Originally appeared in December 97 issue of XX|
by Crescentia Jenkins
A half hour before the interview, Ellen phoned, wondering if we could change our plans to include a 'field trip' before the interview. We arranged to meet at the luxurious Sorrento Hotel, instead of the dilapidated Italian bar we'd originally planned on. Turns out, she's had a longtime hankering to see the penthouse. In her red velvet stretch pants and spitcurls, she managed to adopt exactly the proper air of someone inquiring about the rooms. Two different ladies accompanied us. I hung back silently, hoping to appear tall and glamorous. We eventually settled in the lobby with cocktails; a live pianist accompanied the interview. Ellen has been drawing comics for six years. Her new book I Was Seven in '75, collects a strip she's been publishing weekly in The Stranger. The book is available through amazon.com.
XX:How do you spell your last name?
E: F-O-R-N-E-Y. A lot of times, people ask how to pronounce my last name--a lot of people pronounce it For-nay. Which I like. But in fact, it's For-nee, to rhyme which 'horny.' (Laughter) I actually remember learning about the word 'horny.' When I was little, my dad told this joke about a couple of guys in a desert with camels. One of them is really horny. I don't remember how it goes--it's a dumb joke anyway. But I remember I didn't know the word 'horny.' I asked my dad what it meant. He was giving me some explanation about how it mean you really want sex a lot, I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, that rhymes with Forney. That's bad. What 'til the kids get ahold of this.' (Laughter) So I waited a few years. I still remember the day, in sixth grade, when Kevin Barnello finally came out with it. We were sitting around in reading class, playing with our names for an assignment. He was coming up with rhymes, and I thought, 'Oh no, here it comes.' I could tell. He goes 'Forney..Horny...Horny Forney!' And I was ready. I was totally relaxed, even thought I was a shy kid. I looked at him and said, "Mmmhmmm.' I was so casual, it totally took the wind out of his sails. And then it was over. Had I been horrified, as I normally would have been, I'm sure that would have stuck.
XX: What's your interest in comics? Did you like reading comics when you were a kid?
E: Yes. I wasn't so much of an enthusiast as a lot of other cartoonists that I know. I didn't read comic books much. Aside from, say, Richie Rich in the dentist's office. It was more in my adulthood that I became interested, around 1991. I had long decided that I wasn't going to get into art. I had all kinds of rationalizations for it. And then, around 1991, I was in a bookstore; I was buying an Alison Bechdel comic book, and I had the Tasmanian Devil on my checks, and this total stranger, the guy ringing me up, asked, "'Are you a cartoonist?' My mouth dropped open. I looked at him and said, 'No. Why?' He said, 'Uh...I don't know...' I have this mental picture of an arrow that had gone right beyond my defenses---right beyond all of my 'I don't want to do my art for commerce, it's only for friends and family...' At that moment, I realized that I wasn't going into art because of fear of failure. Because I was scared of the vulnerability. I went home in a daze. I remember walking home, thinking, 'Oh my god. I need to do this.' I was so exhilarated, and excited, and terrified. It was really a huge moment. I went home and got my mom to send me a copy of a mother's day card I'd made for her. It was kind of a cartoon, called Like Mother, Like Daughter, four panels. It took me two weeks to take this mother's day card and turn it into a comic. I had no idea what I was doing. I did it with felt-tip pen on typing paper...I had no clue how to develop a comic for publication. I sent it to three places: a local, free comic rag, Off Our Backs, and Ms. Magazine. I got published in the local thing, which was thrilling. That I got a contract in the mail from Ms. They wanted to buy it. That's kind of been my blessing. I had no idea at the thing what a fluke that was. It taught me to go for it, go for the long shot, you never know, just put it out there. It took a really long time, about a year, before they actually published it. It was a really big deal for me.
XX: Do you feel like people feel they know you better than you know them? Do you feel like people do know you better than you know them?
E: It's funny...It's a combination. Because I definitely put a lot of myself into my work. That's part of what's so satisfying about it. At the same time, of course, I'm choosing what to put out there--it's storytelling. Basically, my strip is...oh...autobiographical fiction...fictional autobiography. I make up a lot of stuff; I combine stories. I change things so that the characters are more consistent, because it reads better. Sometimes, telling a story that's not exactly, literally, true, comes closer to the truth. Really, my comics are all about storytelling, and the point isn't to record historical facts, it's to tell stories. I've gotten a lot more confident in my writing. Writing has always been the big stumbling block for me in comics. Which is partly why I end up spending a lot of my time doing illustration. It's a lot easier for me to sit and illustrate than it is to write out a story and think about pace, and character development, and come up with premises. It's hard to think about what other people will find interesting? When I'm doing stuff thats personally relevant, how do I trust that other people will also find interesting the things that I find interesting. Like when I talk about my family, 'Oh, isn't Matt cute when he's...(Luaghter) Will other people, I mean people other than my mom and dad, find that interesting? It's worked out pretty well, because other people do seem to see themselves and their families in the stories that I'm telling. So I just trust that, and go with my gut instinct.
