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Michael DeForge: Making the Most Exciting Work in Comics Today

When something truly unique and unexpected hits the comics world, there’s always a strange silence that takes up the aftermath. Michael DeForge is sitting in that silence right now, after hitting comics like an atom bomb over the past year and a half or so. Blisteringly fast, shockingly young, and seemingly intent on making appearances in every place that matters in the medium (up to and including Marvel Gosh Darn Comics), his was a gloriously unavoidable presence in 2010, and has only sprawled out further this year. If you were even half looking for something new in comics over the last little while, odds are DeForge was there or at least nearby, with work as pop and user-friendly as it is bizarre and challenging.Perhaps because it’s a medium made up of so many different aesthetic elements, comics is typically slow to recognize just what is attractive or innovative or worthy of notice about its rising stars. Often it’s not until the influence of the comics kicks in and particular inflections start trickling down onto others’ work that anyone really sits up and notices that this is what makes whoever it is special.

Though Deforge has been around the regional Toronto comics scene a long time, and got wider exposure with the Top Shelf-fronted, Fort Thunder-inflected Cave Adventure web serial, it was the first issue of the one-man anthology Lose that really made him blow up. Wrapped in the most iconic cover of the past five years, with a glossy cartooned surface polished to such a sheen that it makes black and white and gray seem almost blinding, Lose #1 is DeForge the young and promising cartoonist stating his origin and intent in no uncertain terms, sifting rapid-fire through the encyclopedia of his own influences while putting forth work unlike anything else the medium’s really played host to before.

The first issue of Lose is a barrage of originality, the work of an artist whose love of the medium is so obvious and effusive that it threatens to spill out of the panels. The pages careen from gag strips to autobiography to framing sequences to satire without warning, bound together by the energy underlying it all more than any common thread of story.

Deforge’s work is never anything but a pleasure to read – approachable and wonderfully cartooned in a style that festoons the simplest of shapes and forms in blankets of baroque linework – but Lose #1 is an uncomfortable thing nonetheless. It’s not the content of any one theme or story per se, more the effect of the whole, the asymmetrical approaches DeForge takes to familiar icons and modes of comics storytelling.

In the suite of superhero parodies that dominate the issue’s first half, sarcasm and genuine feeling tag in and out of the panels with such agility and rhythm that the reader can’t help but feel that they aren’t in an entirely accommodating place, especially if they have some kind of emotional investment in the characters being put under DeForge’s strange absurdist/literalist microscope.

On one page DeForge himself plays the “depressed cartoonist,” these days at least as iconic a figure as the audience for his self-pity, the Green Lantern. “I can’t rely on anything lately,” DeForge laments, and in his infinite patience the emerald hero smiles and responds “Well, you always got me, buddy!” It’s a pointed evocation of the comics enthusiast’s tendency to live in other, perhaps less healthy worlds, and only becomes more so when DeForge ends the conversation by apologizing for his mopiness. “You know I think the world of what you and the Corps do,” he mumbles.

It’s a rather stunning moment: the alt-cartoonist archetype, printed in black and white, shambling around a messy apartment and talking about his feelings, admitting not only to the superhero fan’s enhanced belief in affecting silliness, but to his admiration for it. How then is the reader to take the facing page, which depicts “Young Green Lantern” using his magic wishing ring to construct nude Wonder Woman facsimiles? Or the alternately hilarious and haunting visualization of the Justice League as a dysfunctional family that hits a few pages after that?

DeForge is not alone as a young art-comics maker with a big admiration for hero comics, or even a significant aesthetic debt to some of their artists, but it’s never been put directly on the page this way before, let alone threaded in with the deep psychological probing that alt-comics usually reserve for things like sexual compulsion or father issues.

The issue’s most memorable moment, however, comes in the issue’s feature story. A sprawling ramble through ideas about the fundamental nastiness that underlies comics, it’s the tale of a harrowing descent into Hell, which under DeForge’s pen is a vast, black landscape dominated by a bar shaped like the head of Ernie Bushmiller’s iconic newspaper-strip kid Nancy. Hell, as it happens, is inhabited by a lineup of comics’ greatest artists’ creations, from Dick Tracy and Astro Boy to Krazy Kat and Jack Kirby’s Mr. Fantastic to more recent sinners like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Gary Panter’s Jimbo.

