Back in January, on a freezing Monday night, I heard Michael DeForge give a talk during the first stop on his tour for Ant Colony (Drawn and Quarterly, 2014), his first graphic novel.
He took the stage in Toronto at The Central, a bar next to The Beguiling comic book store, and shared with us a slide show of comics he’d drawn but disliked enough to forget about and never show ever again. He’d gone to great lengths to recover some of these pages, scouring old printouts, blog posts and Tumblr feeds to compile what amounted to the contents of his creativity’s garbage basket.
Why did DeForge decide on this act of public recycling instead of hyping his new book to squeeze out a few more sales?
For one, he’s a known workaholic. It allowed him to air self-criticisms and maybe smooth out issues with process before hitting the drawing board the next day. He talked about uneven colour distribution, ineffable incongruities between a likeness in his imagination and its materialization on the page, and the realization that a story wasn’t going anywhere worth visiting. He said he rarely draws from a fully-fledged idea to keep himself interested in the work; hence, a lot of the pages represented failed prospecting. The rest of them, where he’d seen a way to say something and get to the end, were examples of what he called “having to suck for a long time before you’re any good.”
For two, I agree with Sean T. Collins that DeForge is a horror artist. One who expresses what we do not believe but know we must to call ourselves human. Besides creating beautiful drawings and telling engaging stories, this is DeForge’s work’s most meaningful service to our media-fractured, Kim-Kardashianized world: he makes nourishment out of these unpalatable beliefs by presenting them to us as viable options to live by. I’ll give you two examples, each from a different book, and stop short of boiling them down into easily digestible refrains because that’s what daytime talk shows are for.
Stephen, the divorced father of three in “Dog 2070” from A Body Beneath (Koyama Press, 2014), is a sad and lonely sack whose almost unbearable awkwardness around everyone he loves could move you to: A) pity him in the superior way some do Honey Boo Boo and her family, or B) see a bit of your own sadness/loneliness in him and do something about relieving it. But here’s the thing, when Stephen relates his dream about his daughter’s skin rotting away, or when he gets drunk and slashes the bike tires of the girl who cheated on his son, you can’t really laugh at him. Not like you may when Honey Boo Boo visits a farm and inquires of the owner whether goats experience flatulence too.
There’s a four-page force-feeding scene in Ant Colony between five male ants and an infertile female. It’s the cutest thing, which is unsettling. The sextet becomes desperate after a natural catastrophe renders them nomads. They think that, if their female ant friend consumes royal bee jelly — the same jelly female bees consume to become queens— then she might turn into a fertile queen herself, start a brand new ant colony and ensure their survival. Though she’s well below gung-ho, they still stuff her into a coma. A means to an end. As readers we are dared not only to recognize our desensitization and listen to our ethical bells and whistles going off — the same that’re activated when you witness an unfair fight — we are asked to sift through a scene of abuse for anything worth redeeming. Such a state of mind gets rusty without practice, because being selfless is the opposite of what selves do, especially when the people whose shoes you are trying to walk in are shoving jelly down a puking woman’s throat. More than practice, a lot of us need to convince ourselves daily that those we find intolerable deserve any of our compassion. Imagine how much convincing and positive reinforcement you’d need to go out of your way to get strangers in a bar to believe it too.