Michael DeForge doesn’t ever seem to slow down. In the last handful of years, the young comic-artist has released a staggering number of books, including the engaging and bizarre collections “Very Casual” (2013), “A Body Beneath” (2014), and “Dressing” (2015) — published by Koyama Press — that compile his work from the short story anthology series “Lose,” among other places, and the longer narrative works “Ant Colony” (2014) and “First Year Healthy” (2015), both published by Drawn & Quarterly. And this doesn’t even begin to mention the long list of mini-comics, web comics, other various projects DeForge has collaborated with other artists on (including former “Line by Line” interviewee Leslie Stein), or that he has a band called Creep Highway (with the artist Patrick Kyle), or that his day-job is as a designer on the Cartoon Network series “Adventure Time.”
“Big Kids,” out this month from Drawn & Quarterly, is, despite being small enough to fit in your pocket, a book that is bursting with complex ideas and fragile emotions. A queer teenager , bullied by his peers, strikes up a friendship with April, a college student who his professor mother has taken into the family home. After suffering moments of humiliation and loss, he begins to observe transformations that are happening to his body — transformations, he is soon to discover, that have also happened to some of the people around him, and which April helps guide him through. DeForge’s beautifully composed, minimalist panels and sudden technicolor explosions — including expressive use of bold yellows, greens, and pinks — add an expressive element to his story of identity formation and growing up.
Over a series of emails, DeForge spoke with ARTINFO about his working process, how his publishers have let experiment, and his growing interest in work made for the gallery.
When you’re beginning work on something like “Big Kids,” do you start from a different place than you would on something in an issue of “Lose,” or something else with a more limited run?
Well, writing a short story is of course very different from writing a graphic novel. I’m aiming for brevity and efficiency when writing a short story. My long form narratives tend to be a little wormier, finding different threads to follow and veering off on tangents whenever I want to.
Is there a common place you typically begin? An idea or a sketch, that then you decide to build into either a short story or a longer graphic novel?
Not really. It changes all the time. Lately, my process has a lot of different jumping off points, or false starts.
Has anything ever began as a short story and organically became something longer, or vice versa?
“Ant Colony” was originally just a single page strip, and then I realized it was something I wanted to run with a bit further.
How important to you is it to keep doing work on your own while at the same time doing commercial work?
I don’t really have a choice? It’s always tough to balance the commercial/paid work with my comics work, but I feel very fortunate that I’m able to draw for a living, and that I’m able to have the former subsidize the latter.
Can you talk about the colors in “Big Kids”? It seems brighter than “Ant Colony” and “First Year Healthy,” with lots of bold yellows, pinks, and greens.
I wanted to blow up the colors in the middle of the book. It was important that the visuals achieve a sort of hyper-density, and that the world become very sharp and loud and even overwhelming.
How do you think your work has changed since you started publishing stuff?
My publishers are very generous and accommodating. They let me experiment. I know my books aren’t always easy sells. It was a big risk for Anne Koyama to take a chance on a floppy comic book series like “Lose,” or for D+Q to print a large, landscape-sized full-color hardcover comic as a debut graphic novel. It’s nice to have publishers that have that sort of trust and confidence in you.
Do you see your work as personal?
Yes, it’s all personal.
I know you had a gallery show last year. Is that something you want to continue to pursue? And do you think of that work as connected to the comics?
Yeah, there are a lot of overlapping concerns between the small amount of gallery work I’ve done and my comics. That show in particular, All Dogs Are Dogs, was attached to a narrative. I’m planning to collaborate more with Phil Woollam on new, different sculptures this year and next, although there isn’t anything set in stone yet.
Do you have contemporary models, people who are working in the same form as you, who are not only doing great work but are doing it in a way that inspires you?
Gilbert Hernandez is my north star.