The bar’s TV, Bullwinkle (of “Rocky and” fame) explains, are “fixed on a locked groove… your smile, burned into every frame, will begin to appear ridiculous and unnatural… so unfamiliar you’ll question whether it was ever actually you there at all. ‘Could I ever have felt that way?’ you’ll ask.” By the end of the issue DeForge himself – who, pages before, drew himself into his own comic, let’s not forget – has shown up in the bar.

There’s subtext here, parallels with failed romantic relationships being easy enough to read into quite a few of Lose #1′s best moments, but the most urgent message is on the surface: comics are a static medium that all too often bind creator and creation together in an increasingly alien dance of endless repetition. The point’s been made before, but rarely so elegantly, and perhaps never in a comic so self-aware and able to engage the eyes as it engages the intellect.

Of course, there’s a way out of the endless cycle that DeForge’s Hell paints comics as: simply embracing change, and doing something new before the last thing gets old. It might be a stretch to read Lose #1 as the explanation for DeForge’s speed-demon comics making pace, but whatever the reason that pace exists, and he burns through new formal parameters as quickly as he does through the pages themselves. In a very real way, DeForge is conducting what thus far has been a barnstorming career without a safety net. Though Lose provides him with an identifiable “home base” series, he’s done much more work outside it than in it, and he’s also never sustained a single story long enough to give him the place on the bookshelves that so many emerging cartoonists rely on to prop up their careers.

DeForge makes anthology shorts, newspaper contributions, minicomics, art zines, Lose issues, and plenty of outside-comics illustration work at a speed that not even the most hardened mainstream journeymen can approach, with the biggest common thread provided by his immediately recognizable drawing style. He’s a broad cartoonist of the first rate, the elements of his (most often tightly gridded) panels usually formed of a few simple shapes, outlined with sure, thin marks that never waver in their exactitude.

But DeForge is no less a detail man, and the backgrounds of his panels frequently swim with meticulous, OCD space-filling linework that somehow never clashes with the bold forms placed up front. Under a cartoonist less sure of himself this approach could get close to paradoxical, but DeForge’s panels are so vividly imagined, so unique in what they depict and how they depict it, that everything hangs together, the minimal and the maximal forming a richly living whole.

The apex of this “more is less” aesthetic can be seen in Cold Heat Special #7, an all-lettering zine DeForge did in 2009 as an entry in the series of ancillary comics to Ben Jones and Frank Santoro’s Cold Heat comic. On its pages the most familiar forms of all – namely the shapes of the letters in our alphabet – are injected with a massive dose of DeForge’s signature intricate slime. Muck drips from vowels and consonants burst with oozing splatter, but the shapes themselves bear up easily under the onslaught of marks and texture, the artist’s individual style never for a second obscuring what he’s saying.

All the way on the other end of the spectrum from the Cold Heat special are DeForge’s other experiments in pure style as content, a pair of silkscreened zines called Wet Cough and Maxim’s Top 100, done in the wake of the first Lose. Both deal with issues of gender and identity, albeit in an extremely roundabout way. Wet Cough, the more substantial of the two, is an eight-page figure animation of a nude male humanoid who appears to be made out of crude oil donning a blonde wig and pushing yolk-like vestigial breasts out of his chest before retracting his penis. Maxim’s Top 100 is a series of 20 portraits of “sexy women” run through DeForge’s stylistic filter at its most merciless: Bar Rafaeli becomes a sloppy Dagwood sandwich with eyes, Swedish pop songstress Robyn an abstract dappling of light, and former DC Comics editor-in-chief Jenette Kahn (!) a pop-eyed collection of drips and distended shapes.

As with everything DeForge draws, there are deeper messages that reward the search for them (gender is flux, female stars are reduced to series of exaggerated features as grotesque as cartoons) – but they’re hardly put on display, feeling more like motivators for the artwork and less like didactic proclamations. A far more apparent “point” to the silkscreen books can be found in their format: DeForge uses the smeary solids of screened color stupendously, with bright blasts of pure tone spreading across the page, literalizing the impulse for raw, wet substance that so obsesses his linework. Here, perhaps, is the impetus for DeForge’s constant format switch-ups: while Lose has been a forum for him to tell any kind of story he wants right from the beginning, there’s far more to comics than story, and much of it can’t be done in black-and-white alt-comics pamphlets.

