Memoir cartoons you have probably encountered in The Stranger.
A back tattoo featuring a skeletal whale, a sexy vampiress, and a dancing robot.
Jim Woodring in her acceptance speech, calling him “kind of my mentor.”
The first thing Ellen Forney did during her victory speech was to recognize the other literature geniuses who were shortlisted this year. “Ed [Skoog] and Kary [Wayson] and I just had a big group hug out in the lobby,” Forney said. She promised the two poets that the first round was on her. And next, Forney acknowledged that The Stranger has played a role in her evolution as an artist, from her very first cover for the paper back in 1993. Since then, she’s published several collections of how-to cartoons, true-life tales, death-obsessed daydreams, and illustrations of different sexual kinks in three books from Fantagraphics: Monkey Food, I Love Led Zeppelin, and Lust.
If you’ve seen Forney’s cartoons, you’ll probably experience an eerie sense of déjà vu when you see her in real life for the first time. She looks exactly as she draws herself: short, punky hair; eyes that always look amused about something; ass-kicking boots; a wry smile. Even the special Genius party additions to her standard outfit—a black tuxedo jacket with tails and a shiny red spangly miniskirt—fit perfectly with her cartoon doppelganger’s sense of style: alternately butch and glam, ferocious and fabulous.
Forney is officially having a moment. Her artwork is all over town—literally. Her You Are Here banners, adorned with a simple, beautiful cartoon star, are hanging from every streetlight on Broadway, and soon her portraits of hands will decorate the Capitol Hill light rail station. That ubiquity is appropriate, because everybody loves Forney—her art is unhateable, her writing is friendly, her performances are chatty and brave. As she tried to lead her family downstairs at the Moore, where Emerald City Soul Club was spinning records, Forney was seized and congratulated by enthusiastic ambassadors from just about every creative pursuit in the city: writers, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, cartoonists. She greeted them all by name, many with huge, cartoonish hugs, and she answered their questions about what she planned on doing with the $5,000 prize (much of it would go to health insurance) and what her next project was going to be.
It’s not surprising that at the end of the ceremony, when Seattle Rock Orchestra played a few Michael Jackson songs to start the party off right, Forney was one of the first people to seize the stage, dancing her heart out like nobody was watching. She puts herself out there in a way that would terrify most humans. For the last four years, Forney has been crafting the longest, most deeply personal work she’s ever attempted, a graphic memoir called Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, which will be published in November.
Marbles is the shockingly honest story of Forney’s life with bipolar disorder. More importantly, it’s a story of bravery—of coming out to friends as a bipolar survivor, of writing publicly about her drug use and the lengths to which she went to hide that drug use from her therapist, of describing her fluid sexual history (one time, she was so aroused, she tried hitting on a wall). It’s a massive leap in form and content from her past work. The relationship between the pictures and the words has changed—at times, the pages look less like comics and more like handwritten illuminated manuscripts. As Forney demonstrates the manic ups and terrible downs of her mind, she also investigates some deeper questions: How much of her art—and the art of hundreds of other geniuses through history, including Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Sylvia Plath—is wrapped up in mood disorders? It’s completely unlike any other book on mental illness you’ve ever read.