If you’re wondering where existentialism flourishes these days when everyone seems to have a more spiritual force driving his or her actions, the answer is that it currently thrives in comics. Maybe it’s the vaguely libertarian views that seem to produce a lot of comics folks. Or the feelings of isolation that lead to hours and hours drawing in one’s room. Regardless, it’s present in the works of several notable sequential artists, foremost among them Anders Nilsen, whose Big Questions examined the human condition (mystified, acted upon by forces beyond the individual’s control, and, most of all, alone) through an anthropomorphized cast of birds. Michael DeForge’s Ant Colony, a debut graphic novel-length work, exists in the same vein.
DeForge, who works as a character designer for Adventure Time, presents a fairly bleak vision of an ant colony’s collapse. Two male lovers grow apart, especially after one goes off to war. A father forces his son to cut an earthworm in two, and the child eventually ingests the results, making him into a visionary. An infertile female wanders the landscape. A police officer and a red ant baby (the rest are black ants) enter the picture as well.
Death lurks around every corner: from Sweet’N Low to spiders, from drug-addled red ants to magnifying-glass sunlight, and from war to suffocation. Life is short and brutal, with little time for reflection or much more than fulfilling one’s role in society. It’s not exactly a metaphor, but it’s a way to think about our own lives and the deep sadness we have to reconcile in order to get through them.
All of that makes the book sound like a tremendous bummer, but it’s not. DeForge’s pacing is driven by ellipses, short scenes that fit together without much transition. His coloring is bright and beautiful, with the ink lying on the page like a nice screenprint. His drawing is psychedelia-influenced, with a melding of the joy and darkness both found in the subconscious mind, and occasionally terrifying. His dialogue is informal and familiar enough to counteract any hint of preciousness.
Much like Albert Camus’ The Stranger, this book is rarely explicitly philosophical, and it provides no real answers. Even the holy prophet child only answers “what will happen?” in a series of possibilities, any of which is as likely as the next. Still, there is a kind of comfort in the chance of a good outcome, or at least an idea that it is generally better to exist than not to, as well as a kind of amused perspective from above at our helplessness and thrashing about. A book this thought-provoking and gorgeous deserves acclaim.