Michael DeForge is one of the most striking and popular talents in alternative comics, as evidenced by his two Eisner nominations this year: for Best Single Issue (or One Shot) for Lose #4 and Best Digital Comic for Ant Comic. This month, publisher Annie Koyama’s innovative imprint Koyama Press is releasing the first trade paperback collection of DeForge’s work, Very Casual. The compact book, a bargain at $15, features an eclectic mix of high-contrast black and white comics along with a selection of limited-color and full-color stories, such as a redesigned version of the artist’s intriguing oversized color pamphlet, Spotting Deer.
DeForge’s work veers to an extreme version of the bigfoot end of cartooning. It could be said that he inhabits a drawing space somewhere between the styles of TV animation and daily/Sunday strips, blended with American alternative/literary cartoonists such as Chris Ware, Gary Panter and John Pham, and also crossed with the more radically bizarre of Japanese manga talents. The young Canadian artist displays a high degree of precision in his rendering, but that only serves to heighten the strangeness of what he chooses to draw.
The first time I reviewed his work, I described it: “(DeForge) not only draws aliens, he draws LIKE an alien….the work is bizarrely well-drawn while being frighteningly “othered” in conception…what counts is that DeForge uses the freedom of comics to make characters and places that follow his own rules.” After reading quite a lot more of DeForge’s comics, I see that despite the attenuated weirdness of his drawing, the subjects of his stories are often quite solidly anchored in the world that he and his young contemporaries live in. Even within the most outrageously creepy narrative setup, they still reflect his generation’s joys and concerns: their tentative explorations of life, from sexuality and relationships to education, jobs and drugs, their attempts to come to grips with their places in the world and to achieve a measure of comfort inhabiting their own skins. Via email, PW dug in to some of where DeForge goes for inspiration.
James: I wonder about your process, about how you make your comics. Do they spring from the art, from exploratory sketches, for instance, or from a textual impetus?
Michael DeForge: It changes from comic to comic. Sometimes I have an idea I want to pursue but no vision of how it will look like, so I’ll spend some time in my sketchbook trying to figure out what to do with it. But other times I’ll just have one image or one character design that I’ll end up shaping a story around. I occasionally keep loose story notes to I refer to but I try not to script out any more than one page ahead at a time. I try to make up things as I go when I write.
James: You seem to mostly work on short stories. Your webcomic Ant Comic, though is apparently developing more along the lines of a “graphic novel.” Do you see yourself moving towards longer-form works?
DeForge: I’m in the middle of a few longer ones now. I started a web comic called Sticks Angelica that will possibly run for a while before it gets printed, and I’m serializing two longer stories in mini comic form right now (Elizabeth of Canada and Kid Mafia.) I’ve also been drawing shorts about a character named the Leather Space Man that are all self-contained, but kind of tie together to form a larger narrative. I’ve been spacing those ones out across a few different minis and anthologies.
I don’t see myself moving away from short stories. Some ideas only need 4 pages, some need 20, some need 150, so I imagine I’ll just keep switching around. I always want to be working on five or six comics at once, all in different formats, all in varying states of completion.
James: In the tabloid anthology Smoke Signal that is published by the owner Gabe Fowler of Brooklyn’s Desert Island Comics, you have done some comics with other artists, such as Benjamin Marra and Leslie Stein. How do you feel about collaboration as a mode of working? It seems to be relatively rare in alt/lit comics.
DeForge: Those were both fun projects to work on, and I might do more in the future. I have something planned with Ben in the summer, but that’s going to just be me inking and lettering over his pencils, so it’ll be different. Both collaborations felt easy and organic because I’m friends with Ben and Leslie, but I don’t think I could work on something that I didn’t write myself for very long. You have more experience working with writers (and colorists, even) than I do, and those collaborations—the ones I’ve read, at least still feel like a cohesive whole. But I don’t think I could pull something like that off on a longer project. It would get too disjointed, or I’d veer off course or lose interest. I also like to be a control freak about my comics, so that’d be hard to give up for more than five pages.
James: You are one of the few alternative artists who really engage with color in your comics work, perhaps because for so long the alt/lit scene was so much about black and white. Your color is particularly effective, I think, on Spotting Deer and Ant Comic. I recall you said somewhere that you were inspired by some of Chester Brown’s unusual color schemes on his covers—are there any other artists whose color you find appealing?
DeForge: I learned to color from designing and looking at gig posters. Silk screening limits the colors you have to work with, so it forces you to be more thoughtful about your choices. I would look to this Montreal art/design group called Seripop a lot.
