Michael Deforge is a cartoonist at the height of his powers. A prolific creator for the better part of a decade, Deforge released Ant Colony to great critical acclaim in 2014 and hasn’t looked back. In March, Drawn and Quarterly will release his latest offering, Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero, which tells the story of a politician’s daughter who moves to the forest and befriends the local wildlife. He sat down with ComicsVerse in January, the day after the worldwide Women’s March, to discuss politics, social media, and his upcoming work.
ComicsVerse: I figured we could just jump right into the substance of the interview. You recently said that your favorite object is a dehumidifier.
Michael Deforge: Oh yeah (laughs), on Curious Cat.
CV: Yeah, exactly. I just got my first humidifier for my apartment, and I think it’s a fantastic, magical machine. Doesn’t the air in your apartment get extremely dry during the winter?
MD: I live in a basement, so it’s actually pretty necessary to have a dehumidifier going a lot.
CV: Makes sense. I guess it also makes sense with the amount of paper products you have in your apartment.
MD: Yeah, my room is mostly that.
CV: How was Toronto this weekend? Did you participate in any of the march?
MD: Yeah, Toronto had a pretty large women’s march. The turnout worked out to like 50,000 people, so it was quite a lot, way more than people initially estimated.
CV: And there were speakers?
MD: Yeah, there were a lot of speakers. The activist community in Toronto is pretty large and vibrant, and they had folks from there and a lot of labor speakers, union reps, so, yeah, it was a good turnout from a lot of people. It was very nice to see.
CV: Is this stuff that you’ve participated in in the past?
MD: Yeah, sure, not specifically — Toronto doesn’t have a huge amount of anti-Trump rallies, but a lot of these things that are relevant in the States are pretty relevant in Canada, too. Canadians can get pretty smug, but anti-black racism is a huge issue in Toronto and a huge issue in Canada, as well. Environmental issues, indigenous rights: there are a ton of ways that Canadians and the Canadian government are failing all of its residents, and certainly we have our own strain of the current wave of reactionary, xenophobic — we have a bit of that, too. I live in a city that voted for Rob Ford, so I definitely think Canadians are dumb enough to elect some Canadian equivalent of Trump. So, yeah, it’s as relevant in Canada as it is anywhere else in the world.
CV: You guys did recently, though, elect a pretty different leader, at least from our perspective. I can tell you that on election day and the days following a lot of people here were pretty jealous of you all.
MD: Yeah, but even Trudeau isn’t perfect. He’s far from perfect, actually. So, he’s certainly better than the alternative, and I prefer having a liberal PM to — our previous one was Stephen Harper, who was horrible, but all the ways in which a center-left politician can disappoint, he’s disappointed. He’s been disappointing labor groups and environmental groups and indigenous groups. So he’s an improvement, but it’s still very important that progressive Canadians hold him accountable for all these things.
CV: Yeah. Do these kinds of events — the issues that you’ve been talking about and developments like the Trump election — do those inform your art? Do you feel any pressure or inclination to make comics or other art that speak to certain political issues?
MD: I guess so. I think someone reading my comics would have a pretty clear understanding of my worldview, I guess, but I don’t think of my art as being particularly political. It’d be hard to be making art right now and not have it in some way reflect the current climate. But, yeah, I don’t know if I feel any more or less pressure. I’m somewhat ambivalent as to the value of art during times of crisis. That’s not to say that I think it makes things worse — I don’t think it hurts — but I guess I just feel a little bit of ambivalence as to whether it helps very much. It helps me, personally. Producing art is an act of self-care. But I’m never too sure when I put something out into the world what people are really getting from it, which I think is an okay place to be. I think it’s okay to question that a little.
CV: In this latest book, STICKS ANGELICA, politics shows up to some extent. She’s the daughter of a prominent politician. And I just love this page where her father comes in, and he’s taken a long bath to warn her of his mortality.
MD: Oh yeah, the pruney skin.
CV: Yeah, and then there’s this awesome campaign poster that’s just a skeleton. What sparked that idea?
MD: Well, I always thought sometimes there’s a way that a grandparent or a parent can shame a kid a little by warning them, “I’m about to go soon.” I just thought it’d be kind of funny if the politician did that to a group of voters.
CV: Yeah. I think we’re far away from it, but this kind of seems like the type of campaign move that Trump or a Trump-like politician would use.
MD: Yeah, I don’t know. In the States, there’s definitely a lot of people running who are very old.
CV: Yeah. (Laughs.) So this series, you originally posted it on Tumblr, is that right?
MD: Yeah, it was all serialized online at first. I think I had a WordPress for a while, too, but then nobody wanted to read anything on WordPress anymore, so I put it on Tumblr.
CV: It seems like there’s so much activity in the comics community on Tumblr specifically. A lot of people, of course, put stuff out on Instagram and Twitter, but Tumblr seems to be the site of all this activity in comics today.