DeForge’s output evinces a keen awareness of his work as product, with each new work’s mode of presentation perfectly mirroring its content. Massive black and white and one-color pages belong in art-comics newspapers like Toronto’s Free Drawings and Brooklyn’s Smoke Signal; brightly colored gross-out shorts find their home at Vice Magazine’s website; inky, experimental work gets picked up by rawdog art-comix tributaries Wowee Zonk and Studygroup 12; a strip on disaffected youth and giant-creature battles is a natural for Fort Thunder house anthology Monster; and a bootleg Spider-Man comic called Peter’s Muscle, prominently featuring sex between the hero’s chubby nemesis Doctor Octopus and his geriatric Aunt May, can only make it as an old-skool xeroxed minizine.

However, for all his head-spinning formal play and GPS-necessary scene-hopping, a strong aesthetic unity runs through DeForge’s work, with the same group of closely related concepts played out in various arenas to various effects. Almost all DeForge’s short works deal with a few overriding themes, chief of which is, unsurprisingly, change (along with the almost-always bizarre and unsettling process of transformation it necessitates).

As Bullwinkle told us in DeForge’s breakout work, the flat cuteness of cartoons can all too easily become grotesque, as when a stray cat undergoes an unholy fusion with a Casper-esque friendly ghost to become a gelatinous monstrosity by the end of a Free Drawings strip. It works the opposite way too: in a Smoke Signal two-pager a group of smiling, milky, balloon-like creatures emerge from a nasty-looking bug’s carapace to the delight of a kindly old man, before flocking around him and inducing paralysis in preparation for what’s certain to be a horrible predatory action. Though the surfaces seem harmless and familiar enough, there’s always something twisted underneath them, a dark inside that the outside can’t quite conceal no matter how brightly it glows.

DeForge deals almost exclusively in “snap-ending” stories of one type or another, with relatively placid beginnings leading through increasingly gruesome middles to the really gruesome bits at the end. It’s a fairly predictable formula, one that’s been common currency in comics since EC Comics popularized it in the gory days of the pre-censorship 1950s. But as with the ECs, DeForge’s comics are less about what happens at the end and more about the procession that leads there, the movement through what emerges as a fundamentally dark and malevolent universe. Beneath the stylish cartooning and even the awesome-dude nastiness of the grim fates doled out to the inhabitants of the pages is something much harsher, a lurking knowledge that sticky ends are the only kind to be had in DeForge’s work.

The other big theme to jump out from DeForge’s comics to date is that of the helplessness of youth. In a way this is just necessary, given that the 23 year old artist’s unjust-universe comics routinely feature young people – but it’s such a constant that it’s worth noting in and of itself. The old man in the Smoke Signal strip is overwhelmed by the milkbugs as his teenage caretaker knocks at the door to no reply, oblivious to what’s going on inside. Spider-Man is forced to accept his aunt’s taking up with a sociopath in Peter’s Muscle because she’s his legal guardian. Even in DeForge’s (shockingly) officially-sanctioned Spider-Man comic, a two-page strip in Marvel’s Strange Tales anthology, teenage superheroes flee the scene when powers they can’t fully control melt one of their teammates into a puddle of sentient water.

All of those situations are played at least somewhat for laughs, but Lose #2, which cemented DeForge’s status as one of the strongest young voices in comics, is dead serious. All but four pages of the issue are taken up with a single feature-length horror story detailing a few days in the life of a suburban boy who makes friends with a monstrous waist-high spider that goes around wearing a decaying horse’s head like a hat. The plot is simplicity itself: the spider, fiercely loyal to the boy, puts its apocalyptic power in his service, giving him rides home, saving him from bullies and his older brother, and making him feel loved as his distracted parents alternate between the worlds of work and television.

Of course, it all comes at a terrible price – the bullies and the brother end up in the hospital with severe acid burns on their faces, the spider slips away to lay a sac full of young, and in the end these just-hatched maggots swarm across the ecstatic boy’s face as a group of adult spiders lay waste to the town. DeForge fills the comic’s pages with pointed allusions to contemporary life, with innocuous posters tacked up in the school classrooms, American flags fluttering everywhere, and one kind “whose dad talks all retarded because of the war or something.” This is the war at home, the twisting innards of our everyday lives, the next step in the progression of children’s-power-fantasy comics that brought us superheroes and shonen manga. Not only do DeForge’s cute kids deserve the black and squirming world that crashes down on their heads, they welcome it. They make friends with the evil.

