Grace Ellis brings the past to life in ‘Flung Out of Space’
The Columbus comics writer teamed with Baltimore artist Hannah Templer for a new book exploring the untold history of author Patricia Highsmith
About five years ago, Columbus comics writer Grace Ellis attended a Broadway production of the Paula Vogel-penned play “Indecent,” which centers in part on a historical theater controversy.
In the days and weeks that followed, Ellis toyed with the possibility of adapting the play for a comic, eventually scrapping the idea after rightly surmising that the story derived much of its strength from the way it explored the history of theater from the actual stage.
“And so, I started wondering if there was some sort of comics-equivalent to that,” Ellis said in a mid-April interview. “Comics history is such a mystery, because it was such a low rent artform. ... But I kind of remembered that Patricia Highsmith might have done something in comics, and the more I dove into it, the more it became clear it was a hidden history on purpose. She hated [the form] so much that she literally burned her comics and all of the evidence that she ever worked in it. It’s very dramatic, I know, which is great for a character.”
Highsmith, best known as the author behind psychological thrillers such as The Talented Mr. Ripley, takes center stage in Ellis’ latest comic, Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith (Surely), completed in collaboration with Baltimore artist Hannah Templer and out today (Tuesday, April 19). Over the course of the book, Ellis presents a condensed, lightly fictionalized account bringing into focus some of the lesser-known aspects of Highsmith’s story, including her work in the comic world, a brief relationship with Stan Lee and her unending struggles living as a queer woman in 1950s America.
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In developing the book, Ellis started by telling Highsmith’s story to anyone who would listen — Lyft drivers, hairstylists and friends both willing and not — gradually developing a pacing and a beat, as well as an understanding of the characters and emotional peaks to which listeners were typically drawn.
After completing an initial draft script shaped by these retellings, Ellis connected with Templer, the artist behind the web comic “Cosmoknights." The two quickly established a natural bond, which they accentuated by creating Spotify playlists for one another, with the idea being a shared soundtrack could help the two exist in a similar headspace as they worked on the project, with Ellis’ musical contribution leaning heavily on 1950s songs, including specific tracks cited in biographies of Highsmith.
“Honestly, the closer you work with an artist, the better the book is, in my experience,” said Ellis, who received her introduction to Highsmith via her novel The Price of Salt (later republished as Carol). “We would talk through individual panels, looking at major things and then right down to where [Highsmith] is looking in a panel, which is so granular but pays off in huge ways.”
Though the two worked closely on the project for months, Ellis and Templer have never met in person due to the ongoing pandemic, which also exerted a pull on the book in subtler ways, such as the lockdown-induced comfort the two display throughout with stillness.
“It’s a script that isn’t afraid to have quiet moments,” said Ellis, who shared some of the tricks that comics writers can employ to control reader pacing. “If you want quote-unquote ‘good page turn,’ then you put a question at the bottom of the last panel before you turn the page, even if it’s as simple as, ‘Who said that?’ … It’s something small to keep it moving, in a way. And when you don’t do that, there’s a certain effect, as well, and it will slow [the reader] down a little bit.”
Ellis’ research for Flung Out of Space consisted of reading multiple biographies on Highsmith, as well as Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, a book in which the late author purports to educate readers in the craft. “But it was really just about her own neuroticism,” Ellis said, and laughed. “And I loved that. I felt it was really informative.”
The picture of Highsmith that emerged wasn't always pretty, though, with these various texts calling attention to a number of the author's personal flaws, including her relentless womanizing and her comfort with verbalizing racism, misogyny and antisemitism — traits from which Ellis refused to shy in an effort to give readers a fuller portrait.
“Honestly, it was pretty devastating to learn, and the more you learn, the more devastating it becomes,” Ellis said. “But you can’t change the past, and she’s not alive anymore, so you just have to address all of her prejudices head-on and make sure they’re part of the reader’s understanding of who she was, because it’s the truth. … But this is an important story. So, I decided to tell the story and not be super nice to her about it. Also, the fact that it’s a comic book and she hated comic books is a nice little nose tweak in and of itself, I think.”