There might not be a single idea as central to cartooning as anthropomorphizing animals, usually the cuddly ones, and afflicting them with human language, desire, and insecurity. Insects, so alien and inscrutable, have proven irresistible fodder for artistic projection. (Bees alone have recently had anxiety painted on them with strokes as broadly muggy as Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie and as neurotically fine-point as Chris Ware’sBuilding Stories.) Round-faced black ants—industrious, violent, sexually exotic—are the subjects of Ant Colony, the latest graphic novel from rising talent Michael DeForge. The ants of DeForge’s colony are imbued with human characteristics—to a point. They’re ambivalent about work and war, given to romantic love and erotic anxiety especially. But males waiting in an endless line for their monthly chore—impregnating a giant grotesque queen—isn't relatable literally, and a direct metaphor is elusive. DeForge’s most important choices are not how he humanizes his ants but in how he maintains their alienness. The story, already sort of haunted by the grim specter of cheap and sudden ant death, is unbound by predictable rules and recognizable morals, more prone to deeply weird detour.
DeForge has a day job doing character design work for the quirky Cartoon Network series Adventure Time, and it’s no surprise that his surreal visual sense is the book’s best quality. The black-ant protagonists have flat, cartoon human faces, but also see-through thoraxes that reveal their organs. Their forms are mostly differentiated, with a few confusion-causing exceptions. Rival red ants have less individualized, more frightening looks. Their pinchers and fire-red bodies conceal all, rendered as threatening, unknowable Others. Non-ant insects give DeForge his juiciest opportunities for unsettling inventiveness. Centipedes are jovial overstretched limos; spiders are crazed wolves from a Tex Avery cartoon who stare ecstatically at the sky while killing anything passing underfoot. A standard nine-panel grid is occasionally interrupted with big, beautiful depictions of startling or surreal images, like a full, two-page spread of a horrible ant-species battle. The visual storytelling is strong throughout.
The most puzzling, amusing, disturbing quality of the work is the tone, which veers wildly by design. Though often quite funny, in a beetle-black, matter-of-fact, pest-genocide sort of way, it can also be sensitive, philosophical, gleefully amoral, or wacky, depending on the page. But saying that doesn’t even hint at the weirdness of a book where plot points hinge on a psychedelic doomsday prophecy brought on by earthworm infestation on a sub-cellular level, face-melting death by way of wayward Sweet & Lo crystals, or a spider-totem/sex doll made of dismembered ant parts. But it’s captivating even when inscrutable. Ever poke an ant mound with a stick, feeling tough, then guilty, attempting to assign meaning to the resulting chaos? Shit can get pretty deep.