It’s pretty amazing to see just how popular comics and graphic novels have become in the last ten years. After decades of superhero domination, bizarro indie comics have managed to escape the confines of niche publications like The Comics Journal and somehow shoved their way into mainstream consciousness. Whether it’s an experimental retelling of bible stories or tragic coming-of-age tales, today’s readers can finally read graphic novels that aren’t just rebooted tales of superheroes beating on endless bad dudes. Sure, alternative comics have been around for ages and have influenced many of today’s top creators, but they never exactly received mainstream magazine endorsement. So when you see Douglas Wolk devote a blurb in The New York Times to the rambling inanity that is Theo Ellsworth’s The Understanding Monster, you know that weird comics are here for the long haul – and boy, can they be a lot of fun.
Ellsworth’s three-volume series issued its first instalment back in 2012, and the storyline is simply baffling in an “I have utterly no idea what is going on” way. If I had to take a general stab at the series’ premise, I would say that it’s about a guy named Izadore whose spirit is trapped…inside a mouse…who is also stuck in “negative time”? He needs to reunite with his body, which is described as a “phantom skeleton” who wanders freely. He gets help in his quest from a fly that just happens to be inhabited by a space spirit named This Way That Way, and an otherworldly figure named Inspector Gimble. Still with me? I hope so, because there are also some “mean kids” who’re out to stop him, and they might be hiding in walls. I think. This latest instalment does shed more light on the true nature of Izadore and his companions, but don’t expect any be-all-end-all explanations to the overall mysteries. Maybe the third and final book will make everything clear? We might have to wait two more years for that answer.
If I had to summarize my reading experience of the series’ second instalment, I would say that it wasn’t too different from how I received the first. My initial impression of the art consisted of “Whoa! Look at that cross-hatching beauty! Such detail!” After a few more pages, my eyebrows started wiggling left and right as I pondered “just WHAT is going on?” A few more pages then and I think my mind may have reached some sort of subconscious arrangement with the material, meaning I think I “got it”. Perhaps the book is so futuristic that it actually has the psychic power to make me think I’m understanding it. Who knows, but all I can say for sure is that despite how many layers of weirdness Ellsworth adds on nearly every page, readers who make it to book two will likely realize by now that there is a logical structure to this seemingly weird-for-the-sake of weird comic. It just might take a few re-reads and slower reading sessions to get there.
While the bizarre plot can be impenetrably dense, most readers likely won’t care as they navigate through Ellsworth’s gorgeous hand-painted visuals. Virtually every page is overloaded with over-the-top illustrations that the average Joe would seemingly need to spend a year creating. Even though The Understanding Monster Book Two lasts just 72 pages, I couldn’t help but spend extra minutes gazing at all the lush details found in every page. So despite the plot regularly amping up the weirdness, I never found myself bored or demanding an explanation. I just sat back and enjoyed the utterly strange yet captivating ride.
Granted, this doesn’t change the fact that the story is weird. In the vein of fine experimental cinema, the overall depicted within The Understanding Monster are so strange that they could still be open to interpretation. This can add to the fun for some readers, but others who lack patience and don’t care much for fine art may find themselves scratching their heads repeatedly. Enjoyment of Ellsworth’s work comes down to just how open minded one is to non-linear, weird-as-hell storytelling. However, those willing to take the plunge will at least be rewarded with some of the best non-traditional art that comic books have to offer. Who knows, maybe Ellsworth’s work will soon blow up and he’ll become a major artist. Weirder things have happened in the comic world.