Michael DeForge’s Big Kids begins like a typical coming-of-age graphic novel: boy meets boy, boy dumps boy, boy wakes up as a tree. Suddenly the story, published as a banana yellow hand-sized book by Montreal cartooning imprint Drawn & Quarterly, transforms into existential psychedelia without losing the melancholy and tenderness of its opening pages. Heartbreak and disillusionment are bold and colorful in DeForge’s sunny palette of yellow, magenta, and cyan. The color scheme lends an immediacy to the wavering emotions of his protagonist, a bullied high schooler named Adam who "trees" one night after a bad breakup.
DeForge grew up in Ottawa, Ontario and spent two years studying philosophy at University of Toronto before deciding to make comics instead. The tenuously controlled clutter of his studio—mostly books—speaks to an appetite for both philosophical ideas and visual ones. Indeed, unlike most coming-of-age stories Big Kids doesn’t have a neat ending. It just ends. DeForge’s commitment to making bizarre and emotionally grotesque comics has earned him a collection of loyal fans who gladly follow him between projects. His tireless work ethic also landed him a gig as an animator on the popular Cartoon Network series Adventure Time.
In studio, DeForge is a little scripted, like someone who’s sat through a lot of interviews or maybe spends entire days without seeing the sun. He loosens up when we talk about internet stalkers, death threats, and music—DeForge, who is obsessed with Prince and plays in noise punk band Creep Highway with fellow cartoonist Patrick Kyle, recently designed the album cover for Hooded Fang’s forthcoming album Venus On Edge. A few days after Big Kids’ launch, he spoke with The FADER about how leveling up doesn’t always hold the answers to getting through this thing called life.
We were talking building your audience online, and you mentioned death threats.
MICHAEL DEFORGE: I’ve had a few weird interactions online: death threats, weird shit. It’s less than peers who have had way worse, but it [made me think] maybe I shouldn’t be too accessible. I think a lot of it is someone thinking they’re funny but I’d still rather not receive it. I used to get anonymous messages from somebody saying they’d seen me around the neighbourhood. It’s kind of weird.
I don’t think my work is particularly violent but I do comics in the horror vein. I’d get people who would send me horrible Faces of Death-type content and it’s not my bag. But I get that it was somebody trying to connect with me on some level — they thought they were doing me a favor.
Does knowing you have an audience change your work?
It’s definitely changed it, and probably in ways I won’t be able to understand until I get more distance. I’m sure any artist who reads reviews or gets feedback becomes a little more self conscious. Not in a bad way. You start to feel more responsibility as you become more aware of actual readers, instead of theoretical ones, and about how much of yourself you put out there or make obvious to strangers. I’m lucky in that I do many different types of projects and I think people who’ve followed me trust me. People who read my work regularly don’t expect consistency from me, which is very nice and freeing.
Is Big Kids autobiographical?
Everything I do has some element of personal experiences, but I’ve never done anything directly autobiographical. I write about adolescence a lot, so I thought it was time to do something that’s strictly a coming-of-age story. Each character is [often] a different facet of myself, but I find the characters don’t get fleshed out until I start actually drawing.
You improv as you draw, right? How does that process work?
Yeah. I try not to write more than one page at a time, and I tend do a lot of edits as I go. I do about a page every day or two days, depending on my day job. I get hung up if I write too far in advance. When a story’s finished sometimes I’ll go back and change a few things —Big Kids had a few things like that. There will be little bits of dialogue or some visual cue that made sense when I was starting, but feels out of place [in the finished product]. Before Adam actually treed there were a lot of surreal elements, and I took them out. I draw a lot of plants and biology stuff, and a lot of veiny, wormy things. Trees and sprouting seemed like almost too obvious a visual allegory for doing a thing about adolescence.
In Big Kids some characters turn into trees, many are twigs, and some go from tree back to twig. Is it better to be a tree or a twig?
I want it to be ambiguous about whether it’s better to be one or the other. Big shifts in perspective seem monumental at first, especially in adolescence, like you’re leveling up—but in the end it’s a little disappointing and anticlimactic. I wanted to show that a number of the trees were ultimately ambivalent about the change, and a little wistful for how they viewed things before.
I don’t want to say exactly what my intent is, but I wanted the main character to initially sprout as a result of someone acting a little callously. His relationship was toxic. In the end, I wanted this other character to revert back to being a twig after a callous act of cruelty was directed toward him. It's a violent act. I wanted that arc.
You clearly have your own style, but has working on a show with its own aesthetic parameters like Adventure Time affected the way you think about your projects?
In comics you can take big leaps from panel to panel, you can play with location and time in weird ways: it’s almost like a cubist view of time. Weird space stuff I never thought about before. I think of my comics as very flat compared to animation and I think that’s basically the difference: my comics are formally pretty much the same as Dilbert. They’re more psychedelic or whatever, but it’s still a very flat perspective.
[On Adventure Time] my main responsibility is props and effects, so I’m drawing coffee mugs and lightning bolts and shit. I’ve also done a bit of concept art and character design, title cards, storyboards, a little bit of everything. Working in animation you’re not afforded a lot of shortcuts. Because I write my own work, if something’s really hard to draw I can just write it out if I don’t feel like drawing a motorcycle or whatever. Animation taught me how to look at things and draw things I wouldn’t normally do. I once had an episode where I had to draw a violin from a bunch of different angles so it’s like, well, I just have to learn how to do this. It’s a new cartooning vocabulary.