I finished Marc Ellerby’s Ellerbisms over the weekend. It was both a quick read and a good one. What with the nice colouring on the cover (yep, I judge books by their covers too) and with Marc Ellerby being such a genial chap when I met him for all of thirty seconds at this year’s Thought Bubble, I didn’t immediately peg Ellerbisms as sad comics. From the blurb on the back of the printed edition* – “A relationship told in pictures through the autobiographical comics of Marc Ellerby, Ellerbisms catches a glimpse into the life of a young couple, their highs and lows, their sighs and lols.” – it could have gone either way.
And there’s a lot of light-hearted stuff to be found in the pages of Ellerbisms. Plenty of the strips are about two young people geeking out over stuff and being in love. It’s very sweet and very funny in many places. In others, it’s pretty desperately sad. And, every now and then, it goes to some really rather dark places. As much as it’s about a couple of kids in love, it’s also about a young guy trying to process some difficult experiences, and the fact that Ellerbisms is autobiographical means that that processing feels truer and rawer, perhaps, than if the same themes had been presented behind the veil of fiction.
The fact that they’re daily diary snapshots (“The idea of Ellerbisms originally was to take a moment of the day, no matter how trivial and small it seemed, and illustrate it as a comic in a Moleskine sketchbook”**), and not just autobiographical comics, has some pretty interesting ramifications in terms of the overall narrative. Ellerby is fairly upfront about the fact that he used the collation of a series of strips which were originally webcomics into a printed book as an opportunity to give the narrative more shape, but it’s still fragmented – much more so than anything with a more traditional narrative style – and the prologue and epilogue which were added to round out the story for the print edition share this fragmentation rather than easing it.
The strips are small scenes from a greater life, the details of which we as readers are not totally privy to. We’re left to fill in the gaps – both literally and emotionally – between the events Ellerby depicts, and this process of constantly playing catchup within the shifting scenes of two people’s relationship is both fascinating and exhausting. Ellerbisms drags the reader through a series of emotional cruxes (often the things which naturally would have stood out on any given day – it’s not a surprise that this is the stuff he picked to draw) with minimal explanation or editorialising. And it’s this, I think, which gives Ellerbisms a lot of its rawness and power as a story and as a book.
It’s not all dark, and there are plenty of cameos and in-jokes for anyone even fleetingly familiar with the UK (and occasionally transatlantic) comics scene – my favourite being “Jamie McKelvie appears courtesy of Kieron Gillen” – but Ellerbisms is, at its heart, a comic about love and loss. They’re very human themes, and Ellerby handles them tenderly and largely without comment, which is adds to the emotional potency of his treatment.
It’s a charming, sweet and funny book, the art is lovely and I thoroughly recommend it – but Ellerbisms is definitely sad comics.
* I’m aware that this tactic is the blog review equivalent of opening an essay or presentation on any given topic with the dictionary definition of that topic, but bear with me here.
** Marc Ellerby himself, in the introduction to the print version