Secret Life by Theo Ellsworth and published by Drawn+Quarterly is an adaptation of the 2004 short story by Jeff VanderMeer. The medium is clear: a graphic novel of intertwining chapters all done in Ellsworth’s haunting inks. The genre, however, refuses to allow itself to be pinned down even though the story stands so boldly. At times, it is a dystopian science fiction of the white-collar world. At other times, it is magical realism, almost playful. Still other times reveal the story to be dark surrealism, again to the depressive nature of white-collar work. Overall, Secret Life is something all to itself.
Secret Life begins with a description of the office building, which is the setting as well as a looming character that works to dominate the lives of everyone within it. Beyond the building, there are endless fields of fast food, shopping centers, and unclaimed forest, except to the south. The south is a wall of darkness that drowns out even the stars in its gloom.
Ellsworth’s art brings VanderMeer’s descriptive words to visions in the citizens within the building. They range from the masked elites of the top floor who are rarely seen by anyone else in the building to drones of the second floor, whose language has become fast and humming for efficiency during their busy hours, to the janitors of the basement, who, in their philosophy, are the true masters of the place.
The tone of Secret Life, which is as fanciful as it is mundane, is experiences through the eyes of several characters each telling their own stories. One works in an office so isolated that she only sees a single person each day, who drops off papers to be stamped even though she has no idea what the stamping accomplishes. She loses her grip on the humanity ignoring her and instead communes with the mice, learning their squeaking language. Other characters are a secretary who chooses not to investigate the mystery of what happens to disappearing executives, a new janitor who does investigate the mystery of vines creeping through the building, the worker to planted the vine and left it to grow, and a changeling who blends in as long as he can since the office workers will destroy anyone who is different from them.
Ellsworth’s art fits the strange, yet so familiar, life of the office. All done by Rapidograph pen, the heavy inks stand out boldly on the page. Backgrounds are layered with intense textures, giving a depth to the panels that draw in the reader’s eye to the point it can feel like drowning. Characters are drawn only slightly cartoony in some panels and horrific, impossible monsters in others, dancing between realism and a zine style that compliments the composite world of the mundane office and the magic that goes on within, both spritely and fun with a vine conquering the ventilation system to fill the building with its earthy scent and drop fruit on managers’ heads as well as dark in the beast consuming anyone promoted to the top.