Lose #2, by Michael DeForge. Koyama Press.
The first issue of Michael DeForge's one-man anthology Lose was one of those rare, irrepressible comics that almost bloodies you with its brilliance. It announced its creator as a fully-formed talent ready to take on the world -- its biggest cliffhanger was what DeForge was going to come up with next. And a few months later, here it is: Lose #2, and another inoculation-level dose of one of the most interesting new talents comics have seen in a while.
Where Lose #1 jumped around from story to story, taking in a hell-bardo for cartoon characters, anthropomorphic gag strips, slices of autobiography, and even the DC Universe, this issue puts a glowering, laser-beam intensity focus on one longer story, with only a couple of shorts backing it up. The decrease in variety isn't a problem: the B-strips (a greatly entertaining continuation of DeForge's Top Shelf 2.0 serial "Cave Adventure" and a weirdo, formalist autobio page) work well as backups, fleshing out the reader's appreciation of DeForge's wide-ranging talent while not distracting a bit from the main story, as the supplementary material in #1 occasionally did. They serve only to enhance the power of "It's Chip", a 21-page slice of absolutely modern horror that takes the cake as the best piece of comics published so far this year.
While the first issue of Lose was only nominally a horror comic, shot through with plenty of humor and formal awareness, "It's Chip" is like a well that DeForge plunges his readers into, spiraling you down into the blackest depths of decay. Perhaps its nearest point of comparison isn't anything from comics, but the low-budget, hard-hitting, semitopical impact-horror movies of the 1970s -- movies like "Last House on the Left" or "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", which explored the most repulsive bits of contemporary America and made political points simply by portraying the darkness they did.
This isn't the '70s, though, and it also isn't a movie. DeForge shows an incisive awareness of his times and the surrealistic meaninglessness they offer, as well as the possibilities the comics medium offers for deep, affecting horror. Lose #2 is a whirl or queasy images, counterpointing acid-boiled faces with inspirational posters, joyful smiles with hordes of maggots, and, powerfully, a child in a cowboy costume with a dead and rotting horse. This is a comic set in the Iraq war's America, where everybody lives in manicured subprime houses, where we talk about reality shows on the phone, where the television screen is trusted to put the kids to bed and blind them to man's inhumanity to man. The jutting up of suburbia against a vicious, unfathomable natural world provides the crux of the story, which is the simple chronicle of what happens after two latchkey-kid brothers, Chip and Reggie, encounter a horse's decaying corpse and the nightmarish parasites nesting within. The older brother is repulsed (maybe he was born before the turn of the millennium), but there is a strange, magnetic attraction between the younger brother -- the one in the cowboy costume -- and one of the giant spiders swarming around the body. This harbinger of decay, this black crawling thing recognizes something in Chip, the young, unspoiled image of modern American childhood, spits acid in the older brother's face, and becomes the younger boy's pet (or makes him a pet, perhaps).
An abomination puked up from the guts of a dead wild horse follows Chip home, makes his Lynchian family life feel "kind of weird", sleeps in his bed with him, and spends the next day spraying industrial-level solvents into the faces of all the bigger kids who pick on him. The action is like a documentary-style chronicle of every bullied child's revenge fantasies; plenty of kids wish for powerful pets or friends who could utterly destroy their enemies, but seeing it marked out in cool, detached nine-panel grids -- without emotion! with a nightmarish cartoon realism! -- is a disturbing spectacle. Chip is an uncomprehending child suddenly given the power of a terrifying monster, or one of the deadly chemical weapons we made a war over. Either way, the bullies end up in the hospital with grim prognoses, and the spider sneaks back to the horse's corpse at night to lay a sac of eggs, then crosses a river to the next suburban labyrinth, to the next sunny meadow and the next rotting symbol of an America that was.
In the morning it's like it was never there. Chip's severely cartooned, sunny-side-up eyes gush with tears as he snuggles up against the horse's ribcage, all his monsters disappeared. The egg sacs open. Larva dance across the salty rivulets pouring down Chip's soft child's face. The rest of the spiders lay apocalyptic waste to the town. Old Glory burns, high on a flagpole. Monolithic letters spell out: The end.
It's an utterly bleak, bizarre story, ultimately as entrancing as it is frightening, assaulting rational sensibilities as much as it does the primal unconscious. DeForge expertly mixes the mundane with the horrific, pushing slabs of modern American life out at us from angles that make them look like completely alien objects, finding -- as only the best do -- the absurdity and menace in the existences we inhabit every day. This is a comic of the zeitgeist, capturing superficial details like video game systems and the mideast wars in its periphery, but centering on a feeling that's emerged in the US over the past year or two; the unmentionable fear that everything its wrong, nothing is working, that we are caught in a slide to oblivion. It gets you scared not of spiders or corpses or suburban creepiness, though it has all of those things. It gets you scared of the end, of a black and final abstraction, of the one thing that can't be written off as irrational or unrealistic, that can't be wished away. DeForge peers into the abyss, and relates what he sees in word balloons and panels that hang heavy with the power of it.
DeForge's artwork continues to evolve. Where Lose #1 was set entirely in various fantasylands, here DeForge creates a plausible reality with his syrupy, elastic cartoons -- an entire continuum made from glops of body, smooth exoskeletons, obsessively intricate linework, and thick, fudgy black areas. It's a very attractively cartooned comic, its gorgeous Chris-Ware-meets-Rafael-Grampa vistas and people drawing you further in with every panel, every line. DeForge's switch from Zip-A-Tone shading to simpler gray areas makes a big difference, smoothing out his art's high contrasts and giving his sinister junglescapes just the right amount of glossy sheen. Everything is ground down to the simplest cartoon form it can be shown in, then built back up with obsessive, slimy linework into something just different enough to jar you from your comfort zone. DeForge bends his drawing skills to his story's purpose masterfully, and the results are something to see.
Lose #2 showcases a perfect intersection of story and art, both incredibly nuanced and iconographically simple. This is high comics storytelling that works in perfect tandem with the greater picture it puts forth. It reads like an achievement.
Both issues of Lose are available here. My review of Lose #1 is here and a recent interview I did with Michael DeForge is here.