Lose #3 [AND] Open Country #1, by Michael DeForge. Koyama Press/self-published.
After what was easily the best year a cartoonist's had in recent memory, Michael DeForge seems ready to enter Act Two of his busily flowering career in comics. As usual, he's all over the place these days -- editing anthologies of artwork and erotic comics, making strips for print and web magazines, and of course, putting out lovingly produced comics of his own. The most recent two in that last category are an interesting pair.
Lose #3 is the latest issue of DeForge's one-man pamphlet anthology, certainly the most hotly anticipated release of his yet. Done up beautifully in the Koyama Press style, it's a comic that looks ready to take on the world, or at least to make it question why everybody's so hot for trade paperbacks and graphic novels when we've got stuff like this coming out for five bucks a throw. The debut issue of Open Country, on the other hand, is a lo-fi xeroxed minicomic, the beginning of what's projected to be DeForge's longest work to date. Though they mark out vastly different territories of what can be done with single-issue comics, neither can really be seen as a departure for DeForge. This is a young artist whose storytelling and presentational styles run as wide as they do deep, and these two comics are evidence of a talent too sprawling to be encapsulated between a single pair of covers.
The new Lose feels like a transitional comic for DeForge, the beginning of a reach to new frontiers. While the book's first issue fused fantasy tropes and black humor into an innovative take on gag cartooning, and the second was a breathtakingly savage journey into the ugly heart of modern life, the third weaves the conceits of the previous two into one smooth continuum before looking around for new inspirations. The showcase strip, "Dog 2070", (is that a Mike Sekowsky shoutout, Michael?) incorporates all DeForge's previous work into its post-apocalyptic setting and puts its anthropomorphized dogs through a Chris Ware style depressed-in-middle-age narrative. The fusion of DeForge's warped take on genre with the generally accepted inflections of "intelligent comics" is interesting enough, but what's most remarkable is how much humor and horror juices up the relatively banal, restrained story. Even when dabbling in other idioms, DeForge remains fully himself. A scene of the shlubby, divorced main-character dog struggling to remain anything better than socially ridiculous at his job is capped off with a hilarious gag about seeing a psychiatrist -- on the next page that psychiatric session turns into a truly disturbing dream sequence that holds DeForge's all-time grisliest scene of body deconstruction (this is a career that's already had quite a few of those, mind).
What the great graphic novelists of the last generation painted as trite or meaningless, DeForge digs into for the same chills and thrills he's previously turned to genre for. In terms of basic content, the closest cousin "Dog 2070" has is Ware's Jimmy Corrigan -- but while that book gave its readers a character who was unable to find beauty in a world packed to the gills with it, DeForge plops the same type of guy (or um, animal... whatever) down amidst smoking ruins, blasted-out buildings, crumbing infrastructure, encroaching mold. These things certainly look incredible as drawn by DeForge, who's approaching a Jim Woodring level of expressiveness and decorative power with his lines, but there's no mistaking this world for beautiful. As with all great post-apocalyptic fiction, DeForge draws the desperation from his jokes and the poignancy from his more serious emotional beats with the simple fact of the chaos they're set against. The unnamed dog we watch fail at work, with his ex-wife, with his children, even with his psychiatrist, may not see much beauty either -- but that's largely because he isn't given much of it to see. As the plot crests with a hilarious punchline that's as satirical and petty as it is deeply felt, it's easy to come away from the story with the sense that DeForge has found a completely new and successful take on one of comics' more hackneyed story types. There are plenty of things in comics that are similar to aspects of "Dog 2070", but there's nothing quite like it.
The same is true for the collection of short strips that rounds out the new Lose. "Ant Comic", a densely gridded two-page strip, explores the same feelings of powerlessness and bizarreries of being a member of the insect kingdom that Ware mines in his "Branford Bee" strips, but with an added facility for gags and a sharp counterpoint of slacker-youth dialogue. Speaking of youth, the single page titled with that word shows off DeForge's masterful way with slimy, gushy textures while reminding us that newborn babies look really fucking gross. "Manananggal", a wordless five-pager, edges right up next to total abstraction with a look at the social and reproductive rituals of a group of monsters so hideous that their interactions lose all logic but that of shapes in motion. It feels like DeForge going as far as he can go with something, a small branch of his vast system of visual codes and tropes finally explored to the fullest.
"Improv Night", the opening short, is a proficient run through the classic EC Comics twist-ending horror story, with plenty of near-Dada strangeness thrown in for good measure. We've seen things like this from DeForge before, but there's something new and intriguing in -- of all things -- the figurework, which puts a fluid litheness to the basic, simplified forms typical of his style. It's an exciting thing to see, given that the human figure has always been one of the things that looked less interesting filtered through the DeForge viewpoint. Good thing, then, that this new facility for figure drawing is given plenty of room to stretch out in Open Country #1, itself a comic largely about the artistic act of constructing a human figure. It's a lot less simple then pen and ink here, though: the construction this minicomic's characters are concerned with happens via psychic projection, one of those skills you don't learn until the last few years of art school, like linoleum cutting or darkroom photography. Thank god for Youtube tutorials.
DeForge's art looks incredible beneath the book's dense haze of photocopier noise, a perfectly rough chorus for his clean lines and soft shapes. The whole thing is pinned to a basic three-tiered grid, which DeForge manipulates with skill and nuance. Dialogue scenes are packed into tight six-panel grids, while the panels open wide in stranger scenes, letting the body detritus and telepathic energy float around the corners of the pages with the xerox grit. A few splash pages punctuate the action with pure moments of pictorial strangeness, sudden bursts of light or darkness expertly placed for maximum dynamic effect. And the newfound fluidity of DeForge's human forms is everywhere, turning talking-head scenes between humans into material as engaging as any of the monster battles or physical-mutation scenes we've see from him previously.
The story follows a young guy and his girlfriend's attempts to learn psychic projection, inspired by an exhibition by an emerging artist of the form (emerging meaning you can find interviews with her online, but she still waits tables at the local diner). The obvious high point is the pair's first attempt at projecting their psychic images, with muscles and skin and cartooned facial features swirling around one another with a haunting grace, simultaneously evoking the beauty of the human form and the knowledge that it's all just ground beef in a soft skin wrapper. As an act of pure drawing it's up there with the very best of DeForge's career, and it's certainly as atmospheric and unique as anything he's ever drawn.
Just as interesting, though, are the plot dynamics DeForge is setting up -- the relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend has the subtle precariousness of all young loves, and our hero's first encounter with the gorgeous artist whose work so inspires him is a supremely effective cliffhanger. The mere fact of DeForge on a long-form story is thrilling enough: the prospect of seeing his oddly realistic take on character played out across a more nuanced plot structure that can't fall back on the snap endings he so effortlessly employs in his shorter works puts some actual promise behind that thrill. The line for issue two starts here, folks. And as for phase two of DeForge's career, well, it seems fairly certain that we'll all be hearing a lot more about it soon enough.