MD: It’s sort of a funny thing, because it always seems to change. I’m off Tumblr currently, and part of the reason I put it on Tumblr was that it was long — like, horizontally, it was long. And I couldn’t really put it on Instagram and serialize it that way because it’s too wide for people to read. But currently I’m doing a daily strip that’s exactly a square. So it was like, yeah, I can put this one on Instagram and people won’t have a hard time reading it, so I’ve been putting it up there. But it’s a funny thing the way social media platforms come in and out of vogue, and they sometimes shape the way people post art there or at least read art there. And it’s always kind of awkward to do a strip — if you’re not actually thinking of what website you’re going to put it on beforehand, it’s funny to do a strip and then later on figure out how it’s going to read on someone’s screen or a Twitter feed or something.
CV: Is that something that you think about ahead of time? This current daily, did you intentionally make it a square?
MD: I made it a square because I hadn’t really worked in a square format like that. ANT COLONY ended up being printed as a landscape book, but I originally did it as an 11-by-17 strip, with the idea of a Sunday strip format in mind, like a Krazy Kat type Sunday strip, or Gasoline Alley. Sticks Angelica, I wanted to do a lengthwise strip, a very traditional looking strip. So I didn’t have Instagram in mind. It just sort of worked that way, a happy accident. But I hadn’t done a square-bound thing before. I was thinking originally of doing it like Far Side, like a single-panel strip, but it was a little too awkward to have a narrative unfold like that. It’d be unfolding so painfully slow. So I ended up settling on four panels, but I initially thought maybe I could something that would look good as a 365-page square-bound calendar at the end.
CV: That would just be such an excellent product for you to come out with some day.
MD: Yeah, I hope so. We’ll bankrupt some publisher.
CV: So where did STICKS ANGELICA come from? I know you talked about wanting to do some things differently from ANT COLONY. What went into the origin of this story and this book?
MD: Well, I wanted the tone to be a lot different. It gets dark at times, but I wanted it to be overall kind of goofier and lighter. So even though it gets dark, I feel like Ant Colony had a much narrower range, and I wanted Sticks Angelica to be kind of gentle. I feel like there’s a tradition of Canadian cartooning that has a gentle weirdness to it. So it was inspired a little bit by Mark Trail, comics like that, that have an ongoing narrative running through them and the nature element, too. But a big inspiration was also Marc Bell’s Shrimpy and Paul, which was something that I originally read in strip form because it was serialized here. And I liked that it felt like a very Canadian strip. It had that gentle weirdness. So I thought I wanted to do something that belongs in that Canadian tradition. I also sort of think of the sketchbook comics that Seth has been putting out over the past few years as being similar.
CV: It seems like you also made some different style choices. I think your art is recognizable in pretty much everything you put out, but this does feel pretty distinct from what I think readers have seen in the past. Do the stylistic changes also fit into that tonal shift you were going for?
MD: I tend to try to switch it up from project to project, because it’s hard for me to be in the same place for too long. And you just kind of get bored of drawing a certain way, and so I just having the freedom to switch it up every now and then. So this current one, I think if it looked like Ant Colony, it would’ve ended up adopting the same tone as Ant Colony. There’s something about each strip in Ant Colony having pretty much a single, fixed perspective, that makes it so deadpan. And Sticks Angelica, while not being formally super out there, I did want to be able to vary it up a little.
CV: To get back to the format issue, it feels like an interesting question with respect to your work because you’ve used so many different formats: mini-comics, floppies, longer hardcover work, online. Do you feel like you’re headed in a certain direction with this, or are you experimenting with different forms?
MD: Like, online versus print?
CV: Yeah, or even within that, the various online platforms.
MD: I’ve been putting work online basically since I started making comics. My earliest comics, I would put up on Live Journal and stuff like that. But I still tend to always have print in mind as the end game. When I was starting, I was still making zines, and still in my head, I can only think of a finished product once it is something that eventually sees print. If it just exists online, that’s cool, but I always, in the back of my head, don’t think it’s finished until it’s printed. So I try to present things online in an accessible way, and I like playing around with different formats, and certainly posting things online lets you be a little more free with colors and things like that — though now that I have publishers it’s different. Initially color was a big concern when I was self-publishing, because you’d have to be able to Xerox it or color-photocopy it or risograph it or silk screen it. So, yeah, I like to be able to switch it up, but I don’t think anything I do online pushes formatting in any particularly far direction, because I do always think of a physical product later.
CV: I’m interested in what you think about the issue of reader access to different types of comics. A lot of our readers consume mostly superhero comics I think just because those are more widely known in popular culture — but also because you can go into any comic shop and you’ll find the latest issue of BATMAN, but you won’t necessarily find the best recent mini-comics or zines. It seems like that creates challenges for artists moving between those segments of the comics universe. Do you think about reader access when you’re putting out a mini-comic?
MD: Yeah, I mean, I try to make things accessible and cheap. I do a type of comic that I realize there’s a ceiling on the amount of readers I could get. So I never actually think of it in terms of whether I’m reaching superhero readers. If someone primarily reads superhero comics and they stumble across my work and like it, that’s great, but I never really think of targeting any particular demographic or anything; I just figure people will stumble across it or not. I sort of assume there isn’t a huge overlap between the appeal of superhero comics and what might be appealing about my comics.
