Interview with Jeff Ellis, part 2

by Bevan Thomas

(originally appeared on the Cloudscape website)

For the first half of the interview with Jeff Ellis, see part 1

“Who would you call your biggest artistic influences?” I asked Jeff Ellis.

“I used to be totally obsessed with Mark Bagley and John Romita Jr., really impressed by their work ethic,” Jeff replied. “I’m probably the most stylistically influenced by Steve Rolston. I was actually in the comic store when Steve got his acceptance letter from Oni; me and Steve both used to buy our comics from ABC Book & Comic Emporium.”

“It must have been a real coup then, for Steve Rolston to illustrate the cover of Cloudscape’s fifth anthology, 21 Journeys.”

“Yeah, that was awesome.” Jeff grinned.

“Frequently your art reminds me of Phillip Bond, similar energy, visual clarity, and round, expressive figures,” I said. “You know his work? He’s done a lot of stuff with Grant Morrison, such as Kill Your Boyfriend and Invisibles.”

“I know of him, yeah. I think Steve was influenced by Phillip Bond, and I was influenced by Steve. Craig Thompson and Chris Ware are also big influences for my art.”“Any storytelling influences?”

“Well, Chris Ware again for storytelling. Alan Moore, of course. And Troy Little for Chiaroscuro, and Mark Kalesniko – he did Mail Order Bride, which is terrific.”

“Why them in particular?”

“They all did work that means a lot to me. Stories that stand-out a lot in my mind.”

“What are your top ten favourite comic books?”

“Does it have to be ten?”

“Five then?” I said.

“Let’s see how many I can think of.” Jeff grinned. “Well Death, the High Costs of Living by Neil Gaiman was what got me starting to read comics again.”

“Gaiman’s Sandman did that for me,” I said.

“Then there’s From Hell, best Alan Moore story, though I also love Watchmen and Promethea. Blankets by Craig Thompson really showed what’s possible with comics; created a lot of new ideas while also showing that you can make an autobio story that’s also an epic. Then Mail Order Bride, the amazing comic that no one has read but everyone should. Family Man by Dylan Meconis is a great modern webcomic, big artistic influence; the big noses in Family Man was the inspiration for my character James Kelly’s nose in Teach English in Japan. Louis Riel is another favourite comic book.”

“Is part of Louis Riel‘s appeal that Chester Brown, the cartoonist, is Canadian?”

“Definitely, I’m really drawn to comics created by a Canadian artist. I always want to support Canadian artists first and independent artists second.” Jeff paused in thought for a moment. “Oh, and of course I love Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes. I can’t believe I almost forgot that one. Watterson’s one of my biggest influences; phenomenal cartoonist. If he wanted to create photo realism, he could, but he could also perfectly distill an event down to simple gestures. Innovative storytelling, jumps between imagination and reality. Brilliant compositions.”

“Any Spider-Man stories really stand out for you?”

“Well, let’s see…. Spider-Man Manga was a fun take, and Ultimate Spider-Man was a great revamp. Bendis was the guy who brought me back into Spider-Man. Sal Buscema and J. M. DeMatteis were doing Spectacular Spider-Man when I was a kid, great stuff like “The Child Within” story with Green Goblin and Vermin—”

“I remember ‘The Child Within,’” I said. “It was pretty intense.”

“Their run and the original stuff with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were what introduced me to Spider-Man. I still really love those issues.”

“What else has influenced your work besides comics?”

“The world-building in Michael Crichton’s novels; all the different scenarios he has in his books. Also, Kevin Smith’s film; really natural dialogue. Oh, and Norman Rockwell’s illustrations; he could tell you so much in a single image.”

“What kind of comics do you really want to create?” I asked.

“The ones I’m working on right now. Teach English in Japan is the one I’m most interested in telling.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s the most personal, the story of a young Canadian who went off to teach English just like I did. Being an teacher in Japan was such a big, important point in my life, and after I came back to Vancouver, I spent a long time being the guy who said ‘you know, in Japan, they do this….’

“I’d also love to do another story like Dream Girl, some personal exploration of a particular feeling, like loneliness or hopefulness. That comic was very personal, dealing with various issues I was going through. It resonated with a lot of people and I’d love to hit that mark again. I love to use my art to evoke emotions with people, sad and sentimental feelings as opposed to creating action-adventure.”

“That’s very interesting,” I said. “Certainly I feel that your best stories are based on true events, either ones that happened to you or to your relatives. For example, I find your anecdotes in Robots, Pine Trees & Broken Hearts and Historyonics to be much stronger than the science fiction stuff from Funday Sunnies and Exploded View. You tell your family’s stories very well.”

“Right, okay, so that’s a comic project that I’d love to do if I had a little more time,” Jeff said. “I’d write a book of short stories about my grandfather. Also, one of my ancestors served in WWI, he kept a journal and it’s on my computer. It’s got detailed accounts of him travelling from country to country and I’d love to adapt it into a graphic novel.”

“That sounds like it would be a terrific graphic novel,” I replied. “Why do you think so many of your best works are based on true events?”

“I guess like every artist, I’m most effective when I’m passionate about the subject matter. For example, my story in 21 Journeys was inspired by events in my life, a break-up I went through a few years ago.” Though normally the most affable and placid of men, as Jeff talked this time, I saw excitement ignite in his eyes: “Comics can be historical records, great historical records. Louis Riel is a terrific example of that, something I aspire to. I see my comics as a way of preserving things that I value, creating an archive. Teach English in Japan is about preserving my experiences, just like my anecdotes in the first two Cloudscape anthologies are about preserving the experiences of my family. I’m really interested in family history and have always loved my grandfather’s stories.”

It was the most passionate I’d ever seen him, as all artists are when they talk about the core of their art. “Where do you want your life to go?” I asked.

“I’d love to be in a position where I could just focus on finishing comics, but I don’t think there’s much chance of that happening. And if not that, I’m happy to earn my money teaching art, which is what I do right now. I teach at the Visual College of Art and Design, mainly teaching graphic design software. It’s pretty good. I really enjoy teaching. It’s great to give people new skills, an understanding that they didn’t have before. Even back when I worked retail, I actually enjoyed training people to do stuff, like use the cash register.”

“What’s the thing about you that other people don’t know and you wish they would?”

“I certainly wish more people knew I was working on so many comic projects. I love to get feedback and would love it if more people told me what they thought of my various stories. But you probably want a more unusual fact, don’t you?”

Jeff thought for a moment before continuing: “Well… I often sings little songs to myself when I’m at home. Probably my girlfriend’s the only person who hears it. I keep it under control when I leave the house. When I draw, I sometimes make all kinds of shouts and other noises, sort of an art-related glossolalia or Tourette’s.”

It was an interesting comment to end the interview on. Normally it is hard to imagine a person quieter than Jeff, especially when drawing at the Cloudscape meetings; those times that he did speak, he almost never raised his voice. Thus, the image of him shouting while working was strange in the extreme. Still, that is one of the special things about art, that it often encourages the artist to behave in a manner different from how they normally behave, bringing something forth that wasn’t there before.

Jeff is the glue that holds Cloudscape together, and usually when he is interviewed, he focused on the organization rather than himself. But Jeff the artist is just as interesting as Jeff the face of Cloudscape. He has served many roles within the Vancouver comics community: a colleague, a mentor, an adviser, an organizer. But ultimately his greatest role is that of a dreamer. It was his dream that created Cloudscape and brought so many artists together.

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