Ants, like humor, suffer a grim fate if put too long under the magnifying glass of clumsy observation: Not only do they wither from all that empirical heat, but there’s not much left to be learned from the ashy mess.
Fortunately, as a man of both witty art and sly social science, Michael DeForge is more of a microscope guy. Under his precise gaze, even the ant casualties — he delights in acts of insecticide — yield wonderfully warped and funny results.
As psychological shorthand, just imagine Woody Allen setting his animated “Antz” character, the ever-questioning Z, in a cartoon version of one of his ’70s sex-and-death comedies — only with more gore and war and fewer chastity belts on the voluptuous, must-be-serviced queens. The result is the immersive “Ant Colony,” a new collection of the Ontario cartoonist’s acclaimed Web comic.
In some ways, this beautiful book comes pre-approved. In just a few years, DeForge has become a critical darling of the art-comic world, his young and prolific talent emerging fully formed from his Canadian chrysalis. He is a character designer and storyboard artist on “Adventure Time,” the inspired Cartoon Network hit show for kids, but now this new book for adults allows DeForge to sink his mandibles into darker, grittier and fleshier fantasies. Even the presence of sugar gets played here for deliciously twisted humor, substituting sweet with low.
DeForge always seems utterly in control — from the dreamscape-on-drugs palette of electric blues, acid tangerines and lemon yellows, to the deft world-building worthy of Jack Kirby, to the winged terrors that nod to manga horror master Kazuo Umezu. This cartoonist warmly bows to his elders, even when flinging its cellular goo in the dramatic style of “Krazy Kat.”
With subterranean urges rising to the surface, “Ant Colony” always feels fueled by the primal. An act of insect sex can lead to sudden death, and seeing the maw of mortality can spark antennae-quivering mating. (DeForge makes even the pheromonal release from cremated ant carcasses a sensory turn-on.) But then, in the ebb and green-blood flow of insect life, the comic’s worldview may be the most artful act of all: This is colonial life at its most segmented (as it were) and elemental. It’s all about the dirt-level reality of the governed, from sexual politics to leg-to-leg combat. We have met the enemy, and he is us — but with, like, a Kafkaesque exoskeleton and a cool, munchable thorax.
DeForge is apparently of our species, but as a keen observer of multifaceted behavior, perhaps no cartoonist has a better compound eye.