by Michael DeForge
44 pages, b&w interior, colour softcover
“This Isn’t An X-Ray. This Is An Ink Drawing.”
review by BK Munn
Once I had a small, raised mole on my shoulder. I’m not sure when it first appeared or if it had been increasing in size for some time, or what. I just know that I wasn’t born with it. At one point it wasn’t there, and then it was . After I became aware of its existence, I couldn’t stop touching it, couldn’t stop being hyper-aware of it. And then, just as I was getting up the nerve to see a doctor about it, fearing skin cancer or something worse, it was gone. I’m not sure if it just fell off or if my incessant fussing somehow had something to do with it (Did I lance it or otherwise remove it forcefully by accident, say while getting dressed? Did I probe it in my sleep?), but it was gone. What I remember is that when I instinctively checked for it one morning, all that remained was a tiny pinhole-sized indent. Today there is no evidence that I ever had any sort of growth in that space, just on the back of the shoulder joint. When I look at or feel my shoulder, I can’t even sense any difference from the skin around it. No hole. No scar. No blemish. I don’t know. Do moles do that? Maybe it was a cyst or some manifestation of benign carcinoma. I’m not a dermatologist so I can’t tell you. It looked and felt like a mole to me. A tiny little brownish-pink mole. But here’s the part that bothered me most: when I looked at the little hole where it where it had been, and I had to use a magnifying glass and a mirror to really see this, all that remained was a reddish-pink well at the bottom of which appeared to be tiny white filaments or roots.
Reader, the hair on my head still stands up just thinking about it!
The idea that this mysterious growth had roots or tubes extending down into my body, beyond my knowledge or control, was and is a source of a very specific form of extreme horror for me, a horror that is occasionally reawakened, probed, and stoked to an intense furnace heat by certain triggers, intentionally or unwittingly encountered. Medical photos and film can do it. Dreams can do it. And the infrequent work of art can do it.
Such is the case with the comics of Michael DeForge, whose Lose #4 has just been published by Koyama Press. Deforge has carved out a wide space for himself in the school of unnerving cartoon art, majoring in nihilistic humour and deadpan irony, with a minor in sexually-tinged body horror. Several of the pieces in this handsome square-bound comic book, which showcases many of the by now already-signature DeForge design hallmarks (heavy metal lettering, heavy use of solid blacks, and playful, exquisitely-paced variations on the nine-panel grid format), elicit the very same hair-standing-on-end, skin-rippling frisson of terror that the best examples of the genre are known for. Subitled “The Fashion Issue,” Lose #4 tackles themes of costume, ritual and social anxiety through a trio of adolescent coming-of-age narratives that share a fascination with bizarre exoskeletons, extreme body modification, and pop culture.
In “Someone I Know,” Deforge spins the noir tale of a university freshman who falls in with a group of older students and their film studies professor who all seem to be habitues of a fetish club that, in a Cronenbergian twist, turns out to be a front for a transhumanist cult based around a bondage gear virus. DeForge’s hero is propelled through the narrative by a sexual desperation tinged with a Holden Caulfield-esque fear of the “cheesy and lame”, his confusion and our growing unease amplified by the speed of events and his own loss of physical control, delineated with images alternating between psychedelic and textbook illustration clarity, and the near-relentless pacing of the nine-panel grid.
“Canadian Royalty: Their Lifestyles and Fashions” is another mockumentary in the style of DeForge’s 2010 Spotting Deer (the titular deer even makes a few cameo appearances here). This time out, the cartoonist tackles a different aspect of Canuck culture in the form of a Through-the-Looking-Glass style anthropological study of our political system and its monarchy, a caste of elongated, exoskeleton-wearing cannibalistic inbreds tasked with overseeing some of the more outre aspects of national life like The Annual Ontario Skin Peeling Ceremony, Horse Flogging Competitions, and Shame Services. DeForge’s approach here is to describe the mating and seccession rituals of his self-mutilating tribe through the use of rows of tiny little panels, like the frames of a film strip, juxtaposed with mock-serious historical narration, “archival” footage, reenactments, and a handful of larger drawings or portraits of the Royals, the result of which reads like a homage/parody of Seth (fake history with tons of elaborately-designed shields and crests) crossed with a disturbing NFB production (the National Film Board logo actually makes a cameo, detourned to become the mascot of The Canada Council of Aestethics aka Cat Parliament, the agency charged with designing costumes for the Royals). The whole thing ping-pongs between winking humour (in-jokes referring to fellow cartoonists and free-associated place names and characters stolen from real Canadian scandals and history) and disgusting imagery in a very satisfying package.
Besides a few one-pagers dealing with cartoon porn and fumbling adolescent attempts at sexuality and conformity, the book is rounded out with “The Sixties,” an eight-pager narrated by the teenage Diane, a small-town rebel on the verge of escape to the larger world and college. The only vegetarian in school “who even cares about politics and cool bands,” this rural Ontario proto-punker is hampered by the disfiguring stigmata that affects every human and animal down to the smallest insect in her town, the chilling affliction known as “Staceyface,” apparently the legacy of a messianic 1960s guru. Here DeForge gets his queasy effects by the contrasting of Diane’s diary-like rants with a straight-ahead cartoon tour of her town and environs, Lynda Barry style, if Lynda Barry wrote for Warren magazines in the 70s.
All in all, Lose #4 is another subtle, creepy collection from a creator who is just starting to exercise all of the mysterious body parts available to him as a cartoonist.