2008 has seen no shortage of art that is both self-reflexive and memoir-like in its presentation. Charlie Kaufman slyly has the protagonist of his film Synecdoche, New York ponder entitling his play that both is about life and is life itself (and which almost becomes indistinguishable from the film it is within) “Simulacrum,” while Kanye West’s 808’s and Heartbreaks meticulously chronicles all of the rapper’s personal losses in the past couple years , over-processing the vocals with thick auto-tune. Theo Ellsworth’s Capacity comic, also runs along these lines, but while Kaufman’s film can’t escape being framed by a wry, ironic smile and West’s album is so over-produced that some of the vulnerability is lost in the mix, Ellsworth’s graphic novel is both organic and sincere.
Ellsworth is a self-taught artist who has been making and self-publishing comics for sometime now, and is also the co-founder of the Pony Club art gallery in Portland, Oregon. Capacity collects seven previously self-published comics of Ellsworth (also called Capacity and numbered 1-7) along with 150 pages of new work. This new work is largely comprised of Ellsworth’s own commentary on the creative process that went into making each of the seven issues of the Capacity comics, as well as some other self-contained vignettes. For instance, before showing us Capacity #1, Ellsworth describes how he reached a crisis in his own creative process—starting and not finishing numerous works—and how this ultimately lead to the Capacity series. He notes in a manner that is sincere yet self-aware that “every one of the following stories is completely true. Each one of them documents something that actually happened inside my head”. It is in this way that Capacity seems to begin to function as a material stand-in for both Ellsworth’s dreams and imagination.
Unlike some of the other bits of popular culture that have used self-reflexive or memoir techniques, Capacity avoids situating the reader as merely an observer to what sometimes seems like self-indulgence or navel-gazing. In the introduction to the work, the reader is introduced to a character that looks something like a totem-pole in a space suit with a flower pot on its head. Ellsworth asks that “for an enhanced appreciation of this narrative, please pretend this [totem-pole spaceman] is you”. The reader remains an active character throughout book, observing the ‘skits’ (as Ellsworth calls them) that play out on the stage of “the thing from the chest” as “the thing from the attic,” also known as the author’s brain, narrates, as well as ultimately helping the author achieve creative mastery in a climatic, exciting ending that I won’t ruin here.
If that all sounds interesting so far, it doesn’t begin to touch on how Capacity actually looks. While the story and structure of Capacity is fun and imaginative, the art is still the book’s strongest suit. Each and every page is overflowing with engulfing and elaborate dream-worlds filled with monsters, tea gnomes, clouds, and imaginary forests, just to name a few. The style and layout change throughout most of the book and sometimes seem to lack cohesion, but the commentary between ‘skits’ saves this from ever becoming problematic. The detail on some pages, for instance at the beginning of the “Eye to Eye” skit, is so breath-taking and elaborate that I believe it stands out as the most immersive of comics since Windsor McCay created his highly detailed tableaus for his Little Nemo in Slumberland comics. The drawings in Capacity truly beg the cliché “you have to see it to believe it”.
If you were wondering if art could be made that is both self-aware and sincere, experimental but not at the cost of being humanistic, here is your answer. This ability to make a self-reflexive piece of art that is neither ironic nor over-stylized is what is truly exciting and innovative about Theo Ellsworth’s first full-length graphic novel. Capacity does not just show you magic, but embodies magic itself. In a year where self-reflexivity seemed either overshadowed by the drum machine or hampered by the wry, snarky smile of the silver screen, Capacity manages to avoid being gimmicky in its look inward and instead enchant and endear.
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