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“Comics Was the Reliable Thing”: An Interview with Michael DeForge

Toronto-based cartoonist Michael DeForge debuts his new graphic novel Big Kids, from Drawn + Quarterly, on February 23rd. Big Kids, an even teenier hardcover than Michael’s petite shorts collection Dressing, follows the teenaged Adam through a conflict with his cop uncle, a mysterious college-aged stranger named April moving in with him and his family, and a jarring breakup with his jerky boyfriend, which then sparks a traumatic, permanent shift in his PoV. Alternating between his two main publishers, D+Q and Koyama Press, as well as prop designing for Adventure Time, releasing many minicomics, and other projects, DeForge is building up a deeply personal body of work. I spoke with Michael over Skype about the clichéd reality of comics as therapy, artistic community, and the fallibility of memory.—A.M.

Interview conducted, transcribed, and edited by Annie Mok.

Mild spoilers for Big Kids follow.
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ANNIE MOK: Are you gonna be touring this one again?

MICHAEL DEFORGE: Not as much for this one. I have one book launch here [in Toronto], and then one in Montreal. I wanna go on tour again eventually, but the last two years I was on the road so much… I want to take it easy for a little while.mysister

MOK: I hear that, I’ve been feeling that lately. I was curious about that, because you travel so much, and a lot of your work seems directly affected by travel, since some is made literally on the fly. Like “My Sister Dropped Dead from the Heat” in Dressing (2015), which is says it’s made on a plane in October 2014. And I remember you were making comics on the train at one point, maybe “Leather Space Man” pixel comics?

DEFORGE: I did a few on train rides, from Philly, actually.

MOK: How do you find travel affects you as a person, and in your work?

DEFORGE: It was sort of odd. At first, it was an interesting challenge, and then, the more I traveled, the less energy I had to do it. The idea of being able to set up a mobile workspace taught me how to draw and write in different ways. I started writing more of the prose-ier pieces, the stuff that maybe doesn’t even qualify as comics […] illustrated prose, or picture book—those were easy to work on traveling, and a lot of those I wrote on plane rides or buses. But ultimately, I can’t get the same level of deep focus that I do at home. It’s good to have external stimuli, but not too much of it.

FYHMOK: That style you’ve been developing the past few years, with the computer typography instead of lettering, and like you said, a children’s book or illustrated text feeling… Especially with First Year Healthy (2015), because the way the book looks and feels, with this 32-page story in this slick, pink hardcover and soft pastel tones, it felt like a subversion or a version of children’s books in the way it’s laid out. I was wondering where that came from, if there were particular inspirations? And what felt different to you working on these—were there things you found that you could get into in different ways than in straight comics?

DEFORGE: Yeah, I think prose allows me to be a little more vague with writing. I don’t have to tie it down to an image, of course. And I guess, vague in a different way than an image can be vague. Which is part of what attracted me to it. As far as children’s books go, there are a number of children’s book illustrators who were big influences on me. [Illustrator and Disney animation concept artist] Mary Blair was a big influence on me. I have a small collection of children’s books that I’m interested in. First Year Healthy being like a children’s book was actually a happy accident. I was doing it on the web, and then I initially was gonna do it as a minicomic. It was Tom Devlin [of D+Q] who suggested a hardcover book, it hadn’t occurred to me to print it that way. When he suggested it, I was like, that actually makes perfect sense.

FYH1MOK: It’s my favorite of your books. There’s a tenderness and quietness to the story, even though, as with a lot of your work, there’s a balance between softness and violence. There’s something a little bit safe about that story—and I don’t mean that as a pejorative—the ending feels a little more optimistic than a lot of your work.

DEFORGE: Thank you. That was an interesting one, because it had a range of reactions on who thought the ending was optimistic, and who thought it was pessimistic.FYH2

MOK: It comes back to this thing that [comics critic] Zainab Akhtar said [of First Year Healthy for The A.V. Club]: “It may mean this, it could mean that, it probably means both and something else besides, and that’s the beauty of DeForge.” I know you draw a lot of inspiration from Prince, and that’s something I see in him, or [Love and Rockets cartoonist] Beto Hernandez, or Bowie’s 70’s output—[in each case] there’s a lot of incarnations that have a unity between them. So as with a lot of artists that I like, there can be a lot of ways that people take the work, ways that they’re seeing you as an artist.

