You’ve gotta hand it to Theo Ellsworth — nobody else does what he does.
Oh, sure, other people draw and make comics and all that, but nobody draws the way he does, employing the elements he does, in service of anything like the purpose he achieves. Ellsworth — who hails from Missoula, Montana, where he’s not “part” of the local comics scene so much as he is the local comics scene — combines influences that fall along a continuum that ranges from Native American folk and woodcut art to Charles Addams/Gormenghast to downright alien to produce art that both comes from, and takes you to, someplace else altogether. And although his long-running series Capacity is over and done with, he’s nowhere near done creating art.
And art is what his latest ‘zine, Unexplained — self-published, as ever, under Ellsworth’s own Thought Cloud Factory label, and presented in a generous, oversized magazine format — is all about. Dated 2018 but only now making its way to some of the better indie distributors out there, this is a 40-page collection of ink drawings that each, in their own way, tell a story, and occasionally come together, or are juxtaposed next to each other, to do the same. The inside title page labels this as being “issue one,” but whether there are truly more forthcoming, or this ends up standing alone, either way it represents and unqualified success.
I think the thing I appreciate most about Ellsworth’s art, besides the precision of its execution, is its overall tone — his characters are subject to frightening, even harrowing, situations and ordeals, but there’s a kind of playfulness to it all, a sense that everything’s going to be alright, maybe even is alright already, and that the personages and/or entities of one stripe of another that he’s depicting are maybe even in on the joke, so to speak, at least in the abstract. It’s not fair to say his work is “easy” in any respect, apart from being wonderfully easy on the eyes, but nothing he depicts is the end of the world, no matter how much it may feel (and, crucially, look) like it. You can take your time with this work, relax with it, absorb it in every intricate detail — then come back down to the world you know, hopefully with a fresh charge of “new perspective” serum injected directly into your brain by way of the optic nerve.
Which, my oh my, does sound rather pretentious, doesn’t it? But it’s the utter lack of pretense in Ellsworth’s illustrations that make them stand out every bit as much as their undeniable technical proficiency does. Welcome to worlds unknown, then, but not overtly hostile — to rich, conceptually-dense waters where you won’t be allowed to drown. Emjoy the ride, and by all means — go at your own pace.
Certainly there is detail aplenty herein to not only ponder over and absorb but to savor, and freed (largely) from narrative’s hard-and-fast strictures, Ellsworth is afforded ample opportunity to simply “wow” you by wondering where all this baffling beauty comes from, and how it manages to make its way not just onto paper, but into print. “So-and-so makes comics that are unlike anyone else’s” is, let’s face it, music to the ears of the discerning observer and/or reader, but that’s just a starting point with Theo Ellsworth — which is why I started this review by stating as much. But he’s just as concerned with where he takes you as he is in finding the most memorable method of conveyance to get you there. It helps for a reader to care just as much, if not more, about the journey than about the destination, then, but rest assured : you’ll not only get there, you’ll be amazed at the sights you see along the way.
Unexplained is available for $12.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/unexplained.html
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