Theo Ellsworth, writer/artist
Secret Acres, October 2008
Beautiful, magical, complex, and possessed of the irresistible, quiet confidence of those for whom making art is less a choice than a given, Capacity impressed and delighted me as much as any book this year, and as much as any debut since the first issues of Skyscrapers of the Midwest. In Theo Ellsworth’s constantly unfolding details and army of mysterious, dreamlike characters, you will see the fantastical echoes of artists like William Blake, Hieronymus Bosch, Clive Barker, and Marc Bell. But before you picture a nonsensical riot of whimsy and/or grotesquerie, dig the comic’s conceit: Ellsworth, represented here by several characters that correspond with different aspects of his mind, invites you the reader (whom he directly addresses with a recurring fill-in-the-blank ______ slot where your name is supposed to go) to join him as he walks you through a sort of artistic autobiography, in which he both presents you with the contents of the minicomics and abandoned projects he’s done over the years and provides them with context. It’s an enormously endearing set-up, one that never drifts into preciousness even when the comics in question feature ultra-earnest doggerel poems about the horror of war or the nature of thought.
As a title, Capacity really does do the trick. Aside from the fact that the book is itself a braindump of as much of Ellsworth’s comics as he could fit, Ellsworth’s knockout art style is characterized by its…I want to use the word “prolixity” but that’s pejorative. Basically, scaly reptiles or dragons will seemingly have thousands of individually drawn scaled. Feathered ogres or furry monsters will have countless feathers or tufts of fur. A man surrounded by little creatures will wear clothing and hats that consist of villages of houses that contain other people and creatures who have their own house-clothing that contain other people and creatures, and so on and so on. It’s filled to capacity, in other words, but not in the crazed, violent manner of your Joe Colemans and Bald Eagles, or even the goofball non sequitur chaos of the aforementioned Marc Bell–here, the ripeness and rifeness of the imagery is inviting, immersive, evocative of environments you want to enter and explore. That’s a central trope of Ellsworth’s own relationship with his ideas, which he seems to regard as independent entities. Such is his deadpan sincerity on that point that an idea that can seem laughable or pretentious when proposed by other artists here just makes you go “well, certainly.”
By the end of the book, I was so engrossed by the uniqueness of Ellsworth’s project and the skill of its execution that I never even really thought about how potentially disjointed such a book could seem in less assured hands. But not only does it all flow rather seamlessly, there’s a final-pages reveal/twist that cleverly and delightfully links together long-abandoned story strands to uncover a throughline that was there all along. It’s a wildly successful little story-as-puzzle moment, like a great Grant Morrison comic or David Lynch film. It makes you want to go back and re-read the whole thing, not “to see what you missed” or anything but just because it would be fun and rewarding to do so. I have a feeling this will be a book I’m diving into every now and then for a long time to come.