DEFORGE: Yeah, and I do have a set of recurring concerns, and I think a lot of my favorite artists are ones who grow and change, but keep coming back to a few specific themes or events in their life. And each time hopefully from a different vantage point.\

MOK: A lot of the concerns coming up again and again [for you] are bodies, health, decay, race, being mixed, commodification—I think of the duck story [in the zine New Hits] as far as mixed race stuff and capitalism—anarchism, the police state, self-perception. And in so many of these stories, and I see it really clearly in Big Kids; in “Riders,” the last story in Very Casual (2013); in Lose #7 (2015); there’s so many stories where there’s a threshold that is crossed. In so many cases it is both a traumatic incident, and a liberating incident that opens up the character’s perception. Can you say where that comes from, or what does that mean to you?

DEFORGE: A lot of the characters I write, I try to write them in moments where they’re feeling or pushing up against the edges of some sort of system. I tend to find I write characters who perceive themselves as not having very much agency. In some cases, that’s correct and in some cases, it’s incorrect. It’s sort of odd to trace them back to specific moments in my life, but that sort of friction, I felt like has always been a constant, so I guess that’s why I’m always coming back to it. Just moments when that resistance might give way. I think for awhile I was writing about it giving way in very extreme ways, very extreme transformations, and sometimes violent transformations. Lately, maybe I’m trying to write about smaller ones, too, smaller moments.

BIGKIDSinterior_13MOK: That’s something interesting to me with Big Kids—you say you’re interested in characters that either don’t have a lot of agency, or feel like they don’t, and so many of your stories are about young kids or teenagers, or college-age kids, which is such an age for so many people, of whether you have agency or not, feeling like you’re really adrift, feeling like you’re set among a world where you don’t have a lot of control. That becomes this central thing for the main character Adam. The central shift in the book, about a quarter of the way through, is that all of a sudden, he starts perceiving himself as a tree, and perceiving a lot of the people in his world as trees, and some as sticks, which he sees as a lower, less-evolved lifeform. For me, it hearkened back to something I see in your work, which is this drastic binary between self and other. It felt fitting for this teenage character to go through this transformation where he’s like, “I’m seeing this the way it really is, and I’m seeing certain people, including my parents, to be these phonies, these sticks who have so little value and have so little to say, and are not seeing as clearly as I do.” Can you talk about what that means to you, or where that came from for this story, or how that idea developed?

DEFORGE: I’d sort of been circling adolescence for awhile in my stories, and I guess this is the one where I’m writing about it most directly, and the allegory is like [laughs] very clear… It’s a time when people are most aware of the edges of the world. Not maybe able to see them yet, but aware they’re there. For me, things stop seeming limitless—which is maybe not how—I know you’re supposed to feel invincible and boundless as a teenager, but for me, that’s when I was aware of limits everywhere. But not really sure what all of them looked like, or the shape of all of it, or how to best escape them. That to me was what Big Kids was about, seeing a little bit more of the edges of things. And sometimes what seems like a radical shift in perception ends up not being very [radical] in the end.

BIGKIDSinterior_14MOK: I feel like anybody who goes through adolescence can have that experience, of feeling like X moment was a radical shift, and then you look back and realize, there’s so many more things ahead of me that would really change the way I saw things and behaved in the world. The characters are also, as is often the case in your stories, extremely concerned with memory, and the inability to recapture memory. This character April is making a video game-like simulation of what her world was like before she—it seems like everybody, ultimately has this major shift. And she could not remember what she looked like very well, and Adam starts to lose the memory of what his mom looked like. I think a lot of people think of teenagers of being very in the moment and not having a lot of memory scope, but working for Rookie and reading a lot of Rookie stuff, like Tavi Gevinson[‘s Editor’s Letters] and the other writers who are [or were] writing from the vantage point of being a teenager, they’re writing so constantly about childhood, and the changes they perceived since then, and seeing such a big scope of their lives. Can you talk about memory in your stories, and its role in how people perceive themselves, and perceive themselves along a continuum?

BIGKIDSinterior_15DEFORGE: I frequently have a hard time organizing my memories, or certainly from key parts of my life, and particularly traumatic parts. A lot of the way I circle the same themes and topics… I would have a hard time writing something overtly autobiographical, but by having all these different fictional parts of me, or fictional vantage points of certain moments or thoughts… it’s the only way I’ve been able to maybe objectively… or not objectively, but come close to objectively, looking at what it was that happened, or what I was thinking, or the mental state I was in. I found my memory has been fairly unreliable, and it’s taken a lot of parsing. It took me awhile to feel like my life had a linear narrative. And I know, logically it actually doesn’t. But it’s easier to think of it that way than as a bunch of unrelated pieces of information. So I worked pretty hard to try to piece something together with what did seem sort of like a lot of loose change. My stories are pretty meandering, and sometimes possibly even arcless. That’s sometimes how I look back on how events actually unfold.

