Review: The Understanding Monster – Book Two, By Theo Ellsworth

Of the alternative comics I’ve read so far, there are many that have used autobiographical elements to create strong personal stories. But none of those comics have plunged so deeply into the creator’s psyche as Theo Ellsworth’s series The Understanding Monster. Through the surreal travels of Izadore, Pharoah Tellitome, Inspector Gimble, Turtletree, Master Sponko and Minnow, we see Ellsworth grapple with what it means to be an artist, the subtle connection between the artist, her peers, and her critics, and how the subconscious influences perceptions of reality and art.

The Understanding Monster Book Two is a deceptively short 72 pages of full color comics in hardback. I say deceptive because the number of pages would lead you to believe that The Understanding Monster is a quick read. This could not be further from the truth. Each page is filled to the brim with etchings, lightning bolts, and stray word bubbles, all of which are vital to the reader’s understanding of the story.

The word “dense” comes to mind when reading The Understanding Monster Book Two. Ellsworth crams his pages full of detailed lines and hatching, thick inks, and dark colors. This makes the reading experience unlike other comics, which can be consumed quickly as the comic flows from moment to moment. In The Understanding Monster, Ellsworth defies that commonality, requiring readers to pore over each page.

On the face of the story, the main character Izadore is trying to bring his body back together after being split into many different pieces; his body is a mummy Pharoh Tellitome, while his brain is Inspector Gimble, etc. and each person/piece vital to Izadore’s reconstruction, offering him assistance on the journey to wholeness.

But what it seems Ellsworth is trying to get at is his own creative process, asking questions about himself and forcing himself to be hyper aware of his own skill and shortcomings. This is all represented in a surreal Land of Misfit Toys meets Yellow Submarine, where a red mouse full of energy creates an action wagon and speeds along a toy highway. All these little parts and pieces seem to represent things in Ellsworth’s real life– the influence of a loved one on the creative process, the nagging thoughts that make it easy to stray from your path, and the self-loathing and doubt that is constantly present, waiting to swallow you up if you slow down.

Impatient readers will grate at the time it takes to read a single page, and the meticulous patterning and dark inking can be disorienting at times. Requiring an immersive read is the toll Ellsworth extracts from the reader with The Understanding Monster Book Two – but in return, the reader gets a psychedelic view into the suitcase that is Ellsworth’s creative mind. Expect to spend some time unpacking.

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Theo Ellsworth (tumblr: theoellsworth) is an artist and cartoonist who has published previous work with Secret Acres. His comics have appeared in The Best American Comics 2010 and The Best American Comics 2014.

Secret Acres will release The Understanding Monster, Vol. 2 at Comic Arts Brooklyn (comicartsbrooklyn) this year on November 8th. You can find Secret Acres on Twitter and on Facebook.

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