Theo Ellsworth, writer/artist
Secret Acres, 2009
Theo Ellsworth’s Capacity, a monumental work of ferocious interiority combined with irresistible openness, was one of the decade’s best comic debuts. It was a knockout. Sleeper Car is more like a playful tweak of the nose or pat on the buttcheek. Stepping away from the artistic-autobiography subgenre that made Capacity so singular, Ellsworth uses this 32-page pamphlet as an opportunity to deploy the same tools he used there–the endlessly inventive character designs, the googly eyes and rubber lips, the enveloping crosshatched backgrounds, the seemingly infinite fur and feathers and scales and joints and so on–in the service of what I think could best be called flights of fancy. The stories and strips here are funny, though they’re not out and out gag comics; they’re fantastical, though they’re too loose and unconcerned with narrative worldbuilding to qualify as fantasy. What’s interesting to me is seeing the different approaches he takes with each one.
For example, the longest, central story, about two verbosely formal robots who make a bet about the existence of gnomes, uses a staid six-panel grid to heighten its deadpan humor. But the source of that humor shifts throughout–first it revolves around the wordplay of the droids’ creaky way of speaking, then gets goofy showing the second robot passing the time as the first embarks on his search for proof, then there’s a series of very funny “photos” of the victorious robot’s shenanigans with the loser’s forfeited arm, and then there’s a punchline splash page (!) that injects a whole new comical menace into the proceedings. Throughout, it’s all about knowing just what image will nail the required effect. You see this in many of the strips here: A traveler’s wanderlust depicted by showing him distraught and on skis at the top of his staircase, say, or a sleeping behemoth scratching his head in wonderment as an explorer rockets out of his gullet, or a kid’s eyes peering from the distended neckhole of his pajama shirt as he wraps up his knees, feet, and arms in it to form a “pajama tent,” or a drawing of empty bus stop letting us down easy after a strip in which a traveler’s face transformed wildly from panel to panel. None of it’s gonna bowl you over, but none of it’s meant to. It’s expert, effective cartooning–little sketches of where a cartoonist with this visual vocabulary and this set of ideas can go. I’ll follow him there, that’s for sure.