Fetishes

MOK: You’ve mentioned this kind of meandering, “nothing” quality before, but I don’t see it that way. I see the characters feeling that way, but in almost every story, there are big radical changes that the characters go through, so I see arcs through pretty much all the stories that I can think of. It’s interesting that you bring up this thing about “objective” autobio, because the couple of comics that I know of yours that are about a character named Michael DeForge, are for the most part comedic stories. Or comedic on some level, but like a lot of comedy, gets at a lot of things through a side door. Like the “Fetishes” comic from the back of Lose #6, which I love for a number of reasons—I feel like everybody has really strange, intense, detailed fantasy lives, but it’s rare to see them put to paper, and it’s something I admire about this comic. And also this story “Michael DeForge, Lost in the Woods for Days” [from Lose #6], which I love [laughs]. Your character is trailed by these dogs. One of them lies with you and says, “Can you even remember what your home looked like? Could you conjure the image right now? Our bodies are warm and open and generous. Like a house.” That led me to this thing that I see through a lot of your work, which is that it’s concerned with structures and home, and the physical structures of home. I’ve been dealing with this idea of dioramas and simulacra in my work, and that’s something I see strongly here, with this concern you have about flattening things, and these perspectives that remain flat through a series of panels, a lot of oblique angles. When you’re thinking about environments, what kind of pathways do you go down to design them or organize them?

DEFORGE: Lately I’m trying to draw them with a little more specificity. Especially in Lose #7, and Big Kids in its own way, just because it was intentionally surreal. I realized I tended to feel comfortable alternating to either very dense landscapes, or sparse ones. I was preoccupied with debris and wreckage and decay. But lately I have been trying to have that same kind of flatness, and I still want everything I draw to have that flat, Dilbert-y comic strip look [laughs]. Traditional three-panel strip where it’s just two people walking along a 2D landscape. But make it feel a little more grounded. I’ve never been a very observant artist, in terms of like, “I will just naturally capture the essence of that basket of fruit,” or whatever, house across the street, drawing in my sketchbook. I tend not to force that sort of thing. So maybe trying to force that sort of thing a little more, and maybe make it seem earthier and real. Once in high school, I was on a trip to Toronto, I lived in Ottawa at the time, and I drew just a block in Chinatown. It was very intentionally, “I don’t know how to draw a street scene, and it’s about time I learned, so I’ll just draw the fuck out of this street scene.” I realized it took me like ten years to, when I drew a building, to not automatically draw a variation on one of those three buildings in Chinatown [Mok laughs]. That’s just me trying to shake a few habits, and not draw the same awning over and over again.

MOK: I remember reading an interview with [Love and Rockets cartoonist] Jaime Hernandez where he said he’d been drawing the same knee since like, 1982 [laughs] when he had his one drawing class in college. I see a lot of specificity in the landscapes in Lose #7, and especially in Big Kids. There’s more of a concrete environment, it seems like more of a space that the characters are interacting with, and that adds to the effect when there’s the big shift.

DEFORGE: Yeah, when it becomes purely sensory, I guess.

BIGKIDSinterior_61MOK: I had thought of it like a [graphic designer] Milton Glaser poster, or an incredibly bleak Yellow Submarine kind of landscape. A lot of stripes. I related that to your work with poster design, and your influences from [Montreal art collective] Seripop.

DEFORGE: That comic in particular, I did try to give a lot of thought into—I wasn’t just trying to make a weird fork, or whatever. I was trying to make it sensory and very specific to how I have actually felt about the way a few things feel. That art in particular I thought was probably the most I’ve been indebted to [Amy and Jordan cartoonist] Mark Beyer.

MOK: I can see that.

DEFORGE: There are some panels where I was like, this is probably my most Mark Beyer-y panel I’ve drawn yet.

MOK: I know you’ve talked about this before, but can you talk about how your Adventure Time work [as a prop designer]—this needing to work objects into a fully-realized 3D space that needs to be able to turn and be interacted with by characters—how has that impacted inhabiting a more specific environment [in works like Big Kids]?

