Readers can be forgiven for anticipating a familiar coming-of-age story after looking at the first few pages of Michael DeForge’s new sucker punch graphic novel, Big Kids. The story follows teenage narrator Adam as he contends with the intrusions of his police officer uncle, his secret relationship with his classmate, Jared, and his growing awareness of a world outside of everyday family and high school drama. Framed as the recollections of an older Adam—with occasional narrative pauses to apologize for ambiguity in certain memories—the tale hits any number of beats associated with Bildungsromans where a youth begins to discover him or herself.
Then Adam’s parents take on a boarder, a young college student named April, and things take a turn for the surreal. Adam begins to see the world differently—a place where humanity is divided into trees and twigs with unusual methods of perceiving stimuli. This dreamlike twist provides a showcase for DeForge’s artwork, which shifts from cartoonish to psychedelic and intricate (and back again) repeatedly over the course of the book. The end result makes for a haunting take on growing up and discovering that life is a much stranger journey than one could ever imagine. Paste talked with DeForge (First Year Healthy, Any Colony) about the book’s origins, his approach to its unusual character designs and the role that online fundraising has had in his work. Big Kids debuts next week from publisher Drawn & Quarterly.
Paste: Big Kids begins as a very realistic coming-of-age story, and then takes a significant turn for the surreal. Had you initially planned for the book to be a more realistic work, or was the tree/twig divide there from the beginning?
Michael DeForge: The transformation was there from the start. The trees were originally supposed to be more of a secret society—this cult-like institution the protagonist gradually becomes aware of and a part of, but I clearly dropped that angle as I got more into it.
Paste: Was there an initial image or scene that you began with when you started work on the book?
DeForge: Not really. I already draw a lot of wormy, veiny things, so I suppose plants and roots show up in my work a lot.
Paste: The characters’ tree bodies are very distinctive, with aspects that seem both uncanny and anatomical. How did you go about creating those as a design?
DeForge: My design choices are pretty intuitive. They’re all choices that look right in the moment. So the trees were just a happy accident, arrived at from hashing stuff out in a sketchbook.
Paste: The way that someone becoming a tree (or a twig) is handled has ties to growing older, but isn’t specifically tied to it—and there’s a whole mythology that surrounds it as well. How did you find the balance between metaphor and the more straightforwardly fantastic?
DeForge: It’s never been a conscious balancing act, really.
Paste: Big Kids is framed as Adam looking back on his past, but memory also works its way into the narrative: the panels where he tries to remember April’s face, and then the scene in which he and April try to come up with a 3-D model of her face. How did you find the best way to convey fading memory in your art?
DeForge: Well, cartooning is good for that, because you can switch between very specific drawing and very generic, vague drawing in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. You only need a rectangle with a triangle on top to evoke the image of a house. Alternately, it only takes a handful of details to tie those lines down to a more specific image or experience—something odd about the way its windows are arranged, for instance. And since memory is sometimes vague and sometimes specific, that’s very helpful.
Paste: The way that music is handled in the book—as a shifting, aggressive creature that latches onto the body—is instantly memorable. How did you come up with that image?
DeForge: I guess that’s how listening to a song feels like, sometimes. It was another “it made sense in the moment” thing.
Paste: In 2014, you set up a fundraising campaign via Patreon, which you initially described as “an experiment.” Has that been successful for you?
DeForge: Yeah, it’s worked out very well for me. It’s a nice place for me to work on low-stakes experiments, and I’m very grateful I have readers/subscribers who are interested in the results of those experiments.
Paste: Has the process of creating work regularly for that caused any changes in the way that you’ve created comics?
DeForge: It hasn’t changed my process very much. It’s all the sort of work that I was self-publishing in zines beforehand, but I was just losing so much money printing my work all the time. So that’s been the big change for me—people are actually paying me to make the things.