Combined, the themes of realist urban invasion and doomed modern kids form DeForge’s strongest political statement; separately, they take up his two most compelling aesthetic works. The record-album sized Spotting Deer, a luxurious 12-page comics magazine that feels more like an artist’s monograph than a “one-shot”, is one thing above all else – DeForge’s first feature story in full color.

Quite frankly, it’s a stunningly beautiful comic from the cover on in, with DeForge’s skill in black and white comics art exploding into new, fresher, bracingly real-feeling life, the boldness of his flat, bright reds and yellows counterpointed by the subtlety the color takes on when it’s put to one of DeForge’s ultra-detailed, fine-line closeup shots. The comic is simply too hi-fi for Lose, which these days is more and more frequently named as one of the final bastions of a dying art – namely the black and white pamphlet anthology.

For its part, the story might be the chief oddity in a library full of them. An anthropological study on a massive, deer-shaped species of highly intelligent slug that’s moved from forest habitats to status as an urban pest and is now in the process of integrating itself into Canadian society, it never reaches for a punchline or breaks the clinical narrative voice for a twist ending, playing its strange, “informative” narration out until the comic’s end.

The deer’s social groupings, its biological processes, its impact on art and its potential impact on technology are all surveyed in exacting detail, accompanied by panoramic cutaway views of complicated innards or screen shots from early deer-based video games. This kind of material functions best on the level of weirdness for weirdness’s sake, but there’s a strange deadpan humor to something that presents such an absurd topic so seriously. And the final few pages, which take an optimistic, integrationist tone as the sludgly, oily deer-slugs ooze their way down abandoned streets and up the edifices of buildings, are unsettling in a restrained, (dis)quiet way that makes a nice departure for DeForge.

DeForge’s most recent comic SM is also a 12-page story, and the combination of it and Spotting Deer can almost be seen as a kind of Lose #2.5 — a 24-page bookmark of DeForge’s artistic development that ended up sprawling beyond the scope of a B&W pamphlet. That reading of the two books works mostly because if Spotting Deer is Lose‘s weirdo innovativeness without the gut wrenching, the xeroxed zine SM is the artist’s darker side completely unrestrained. It’s another gorgeously drawn comic, printed in blue lines on white paper, and its large size allows DeForge to get more expansive and graphically bold with his art than ever before. Gone are the tight grids and tiny panels of previous comics, replaced by simple layouts and spot-on sequencing that moves from animation to hard-psych drug/makeout scenes and back.

DeForge’s drawing, usually hard-shelled and glossy, arranged in perfectly regimented panel rows, softens up a bit here, with the stenchcore drips becoming flowing rivulets of pure melted snow and the bizarre cartoon abstractions approaching figurative realism. If it’s not a sexy comic (and it really really isn’t), SM is most certainly a sensual one, with squishy claustrophobia replaced by frosty, crystalline purity.

Of course, that softening of the art only increases its body-horror aspect, which takes full effect in SM. It’s a brutal quick-hit story about two adolescent girls who discover the hallucinogenic properties of the snowmen on a reclusive (and naked) old loner’s property out in the woods, only to meet a doom they’re too high to do anything at all about. The fluid rush of the trip sequences, which open up the panels to great effect and feature a zipatone-and-nudity center spread that Jim Steranko would be proud of, only increases the splattery impact of the final pages, which in turn zero in on sudden death with a truly terrifying focus. It’s a virtuoso performance on the formal level, with the rhythm of comics sequencing used to great dramatic effect, and the story is the best, most effective reading of DeForge’s surrealist teen-horror theme yet.

Right now, Michael DeForge is producing the most exciting kind of work comics can contain, work that exceeds the potential every previous release laid out while hinting at new, higher potentials to be exceeded next time. Quite simply, there’s no more fascinating artist to follow right now. DeForge produces new comics seemingly by the week, but though his body of work has swelled to a massive size over the past while, he’s still a catch-him-when-you-can artist, a fringe figure who works at every conceivable outer edge of the medium (despite those two Marvel pages).

To examine DeForge’s work is to examine the best of an entire world – to tour the various iterations of modern art-comix in the path of an expert, massively entertaining trailblazer who by all indications is just getting started.

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