Q&A with Ellen Forney
Since 1993, cartoonist Ellen Forney has illustrated everything from the cover of The Rocket to Planned Parenthood posters to Stranger personals. But this year is by far her biggest: Last month she won the Stranger Genius Award for literature and on Nov. 10 she launches her first full-length graphic memoir, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me with a reading at the Central Library.
How about that Genius Award?
Marbles is by far one of the biggest things I’ve done and it’s new to me. My bipolar disorder was always a private thing. So to have this kind of a public vulnerability—“What do you think of this? What do you think of me?”—getting that kind of recognition for having worked so hard for so long was the greatest feeling.
Much of your work over the years incites laughter and empowerment. How has it felt writing something more serious and personal?
It was new to me—figuring out the rhythms and how to deal with the more serious parts of the story, in particular depression. I think a way to tell a difficult story is to inject a lot of humor into it. That kind of comes naturally to me because that’s just how I interact with the world.
How do you think your 30-year-old self would react if you told her you’d be putting this book out with her life on display 14 years later?
To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’d be very surprised. I don’t remember what I was talking about with my psychiatrist [back then] but I remember that I was really frustrated with something. And I remember realizing that I was going to have to deal with this in a comic. It’s how I express myself. Just as a writer will get what’s inside of them out to deal with their insides, musicians writing songs, poets writing poetry ... for me, it’s comics. I had no idea it was going to be so lengthy and difficult.
Seattle has a lot of innovative things going on in the comic world these days (Fantagraphics, Short Run, etc.) What about this place makes it such an apt home for what you do?
I moved to Seattle in ’89. I left for a year and a half to kind of find myself and came back and started out on the path of being a cartoonist/illustrator in ’93. One of the reasons I moved back to Seattle was because it’s a cartoonists’ mecca. There really are just a lot of cartoonists here. I could come up with theories about the weather: Cartoonists have to spend a lot of time inside by ourselves and it’s kind of conducive to that. For me it’s just been that there’s a community here, and that it’s a strong community, and it holds together.
Do you think there’s still a feeling among the general public that comics are meant to be light and funny?
In the same way that graphic novels have been getting hugely popular, readers seem to be getting used to the idea that comics aren’t just the funnies. Graphic novels are often described as being an intimate literary medium. I really felt that way doing Marbles. You can really nail some things with words and then there’s the emotional expressiveness of the pictures. Put together it creates a holistic experience for the reader.
Illustration by Ellen Forney.