eventually, Izadore is able to function as a mouse and makes it to Toy Mountain, which he must brave and enter to regain other abilities.
Essentially, I see The Understanding Monster as a book about trauma and healing. Ellsworth couches it in dizzying, wonderful fantastic terms and with relentlessly detailed and borderline-psychedelic artwork. However, this is a book about someone who is broken and disconnected, and who relies on a support system that is self-generated and self-sustaining, even if they are not directly part of him. The key phrase in the book is "I am my own missing piece", a discovery that allows for bravery after enduring paralyzing fear and misdirected anger and hostility toward those who were trying to help. I love the way Ellsworth turns this into a science-fiction/fantasy epic but combines it with a kind of low-tech reader interaction, like a paper iPad that encourages Izadore to push buttons and listen to recordings. Ellsworth has harnessed the almost maniacal nature of his drawing style, added a layer of sumptuous color that only serves to make his drawings pop out even more on the page, and created a structure that makes it much easier to absorb and understand than the labyrinthine levels that Capacity sometimes posed for readers. The fact that he chose to serialize this story as a series of slim hardcovers adds to the pulp/comic feel of the story, complete with a "next issue" blurb. Reading an Ellsworth story demands that the reader take a walk with the cartoonist in his dreamscape; The Understanding Monster simply provides landmarks that are easier to understand and process than his other comics.