Leaving Richard’s Valley, Toronto-based comics artist and illustrator Michael DeForge’s newest graphic novel, follows a ragtag crew of outcasts who are forced to live in the “toxic” outside after their exile from a cult. Primarily known for his webcomics, DeForge has won multiple awards: the Doug Wright Award in 2010 for Lose and in 2015 for Ant Colony; the 2016 Alcuin Society Book Design Award for Big Kids; and the 2018 Eisner Award in “Best Graphic Album of Previously Published Work” for Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero. DeForge was kind enough to carve time out of his busy schedule to speak to The Beat.
Nancy Powell: Where did the idea for Leaving Richard’s Valley come from?
Michael DeForge: I’d been wanting to write about a cult for a while, since I kept circling around some of those ideas but never got around to it. I’ve always been very interested in the cult leaders who aren’t scam artists or bad faith actors from the get-go — the ones who start out well-intentioned and then have things get away from them. I also knew I wanted to do something set in Toronto and write about my own changing relationship with the city.
Powell: Which cult figure provided the most inspiration for Richard?
DeForge: There wasn’t any one figure in particular. He’s a combination of a lot of different leaders, professors, bosses, show promoters, father figures, etc.
Powell: Why utopia in the middle of an urban park?
DeForge: That park is a real park in Toronto, and it always seemed big enough to run a small cult out of.
Powell: The character backstories have this kind of absurd, reality TV like component to it. So how much influence did reality TV have on this particular story?
Powell: Many of your previous books mix the serious with the absurd. Does this reflect your own view of life, and if so, is this contained more to your artistic output?
DeForge: Yeah, I think it’d be hard to be alive right now and not feel as though the world was pretty absurd.
Powell: What provoked you to replace the 2D drawings in one very small section of the graphic novel with a claymation-like representations of those characters?
DeForge: I thought it would be a fun challenge, especially since it can get boring working one way for too long. I had it in my head that the sequence might look like an old, forgotten NFB stop-motion short or something like that. I love claymation.
Powell: I understand that you worked as a designer on Adventure Time. How has that experience influenced your own stories?
DeForge: I don’t know if it’s influenced my writing at all, since I didn’t do a ton of storyboarding on the show (I was mostly a designer during my time there.) It made me a lot better at drawing. The job taught me to be a much more efficient cartoonist.
Powell: In general, when you develop a story like Leaving Richard’s Valley or Ant Colony, how long does it take you from start-to-finish?
DeForge: It changes from project to project, but both Ant Colony and Richard’s Valley were a year and a half each. I was posting the strips pretty much as I drew them.
Powell: What graphic novels have you read lately?
DeForge: This Woman’s Work by Julie Delporte, Our Wretched Town Hall by Eric Kostiuk Williams, and the Moon Trax collection of Tiger Tateishi paintings were the last three I’ve read that I’d recommend.
Powell: Which comics creators excite you the most?
DeForge: Eleanor Davis, Lala Albert, Noel Freibert, Tommi Parrish, Jillian Tamaki, Laura Lannes, Patrick Kyle, The Hernandez Brothers, and Sophie Yanow.
Powell: Jack Kirby has been mentioned as a creator that you admire. If you could develop a story for one Kirby character, which would that be and why?
DeForge: I’d probably do a very bad job of writing any sort of Kirby thing. I already think of those comics as so perfect and singular on their own. I’d have nothing of value to add!
Powell: Any new webcomics in the works?
DeForge: No, but hopefully next year I’ll be able to start serializing something. I really miss doing one, but I just have to wrap another longer project first. I think I could manage a weekly strip again.