There’s Nothing Else Quite Like Watching Theo Ellsworth Perform “An Exorcism”

There must be something in the water out in Missoula, Montana.

David Lynch hails from there originally, after all — and so does Theo Ellsworth, one of the most intriguing, challenging, mind-bending, and frankly skilled cartoonists around these days. The detailed intricacy of his illustrations is testament to that fact, but it’s the underlying intent running through them — the deep and abiding sense that this is stuff he desperately needs to purge from his subconscious, through his hand, onto paper — that sets Ellsworth’s work apart from that of his contemporaries. There are visions that plague this guy’s mind, and I’m sure he’s grateful to have found an outlet for expressing them.

Shit, I know I’m grateful that he has, and I’m just a humble reader. But Ellsworth’s comics take me places. Dark, haunted, amorphous, undefinable places. Vistas of beauty and bewilderment, where “steady footing” stands definitively revealed as a lie, and malleability charges — or, more likely, shifts — to the forefront as the only, the eternal, the absolute truth. But his books might be well served by having a gentle admonition on their opening pages to the effect of : ” if you can’t let go, then go no further.”

His most recent full-length work,  An Exorcism (Kus! Comics, number three in their “Kus! Mono” series) is probably the purest and most lavish distillation yet of his utterly unique multi-dimensional view of existence, a — if you’ll forgive me invoking a cheesy song title — journey to the center of the mind that is by turns harrowing and humorous, unsettling and unhindered, vaguely familiar and decidedly alien. I’m not sure if anyone who’s never fucked around with psychedelics will have anything remotely like a frame of reference with which to approach this book, and it may not be healthy to even try. Fortunately for you all, I ingested a fair amount of acid in my youth and am, therefore, qualified (in my own mind, at any rate) to give analyzing it a shot.

“When I reach the blue surface, my exorcism treatment will begin,” our nameless protagonist informs us by way of a back-cover blurb (the comic itself is a wordless affair), before cluing us into the fact that he’s “not ready for this,” and that all he knows is that “this is going to be a harsh experience.” Which, have no fear, absolutely proves to be the case. But that’s only part of it.

Inanimate objects come to ghastly life, creatures of nightmare assuming physical (?) form, the makeshift walls between “fantasy” and “reality” melting away to nothingness, neuroses externalizing themselves and upping the ante in terms of the torments they cause — these are just the beginning. The portal. The gateway. There’s always another door — even if it’s not, strictly speaking, a door — and what’s on the other side is invariably more difficult, but necessary, to face than what came before. Ellsworth’s visual world is layered, hopelessly complex, painstakingly detailed, unfathomably dense, and his storytelling skills can best be summed up with the no-doubt-inadequate term “relentless.” Every page looks like it must have taken years to draw, and the fact that he can just gear up and do it all again — and again — and again? Goddamn, but I don’t even know where that ability comes from.

And do I even want to? I mean, please don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that somebody’s imagination is this untethered, this frenetic, this truly (dictionary definition here) fantastic — but I’m sorta relieved that it’s not mine. Ellsworth is one of those visionaries who makes art for the noblest and most therapeutic reason of all — because he has no other choice. You know this kind of art when you see it, and you know it from page first to page last here.

And yet the sheer intensity of this head-trip doesn’t preclude it from being an enjoyable one, either. You could be forgiven, in fact, for feeling a rush of excitement as you flip each page, anticipation for seeing what the artist comes up with next just runs that high. Anything’s possible. Rules — apart from his strict self-imposed guideline of three two-panel pages followed by a single-panel “splash” page — are out the window. If it can be thought of, odds are better than good that it’ll show up. If it can’t be thought of, hell — it’ll probably show up twice.

The terrors and wonders balance each other out pretty nicely here, but not so much in a matter of alternating rotation in that of a two-for-one. What is terrifying is also amazing, what is amazing is also terrifying. There’s no need for artificial distinctions to be drawn, nor does Ellsworth give you the option to engage in such rationalization for its own sake — and in a final and decidedly appropriate move, author and protagonist also reveal themselves to be one and the same, and you realize, of course, that you knew this all along. That it couldn’t be any other way. Which means that An Exorcism can also boast of one more distinction — it’s the out-and-out freakiest autobio comic that anyone has ever conceived of.


If you’re ready to explore the deepest recesses of Theo Ellsworth’s singularly brilliant, and singularly scary, mind, An Exorcism is available for $14.95 (with free shipping to the US!) from our good friends at Kus! :



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