Originally published as a webcomic, it’s unclear whether Michael DeForge’s attempt at a weekly strip works better in this beautiful hardback collection or in its initial format. The story details the adventures of a Canadian prodigy who excels at everything she touches, but flees her fame to live, Thoreau-like, in the woods. As usual with DeForge, the nuts and bolts of the plot are often less important than the visible gears that keep it turning. When Sticks Angelica appeared online, slowly but surely, readers had time to wait and ponder each koan-like chunk of comic—(usually) eight square panels, arranged in two rows of four. There was a certain appeal to the measured rhythm of it, like TV before Netflix binging. Would a story arc keep going or arrive at an abrupt end? It was impossible to guess. On the other hand, now we have this lovely book, which removes (or condenses) the time-based element of the experience, but better suits the impatient. It allows one to trace the themes that run throughout with less effort and, obviously, requires no Internet access.
Sticks Angelica is not DeForge’s most serious work. Rendered in black, white and magenta, it’s a vehicle for play. That’s not to say it doesn’t have melancholy moments. The plot is full of missed connections between characters and places, the meaning behind an utterance failing to jump the gap from one brain to another. All of these scenes are faintly sad, but they also have some sweetness to them. The geese, fish, deer, bears, humans, insects and rabbits who populate the book keep trying to reach one another; sometimes, but not frequently, they succeed.
Everything is not only Canadian, but self-consciously so, with multiple references to sweaters, Mounties, maple syrup, iconic Canuck fauna and the like. Even the dialogue—laconic, understated, almost stripped of emotion—is as austerely Canadian as it can be. Meanwhile, terribly violent acts occur, just as they do in actual nature, and these are also treated with an objective matter-of-factness. The result is just overt enough to play as a joke about specific and general national identity. Real folk heroes, like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, exemplify important national traits, like the importance of bigness or the desire to tame the frontier. The historical Bunyan may actually hail from Canada. But what does a modern folk hero look like if she comes from a culture known for politeness and restraint? Sticks Angelica doesn’t exactly answer that question, but it roller-skates around it, poking at big issues even as it goofs on comics form.
Like Will Eisner, DeForge repeatedly and noticeably varies the lettering of the strip’s title. Sometimes the name changes for a few weeks. The standard eight-panel grid continues for weeks and weeks before being abandoned for two giant, beautiful panels that detail how to make a “Classic Monterey Kebab” to roast over the fire. Reality intrudes too…sort of. A character named Michael DeForge, an investigative journalist, shows up for a while. A moose named Lisa Hanawalt leaves the forest to pursue her dreams as a big-city lawyer. The whole interaction doesn’t offer any substantial conclusion, but it doesn’t add up to nothing either. The ideas are interesting, and the individual strips, with their delicate patterns and intelligent use of color, produce a mindful, existential experience. Is there meaning in the world? In the wilderness? In the universe? Who knows. But there is art, and Michael DeForge is making it.