Ant-Man: Cartoonist Michael DeForge On His Graphic Novel ‘Ant Colony’ [Interview]
A prophetic child, full of microscopic earthworms and coated in pollen by bees. The child's nihilistic, sociopath of a father. A cowardly police officer. A pair of homosexuals beginning to drift apart. An infertile female. These are the ants of Michael DeForge's graphic novel Ant Colony, the collected, book form version of his once-serialized strip Ant Comic.
Readers follow them through the weird, black comedy of the waning days of their home colony—some of which is caused by the ants themselves, most of which is due to a war with a colony of red ants—as these survivors wander away and consider forming their own, new colony.
DeForge's ants are his own, centaur-shaped, many-legged creatures with human-ish faces of bright, primary colors and visible organs shining through their black exoskeletons. Their world is full of strangely-designed insects, ranging from bees shaped like the sort a young child might draw, and a giant, human-shaped, scary H.R. Giger goddess of a queen ant.
Despite their shapes, his ants live, think and act like humans...or is human life maybe not so different from that of ants? That's one of the many existential questions one can meditate on while reading Ant Colony, when one's not digging the semi-psychedelic character designs or the razor sharp sit-com gags (Typical punchline? "Should we kill this baby?").
DeForge is currently touring in support of the book, and we took the opportunity to ask him where these his strange insects came from, how his gag strip about ants evolved into a sweeping epic and how he learned to draw like Michael DeForge.
ComicsAlliance: First, I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about your influences in general? One neat thing about your comics is that they look like your comics, and a reader familiar with your work can pretty much identify a Michael DeForge comic as a Michael DeForge comic immediately, without confusing it with anyone else's.
Michael DeForge: I learned to draw off of the comic strip collections my parents had around—Bloom County, Far Side, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes. I read superhero comics for a while and tried to draw like that, then my tastes broadened a bit in junior high and high school. Eventually I got into Marc Bell and Matt Brinkman, as well as this poster group from Montreal called Seriopop, and that really affected how I wanted to draw for a while.
I'm influenced by a lot of different artists, I guess. Hideshi Hino, Jack Kirby, Derek Jarman, Eduardo Muñoz Bachs, Prince, Mary Blair, Saul Steinberg and Mark Newgarden have all been very important to me during formative points in my life.
CA: Drawn and Quarterly made a point of noting your association with Adventure Time, which does sound like a hell of a day job, in their press release for the book. I was wondering if you feel your work in animation has influenced or changed the way you make or think about comics at all?
MD: I do props and effects on the show, as well as some other side stuff. Working on it has made me a much better cartoonist. When I started on the show, I would get revisions from Andy Ristaino, and now I get them from Matt Forsythe and Adam Muto, and they're all such smart, elegant cartoonists. I learn a lot from working with them. I'll spend a long time overdrawing something and then with a few simple lines they can show me a solution that's one million times more efficient.
The type of drawing the show requires me to do is really different from how I approach my comics, though. The show requires me to draw everything with depth in mid—how each object or character exists on a physical plane—and I've been going the opposite way with my comics, where I'm just flattening everything out as much as I can.
CA: Can we start talking about Any Colony by talking about ants? One of the first things one might notice about the ants in the comic is that they are pretty original in their design. Can you tell us a little bit about where your rather idiosyncratic (black) ants—nine legs, some visible organs, differently-colored, human-like faces—came from?
MD: There wasn't a lot to it. I was working on sketches of bugs one day and I just liked the way those designs looked.
CA: The red ants look more traditionally "ant-like." Was that simply to contrast the two kinds of ants, with the ones the readers relate to being more human-like, and the ants they war against being more alien and insect-like?
MD: I wanted the red ants to be designed as if they were the inverse of the black ants. The red ants to have more "human" proportions, where they walk upright on two legs, but instead of having relatable/readable faces, their expressions are always to be left blank.
I like the idea that there could be some separate graphic novel where the focus was on all the disastrous things happening to this totally different colony, but we're seeing the edges of it happening and the red ants themselves are completely inscrutable.