XX: Have you been interested in art for a while?
E: Well, I've drawn ever since I could hold a pencil. It's always been really important to me. When I was younger, I just didn't want to do art as a career. I think that a lot of artists get a gut-wrenching feeling that they're selling a part of their soul if they make money from it. Or it they make compromises for a client, because they're selling their work. If you think about it a certain way, it spoils things. But for me, I think a big part of that was fear and apprehension.
XX: What's the distinction for you between fine art and commercial art?
E: That's a big question. I'll approach it from one angle, which is why the kind of work I do appeals to me. I really like doing editorial work and work for reproduction. It seems a lot more accessible if it gets out in a newspaper than it would if I sold one piece to one person. Even if it's a lot more money, it's only a dialogue with that one person. The appeal for me is more about reaching a lot of people and sharing my stories. Just recently, for the New York Press, I drew a picture of a really sexy, naked, fat girl. And to be able to show a lot of people a really sexy, naked fat girl is part of my soci-political agenda. (Laughter) If I just did one, and it hung on a wall--it's just more limited. Certainly the limitations of the publication affects what I can express. In some ways, you could say a fine artist has more freedom that way.
XX: Who's the first comic artist that really knocked your socks off?
E: Well, I'm still mourning the demise of Calvin & Hobbes. I have a great respect for Bill Watterson. The art is fantasic, he gets amazing facial expressions from Calvin, and the premise is really solid. And it's funny. Alison Bechdel had a great impact on me. Alison's comic (Dykes to Watch Out For) was the first I ever saw that actually had people in it that looked like me and friends of mine. She showed me that it's possible to put something out there that's really personally relevant, and that people would read it. The book that blew my mind, though, and made me really want to do comics, was Twisted Sisters. That was my bible for a while. I actually memorized a lot of it, jus because I read it so much.
XX: Was that while you were doing comics, or before?
E: I had done that one comic, so I had it in my head that I was going to explore the comic thing, or the art thing. I was really undirected at that time. A friend sent me Twisted Sisters and that kind of nailed in the direction that I wanted to go. That was really when I discovered underground comics and the range of stuff that was out there. I came back from abroad, and talked to a whole bunch of comic artists. They were all very helpful and encouraging. It just really felt like what I wanted and needed to do. And I ain't never looked back. Really, after all those years of fear and apprehension, I just dove in with incredible drive. I had wave after wave of incredible energy, like my life depended on doing comics. So I got a lot of work done really quickly.
XX: So first you sent out this comic to the local comic rag and Ms. What happened next?
E: Well, I moved to Taiwan right after that first comic. I worked at a newspaper there as the resident cartoonist/illustrator. It was the first time I'd ever tested myself on whether I could do deadlines, could I do drawings for something I didn't like? I loved it. It's gonna sound really sappy, but it was like 'breathing air for the first time...' What I came back to the States, I still didn't really know whether I was going to pursue comics or illustration. I didn't really know how to go about doing either of those things. I visited New York with my resume from Taiwan and managed to talked to a couple of different art directors. Then I visited Seattle, and talked to a bunch of different cartoonists. I talked to Jim Woodring, Roberta Gregory, Pete Bagge, and Michael Dougan. I didn't know it at the time, but I really tapped into all these artists who were really well established. They were all extremely encouraging. I got really, really excited about doing comics. Roberta said I could have a page in Naughty Bits. So then I spent a couple of weeks working on a page, and that's when I did The Girls Get Some Hands-on Experience. It's about coming up with words for masturbation. Then Roberta sent that page to a woman named Roz Warren, who wanted to include the piece and anything else I had in a book. So I immediately started creating comics for publication in a book (What Is This Thing Called SEX?). Then I met Michael Dowers, who does Starhead Comix. He invited me to do Diva, and told me afterward I would probably have my own comic book.
XX:Tomato? Did you just do two?
E: Yes. I really want to do another Tomato. I've been talking about doing another for an embarrassingly long time. I was definitely going to do another before the end of the summer. (Laughter) Well, I guess summer's over. It's really hard to take the time to do it. There's literally no money in it, and it takes a lot of time to develop. I'm definitely keeping my foot in the door with the weekly strip, but I miss doing more sexy stuf. Having your own comic gives you so much freedom. Now I've got this book. It's pretty rare that there's money in comics. It's really, really difficult to support yourself solely on comics. Most comic book artists have to have some other way of earning income. For me, that's mostly illustration work.
XX:You mentioned you were shy as a kid. Do you feel shy now?
E: No. Not for the most part, but I still get shy sometimes. Ninth grade was a real turning point for me. That's when I learned how to be funny. And that made all the difference. (Laughter).