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Philly-linked artist adds life to award-winning book

Junior is an unlikely hero: an intense, impoverished, moody nerd of an outsider who dates the prettiest girl at school.

Junior is an unlikely hero: an intense, impoverished, moody nerd of an outsider who dates the prettiest girl at school.

But Junior, the Native American narrator of this year's One Book, One Philadelphia selection, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, would not be half as dynamic, half as alive - half as animated - without Seattle-based cartoonist Ellen Forney's 65 illustrations, doodlings, comic panels, and assorted visual asides that enrich Alexie's National Book Award-winning novel.

After all, Junior, who is growing up on a reservation in Washington state, is an aspiring cartoonist who deals with his cultural and racial identity crisis - not to mention puberty - through his art.

His voice is his art, suggests Forney, who grew up in Philly and who returns for a slew of appearances this week in Center City, including a One Book-related event Saturday at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library.

That means every doodle that appears in True Diary should feel like an extension of Junior's very soul.

"I had to inhabit Junior . . . really get inside his skin," Forney says in a phone interview of the challenge posed by Alexie's book, which is told entirely from Junior's point of view.

"These drawings are supposed to be made by [Junior]. They're all from his sketchbook, they're about things that have been on his mind," including his take on his geometry teacher, Mr. P., described by Alexie as "a weird-looking dude."

Forney expands on Alexie's words with a half-page drawing of a Mr. Potato Head-ish man with a large nose. Descriptive terms - "4' tall," "bald AND dandruff (!)", "nose hair" - surround the poor, weird-looking guy.

Forney, a 1985 Masterman High School grad, says she and Alexie had a rich, creative back-and-forth during the nearly three years it took to complete True Diary.

"We came at [the book] from a lot of different angles. . . . Sometimes he would have specific ideas," she says. Alexie also gave her the freedom to explore and contribute "things on my own inspiration."

Seattle cartoonist Jim Woodring, creator of the wordless, surreal comic series Frank, says Forney's pieces "work perfectly" in conjunction with Alexie's writing.

"I think she did a very good job of providing him with exactly what he needed," says Woodring whose graphic novel, Congress of the Animals, is due this spring.

"These are not just illustrations, they are extensions of the text."

Forney's colleagues say she was a perfect choice for Alexie's book because her own work is infused with a child's wonder and openness.

That's literally true of her first book, I Was Seven in '75, a collection of strips originally published in alternative Seattle newspapers the Rocket and the Stranger.

"It's about my growing up . . . [in a] whacked family in the era of beanbag chairs and shag rugs and nudist camps," says Forney, who describes her parents as "more mod '70s experimental than hippie."

Forney is proud to be an apologist for a decade so derided by much of America.

"If I had an agenda for I was Seven in '75, it was to give some sense of respect and love for the '70s," she says.

"I think a lot of good stuff came out of that era, a positive attitude and openness to new ideas and social movements."

She adds that the '70s helped empower many women, including her mother, "a housewife who decided to go to med school and become a doctor."

Forney, who teaches comics and literature courses at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, says that, although she has been drawing "as long as I can remember," it never occurred to her to pursue her avocation as a career.

She studied psychology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and took a job at a psychiatric ward in Seattle with ambitions of becoming a therapist.

Then she had an epiphany.

"A cashier at a bookstore asked me if I was a cartoonist when she saw this Tasmanian devil I had drawn on my check. And it was like a bolt of lightning," Forney recalls.

"It really was at that moment that the answer came to me - as if from above," she adds, laughing.

Forney's earnestness and her willingness to laugh at herself can be disarming and endearing, says Tom Spurgeon, editor of the comics website And, he adds, it comes through in her art.

"Her work is an extension of her personality almost more than any other cartoonist I know," he says. "Her cartoons are really vibrant; her ink is bold and captures your attention."

Eric Reynolds, an editor and marketing guru at Fantagraphics Books, which has published three of Forney's collections, agrees.

"There is a lot of humor, a lot of positivity in the autobiographical material," he says. "She's funny, outgoing . . . and an entertainer - and it comes across."

Reynolds says Forney's tone bucks the current trend of comics drenched in irony or spiked with snark.

Forney maintains that tone even when dealing with difficult or risqué subjects such as heroin addiction or S&M sex as in Lust: Kinky Online Personal Ads from Seattle's The Stranger, a collection of cartoons inspired by such ads.

"I would say that my work is embracing," Forney says. "I try to be pretty straightforward and open. A lot of people will tell me that reading my comics is like reading a letter from a friend."

Her most recent collection, I Love Led Zeppelin, contains a series of hilarious "how-to" comics, including "How to Sew an Amputated Finger Back On," "How To Twirl Your Tassels in Opposite Directions," "How to Become a Successful Call Girl," and "How to Smoke Pot and Stay Out of Jail." (Forney says "that's one I'm particularly proud of.")

In each, Forney interviews real-life experts (a hand surgeon, a burlesque dancer, a call girl, and a civil rights lawyer) and transforms their answers into a page-size one-panel comic.

Forney's style is unusual - most cartoonists use four or five panels in a linear strip. With a single panel, she says, she can allow a story to emerge as the reader surveys the page.

Philly writer John Arcudi, author of the graphic novel A God Somewhere, says Forney's pieces pack an immense amount of information into a fun fable.

"She has an amazing storytelling talent, which a lot of people either don't see or underestimate," he says.

Arcudi says that whether she tackles personal issues or writes about odd professions, Forney keeps things honest - and joyful.

"She talks about what it means to be a human being," he says, "rather than weep about her emotional pain or poke you in the ribs with politics."