I’m actually taking a break from doing any color comics for a while, though. I’m not very happy with how they’ve been turning out. I think I’ve been coloring my comics the same way I’d go about coloring a poster or illustration—where I’m just trying to make something eye-grabbing, and maybe establish a mood or whatever—so it’s really just decorative. I’m never doing anything I couldn’t accomplish with my black and white comics. So if I do a comic in color again, I want to make sure the colors aren’t just there to be, like, ornamental.
The cartoonists whose coloring I admire the most are Dash Shaw, Tim Hensley and Chris Ware, and all their color choices all have a really specific purpose to them. They are essential design and storytelling elements. I don’t think I’ll ever get on their level, of course, but those are who I think of when I think of cartoonists who use color really effectively.
James: An important aspect of comics is its connection to the art of illumination, that it is comprised of hand-made documents, that the artist’s hand is present on all levels of production. I appreciate your attention to hand lettering—you do hand-lettering, not a font, right?
DeForge: Yeah, I’ve never used a font. I like lettering, and I often switch up my lettering style slightly from comic to comic. I also do a lot of editing when I get to the lettering stage, shedding dialogue or subbing in words as I go.
James: You use various ornate logos or titles in your stories, such as “The Sixties” or “Manananggal.” Are you influenced by aerosol (graffiti) art styles? Do you come from a background of that sort of street art ?
DeForge: I actually don’t know much about that stuff! It all seems interesting, but I haven’t really looked into any of it. I take my cues from gig posters, album covers and band logos for my title lettering.
James: In other interviews, you say that you are influenced by the 20th Century’s great force in comics, Jack Kirby. You noted that the Kirby in you isn’t easily seen, but the inspiration becomes more clear in the fashion designs of “Canadian Royalty” in Lose #4, which reflect the big-headed alienism of Tana Nile from Thor and the Space Babe from “Intergalactica” in 2001 #6. One of Kirby’s great abilities was to wrap his characters in interestingly designed and patterned outfits, which held color in distinctive ways and helped to define their personalities.
DeForge: Yeah, I think Kirby’s influence shows in some of my character and costume designs. There’s maybe even a little Kirby in a few of the leather outfits in the issue’s other story. His particular brand of world-building is what always inspired me the most, though. Kamandi really blew me away for that. I always waver between Kamandi and 2001 being my all time favorite Kirby series.
James: Can you elaborate on the influence you have gotten from the pretty outrageous Japanese artists such as Kazuo Umezu and Hideshi Hino?
DeForge: I like a number of Japanese horror comics, but there’s a specific “kids in peril” thing going on with Umezu and Hino that I think shows up in my stories a lot. (Umezu’s) Drifting Classroom was on my mind in small ways for Lose #2, #5 and my Kid Mafia series. They also both draw with that perfect cute/horrible balance that I love and often try to replicate.
James: Gary Panter is one of the primary artists to free the mark-making possibilities of comics, which has led to the type of work you are doing. Do you feel any influence from him? You’ve also mentioned such artists as Marc Bell, Mark Newgarden, Chester Brown and the members of Fort Thunder?
DeForge: I love Gary Panter, but I’m not sure if I consider him to be a very big influence. I see my work right now as being fairly conservative (formally and stylistically)—really plain, dead lines, rigidly gridded pages. The average page of mine probably has more in common with a Dilbert strip than it does something like Dal Tokyo.
I came across Marc Bell, Mat Brinkman, Brian Chippendale and Pete Thompson’s work in high school. That’s when my art started to get busier. I was more focused making really huge, filled up drawings back then, and wasn’t really working on comics that seriously. I would take ten or twelve feet worth of craft paper and lay it across my floor and fill it up.
(Marc Bell’s) Shrimpy and Paul was a particularly big influence on my drawing, and has become a pretty big influence on my writing as well. I love how thoroughly mapped out that world is—it’s this great mix of funny and pretty and scary and dumb, sometimes grounded, sometimes totally foreign, filled with little in-jokes and callbacks and allusions.
Chester Brown was my first exposure to “alternative comics” (or whatever you want to call them.) I think about his process for Ed the Happy Clown a lot, and I look at “Helder” and “Showing Helder” as the perfect short comics. They’re like my platonic ideal of a short comic.
Mark Newgarden is one of my favorites, but it’s hard for me to say how he’s influenced my work specifically. There are artists who have been really important to me, but I’ll have no idea if or how they’re reflected in my comics at all.
