Some artists have the power to surprise you with every page. To transport you to a place where nothing is off limits, and yet everything makes sense.
For those who haven’t picked up a piece by Michael DeForge, you could be in for a shock. Combining a quiet tone and a jarring, angular pace with scenes that hark back to the unsettling set pieces of early nineties gross-out cartoons – his work slaps you in the face while whispering in your ear. Every word and pause feels considered, yet organic, and every moment of disgust somehow poignant.
After finishing his most recent work, Ant Colony, we grabbed five minutes with Michael to ask how these concepts come to him, and if these dark ideas make the page… what on Earth is left on the cutting room floor?
Hey Michael, how’s everything going with you?
I’m answering these questions on a Greyhound from Chicago to Minneapolis. I’m in the middle of a month-long book tour and miniature band tour with Patrick Kyle and Simon Hanselmann. I’m enjoying myself, although it’s a little stressful. I haven’t been on the road for this long before, and it’s odd to be away from the drawing board for such an extended period of time.
I’m trying to sneak in pockets of work whenever I can. I still really love dropping in on different cities and taking advantage of everything there is to do, hanging out with cartoonists all the time, meeting people who’ve read my comics, etc. This is my first time visiting a lot of these towns. Everyone’s been so nice to us. It’s exciting.
Your stories and illustration style are about as surreal as anything being made in comics today. If a scary biker put you in a headlock and forced you to describe your style, what would you say?
I’ve always considered myself a pretty conservative cartoonist. Structurally, a lot of my pages are identical to a Dilbert Sunday strip. I try my best to draw with a very inexpressive, dead line.
We recently finished your latest book, Ant Colony, and are worried that we might never be the same. What did you want readers to take away from it?
I like the idea of different readers having different interpretations of the book, even if their takeaway from it is a radical departure from what I was initially going for. Reading a range of different reactions to a comic is always very informative.
Do you have a cure for anyone who might be struggling to come back round to reality after it?
Maybe just take a walk around the block or something?
Given the characters you do put into your books, we’re a little scared to ask this, but are there any which even you have decided were too dark for your pages?
There are comics that I’ve drawn that I’ve felt were too personal for publication. I recently abandoned a serial I was drawing called Kid Mafia, since I thought the premise was too violent to keep going. It was about a gang of teenage criminals, and I hit this point where I just stopped wanting to write about violent young men. My comics can be violent, but I always want to use that sort of thing thoughtfully – for the violence to have a weight to it.
Is there a high security vault where you put them?
I just throw them out or delete the files.
There’s a question we ask all illustrators, but we’re particularly interested to hear your answer: Can you remember the earliest things that you liked to draw and do you think they influenced your style today?
I learnt to draw by tracing collections of newspaper strips that my parents had around the house – Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts and Far Side. All those strips are still comics I love. I think more than anything, those strips taught me the rhythms of comics. Bloom County especially.
That comic was full of super topical 80s references that no kid would understand, but I still found everything really hilarious. I think it’s because I could still register the beats of a joke even though I didn’t actually understand what the joke was about – Kitty Dukakis or Ollie North or whoever.
A lot of people in the UK hold Canada up as a mythical land of comic dreams. How it is creating out of the great white north in reality?
I live in Toronto and I really love the comics scene there. Patrick Kyle, Ginette Lapalme, Chris Kuzma, Anne Koyama, Michael Comeau, Mark Connery, Seth Scriver, Eric Kostiuk Williams, Keith Jones, Chester Brown, John Martz and many others all live there, and it also has The Beguiling, which is the best comics store in North America.
I’d like to die in Toronto, although I imagine I’ll get priced out of the city in five or 10 years. Things are getting increasingly expensive there, and I know I won’t be able to keep my day job forever.
Any hot tips for Canadian artists we should be keeping an eye on?
Ginette Lapalme has a book coming out from Koyama Press next year that’s going to be great.
And most importantly, what’s next for you? How on earth are you going to top Ant Colony?!
I have a new comic out called Lose #6 from Koyama Press, and this winter Drawn and Quarterly is releasing a comic I drew called First Year Healthy. I serialise a few strips online, including Decent, The Stealing Bugs and Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero.