by Bevan Thomas
At one of Cloudscape Comics’ Wednesday meetings, I sat down to chat with Jeff Ellis, the organization’s founder, as around us numerous fellow cartoonists worked on their own projects.
In many ways, Jeff’s appearance captures the archetype of the “geek” in the best possible way; a slim, bespectacled bright-eyed man with a mouth rarely far from a gentle smile. He is approachable and unassuming, even shy, and yet when he speaks, his words are confident, thoughtful, and earnest. Dedicated to his own projects, but always interested in the works of others, welcoming to new associates but always loyal to old ones; perhaps he above anyone else embodies the creativity and openness of Cloudscape.
“You’ve spent most of your life in Vancouver?” I asked.
“Yeah. I grew-up here. Though I did live for two and a half years in Japan, from 2004 to 2007.”
“What made you decide to go to Japan?”
At this question, Jeff dropped his gaze in slight embarrassment. “I wanted a fresh start.”
“A fresh start?”
“I’d graduated from college,” Jeff began, “a three-year program in graphic design, and couldn’t find a job. Any art job, I mean. I was working retail and was sick of it; I wanted a change. A friend of mine had gone to Japan before and had found it easy to get a teaching job; so she suggested I give it a shot.”
“Did you have an interest in Japan before talking with your friend?”
“Sure. Actually, I was studying the Japanese language at the time. I had been unemployed for a few months and another friend had recommended that I take a class since it would add structure to my life.”
“Yeah, it is really important to incorporate structure if your life is otherwise without it,” I said. “You must have adapted well to Japan, considering how long you stayed there. What about the country did you love the most?”
“I loved riding the trains to and from work; the subway and light rail system there is amazing!” Jeff smiled dreamily. “I also really loved that there were ancient Shinto shrines everywhere. If you ever needed a quiet place to meditate, there was always one nearby. Oh and the food; Japanese food is great! And I ain’t just talkin’ about sushi.” He laughed. “I loved oyako-don, tako-yaki, and yaki-nikku. I guess in general I loved the peace and tranquillity, and that everyday seemed a new adventure.”
“I lived in the city of Kofu within the prefecture of Yamanashi, not far from Mt. Fuji. I could see Fuji from my balcony and I used to teach at a school at the base of it. I drew surprisingly few comics while in Japan. I guess I took a break from my life in a lot of ways, but I did lots of paintings and even had a few gallery shows. I spent way too much time at the local gaijin bar, and watched lots of quality BBC with my mate Steve. I also travelled a lot. I went from Hokkaido to Nagasaki and covered all the four islands. There’s some really lovely places there.”
It was certainly easy to see Jeff’s love of the country. As he spoke of Japan, his voice rose in excitement and his eyes gazed past me, focused instead on some flickering memory of the Land of the Rising Sun.
“Then why did you decide to leave?” I asked.
My words snapped him back to the present. “I, uh, was living there for so long that I’d basically reached a point where I had to make a choice: was I going to permanently live in Japan or return to Vancouver? If I stayed much longer, I wouldn’t be leaving.”
“Obviously you chose Canada. Why?”
“I missed my family of course. I also missed new comics Wednesday, and fine meats and cheeses. One time when I went home for a visit to Vancouver, I went to a deli on Commercial Drive and had a giant focaccia sandwich. It was heaven. I also missed new release movies and TV shows when in Japan. I –heh– I remember watching Desperate Housewives on NHK simply because it was one of the few shows I could get in English in Japan.
“But I’m not sure if those were the real reasons.” Jeff sighed wistfully. “It’s hard to put into words. In many ways, Japan was the more rational choice: I’d started to put down roots there and there were not as many job prospects in Canada. And… uh…,” Jeff smiled bashfully, “it was amazing how many young pretty Japanese women are interested in someone just because he’s relatively tall and speaks English. But I think I just felt Vancouver was the right place to be. Being in Japan finally made me realize I wanted to be in Vancouver. It was really an intuitive choice.”
“Do you ever want to return?”
“Oh, yes. If I’d the money, I’d visit Japan once every six months.”
“For how long?”
“Probably for a month each time. Yeah, that’d be great.”
“So how soon after returning from Japan did you develop Cloudscape?”
“Pretty soon. Really Cloudscape came out of Japan. I didn’t know what to do with myself after I returned to Canada, so I decided to try to do some comics again.”
“It was the Vancouver Comics Jam that connected you to local cartoonists, wasn’t it?” I asked.
“Yeah. I heard about the Jam, and it sounded really neat, numerous comic artists meeting regularly to create comics. Actually, my girlfriend at the time wanted to take a look at it, and she didn’t want to go alone, so she convinced me to go as well. I met a lot of people at the Jam, a lot of people who became important to Cloudscape. I met Jack there too, who became my roommate for a while. So the Jam really ended-up having a big effect on my life.”
