While Michael DeForge’s early work set his freakish, often hilarious tales of growing up and discovering a sense of self in bizarre alternate realities, Big Kids features the Toronto-based comics artist’s closest approximation of the real world yet, providing a solid central reference point against which his sharp social commentary is set in stark relief.
Big Kids tells the coming-of-age story of a nameless protagonist whose brutal (but typical) childhood is suddenly turned upside down when his basement-dwelling police officer uncle leaves the family home and is replaced by a young woman. Calm, intelligent, and understanding, April provides respite from the bullying the narrator endures at school, and acts as a catalyst for a series of moments – confiding that he “like[s] boys”; being dumped by his boyfriend (who immediately finds a new beau and comes out publicly); and drinking an afternoon away by himself until he blacks out – that result in him awakening one afternoon with a new, surreal perspective on the world.
April, now drawn in an elongated, abstract form, tells the narrator that he’s become a tree: “You’re seeing the world through tree eyes.” Besides transitioning from the book’s early muted pastel pink, yellow, and grey palette to more vibrant blue, green, orange, and purple hues, the change is effected mainly through the introduction of new, surreal forms: we now see people as trees and twigs, providing the book with its central metaphor for the transition to maturity.
DeForge skewers typical readings of adulthood subscribed to by North American culture. These include ideas about sex: “It’s a common misconception that people turn into trees after losing their virginity,” April says. April dismisses the idea that adulthood is a state we are innately destined to reach, and implies a disavowal of puberty as a purely physical manifestation of the transition to maturity. Adulthood, DeForge insinuates, can be foisted upon a person of any age, a point driven home when April reveals she “treed” after being mugged along with her family.
The metaphor slips at times, especially when the narrator finds he’s suddenly more attuned to art and music. There’s a sense of “chosen one” elitism in these moments – following his transition, the narrator talks condescendingly about his father and is “grossed out” by his teenage friends, who are all twigs –but this feels less like a universal statement about growing up than an exploration of the very real feelings a teenaged DeForge might have had when first discovering art.
Still, there are universal elements in Big Kids. When the narrator sees his mother break down and become a twig again, there is an easy recognition of the moment at which parents change from omnipotent to fallible figures in our eyes. When the narrator snaps a fellow tree into twigs, it stands as a general example of taking out one’s anger on another. Big Kids allows us to transfer our own complex feelings onto the indistinguishable faces and bodies of these trees, even if we don’t – or can’t – feel exactly what the artist feels at all times.