Michael Deforge’s work used to be described frequently as “bigfoot” cartooning, impressive for the sheer scale of the visual power of his often-grotesque stories of bodily transformation. Developing restlessly, Deforge’s work now has made an almost-complete reversal of emphasis, greatly simplifying his figure work while improving his narrative ability in great strides. It’s fitting then, that his most recent published work is also his smallest, physically. Big Kids is an octavo-sized hardback comic book. It’s an unusual design choice that works perfectly with the content of the story, smaller in scope and more intimate than Deforge’s oversized tour-de-force Ant Colony and even the children’s-book-style First Year Healthy. Big Kids is the story of a queer teenage boy who becomes a tree, or something called a tree anyway, rendered in DeForge’s sickly, spindly line.
The small size of the book and the dominant pink-and-yellow color scheme give extra weight to an intimate story about interior transformation. Deforge’s turn toward a more simplistic drawing style and narrative opacity make this comic feel like poetry; it’s more evocative and associational than didactic. The book turns on a divide between people who are twigs and people who are trees, which at first feels like it’s there to work as a parable similar to those of The Time Machine or Dr. Seuss’ “The Sneetches,” but as the book goes on it’s increasingly murky and multivalent as to whether tree-ness is better or even preferable to twig-ness; it seems to alienate as much as it draws fellow trees together. We don’t learn what causes treeing, only that it leads to a completely altered experience of the world. It presents a concept unusual in literature: a dichotomy with no superior position. Big Kids forces the reader to look for what’s unifying between the trees and twigs, and that information is so scarce that it’s a struggle to find any meaning in the categories. The title and the high school setting start to come together: the most socially stratified time in adolescent life unfolds into different strata that make even less sense. What’s identity? I guess it has something to do with trees. Maybe.