So, yeah, I don’t think about it too much. When I think about comics being accessible, I like having things online that are either inexpensive to purchase or free to read and I hope that if someone sees me at a zine fair, they’re able to have a cheap entry point. I always try to have a three-dollar or a five-dollar comic in addition to the graphic novel that they can pick up and sample. I think of it more like that. I never really think of it as a big deal that there’s some sort of boundary between superhero comics and art comics or whatever term people have for it. There are different genres in movies and books, and I don’t think it’s this crazy concern of someone making a documentary thinking, “How do I get science-fiction fans to watch this documentary?” So I guess I think of it like that, in that I don’t think of it very much at all. I didn’t phrase that very eloquently, I don’t think.
CV: That does make sense. To me, there’s some inclination to group everyone in together because there are limited communities right now. Or limited websites where people are talking about comics. Less and less so, of course. But the result is that all different stuff gets discussed in the same place, and there’s maybe some expectation that everybody is, like, a Roger Ebert of comics and just wants to read everything that comes out. But that’s of course not the case.
MD: Yeah. And I don’t keep up with superhero comics much anymore, but there’s still the odd one I’ll read. And they were certainly an influence on me growing up. Some of my earliest entry points into comics were superhero comics, so they certainly inform my work, and there are cartoonists working in that field that I admire a great deal, so there’s some cross-pollination, but it’s just not something that I worry about too much.
CV: Well, you mentioned before that you try to release things that are cheap and accessible, and you’ve certainly been prolific in doing that. I’m interested in your take on what happens to some of your books now that your readership has grown so much. Like, a few months ago, LOSE #1 sold for over a hundred dollars on Ebay. Is that strange?
MD: Yeah, it’s definitely weird. That one, in particular, it’s kind of funny to see people hunt down. And people have asked me about reprinting it, and I don’t really want to just because it’s old enough that it feels a little too weird to see print again. I’m not super happy with it anymore. But I can’t really control that sort of thing. I always hope the new stuff is easy to get, but I never feel as though I have some obligation to have everything I’ve ever done stay in print. (Laughs.) That would be crazy. So it’s definitely weird to see. Especially if I see a zine being sold for a certain amount — some of the stuff I even gave out for free as a little giveaway. And I’ll see it for sale on Ebay. But I’m kind of over it. I can’t control that at all. Sometimes I’ll see stuff on Ebay going for a certain price, and they’re asking for that amount, but I don’t actually see anybody buying it for that amount. But I don’t really know what to say about that. I like doing small-run things, and that means there’s only 50 of something made, and not everyone is going to get one, but hopefully they can get the next thing, you know?
CV: Well, this is what happens what you become The Guy. You put out great work, and people love it.
MD: Yeah, I hope that is the case.
CV: Well, I always like to ask for recommendations. Are there things that you’re reading now or have read recently, or that you plan to read, that you would recommend to others?
MD: Well, I don’t keep up with as many new comics as I used to, but Noel Freibert and Lala Albert are two of my favorite cartoonists, and usually anything they do is just amazing. And both of them really push comics — they’re both excellent. Their comics are surprising, innovative. I like Libby's Dad, which Eleanor Davis just released, I think through Retrofit. And I haven’t finished it, but I like Steven Weissman a lot, and they just collected Looking For America's Dog. So those would be the recent comics that I’m still on top of.
CV: Are there comics that are older that you’ve been working your way through, or are you just focused on other things?
MD: Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any old strip that I’ve been going through. When I go through a back-issue bin, I’ll still pick up weird old Aircel Comics, but I don’t know if there’s anything in particular that I’m reading right now.
CV: Well, STICKS ANGELICA is going to be out in stores in March. What else have you been working on that readers should look out for?
MD: I have a daily strip that we talked about earlier, it’s called Leaving Richard's Valley, and I post at least one new installment every day that I post on my Twitter and Instagram. I also serialize chapters from an ongoing graphic novel called BRAT on my Patreon, where I also have a lot of subscriber-exclusive stories that I post once a month. And if anyone follows me, they can see all the little small projects I have going on. I tend to have a lot of ongoing small things rather than big things to look forward to.
CV: I also wanted to ask before we wrap up about KID MAFIA. Is that something you’re still working on?
MD: No, I gave up Kid Mafia— yeah, there’s a long story about me giving up Kid Mafia, but I ended up not wanting to work on that anymore. And some of the characters from Kid Mafia, I kind of have written into this graphic novel, and I feel like it’s the fixed version of it. It’s the version I want to write. Yeah, those issues were fun to do, and there are two that I actually finished that never saw print because I decided to give it up, but I just think of that as a cool, failed experiment that will remain unfinished.
CV: Well, thanks so much for taking the time. I really appreciate you talking today. I’m a huge fan of your stuff — I hadn’t come across it until sort of recently, and it’s been great working through your stuff, so this has been a real pleasure.
MD: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.