Insects are grotesque not just for their aesthetics, but for their being. Given that microbes escape our actual vision, bugs are, realistically, the most reprehensible thing we can reasonably call living, a hideous parody of our own gift: They live on scraps and refuse, in hidden corners and forgotten underbellies, in teeming, hideous masses. That they are also arguably the planet’s most successful creatures only amplifies the disgust: Can you really even call what they do living?
So of course they’re metaphorically useful. Ant Colony (Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95) begins by taking a cue from Woody Allen, with an existential ant complaining about the smallness of his world. Like that ant, though, Michael Deforge, the much-lauded, exceedingly clever artist behind this book, is not content to keep his focus so narrow; at points the small and fascistic nature of the ant hill will be used to mimic and mock our human tendencies to plod unthinkingly ahead, to combat fear with pettiness and violence, to justify our terrible behaviour with biology and tradition, to throw up our hands and blithely ignore proof of our own limitations.
Ant Colony traipses around its eponymous hill, following three separate tunnels that eventually meet up. The first is a pair of lovers, our angry neurotic and a more emotional pacifist who have to deal with the stigma of being homosexual and their inability to understand each other. The second is a sociopath father and his naive son, the latter of whom swallows a bunch of earthworms and becomes a prophet who foresees the death of the colony, and the former who does a spectacular job of bringing that about. The third is a bitter and cowardly ant cop who mostly spends his time trying to save his own neck while abusing his rapidly dwindling power.
Deforge has attracted a lot of attention with his Lose series — and especially his mid-length story “Spotting Deer,” a kind of Hinterland WTF about a pretty grotesque fictional animal — although it tends to focus on his penchant for body horror (even here, the ants have their gastrointestinal systems drawn on their bodies) and his eye for design. I have no quibble with the latter: Ant Colony is a work of almost relentless experimentation that balances moments of quiet wandering across desolate landscapes with Technicolor scenes of a Queen demanding to be seeded and all-out ant war. His splashier decisions tend to be noted — his spiders, for instance, are essentially walking wolf heads, which is a great way of putting us inside an ant’s head — but it’s the subtle way that he draws your eye around the page using even these minuscule and simple characters and sets that really marks his talent.
As for the body stuff, it too is more immediately noticeable, but as much as it’s a stylistic marker, it sometimes distracts from Deforge’s psychological insights. The guts-on-display is a good example: It’s at once a sight gag, a reminder of their inherent fragility — we see more than one ant disembowelled — and a suggestion of inner turmoil, this churning system brought to the fore. Even for its smart design, Ant Colony lingers because Deforge has a sharp insight into the subterranean parts of our souls, and is able to play them across the page in subtle enough ways that it slips past our frontal lobe and settles right into our gut feelings.
By the end of the story, a handful of ants are trying to start another colony, and begin repeating the mistakes of their abandoned home before they even have the foundation of a new one. If that is not a hideously human tendency, I’m not sure what is.