James: You seem to return time and again to the kinds of transcendent experiences of drugs; your characters ingest various natural or artificial substances and then undergo psychedelic states. Is this something you see being done by your contemporaries, or is it because it gives you reasons to break out of the “norm” in whatever visual parameters you have set in a given strip?
DeForge: I want most of my comics to read kind of like dreams, or at least have a kind of dream logic to them, so inducing psychedelic states on the characters probably has to do with that. I haven’t really done a ton of hallucinogens, but I used to shroom a lot, and I was always struck by that buzzing, hyper-defined texture that everything would take on. I usually want my comics to read a bit like that, as if the whole world is filled with a prickly, hostile energy vibrating beneath the surface of everything.
James: Likewise, I see a recurring motif of fetishistic sexuality and bondage, but I am a little unclear if it is done for erotic or prurient reasons, or simply because the sort of leather or rubber textures with straps and zippers, etc., are suited to the way you ink—giving you rich areas of black on your pages that facilitate your design sensibility.
DeForge: Mostly the latter. But the bulk of the leather-y outfits and settings I draw don’t have anything to do with actual BDSM practitioners. The designs don’t look like real BDSM outfits, and that aesthetic wasn’t the only thing I was looking to when working on Lose #4 and my Leather Space Man stories. The way I decorate those costumes ends up being a mix of a few different aesthetics—bondage gear, of course, but also crust punk jackets, Dirty Mind and Controversy-era Prince, certain science fiction movies, etc. When designing the nightclub in Lose #4, I didn’t want it to resemble a real leather bar at all. I was looking at a lot of Derek Jarman set design and rereading the comic Uzumaki, so hopefully a little of that shows.
James: You fit well with Annie Koyama and her stable of artists. For instance, I can see some affinity of sensibility between the books someone like Jane Mai or Jesse Jacobs are doing at Koyama and what you are putting out. But can you elaborate on where you and they are taking comics, or if you see yourself as part of any sort of movement in the medium?
DeForge: I think Anne’s generally excited about bringing in cartoonists from different disciplines/backgrounds—I’m not sure I could speak to her specific vision, though! I’d have a hard time marrying Koyama Press to one aesthetic or group of artists. (Julie Delporte is about as far apart from Jon Vermilyea as two cartoonists could get, for instance.) Personally, I don’t really see myself as being part of any kind of movement.
James: Comics done for digital publication can take advantage of the many inherent and unexplored qualities that that medium offers, rather than adhering to devices that were developed for print. On Ant Comic, you are able to take full advantage of the backlighting of digital publication. Of course, any print version would not have that level of saturation or intensity. Do you intend to collect that project in print eventually? How do you see the future of print comics playing out?
DeForge: Ant Comic is going to be collected in book form by Drawn and Quarterly later this year! I actually designed it with print in mind, because the first strip was drawn for an issue of Smoke Signal. When I decided to make it an ongoing thing, I was planning to put it online but also run it in some alt weeklies and college papers I’d been talking to. All of the papers eventually flaked out—two had issues with some of the sexual content in the story—so it ended up being a web-only thing.
I plan to keep designing comics for print. I guess the future of all that looks pretty grim, but it’s the medium I prefer, and I can’t imagine ever stopping unless all the photocopy shops in my city burn down, or the cost of Risograph ink quadruples or something. I mostly put web stuff up because it’s the easiest way to spread my stuff out there, and I know other people like to take things in that way. I don’t actually enjoy reading comics online myself, though. If I know a print version of a web strip is coming, I’ll almost always wait for that. I have a hard time focusing on my screen when I’m reading.
James: I love the story “Riders” in “Very Casual” that apparently postulates a bizarre pre-existence for some of the most venerable of American cartoon characters. And, both you and the alternative horror cartoonist Josh Simmons chose to appropriate the most major mainstream superhero characters for your own purposes. Did you do the story “Spiderman” thinking that you might have a problem getting it published? Because in your case, Annie, and in Josh’s case with his “Batman”, Fantagraphics—both had the courage to run with them and they are included in your collections. They can certainly be defended as satire, but the stories are played quite straight.
DeForge: I didn’t think anything would ever come of it! I mean, I’d be mortified if Koyama Press got in trouble for printing anything of mine—I certainly hope nobody gets mad at that “Spiderman” story, or the Nancy heads I drew. I really dislike that “Spiderman” story now, so I would be especially bummed if that were the thing I got sued over. Funnily enough, Steve Ditko read it. He obviously hated it. My friend was able to pass a copy to him and he wrote that it was “anti-art and anti-commerce,” which I stupidly forgot to use as a pull quote for the back of the collection.
First published on Publishers Weekly