The Written Image: Secret Life

From the September/October 2021 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Secret Life represents the incendiary collision of two singular talents: comics artist Theo Ellsworth and fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer. In this new graphic novel, published in September by Drawn & Quarterly, Ellsworth adapts VanderMeer’s tale of a mysterious building where “office culture” connotes secret languages and unspoken rituals, and a cherished desk plant with a tantalizing fragrance grows to menacing proportions. As so many fruitful collaborations do, the artist and writer’s began several years ago with a bioengineered bear named Mord: After VanderMeer shared his enthusiasm for Ellsworth’s debut graphic novel, Capacity (Secret Acres, 2010), on social media, Ellsworth wrote to him to say thanks—and ended up with a commission to make a giant woodcut of the ursine character from VanderMeer’s novel Borne (MCD/FSG, 2017). After several commissions, VanderMeer approached Ellsworth with the idea for a graphic novel interpretation of his short story “Secret Life.” To create his adaptation Ellsworth studied the story’s pacing and rhythm, printing out a copy of the story “to literally cut up, sentence by sentence, like some kind of mad ransom-note writer.”

Also important was the character of the building (above) itself: “I wanted all the textures and patterns of the line work to really bring the reader within the solid walls of a very real, claustrophobic work space, the kind of work-driven world that doesn’t really allow people to thrive as individuals but also has this mythic, dreamlike side, with uncertain boundaries and possibilities.” The resulting book is lush and wild and magical and also weirdly human. Ellsworth felt that human tug too: “Each character came to have significant personal meaning to me, and the act of drawing them felt like stepping into their shoes and gaining understanding and empathy with someone outside of myself.... It forced me to discover just how personal the process of adapting an author’s story can be.”