“What about the Jam inspired you to create Cloudscape?”
“I saw all these really talented individuals at the Comics Jam and felt that we could meet regularly to help develop our artistic abilities. Our meetings soon became a weekly event and then I started to think ‘hey, we have all of these artists making comics – rather than spending money to do our own individual works, why don’t we work together and pool our resources to publish something?’ That’s where Robots, Pine Trees, & Broken Hearts, our first anthology, came from; it was published in 2008 and doing that encouraged us to keep going.”
“Is Cloudscape the first organization of that nature you’ve been a part of?”
“Actually, no. I tried to do the same thing back when I was 18, but it failed.”
“I’m afraid I wasn’t as good at leading back then. We had meetings and discussed printing an anthology, but didn’t have enough submissions and couldn’t get enough people interested in participating. We were going to call the organization ‘Visible Trout’ because there was a Visible Trout model in the meeting room.”
“So not as grand a creation as Cloudscape has turned out to be.”
Jeff chuckled ruefully. “No, not at all. Cloudscape’s reached the size that now it goes where it wants to go. That’s both scary and exciting.”
“It’s scary when the thing you’ve created takes on a life of its own because it means you no longer have control over it. But it’s encouraging to know that Cloudscape would continue to do things without my involvement, such as if I were too busy or moved out of Vancouver. Cloudscape would remain as a fixture in this city; it’s a legacy that I’m happy to leave.”
“Do you enjoy being the leader, or would you rather be in some other capacity?”
Jeff paused for a moment before speaking. “Initially I would have said ‘no, I don’t like being a leader.’ However, now I enjoy being in control. Heh, sometimes I say I’m a recovering perfectionist.”
“Well, I have noticed you seem to often take on a leadership role with your friends. I mean, you’re generally the person who organizes social events and brings people together.”
“Well, I’m used to leading,” Jeff said. “I’m an elder sibling, with two younger sisters and one younger brother, so I’m used to taking charge, and have often ended-up as the leader in my peer group. I really like bringing people together, something I strive for. Some of that started in Japan, where I would spearhead Christmas parties for foreigners who weren’t going back to Canada, trying to make little events happen.”
“Had you always wanted to be a comic book artist?”
“Yeah.” Jeff grinned. “I always wanted to be a comic artist. I made comics before I knew I was making comics.”
“What do you mean?”
“My dad’s a teacher and he brought home old math tests. The backs were blank and I drew on them. The pages were stapled together and on each stapled test, all the pictures I drew were of the same story, appearing in sequence.”
“What were your stories about?”
“Originally I used cartoon characters like the Ninja Turtles and the Real Ghostbusters; I was a kid,” he said sheepishly. “Then, after a while, I created my own characters.”
“Well, when I was 13, me and my friend would make superhero stories together. A lot of them were about a woman superhero called the Raven who fought crime in Vancouver.”
“Why a woman?”
Jeff almost blushed. “I was 13; I liked to draw pretty girls. She wasn’t based on Native American stories or anything. I was inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe poem. It was just kid stuff.”
“I know what you mean,” I replied. “When I was young, I created stories where a dog dressed as Superman fought a tiger dressed as the Shredder.”
“You read a lot of superhero comics as a kid,” I said.
“Yeah. I was addicted to Spider-Man until I became 23, and liked a lot of other Marvel characters as well. Also Batman.”
“I was a big fan of Alpha Flight,” I said. “Since they were Canadian superheroes.”
“I wanted to be big on Alpha Flight; it was neat that they were Canadian,” Jeff said. “When I was 16 or 17, I got a letter printed in one of the comic’s issues, showing how I’d redesign the characters so the maple leaves on their costumes would look more like the one on on the Canadian flag. But as a whole, the characters and stories in Alpha Flight didn’t attract my attention.”
“Why was Spider-Man your favourite superhero?”
“Well, heh, Spider-Man’s an awkward guy who doesn’t fit in and who, originally, had glasses. That resonated with me. Some friends took the first panel from the first Spider-Man story, where Peter’s classmates are making fun of him and he’s lonely, and they replaced the name ‘Peter Parker’ with ‘Jeff Ellis’ and it really worked.”
“Did you ever try to break into mainstream comics?” I asked.
“Yeah. It was the year before I went to Japan, back when I was unemployed. I took my portfolio down to the San Diego ComicCon. It taught me I wasn’t ready for a career as a comic artist.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I talked to a lot of editors; showed my portfolio to a lot of people. The feedback I got back wasn’t too positive.”
“That was quite a few years ago, and your art has certainly improved since then. You never had the desire to try again?”
“Well, I’ve lost a lot of my interest in superhero comics and in working with other people’s characters, so working for Marvel or DC doesn’t really appeal to me anymore.”
“Who would you call your biggest artistic influences?”
“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.”
“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.