A heady mix of of the explicitly alien, the vaguely Aztec, the less-vaguely Navajo, and the even-less-vaguely-than-that Blackfeet, Missoula, Montana-based cartoonist Theo Ellsworth creates totem pole art on paper by way of some interdimensional bridge to realms unknown, and the influence of native peoples makes its presence as surely felt in his narratives as it is in his illustrations, centered as they often are on rites of passage that are tribal in origin, but transposed into a very, even obsessively, personal setting. His 2015 Mini Kus! offering (#35 in the series), Birthday, is no exception, and may just represent the surest and most concise distillation of his overall artistic project as just about anything he’s done.
And speaking of obsessiveness, Ellsworth utilizes every last micro-millimeter of every panel on every page, his highly-detailed drawings a kaleidoscopic exorcism (one of his books, also published by Kus! and reviewed on this very site in its early going, is not-coincidentally titled An Exorcism) of tight linework, meticulous cross-hatching, exacting patterns, and explosively rich color. If you don’t find something to catch your eye in an Ellsworth illustration — usually several somethings — thank you need your eyes checked. Hell, maybe even replaced.
We’re told that our protagonist herein is “nervous,” and he’s got every right to be, given that he’s undergoing something called the Inner-Space Birth Ritual, which is best described as — oh, fuck me, it’s not best “described” at all, it’s best absorbed through the retina. It’s not like there are any words in this one to get in the way of doing so.
And yet the narrative here is pretty clear-cut and in no way indiscernible — it’s fair to say it’s sometimes subsumed within the mode of its own expression, but that’s okay : the method of the journey is every bit as important as the journey itself, and you’re not going to find yourself lost so much as lost within this post-psychedelic initiation/trial by fire (of the stars). Take your time taking it in — there’s no other cartoonist doing anything remotely like this.
Birthday, then, is unique unto itself, but of a piece with Ellsworth’s ouevre in its entirety, a painful piece of revelation that is nevertheless an absolute joy to take in. Solid footing is as absent from the proceedings metaphorically as it is literally, and while that would typically trigger a “just go with the flow” quasi-admonition on the part of this critic, in point of fact you needn’t concern yourself with that, as our guy Theo is all about pulling you — in, at first, and then along. The compulsive nature of the comic’s construction and execution in turn leads to a compulsive reading experience.
Don’t be surprised, then, if this comic leaves you feeling more than a bit breathless, and perhaps even with a reeling head, to boot. It lends itself quite nicely and immediately to re-appraisal and the agonizing series of events it relays may be frightening (okay, fair enough, there’s no “may be” about it), but they’re so creatively delineated that you can’t help but feel something akin to a sense of pride when our jittery “hero” makes it out the other side — wherever that is.
Birthday is available for $8 (worldwide shipping is free!) directly from the publisher at https://kushkomikss.ecrater.com/p/23050949/birthday-theo-ellsworth
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