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Michael DeForge and his wickedly weird comics

Michael DeForge (photo: Andrew B. Myers)

Michael DeForge (photo: Andrew B. Myers)

When I meet Michael DeForge at a Toronto diner during a mid-March snowstorm, he is tired and a bit anxious. His publisher, Koyama Press, is expecting the sixth issue of his award-winning comics series, Lose, at the month’s end, but he just restarted it from scratch the week before, after twice throwing out earlier versions.

“It wasn’t the worst or anything,” says the 26-year-old Toronto comics artist. “It just didn’t seem worth finishing. It was a fine story but I wasn’t pushing myself enough in my writing or art.”

DeForge’s high standards and work ethic have helped him become one of the cartooning world’s brightest new stars. His characters – often flawed, down-on-their-luck anthropomorphized animals or insects – range from cutely innocent to perversely horrifying, while his minimalist writing and doomsday scenarios mix humour, vulnerability, vulgarity, and philosophy.

“I want all my comics to have a dream tone or dream logic,” says DeForge. “People in dreams are always under-reacting to things. Something surreal is happening and they’re just accepting it. Most of my characters do that, but I’ll try to have one who is actually aware of how terrible everything is.”

In January, DeForge’s first hardcover graphic novel, the vividly coloured, wickedly weird Ant Colony, was published by Drawn & Quarterly. Ant Colony, which began in September 2011 as a weekly webcomic in 54 parts, tells the story of a gay ant couple struggling to find common ground. One ant is existential and angsty, while the other is breezy and sociable. In the background, a war rages between their colony and a neighbouring colony of red ants, bringing the lovers’ troubles to a head.

Each issue of Lose offers one longer comic plus a handful of thematically linked shorter ones. In the third issue, there’s a one-pager called “Tongue Fads” (36 types of tongues including The Pickle, Hot Dawg, Arrow, and Hangman); “Improv Night,” about a sketch show gone horribly wrong; and the touching “Dog 2070,” in which a hapless canine divorcé obsesses about his ex and desperately tries to connect with his teenage dog kids. An omnibus edition, A Body Beneath, which collects issues two through five is being published by Koyama this month. DeForge decided not to include the debut issue, even though it won him the Best Emerging Talent title at the 2010 Doug Wright Awards. “Including the first Lose would be like including a zine I’d made in high school,” he says.

Ant Colony

Last year, one of DeForge’s more experimental works, Very Casual, won the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Anthology or Collection, beating out veterans Lynda Barry and Peter Bagge. The New York Times praised the collection and Time declared DeForge the “current darling of the art-comics scene, and these body-horror-as-black-comedy short stories demonstrate why.”

Throughout Very Casual, his characters’ skin often drips or melts, pocked with hair or marred with scars. Bodies are inverted, out of proportion, grossly sexualized. The ants’ innards are visible. The dogs are balding and dead-eyed.

“The body-horror stuff has always been something that freaked me out growing up, so I think it just stayed with me,” DeForge says, joking that he probably saw a David Cronenberg movie when he was too young. “I can remember early nightmares where, if I peeled the wallpaper in my room, there would be something scary pulsating be­hind it. That’s the tone a lot of my stories have; normal situations or characters have some buzzing, threatening thing right under the surface.”

It was the strangeness that attracted Annie Koyama of Toronto’s Koyama Press, a small-press publisher of comics, art books, prints, and zines. She saw some of  DeForge’s concert posters online and fell in love with his style. The two first met at the 2009 Toronto Comic Arts Festival and have worked together since. “His work was quite different from the other illustrative styles I’d been seeing,” Koyama says, “and I really loved its weirdness. Still do.”

DeForge is Koyama’s best-selling artist. Ant Colony was into its second printing even before its publication date, says Drawn & Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros. There are currently 8,000 copies in print – no small feat in the world of alternative comics.

“I kind of see Michael in a similar position to where Chester Brown was circa the late 1980s,” says Oliveros, who, in 2015, will publish collections of DeForge’s webcomics First Year Healthy and Leather Space Men. “At that point, Chester was in his late twenties, writing and drawing the influential and groundbreaking Ed the Happy Clown. Chester has, of course, gone on to be one of the major figures in graphic novels of the past couple of generations, and I see the potential for Michael to have a similar role in years to come.”

Growing up in Ottawa, DeForge always knew he wanted to become a cartoonist. His father read comic books, primarily of the superhero variety, which led to DeForge’s discovery of Peanuts, his favourite strip. Lacking friends who shared his interest, he got into the music scene, making posters and playing in bands. (He currently plays guitar and sings in noise duo Creep Highway with fellow Toronto cartoonist Patrick Kyle.

After “gracelessly” dropping out of the University of Toronto’s philosophy program, he washed dishes and tried his hand at commercial art. But it took a crisis for DeForge to find his creative voice. “I had a really bad year in my personal life,” he recalls. “I was broke. I had no career prospects, no education or anything. It was at that point that I was able to stop worrying about making money off of artwork and start making interesting stuff that I actually felt engaged with. I was also like, ‘Oh, now I have enough things to write about.’”

Drawing fills his days and nights. Each morning, DeForge improvises a one-page thumbnail of mostly dialogue and a little bit of art. Then he switches to day-job mode: he’s an effects and props animator for the Cartoon Network animated TV series Adventure Time. “I draw all the coffee mugs,” he laughs. “Or if someone shoots a laser beam out of someone’s hand, that’s my laser.”

Once that obligation is met, he returns to his own work, turning the thumbnail into a one- or two-page comic while also working on books, webcomics, and other commitments. He admits to thinking a lot about his relationship to work, particularly why he takes on so much. Is it to push himself as an artist or is it compulsion?

Being away from his drawing board during his 10-city North American book tour for Ant Colony was rough. While on a train near the end of the tour, DeForge turned to his laptop, drawing a crude pixel comic about a young fan’s insane memories of his first concert, which was later published by Random House of Canada’s online magazine Hazlitt.

“It was the product of my going stir-crazy from not having worked on a comic properly for two weeks,” he says. “I’m not used to breaks, I guess.”

From the May 2014 issue of Q&Q.