Panel by panel and page by page, Toronto cartoonist Michael DeForge is in the business of creating worlds — icky, outlandish, but intensely human worlds.
In the universe scratched into being by his pencil, we learn, for example, that Dilbert, Nancy, Bart Simpson and a bunch of our other cartoon favourites were once members of a murderous bike gang who traded their spoils for eternal life.
And then there’s the one about a disease called Staceyface that rips through a small town, affecting people and animals alike, causing the afflicted to look like a girl named Stacey.
For his peculiar vision and skilled hand, DeForge, 27, stays busy: he does commercial work in the morning, mainly Cartoon Network’s cult hit Adventure Time, where he serves as a prop designer, “drawing swords and coffee mugs,” he says. Afternoons and evenings are slotted for his own comics, including Very Casual or his annual anthology Lose, for which he’s won near every industry honour.
Some nights, he fronts the punk duo Creep Highway. This past fall, he and bandmate Patrick Kyle (a fellow illustrator) journeyed through the U.S. on a month-long tour — comic shop by day, concert club by night — in promotion of new books.
His latest book from Drawn and Quarterly, called First Year Healthy, was released this week.
It’s a story about mental illness, a theme DeForge has often tackled in his work, but rarely with such sustained focus. It follows a young girl as she settles back into everyday life after being hospitalized from a psychotic episode.
“I wanted to write about recovery,” DeForge says. “I’ve had my own struggles, but I’ve always written around it, I guess.”
The artist first gravitated to comics as a child.
“I learned to read off of the comic strip collection my parents had around,” he says, Sunday funnies like The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Peanuts. Drawing became an obsession; he studied by tracing the characters from his parents’ books.
At a young age, he remembers identifying with Schroeder, Charlie Brown’s piano-playing buddy. “Schroeder getting upset when his work was interrupted seemed super relevant to me,” he says about his own relation to art. “He was dedicated to his craft; everything else around him was a distraction.”
In high school, he produced comics and zines. He’d make gig posters for local bands. In 2005, he moved from his hometown Ottawa to Toronto for university, and after two years in the U of T philosophy program, he dropped out. Drawing never really stopped being his priority.
He was producing prolifically online, where he’d developed a small fan base and caught the eye of comics maven Annie Koyama. Her Toronto-based Koyama Press agreed to publish his first full-length comic, Lose #1. Powered by an admirable work ethic, he used that momentum to turn his art into a full-time job.
Now, on top of Adventure Time, the Lose anthology, other one-offs, and spot illustrations for publications including The Believer and the New York Times, he produces two weekly strips.
“I get antsy when I’m not working a certain amount a day,” he says. “I like putting stuff out on a steady basis and keeping myself to tight deadlines.”
The land of DeForge is a delight for explorers and careful readers alike. Be it the terrain around an apple core where members of an ant colony sell lemonade on lunch break, wax like Camus and do battle with rival red ants, he likes to reveal his worlds small slivers at a time. Little details, like his tiny drumstick-shaped molecules, tend to recur. It’s evidence that all of his tales take place in one tangled yarn of a universe.
His stories are largely about metamorphosis — growing and becoming, especially in a way that feels uncontrollable — and he animates that with Cronenbergian panache: bodily structures burst at their seams or sprout strange appendages.
DeForge finds a disturbing disconnect between what you want your body to do and what it actually does. It betrays you in ways, he says. “And it’s one of the more palpable anxieties I’ve felt in my life.”
Such anxieties belie the cutesy character design and candy-coloured palette of DeForge’s hand.
“I do a lot of stories about people who feel like they don’t have much agency in the world,” he says. “They can only see the edges of something bigger around them.”
These are feelings his characters know because he feels them too, he says. DeForge has left hints about his own relationship with depression across his comics, perhaps most boldly in A Body Beneath, where, in a single bare panel, he shares that he tried to kill himself in 2009.
But First Year Healthy represents the first time he’s examined the subject so closely. In it, the protagonist holds down a job, she forges new relationships, all while the people around her whisper about her breakdown. Befitting DeForge’s dreamlike style, navigating delusion — represented here by a fantastical cat — becomes part of coping with the everyday.
He gracefully shows that decline and improvement each happen incrementally.
“Keeping steady is as important as dealing with the trauma immediately,” he says. “There’s backsliding. You’re shifting still and the people around you are shifting and the world keeps shifting, too. You never have a steady footing. And the way you cope has to keep changing. It’s never that you’re just fixed.”
DeForge’s comic universe reflects the dark corners of our real one, but — sensitive and hopeful storyteller that he is — he hasn’t forgotten about the exuberance, wonder and happiness there either.