Head games 

The psychedelic psychology of Theo Ellsworth's Monster

Theo Ellsworth's latest manic creation features everything from a werewolf exorcist to a sentient house. It's the first book of The Understanding Monster, a three-part series that showcases the local artist's distinct psychedelic art and multi-part storytelling. It's 72 pages of full-color gorgeousness that feels like an excursion through the mind's eye of the author.

"Book One" chronicles the adventures and self-realizations of a mysterious being named Izadore. Meeting first with a talking mouse whose companion is a man in a fly's body, Izadore's fractured voyage quickly starts to resemble a spectrum of human emotional and psychological states. Along the way, Izadore assembles a rag-tag crew of bizarre, dream-state creatures that would make Carl Jung rise from the dead and muse at the implications. For Ellsworth, the cerebral connection between the creation of his books and their literally "heady" themes is no accident.

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"The act of drawing has the power to really take you back into your own imagination, and I like to treat it as a vehicle for that," says Ellsworth. "I think it's really interesting that we as humans each have a brain in our heads, thinking our own thoughts that no one else can hear. It's as if every person has their own private world...Turning my drawings into stories is my way of gaining movement, and building a relationship with my own personal mythology."

Ellsworth's art evokes the look of a complex architectural blueprint if it were filtered through the whimsical lens of an all-ages storybook, such as Maurice Sendak's famous Where the Wild Things Are. Though his Adolf Wolfli-inspired line work and crosshatching recalls the sensory overload of an acid trip, Ellsworth maintains that the kaleidoscopic nature of his art is purely coincidental.

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"It wasn't really on purpose that my drawing style became so psychedelic. It's just the way it grew," says Ellsworth. "There's so many artists, architects and things in nature that inspire me and make me want to sit down and draw, but I feel like my own style formed from simply letting my hand draw the way it wants to."

There's been a recent trend where artwork has become secondary to storytelling in comics; a mere glance at a book's hazy imagery is all that is necessary to keep the story moving along. When Bryan Lee O'Malley's critically acclaimed 2004 indie gem Scott Pilgrim first appeared, readers overlooked the book's crude cartoony look because of the strength of the storytelling and the premise. In contrast to that trend, Ellsworth's dense, mesmerizing compositions aren't easy to ignore. In The Understanding Monster he weaves a story that can be difficult to wrap your head around—in a good way—but the real challenge is not getting lost in the hyper-detail of every page, each one deserving of being blown up into large college dorm posters.

Ellsworth's previous releases through publisher Secret Acres include both an autobiographical odyssey, Capacity, and a series of oddball vignettes in his 2009 entry, Sleeper Car. Ellsworth turned a few heads in the indie comic realm in 2010, when one of the short stories from Sleeper Car was featured in that year's edition of The Best American Comics.

By the time "Book One" of The Understanding Monster concludes, Izadore finds the nature of his/her/its reality completely transformed. But, as the book's teaser-filled denouement proclaims, this story is just the beginning.

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"'Book One' is the first part of a three part puzzle," he says. "Hopefully it will leave people wondering, and maybe thinking more about their relationship with their own thoughts. 'Book One' depicted a very specific series of events from one character's point of view. 'Book Two' will pull back from that and show the same events through different characters' eyes, building a bigger picture of what we've seen...In 'Book Three' we'll explore the when, which is tricky when there's time travel involved."

In other words, we can look forward to a story that extends beyond Izadore's expanding psyche—and even time itself.

Theo Ellsworth presents The Understanding Monster, "Book One," as a slideshow and reading at Shakespeare & Co. Fri., Oct. 19, at 7 PM. Free.

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