The truth is, when I show up to interview Ellen Forney, I'm none too sure what she looks like. Scanning the faces of the caffeine worshippers at Victrola Coffee and Art, I feel pretty confident she's not among them. But what if I'm wrong? I need visual reinforcement.
From my shoulder bag, I pull out a well-thumbed copy of her last book I Love Led Zeppelin: Panty-Dropping Comics by Ellen Forney (Fantagraphics Books, $19.95). On the cover, there's a color illustration of a woman standing in front of a '68 Mercury, with a Joan Jett-shock of black hair, a lock bleached brown, kohl-lined eyes, a sleeveless shirt, a black mini, torn fishnets, motorcycle boots. So I stand and watch the crowd, waiting for a sexy, femme rocker chick with butch accents to show up. A good 20 people breeze in, including our photographer. But no Ellen. The photographer and I take a seat near the entrance.
About five minutes later, in strolls a totally sexy babe: short, black hair, dazzling amber eyes, wearing a man's suit jacket with sewn-on frilly cuffs. "Ellen Forney?" I ask. "Sorry I'm late," she replies, and then, looking to the photographer, says, "You must be Rosette." The photographer shakes her head, pointing to me. "I'm sorry," Forney says. "Don't worry about it," I tell her. If only she knew.
Maybe if I'd have placed a personal ad, Forney might have known who I was from the get-go. For three years now, she's been taking the sexual desires of people who post online ads on The Stranger's "LustLab" website - the daddy who wears panties, the dyke couple searching for a third - and turned them into striking one-panel comics. This January, a collection of those ads will be trussed up in her first hardback, Lust: Kinky Online Personal Ads from Seattle's The Stranger (Fantagraphics Books, $14.95).
The book's release is an event that thrills Forney and, after taking a seat, she jumps right into a discussion with the photographer about art. Taking it as a cue, I turn on the tape recorder. As the photographer leaves to set up the shot, Forney keeps the ball of conversation moving, talking about how she worked at a treatment center, confronted her inner fears, made out with another lesbian illustrator, and how she thinks everybody wants to have sex.
[Having turned on the recorder] Please, keep talking.
I didn't go to art school, I wasn't going to be a professional artist. It wasn't until I was in my early 20's, after I got a degree in psychology and I worked on a psychiatric unit, that I decided, "This isn't for me," and I really need to be an artist.
You worked on a psych unit? Where?
It's not around anymore. It was the Northwest Evaluation and Treatment Center. It was a privately run place, so it's kind of strange. But I'll just back that up a little bit.
I've always drawn, ever since I can remember. I had just decided, pretty early on in high school, that I wasn't going to go into art as a profession. I didn't want to sully it with financial gain or having it be a product. In retrospect, I think a lot of it was about fear, because art is so much in my core that if I exposed that to the world, then I would be making myself really vulnerable in a way.
Going into psychology: did that represent making it?
No, no. That was me avoiding being an artist. When I was in college, we had to choose a major. I had the most credits in psychology, so.... But it ties into my work, my interest in people, and my interest in what makes people tick. I mean, that comes into my comics a lot. So, it wasn't like I was completely off base. But I decided that before I went to graduate school, that I [would] get my feet wet. So I moved to Seattle, kind of on a whim. And, I worked on a short-term involuntary psychiatric unit, so that was getting my feet very wet. And I just realized that professional distance didn't come naturally to me. Like with your clients and with the people you're working with, there's only so much empathy that you can have, there's only so involved that you can be with their well-being, with their treatment, with their motivation, with their values -- and I would kind of get wrapped up in the same way you would with a friend.
It wound up being really unhealthy for me. It felt like I was draining my soul, like giving blood away. At the same time, I was just realizing that art and my drawing and exploring that were more intrinsic to who I was, and that I needed to focus on that in my life in a bigger way. I had kind of done comics in letters to people, and it was only in retrospect that I realized that I had been putting things like word balloons around my drawings for a long time. But I was buying a Dykes to Watch Out For book -
By Alison Bechdel, right?
Right. We both got nominated for an Eisner Award (for the comics industry) this past year, at the San Diego [Comic-Con 2007]. She and I presented one of the awards together, as well as being nominated. We said in honor of the highest number of women nominated for the award (this year) and the increasing prominence of gay comics, that we would like to do a little nod to Madonna and Britney Spears. So we kissed, in front of this whole auditorium of people. (If you don't already know: Madonna kissed pop-idol-cum-tabloid-cover-girl Britney Spears at the 2003 MTV Awards, to much fanfare.) Yeah, that goes down in Ellen Forney's history, for sure. It was really great. [Alison] was really nervous about it, but she was really psyched afterwards. She was like, "Oh, we should have kissed for longer!" Anyway...