CA: All of the various bugs in the book tend to look very alien from their real-world counterparts—particularly the big, weird, elaborate queen ant—but also look or feel about "right" too. The centipede might look like a stretch limo, but it's still really long with lots of segments. The spiders have the heads of cartoon canines, but are still basically spherical monsters with eight thin legs.
I understand that a lot of these design decisions were merely what felt right to you when drawing, and you mentioned that they were rather intuitive. Did you go through a process with each? Were there various spiders, for example, before you decided on the look of those in the final comic?
MD: No, the spider thing came really early on. I liked drawing these goofy, Tex Avery-looking dogs. A lot of those choices, like the centipede limo, just looked funny when I drew them, so I went with them. I'm very into awkwardly constructed characters, and I think the limo is a good example of that.
CA: Similarly, a lot of the insect facts feel true and not-quite-right at the same time, kind of like playground insect lore, to the point where I found myself looking up things like whether or not Sweet 'n Low was actually poisonous to ants. Did you concern yourself much with entomological correctness, which I'm pretty sure isn't actually a word, or research ant behavior at all?
MD: I didn't. I tried to stick only to the weird, vague facts that I half-remembered (like the urban myth about Sweet 'n Low) and spin everything out from there. In fact, when working on the comic, it felt important to me to not read too much about the makeup of actual ant colonies so it wouldn't affect how I was setting everything up too much.
CA: Were certain characters or types of bugs more fun to draw than others?
MD: I loved drawing the spiders. I sort of wish I could have done a whole narrative just about the spiders from the book. Maybe I will one day.
CA: I understand the comic originally started as a planned comic strip that you would run online and in some college newspapers, but nothing ever came of the latter, and thus you were free to abandon the individual strip format.
The final book really holds together remarkably well though, as if it was always intended to be a graphic novel. How far were you into the project before you began regarding it as a whole, rather than distinct pieces of a whole?
MD: I tried to think of each installment as its own, unique unit—like, each page has its own color scheme and rhythm and still kind of "concludes" in the last panel. But yeah, it only took me five or six strips before I started to realize a larger narrative was forming, and that the comics stopped being self-contained. That tends to happen to me.
CA: Had things worked out differently on that regard, could this work have been an ongoing one, or is it something you always envisioned with some sort of ending?
MD: I had an ending in mind for it very early on. I had the final strip in my head for a long time, but I just wasn't sure how I'd get there. I improvised my way there, basically.
CA: The pages that stayed with me the most were those two in which we see the black ant/red ant war, which is really an astounding piece of art and storytelling. One could stare at those pages for ages. How long did it take to draw them, and was it difficult to keep thinking of different ways for the ants to kill one another?
MD: Those took maybe two or three days instead of the day or day and a half that a strip normally takes me. I like filling space like that, though. I always like very dense drawings, to the point where I use it as a crutch.
I'm always tempted to do more splash pages like that. My comics are always on very rigid grids, and Ant Comic has such a fixed rhythm, so I feel like I have to earn it when I blow it up like that.
CA: The image that freaked me out the most in those pages is that, while there are a lot of ants tearing or knocking one another's heads off, there is one red ant with a black ant's head and a black ant with a red ant's head...they somehow switched heads in battle? What's up with that?
MD: I enjoy drawing crowd scenes, even if they're a pain in the ass, and like having small gags or easter eggs in those busy pages. I thought that one detail would be a nice thing to include.
CA: At what point did Ant Comic become Ant Colony, and what accounted for the name change?
MD: D+Q suggested it, and it made sense. I think of Ant Comic as the serial and Ant Colony as the book, and they both read a little differently in my head, so it feels right to identify them as separate things now.
CA: Having made a work of such size and scope at this point, do you think you'll do another? Do you have a preference between long form and short form comics at this point?
MD: I feel most comfortable with short form comics, but I'm still planning to do long form narratives. I try to think of the longer stuff in short, manageable installments, which is why I serialize so much of it. Right now, I have a few long-ish comics I'm working on—Sticks Angelica, Leather Space Man, Kid Mafia and Eilzabeth of Canada—all in varying degreess of completion.