The definition of a truly great artist, in my book, is someone who leads you somewhere unexpected. That doesn’t mean great artists always flit around, reinventing their style, although they certainly can. What it means is that they sell you one thing, then give you something different but no less satisfying. You could call it bait and switch, and it is to some extent, but it’s more like the best kind of parenting, wherein the artist is the parent effectively gauging the child/viewer’s tolerance and potential for growth and current set of abilities before scaffolding the way to stretch those muscles. Michael DeForge does this with everything he produces, and it is part of why people love his work. Leaving Richard’s Valley, out now from Drawn & Quarterly, is yet another example of this skill.
It started out as an Instagram-based comic running approximately daily, but it works as a book. There are remnants of the organic flow of a less planned, more impulsive creation, in which new ideas rise to the surface like pimples or bubbles in something oozy. The narrative isn’t so constrained by an ending. Characters get to move from background to foreground. Ideas get to play out rather than being hustled along.
Theoretically, it is now a book about a mild-mannered cult of people and animals who live in a park in Toronto, trying to stay away from modernity, and what happens when a small group of them are booted out into the urban environment, but that doesn’t really capture the feel or the largeness of what it covers. You could say it’s about gentrification or friendship, growing up or finding your place in the world, personal growth, religion, the opposition of neatness to messiness, art, self-expression, the constraints of a four-panel strip and probably a whole lot of other things. It doesn’t need to be nailed down, and if you try, it’ll slip out of your grasp with a giggle. DeForge talked to us over email about why he picked the format he did, cults, photocopiers and future goals.
Paste: Why a daily strip and why Instagram rather than a more straightforward webcomic?
Michael DeForge: I had always wanted to work on a daily strip, but it felt like a pretty big undertaking, and I didn’t want to try something like that and back out midway through. I had found myself with a bit more free time in the space between my job in animation ending and my hustling up regular freelance work again, so I figured it was as good a time as any to take a run at it. I wish it could have gone on longer, but it was hard to justify financially. I’ve said this before when talking about the strip, but I normally don’t get much pleasure out of the actual process of drawing comics, and this was one of the rare exceptions to that. It was very rewarding, and I had a lot of fun working on it.
I didn’t even think to start a separate website for it, but I guess that’s the classic webcomic way to set something like this up. Instagram and Twitter just made sense, since that’s where people already follow me. Do people still use the traditional webcomic portal thing? I always assume those pleasant, personalized corners of the internet are long gone, and we’ve all ended up defaulting to these terrible social media websites for everything.
Paste: Are you a purist about Instagram’s square format? I mean, theoretically you could have made horizontal strips or two-panel strips or things but no. Why/why not?
DeForge: It fitting on Instagram so well was just a happy accident, really. I had already done a vertical strip (Ant Colony) and a wider horizontal strip (Sticks Angelica) so the square format seemed like a nice change of pace. I also kind of had this idea that maybe I could print it as a desk calendar. I have this long standing joke with Youth in Decline publisher Ryan Sands that one day I’ll draw a comic that can only be read as a daily desk calendar, and he will print it, and it will bankrupt him.
Paste: I feel like up to this point I thought of you as primarily an artist who worked in color, but this comic takes that device away from you. Was it just the time thing? Are you just trying to make life harder for yourself with regard to comics?
DeForge: I like alternating between color and black-and-white projects, since I get bored if I spend too long with any one style. I guess Sticks Angelica had a spot color, but I sort of approached it as a black-and-white strip when it came to actually drawing it.
Paste: Can you talk a little about the actual process of drawing each strip (tools used, process, how much you outlined the plot ahead of time)?
DeForge: I had a rough idea of what would happen, but like all my comics, it was mostly improvised. Making it up as I went along is kind of what made the daily thing so compelling, since the deadlines were so rigorous. The story took a lot of detours, and characters like Snake Mark and Caroline became a lot more prominent than I initially thought they’d be. Towards the end, it obviously became clearer how things were going to finish. But again, in an ideal world, I would have kept going.
I tended to not draw more than one strip a day, usually the day before it’d get posted. The strips were drawn digitally, and the collage elements were a combination of scanned textures and photos I took around Toronto.
