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The Sci-Fi Strangeness (And Canadian Sensuality) Of Cartoonist Michael DeForge

<em>Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero</em> stars a woman who flees to the Canadian forests to escape a family scandal.
Michael DeForge
Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero stars a woman who flees to the Canadian forests to escape a family scandal.

Michael DeForge isn't satisfied with his work unless he's in over his head — and the 29-year-old Canadian cartoonist has become one of the comic-book industry's most exciting, unpredictable talents because of this eagerness to push himself outside of his comfort zone. "I need to feel challenged by what I'm working on," DeForge told me in an e-mail conversation. "Or that I'm grasping for something just a little out of my reach. That feeling is very important for me, and if that energy isn't there, I usually take it as a sign that the comic isn't worth drawing."

I first discovered DeForge's work with Ant Colony, his sprawling 2014 graphic novel about the collapse of an insect society. Blending comedy and tragedy with a vibrant, psychedelic art style, Ant Colony took me completely by surprise, and every new DeForge project since then has challenged my expectations of both his artistic point of view and the comic-book medium. I'll never forget that first shot (warning — that link is not safe for work) of the colony's queen, a neon-hued image spotlighting a bulbous, slightly humanoid figure with drooping yellow breasts, transparent black flesh, and a bridge leading directly into her genitalia.

DeForge's design sensibility presents an alien but utterly captivating perspective of the world. His 2016 graphic novel, Big Kids, is a good example; in it, he uses unconventional colors, textures, and shapes to reflect how the main character's coming of age changes his view of reality. DeForge depicts the taste of food as pink and green circles with a pair of lightning bolts to the side. A catchy song becomes a literal creature that rapidly grows extra limbs, latches on to the listener's shoulder, and spits in their ear.

DeForge captures a science-fiction nonchalance with elegant minimal line drawings and color choices.

"Michael DeForge captures a science-fiction nonchalance with elegant minimal line drawings and color choices," Liz Mason, manager of Quimby's Bookstore in Chicago, says. "His forests and terrains are places where animals date, colonize, bicker and gossip just as humans do, except they live in a dark fantastical world that both echoes ours in its conversationality but exceeds in surrealism." Quimby's is one of nine stops on the book tour for DeForge's latest graphic novel, Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero, which ventures deep into one of those forests — a Canadian national park where a 49-year-old woman has retreated from a family scandal to create a new life for herself.

Collecting DeForge's Tumblr comic strips, Sticks Angelica is a strange, introspective exploration of the ways someone might try to take control of her future, featuring a cast of characters that includes the forest wildlife, a moose named after cartoonist and BoJack Horseman producer Lisa Hanawalt, and DeForge himself. "I wanted to tell a very Canadian story, or at least my version of what a Canadian story looks like," DeForge says. "Something about our specific relationship with nature, with solitude, with communities, with identity."

Cartoonist Michael DeForge — alongside his own self-portrait.
Matthew James-Wilson / Michael DeForge
Michael DeForge
Cartoonist Michael DeForge — alongside his own self-portrait.

"I like art that comes in small portions, and art that you aren't able to take in all at once," DeForge says. "There's a certain degree of patience required in both consuming or creating a serialized comic strip — you're beholden to a very specific structure and rhythm. I used to doodle a lot more over my pages and agonize over small details, so knowing that I had to produce a finished comic by the end of the day no matter what helped shake away that sort of preciousness." You can feel that creative liberation as Sticks Angelica expands outside the experience of the main character, building an immersive environment and compelling cast by trusting artistic impulses.

Two of the later Sticks Angelica strips explore the concept of "sensual Canada" — which involves maple syrup smeared on wool sweaters, and a goose drinking a bottle of lotion — tying into my favorite theme in DeForge's work: sensuality. "There's an interesting tension when depicting sex or touch in a comic book, since I don't think of comics as being a particularly sensual medium," DeForge says. "A cartoonist can have very lush, sensual drawings, but there's always something a little awkward about the way it breaks down on a comics page. Everyone's bodies are getting amputated by the panel borders, and there's that distancing thing that naturally goes on with comics. I like drawing sequences that live inside of that tension."

DeForge is prolific across all kinds of formats: He posts comic strips on Tumblr and Instagram, has an ongoing anthology series, Lose, at Koyama Press, and Drawn & Quarterly has released handsome new hardcover graphic novels each year since 2014. In addition to his steady comics output, DeForge also draws editorial illustrations, concert posters, and album art, and works as a character and props designer for Cartoon Network's Adventure Time series, which has employed a significant number of cartoonists in its eight-year run.

I like art that comes in small portions, and art that you aren't able to take in all at once.

"When I was starting out, there were a few artists I looked to as models for what a cartoonist's body of work could look like," says DeForge. "Dash Shaw, Kevin Huizenga, Brian Chippendale and Lynda Barry — they didn't feel tied down to doing one thing in one format. Dash in particular was very inspiring to me. He was cranking out enormous books, one-off strips, sprawling web comics, short stories, animations, everything."

"When I was in Grade 9 or 10, I noticed all these Seripop posters around my town, and I hadn't really seen anything like them before," DeForge says (Seripop is a Montreal-based design team known for their posters and album covers). "I loved the work so much. I wrote them a very dorky email essentially asking them, 'Who are other artists that I should like?' They very generously wrote back with a list that became a sort of Rosetta Stone for my high school brain. It included Gary Panter, Julie Doucet, Highwater Books, Fort Thunder, Savage Pencil, Saul Steinberg, Eduardo Munoz Bachs and many others."

That wide range of stylistic influences has helped DeForge develop his own distinct aesthetic, combining a surreal point of view with a sharp eye for graphic design and the expressive qualities of animation. By consistently diving in over his head, DeForge is forcing himself to rise above.

Oliver Sava is an Eisner Award-nominated comics critic from Chicago, Ill.

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Oliver Sava