By Will Wellington
A little Michael DeForge goes a long way. The wunderkind of certifiably wacko Canadian comics packs his work with so much visual variety that his short stories feel like fairy tale houses: small on the outside, sprawling within.
That being said, DeForge’s new offering from Drawn & Quarterly—a pink, picture-book-proportioned parable called First Year Healthy—appears puny upon first perusal. The narrative clocks in at around thirty pages, which doesn’t seem like much bang for the buck, especially since DeForge forgoes his normally tightly packed layouts for spacious splashes spiked with gloomy exposition. Initially, I worried that First Year Healthy was but the latest in a string of major Canadian titles of decidedly minor significance, works long on style and short on just about everything else—works like Michael Cho’s trite Shoplifter and Patrick Kyle’s slight Distance Mover. Fortunately, First Year Healthy’s form functions perfectly, and part of the reason it seems like such an achievement is that it feels so big while being so very small.
A Christmas story originally serialized, like much of DeForge’s work, online, First Year Healthy introduces an unnamed heroine recently released from hospital following a highly public, apparently much-discussed, and here unspecified “episode.” To stave off a relapse, she keeps herself busy working at a fish market with her brothers, where she hooks up with an illegal Turkish immigrant with an illegitimate son and one toe in a life of crime. As their subtly sordid affair progresses, they move into an apartment guarded by a holy cat and the nameless heroine finds herself both caring for the Turk’s child and disposing of his late ex-lover’s possessions while he tangles himself further in shady doings with a creepy, grey-skinned pal from the old country. Soon, the boundary between the protagonist’s experience and psychosis blurs (this is, after all, being billed as “a parable about mental illness”) and realms of fantasy and reality converge and collide in a bloody, absurd, and tensely understated climax on a blustery Christmas Eve.
In other words, it’s totally a Michael DeForge story, replete with all the usual motifs: transgressive sexual congress, soul-crushing labour, layers of lived and imagined experience, unspoken traumas, hidden histories, shady netherworlds, fractured families, strangely unspectacular violence, etc. Yet First Year Healthy constitutes an exceptional addition to his body of work. While it’s hyperflat visual style recalls aspects of Lose #5’s “Living Outdoors,” Very Casual’s “Cody,” and Lose #6’s “Me As A Baby,” it’s formally distinct from much of his work (his latest Patreon story, which I have yet to access, appears to follow the same formula). It looks and feels more like a picture book than a comic conventionally conceived. Abandoning his usual gridded layouts—his first rule for drawing comics is “Figure out your grid”—in favour of large splash illustrations allows DeForge’s drawings much needed room to breathe, and he smartly refrains from filling the expanded frame with extraneous detail, instead focusing his craft to produce some of his finest compositions. Like a kooky contemporary Cubist, DeForge loves to show many perspectives at once—both the fish market floor and the rivulets of blood in the gutter below, an aptly disturbing metaphor for an adverse psychology—and the plunging panels permit him free rein. The slim volume is certainly a quick read, but the form modulates the narrative’s pace so that the illusion of continuous movement is replaced by a procession of tableaux, trading the pulse of the ticking clock for that of the ceremonial gong, or perhaps the chiming of midnight on Christmas Eve. Eschewing speech balloons along with panels both stills and silences the action, so the images take on a stoic dignity and monumental heaviness. This, compounded by the warm, earthy palette and the story’s startling symbolic power—the holy cat is one of DeForge’s most astonishing creations, one without any visual antecedent in his oeuvre as far as I can tell—results in a work both totally familiar and entirely new. For once, and perhaps it is a sense of seasonal reverence that guides him here, DeForge allows himself a spoonful of gravitas. The violence, the sex, and the sheer oddity never feel, as they do in some of DeForge’s weaker work, like lame and gratuitous punchlines. Instead, for the course of its brief duration, First Year Healthy gathers force like an apocalyptic blizzard.
I’m glad that DeForge and Drawn & Quarterly decided to publish First Year Healthy individually, like last year’s excellent Ant Colony, and not in a collection like his Koyama Press books Very Casual and A Body Beneath. As gorgeous as those Koyama titles are, collections of DeForge’s work tend, in my opinion, to dull the reader to his stylistic inventiveness and foreground instead his sometimes thin and repetitive writing, or his tendency to ditch a compelling premise in favour of a cheap gag or meta twist. Ant Colony and First Year Healthy, however, published as standalone works, achieve conceptual unity and permit readers to settle into the rhythm of the work, to let it cast its spell. Keeping up with DeForge is so exciting because he seems to improve by leaps and bounds with every new release. Considering the quality of his latest titles, it’s not hard to imagine a future date when DeForge dismisses most of A Body Beneath and even Very Casual as vociferously as he now disavows Lose #1. Judging from the previews posted on his blog, there’s lots of incredible new work in the pipeline. Let’s hope some of those pieces get the First Year Healthy treatment.
Will Wellington lives and works in Guelph, Ontario.
By Will Wellington