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Pulp Fictions: Theo Ellsworth’s Capacity and Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

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Comics come out on Wednesday, and so does Richard Gehr’s Pulp Fictions.

Theo Ellsworth’s imaginary cities are densely populated with funny monsters, hybrid animals, Mazatec gods, visiting aliens, and other members of his seemingly infinite bestiary. And yet they’re a little lonely, too, and their creator seems to want company. Perhaps that’s why, over the course of Capacity— which sandwiches all seven issues of the Portland, Oregon, artist’s eponymous self-published comic between a hundred pages of semiautobiographical hide-and-seek–Ellsworth seeks, again and again, to transform the reader into his silent witness and co-conspirator.

Upon being inserted (gently) into Ellsworth’s intricately rendered imaginary world, a place in which Maurice Sendak or Dr. Seuss would feel right at home, the reader is gradually initiated into the artist’s hermetic headspace. We learn about his creative process (long walks spark countless interior “skits” he subsequently draws into existence) and about his personal life (living in his car and house sitting gradually gave way to his current domestic tranquility). After initially fearing that his demons would catch him, Ellsworth now relies on his own, self-created monsters to catch him when he falls.

Ellsworth matures impressively as an artist over the course of Capacity‘s seven issues. The withdrawn cartoonist in issue one assumes an almost shamanic identity by the end of its run. The narrative, such as it is, remains secondary to the many elaborate full-page illustrations that pepper the book. Entire worlds condense into symbolic headgear in some of drawings; bodies, cities, and amusement parks metastasize into something considerably trippier than the sum of their parts in others.

After assisting him in his quest for “full access to my subconscious, without going insane!” the reader is gently sent away and the artist returns to his studio and shuts the door. Having become acquainted with the multitude of gods and monsters inhabiting Ellsworth’s head, you may be tempted to ask, “Who’s the lonely one now?”

Not Alison Bechdel, whose bi-weekly “Dykes to Watch Out For” strip has been a teeming human stew of family, friends, lovers, co-workers, and other members of the comic’s extended lesbian community for 25 years. The bad news for fans is that “Dykes” is on (possibly permanent) hiatus while Bechdel works on a follow-up to her haunting 2006 memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The good news is that she has marked the occasion with The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (Houghton Mifflin), a nearly 400-page selection of strips from 1987 to 2008.

It’s hard to imagine a cartoonist less insular than Bechdel, whose self-confronting introduction ponders whether her strip has rounded the L-world’s edges to a boring conventionality. “Have I churned out episodes of this comic strip every two weeks for decades merely to prove that we’re the same as everyone else?!” she asks.

Doubtful. Bechdel revels in the witty individuality of her characters, a community of academics, lawyers, social workers, bookstore workers, and househusbands whose lives, and even sexual desires, are influenced by five administrations’ worth of politics. (The past eight years have sent at least one character into a state of clinical depression.) But life goes on. What Bechdel says could be the final “Dykes” strip, which ends the book, offers no closure more certain than that of four friends enjoying a drink together during primary season. The last word is “girlfriend.”

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