Canadian indie comics are in a fantastic place. More than ever our comic creators are labouring to innovate, dissolving the boundary between challenging visual experimentation and what has often been considered a pop-culture, low-culture medium. Publishing houses like Drawn & Quarterly (rivaling even U.S.-based publisher Fantagraphics), Koyama Press and Conundrum Press, among others, give Canadian and international creators alike a chance to make a mark in a medium that has only recently evolved in the cultural eye as one worthy of respect and serious contemplation. Comic artists like Marc Bell, Jesse Jacobs, Chester Brown and Alberta College of Art and Design alumnus Jillian Tamaki are worthy contenders in a very exciting international scene; we can proudly boast talent to keep up with our colossal and often boastful southern neighbour.
Among these talents is Michael DeForge. Born in Ottawa, DeForge has been impressing lovers of comics since his excellent series Lose and weekly web-comic Ant Comic gained critical acclaim. He recently switched from Toronto-based Koyama Press to Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly, which published 2014’s Ant Colony (a collected edition of the Ant Comic strips).
With his new book, First Year Healthy, DeForge adopts a storybook style with single or (rarely) double-panel pages that accommodate the fable’s oddball narrative. First Year Healthy is a brief, strange tale about a young woman, recently released from the hospital after a sudden “outburst,” and her relationship with the Turk, a cherub-faced co-worker two years her senior. Working at a fish market, they pass the time practising licentious antics in the snow, experimenting with bodily fluids and cold temperatures. After moving in together, the Turk begins to dabble in petty crime to support them both. Along the way a ghoulish gangster, a mystical and terribly hungry cat, a fish factory and mountains of food complicate their lives as they try to navigate through a series of bizarre events.
DeForge’s signature style is present on every page: images and characters situated somewhere between a child’s daydream and an odd nightmare that you cannot remember, tinged with both the cute and the grotesque. The bulbous heads of the characters that populate these pages suggest both an adorable infancy and an animal degeneracy. Serpentine shapes and growths crawl around each tableau, and the flattened perspective, like a stepped-on pop-up book, evokes a sense of play gone askew. DeForge’s compositions are unsettling, while remaining completely innocent: festive food and vegetation sprawl, earthworms crawl, and the solar rays of the magical cat lurk in and out of the foreground.
Though it will only take you about half an hour to drift through its pages, First Year Healthy is a fun, darkly humorous display of Michael DeForge’s wonderful talent. Drawn & Quarterly has done a marvelous job putting it all together in full-colour hardcover, and each page pops with autumnal colour. All lovers of sad girls and holy cats will enjoy this curious story about mental illness, abandoned children, rich myth and the difficulties of living with another.