A Fiendish Conversation with Ellen Forney
The Seattle cartoonist, newly anointed a Stranger Genius, explores the relationship between art and pain.
Ellen Forney has been an important fixture in Seattle’s comic art scene since the '90s, gracing the pages of The Stranger and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but her new graphic memoir Marbles looks to be her crowning achievement. It chronicles her struggles with bipolar disorder and the fear that her mental instability was crucial to her work. While that may seem like a downer, Forney handles the topic with a deft touch, mixing the pain with humor in a way that radiates liveliness.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with the Stranger Genius award-winning cartoonist about angsty art, Seattle’s character, and splinters.
Much of Marbles deals with the fear that your creativity might be tied directly to your bipolar disorder. How do you balance the desire to create with the need to ease the pain?
The rest of my work has always been pretty upbeat, and that was by design. Part of that was a reaction to what I think is this kind of angsty art. It seems like a lot of people have the opinion that if there isn’t some sort of pain then there’s no profundity. I was reacting to that then. There are other stories that have meaning that don’t have to be painful.
That’s something I've considered now that I’ve done this very important work for me that’s about a very difficult time—one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been through—and what that means. One of the things that was really, really important was that it retained my sense of humor. That’s what keeps it readable, but then also keeps it true to me.
[Edvard] Munch said he didn’t want to be stable because, basically, he would lose his inspiration. And I read a quote by Anne Sexton, the poet, who suffered from depression, saying that artists were the ones who basically had the task of expressing that kind of pain for the rest of people who can’t express it. Then, of course, she committed suicide. So do you have to be a martyr to be a meaningful artist? I mean, that’s something you could probably debate over lots and lots of wine.
How did the process of making Marbles compare to your previous work?
Marbles was different for me for so many reasons. I’ve never done anything nearly as long. I’ve considered myself more of a comic or graphic essayist, I suppose. ... And then to delve into work that was that painful or uncomfortable was new. Certainly the process of brainstorming and writing was much more difficult and I had a very different sense of purpose. I felt very driven to do Marbles once I had decided to write it. I really wanted to do it right and I worked, I feel like, harder than I’ve ever worked on anything.
Was there a part of the book that was especially hard to express or be honest about?
I mean, it was all really personal and opening up in a way that I haven’t done before. It was all, I dunno… loaded? Dense? Difficult. But I would say that the most difficult part for me to explore—I mean, this might sound just obvious—was the depression. It was very difficult to go back in and relive that. And the comic specifically, to think about what emotions look like, you really, really have to get back there. ...
This is the image that I get in my head and that I got at the time, too: pulling out a really big splinter. That kind of difficulty, that kind of pain. If it’s under the surface it just hurts, but once you start pulling out the splinter, it hurts, but you just know instinctively that it’s worthwhile. And then you have to get in there and get all the little pieces. It’s just very clear what you have to do, and then you can heal.
How do you think Seattle has influenced your artistic voice and style?
I started doing comics in the early '90s, and Seattle was a mecca for cartoonists then. There was a really supportive community and I think that my development as a cartoonist is very related to Seattle and the cartoonists here. And Fantagraphics. And Jim Woodring and Megan Kelso, who both live here, were instrumental in helping review—Megan calls it just “to be a reader,” to go thorough it with an eye for comic issues, or technique, design.
So far as Marbles goes, Seattle is such a part of who I am. It’s very clear in the book that it’s Seattle. I have a lot of Seattle landmarks and I refer to Seattle a fair bit. I love it here and I feel like it’s a part of who I am. It almost becomes like a character in the book. That’s another sort of cliché—to have the setting be a character—but it really felt that way.
Are there any up-and-coming local comic artists that you think people should be watching?
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to emphasize that Marbles is funny. [Laughs] It just sounds like it could be so grim, but it’s like… “But it’s funny! It has dark humor!”
Nov 10 at 7, Seattle Public Library (Central Branch), free