Paste: How much do you love photocopiers and why did you decide to use or evoke them for Leaving Richard’s Valley?
DeForge: There’s a lot of noise and clutter to Toronto that I wanted to evoke. Crowded storefront windows, parks and islands made out of discarded construction materials, debris, detritus, that sort of thing.
There’s also a particular strain of grimy Canadian design that I have a lot of affection for, which I think is embodied by the covers to the New Canadian Library series. That was an influence as well.
Paste: What’s your general feeling about archaic technology?
DeForge: Are photocopiers archaic? I just try to use whatever tools best get the job done. Sometimes that’s a Cintiq tablet; sometimes that’s a photocopier; sometimes that’s pen and ink. I’m not precious about it or anything. Almost all of my final pages are digital, and I prefer not to hold onto any preliminary drawings or original art I might produce along the way.
Paste: Tell me about the influence of Charles Schulz on your work in general but then definitely on this strip in particular.
DeForge: It’s kind of hard for me to talk about the Schulz influence, because it’s just so embedded in the DNA of comics. I imagine it’s the same for most cartoonists talking about Schulz. I honestly don’t really know where to start, and probably don’t have anything to say about his warmth and rigour and empathy that hasn’t been said one million times over by people a lot more eloquent than me!
Paste: Noooo. I don’t think most cartoonists talk about him much, even though he is, as you said, a huge influence. I think that Leaving Richard’s Valley is particularly Schulzian, but why? Is it that it’s a four-panel strip?
There’s also something kind of stoic about the way Schulz’s characters behave, even when they’re experiencing major emotional upheaval. It’s like they’re both inside and outside themselves at the same time, feeling their feelings and unpacking those feelings for public consumption simultaneously. And that feels like your work to me. Or at least some of it.
DeForge: I think one of the things that made Schulz so great was how gracefully he was able to depict the vast, complex inner lives of his characters. He only ever needed a handful of lines, a few bits of dialogue.
Paste: So would you say you aspire to Schulzian heights?
DeForge: No, I’m just trying my best.
Paste: Snake Mark’s mouth in a cry of anguish while gazing up is like the exact same blobby shape as many Peanuts characters doing same. Intentional or no?
DeForge: Unintentional, but that’s what I mean by it just being in the DNA. I have a little Schulz “Auugh!” word balloon as a tattoo.
Paste: The last time we talked, you said something about Canada’s affection for rural areas. How does this book and its concern with cities play into that?
DeForge: Part of the gag with Sticks Angelica was that it was about someone who had an idealized vision of what rural living looked like but had never actually lived outside a city before, which is certainly the case for me. I’ve only ever lived in cities, so this was writing something closer to home.
Paste: Are you getting old and therefore kind of over the romance of the urban idea?
DeForge: Well, considering the subject matter of Leaving Richard’s Valley, I clearly still do have a romantic vision of what cities can be. It’s very painful to watch all the things that initially attracted people to cities—a sense of community, their accessibility, etc—be systematically dismantled by all these agents of capital, to be so totally at the mercy of these hucksters and developers and blinkered technocratic ideologues. So in Leaving Richard’s Valley, I wanted to write about a group of characters trying (and frequently failing) to build a refuge from all of that.
Paste: Do you think you’re ever going to move to the suburbs?
DeForge: I don’t know how to drive, so probably not.
Paste: Who is the worst roommate you’ve ever had?
DeForge: I’ve mostly lived alone!
Paste: Did you watch Wild, Wild Country on Netflix?
DeForge: I did! I liked it. I’ve been a little afraid about releasing a book about a cult when there’s so much media about cults being produced right now, but I guess there’s just something in the air lately.
Paste: Cults: you might say that! The season-minus-one of American Horror Story also examined cults, especially in light of contemporary politics. Are we all just feeling unmoored these days due to climate change/authoritarian regimes/the Internet/general terribleness? Richard’s cult doesn’t seem so bad.
DeForge: A lot of the places we used to turn to for feelings of camaraderie and community have all been deliberately taken away from us, so I can see that being a reason why cults are holding everyone’s attention lately.
Paste: Where do you go for community?
DeForge: Comics, music, the organizers and activists in my city.