|Ellen Forney grew up in Philadelphia and has lived in Seattle since 1989. She has been a professional cartoonist/ illustrator since 1992, and also sometimes paints, and dabbles in other artsy pursuits. She teaches Comics at Seattles Cornish College of the Arts. She drives a silver 1968 Mercury Cougar (see The Final Soundtrack its the one wrapped around a tree).
LOVE THY FREAK
Seattle cartoonist Ellen Forney embraces our oddities
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 8, 2006
By Winda Benedetti
Deny it if you like, but down in the depths of each and every one of us dwells a freak.
Certainly some of us hide it better than others, shove our inner geek deep, keep him bound and gagged for fear he'll puke our darkest fears all over the public sidewalk. Others, of course, wave their freak flag high, understanding that, united by our oddities, we're not so very odd after all.
For Seattle cartoonist Ellen Forney, it's the strange, the eccentric, the outlandish in each one of us -- herself included -- that puts the ink on her paintbrush.
Photo by Karen Ducey
Check out her latest book -- "I Love Led Zeppelin" -- and you'll see. A collection of her gleefully raucous, sometimes raunchy, always rich comic strips, the book is populated with drug users and call girls, militia men and exotic dancers, high school dorks and little old ladies on the street. But here in the hands of Forney, the peculiarities of everyday people and everyday life receive tender and compassionate treatment.
"I love my subjects," says Forney, a pretty punk with a fondness for funky lamps, bad-ass muscle cars and Led Zeppelin played really loud. A self-taught cartoonist, her work is part art and part journalism, part essay and part slice-of-life autobiography.
With "I Love Led Zeppelin," Ellen Forney pulls together 13 years of cartoons and stories from the Stranger and other publications.
"Finding sweetness and beauty in the edgier elements of life is Ellen's signature," says David Schmader, associate editor and columnist at the Stranger and a long-time Forney collaborator. "No matter the grittiness of the subject matter, there's absolutely no judgment in Ellen's renderings, just her signature warmth and love."
"I Love Led Zeppelin" is Forney's third and biggest comic-book project to date. The drawings and stories between the covers span 13 years of her work as a cartoonist and originally were published in the Stranger, the L.A. Weekly and BUST magazine.
A mixed bag of styles and forms, the book includes comics Forney created through collaborations with the likes of comedian Margaret Cho, sex columnist Dan Savage and novelist Kristin Gore (aka Al's daughter). Other pieces are autobiographical glimpses into Forney's self and psyche -- a story about her rock 'n' roll death fantasy, a cartoon about racing her beloved '68 Mercury Cougar at the Seattle International Raceway.
"Her comics reflect her curiosity about other people," says Eric Reynolds, an editor at Fantagraphics, Seattle's renowned comics publisher and the company producing Forney's book. "She has a journalist's eye for things. She offers a peek into cultural pockets that I might not go out of my way to learn about."
Certainly, Forney is no less interesting than the characters she draws. She's not only a comic artist with a muscle car and hard-rock fetish, she's a wrestler in an all-female wrestling league called the Pin Down Girls as well as a yoga enthusiast and a teacher at Cornish College of the Arts.
Forney grew up in Philadelphia and went to college at Wesleyan University where she majored in psychology. She worked in Seattle for a couple of years in a psychiatric unit. And then she had her "early midlife crisis."
"I realized that I had to be an artist," she explaines.
She'd been drawing almost every day of her life and was a natural storyteller, but it hadn't occurred to her that putting the two together was something she could do. Then, one day in 1991, she was in a store buying one of cartoonist Alison Bechdel's "Dykes To Watch Out For" books.
"The clerk asked me if I was a cartoonist and it was weird because I felt like it was this revelation, that he had perceived something in me," she says. "I remember walking home back to my apartment in a daze and that's when I started working on 'Like Mother Like Daughter'. "
That comic -- her very first -- would be published in Ms. magazine a year later.
Forney's work has since appeared in numerous publications and comics collections. She authored a series called "I Was Seven in '75," an autobiographical tale of growing up in the 1970s that was collected in two books.
"I just really respond to comics. I find it a really exciting medium," says Forney, explaining that she likes doing work that is reproduced for the world at large. "I wouldn't be satisfied just to do a comic and hang it on the wall and have that be the end of it. I think communication is a lot of what interests me."
The first and perhaps most flat-out amusing section of her new book. "I Love Led Zeppelin." features a series of "How To" comics that originally appeared in the Stranger, one of Seattle's alternative weeklies. Here Forney interviews a doctor at Harborview Medical Center for a comic that shows readers how to sew on an amputated finger. She interviews a defense lawyer for a piece titled: "How To Smoke Pot and Stay Out of Jail." She spends time with Teresa Dulse, a longtime exotic dancer in Portland, for a comic that teaches us "How To Twirl Your Tassels in Opposite Directions."
We're talking burlesque pasties here. As Forney explains through a combination of words and drawings: "Bend your knees a little. Pop your legs straight and pop your right then left shoulder forward. Repeat, bouncing into a steady rhythm: Bend-pa-pop-bend-pa-pop-bend-pa-pop."
Employing simple, open-line work, Forney's comics are whimsical and wise as well as sexy, naughty and sometimes shocking. But always, they're formed with a generosity of spirit that shimmers on the surface of each panel.
Just take a look at "Walking With Carol," a sweet story about the morning Forney spent strolling the streets of Capitol Hill with 75-year-old Carol Preston. And check out her collaboration with Stranger columnist and editor Savage -- a story from his high school days about the first time he had sex with a boy and the rejection and humiliation that followed.
"The images she creates just seem approachable. The people in them seem really approachable and live," Savage says.
He points out that many cartoonists -- male cartoonists especially -- tend to draw their characters either in extremely idealized forms or as grotesques with little humanity. With Ellen's work, he says, "There's an affection, but there's not the exaggeration. She doesn't have to make people into gods or monsters."
"She's incredibly devoted to what she does," says Schmader, who collaborated with Forney on a series of comics called "What the Drugs Taught Me."
"My favorite thing was having an artist's rendering -- a good artist's rendering -- of my formative hallucinogenic experiences. These were such private, intense experiences in real life, but Ellen's renderings were spot-on," he says. "There's something deeply radical about this collision of style and subject matter, in that it seeks to normalize some of the most marginal aspects of society, but it's executed with such sweetness, it goes down like honey."
Schmader currently is working with Forney on her upcoming book readings in support of "I Love Led Zeppelin." Never one to follow the norms laid out before her, Forney's readings (the first one this Thursday, 7 p.m., at Bailey-Coy Books) will be more akin to a one-woman multimedia performance with the artist herself on stage acting and interacting with images from her comics.
Forney's work also can be seen weekly in the Stranger's Lust Lab series. Here she gives lusty illustrative life to some of the paper's most intimate, kinky, sexy personal ads.
Meanwhile, Forney is working on a book with Seattle author Sherman Alexie. Somewhere between a novel and a graphic novel, the project tells the tale of a kid growing up on a reservation while attending a white school outside of town. The working title: "The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian."
In fact, it was Alexie who penned the introduction in the front of "I Love Led Zeppelin."
"Ellen is quite aware that all of us are weird. Profoundly weird," he writes. "Because Ellen herself is a beautiful freak, she makes it OK for all of us to revel in our own freakiness."