So I was buying a book of [Alison's], and in my checkbook there was a little Tasmanian devil in the corner, and the guy behind the counter asked me if I was a cartoonist. For me becoming an artist, it was like coming out, kind of like when people come out to themselves, and they can look back and, in retrospect, say, "Oh, of course: I had a crush on my gym teacher, and I used to have my arms around my friend, and..." whatever.
So then I did one comic, based on one I had done for my mom, for a Mother's Day card, was called "Like Mother, Like Daughter." I sent it to a couple different publications, including Ms. magazine, and they bought it. I didn't realize at the time what a fluke that was, really. That was like an in-the-door to all sorts of different places. One of the things I'm working on next is -- I do, in The Stranger, a little cartoon called "Lustlab Ad of the Week" [for the personal ads]. And I'm collecting them into a book called Lust. It's a nice, big thick book. I did five interviews with people who used [the ads], so there's going to be plenty to read.
Do you consider yourself an artist or a cartoonist? Or is there a difference?
Well, for a long time, my business card would say cartoonist/illustrator. At this point, I call myself a cartoonist.
So let's look at a comic. [Open a Stranger, find an ad.] What do you do? Do you see the text that we actually see and then you visualize? Do you talk to the person? How does it all come together?
Rather than just thinking of illustrating a text, I really pick and choose and do a lot of editing of the text. I often come up with my own titles, and the way I word this is based on what they give. It's representing them. That was my assignment: don't completely misrepresent anyone. There's a lot more information there, a lot more for me to draw from.
So I find an ad that is interesting and also lends itself to being adapted into "Lustlab."
Not all of them do. Some of them are really kind of vague: "I'm interested in exploring my kinky side and here are some of my hobbies; I like this and that; I want to be... blah blah blah." Somebody who has a really specific fetish is much easier to make into a vivid, interesting cartoon. So I take all the text and I put it in a Word file and just mess with it and condense it. Just messing and condensing. A lot of what comics is -- I teach at Cornish, intro and advanced comics -- and one of the things that I tell my students a lot is: edit, edit, edit, edit. You edit visuals down into line work. Same thing with the words. It's all about editing.
There's been a huge popularity in graphic novels lately: Funhome by Bechdel, Black Hole by Charles Burns, Epileptic by David B., Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. What do you think that's about?
Maus [a graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman] came out in the '80s, won a Pulitzer Prize, and everyone thought, "Ah, now graphic novels are going to be big!" And they weren't. The wave didn't happen like a lot of people expected. I think maybe it has finally taken hold. Here are a couple different theories: One is manga, the Japanese comics, which are huge in Japan. I think that Japanese pop culture is really big in the younger generation, the people who carry a lot of what [pop] culture is. And there's that idea that people -- and again, generations coming up -- are more visually oriented, and are more perceptive to the comics' meaning.
A great thing that I love about graphic novels is the storytelling capability that happens when you have illustrations with few, well-chosen words. As a writer, I'm a little jealous of an illustrator.
Well, it's the interaction of the [words and images]. I think the most apt analogy is to movies, because the words and the images are so intertwined you really can't have one without the other, in most movies. You're figuring out what angles you're going to use, whether you're going to cut scenes and what your actors are going to wear, say, do. Just picture a movie: you're the producer, the director, all of the actors, the costumer, the set designer. Everything that goes into that mixture of words and pictures in telling a narrative, goes into comics. It's all you.
Do you think your comics are all you?
My work? My work reflects me a lot. Yeah, definitely. My sensibility, my values, my interests, even down to my-- Like, if I need to draw from life, my most available model is myself. It's a common technique. Which is another reason why I'm more easily recognizable in person, and I think that's true for a lot of cartoonists: we draw reflections of ourselves.
You say this work reflects you, and you've got a book coming out called Lust. [Pause.] You're infusing these comics, this art, with sex. Do you think that's dangerous? Easy?
Actually, I think it's important. I think that most people in life want to get laid. And I think that so many people have grown up with negative attitudes about sex-- whether from their parents or from school, from culture. I think it's really clear from Lust, and the kind of questions that I ask, that I'm comfortable with whatever, like flogging. As a sex-positive woman, the more I can inspire other people to become comfortable with their own selves and their own desires and pursue them, I think that's really healthy and important. Insecurity and sexual frustration are big problems for a lot of people, and stifle their ability to really express themselves in a positive way. That may sound really Northwest, but I think that those are the kinds of things that really weigh people down. And, I don't know... there are only so many political causes. This is the area that I can help.
I did a comic called "How to fuck a woman with your hands." I've seen that on a few different refrigerators -- there are two big places of honor: on the refrigerator and next to the toilet. It's true! And some woman told me that it completely turned around her sex life, which was just great. What a big honor that is. Somebody told me that one of my illustrations helped him come out. Things like that. Even if I can help in those ways, it just makes me feel like what I'm doing is really worthwhile.