DEFORGE: The big change with that—it’s so funny, I always think of it as related to the comics work, but especially as I go flatter, the work on the show feels like I’m using a completely different skill set. I think the big shift was, comics is such a good medium to cheat in—all the time, you can just imply stuff. Doing design, and animation work in general, there’s very little room to cheat. Working on a storyboard felt that way, in terms of movement. You couldn’t just fake storytelling, and you have to think of… I had to do stuff where I actually laid out where each person was in a room, and move them around on a little grid, and I had never done that in a comic. I would just suddenly make another person standing behind… Sometimes shit just looks right, or it looks wrong. And so design taught me a lot of stuff, like how to look at a stove and recreate a stove. Stuff that normally I would just flub. I remember once I had to draw a car engine, and I was like, well, no way around it, I just have to learn how to draw a car engine. [Annie laughs] Andy Restaino, who was the lead designer, was the first artist I worked with, and Matt Forsyth was the second lead designer I worked with, and recently, Derek Kirk Kim, who just left. Andy, especially, as I was starting—he’s a naturally gifted cartoonist, and I always think of myself as an awkward cartoonist. I don’t have very fluid or expressive lines, and he would these notes on my work, these elegant solutions to stuff that I overworked and overdrew. It gave me a good idea of like, “That’s a natural cartoonist. What a perfectly cartoony solution with this drawing.”

MOK: Do you know what Derek Kirk Kim is doing now? I’m just curious.

DEFORGE: I think he intends to work in animation, to stay in animation, but I’m not sure.

MOK: I’m a big fan of his drawings, and the roundness of weight of his drawings is a huge part of that, so that makes perfect sense.

DEFORGE: He was great to work for. It’s been lucky to have almost exclusively cool comics people as my bosses and coworkers on the show.

MOK: I’m interested in ways and terms that—you seem like a process-oriented artist more than a product-oriented artist. There was a TCJ year-end list where Dash Shaw was one of the people who’d been asked to list the best comics they read that year, and he said something like, “I didn’t read many comics this year, because it’s more fun to make comics than to read them.” I see you as being very invested in making stuff, tossing it when it doesn’t work… in the Forge interview you talk about doing [show] posters, and having it feel disposable, because so few people, you could dump it, it would be gone quickly. I was curious if that affected your somewhat infamous make a lot of work and also scrap a lot of it?

seethruDEFORGE: Yeah, when I was coming up, I was just making zines and posters, and yeah, they were all very cruddy. Posters especially were great, because when I started making posters, it was already long past when anybody looked at a poster for show information. [Mok laughs] By then, as a kid, message boards existed, and alt-weeklies had show listings in a more convenient way, so I could freely not care about legibility, and all the artists I was most interested in tended to be the most illegible poster artists. So it was a good attitude to foster. And the other thing that was happening too, was that was when I started throwing out originals and physical work. Purely, I was using up too many sketchbooks, and my mom suggested that we didn’t actually have room in the house [they both laugh]. ‘Cause, like most cartoonists, all we do in class is draw or whatever. So I think a bunch of those things is what made me get used to throwing out work. And the way I was doing comics at the time, I was almost doing it the Chester Brown way, where I was collaging all these panels together, and—Chester doesn’t do this, but I would photocopy them, white stuff out, paste the new thing on and photocopy it again. So I was already making comics where if I drew 36 panels, I was maybe only using 12 of them. Early on, scrapping stuff just seemed like editing. It didn’t seem like I was anguished and throwing out stuff, it just seemed like a natural part of the process.

MOK: Do you think of a particular audience when you make a comic, or think about making a comic? Do you think of particular people or a scene? And are there specific things, or messages, or theses that you want people to get from your work? Not didactically, but particular feels, or tones, thoughts, or responses.

DEFORGE: Yeah, I try to invoke a tone. I always have a clear idea of what I mean, and assume that the readers will have differing ideas of what I meant. Which I like, I think that’s an interesting part of it. I’m fine with not always being very clear with my intentions. I think of a reader as I draw it, but that reader tends to be just like a different version of me. I try to make something that I would be interested in reading. I have just… a fictional audience of tiny versions of myself.

MOK: [laughs] Physically tiny?

DEFORGE: Yeah, physically, pocket-sized.

MOK: [laughs] In light of that, do you look back on your old work? And if so, what do you get from it?

DEFORGE: I’m trying to get better at looking back at old work. I tend not to like it, and there’s definitely stories I would outright take back. I’ll be happy when a few books go out of print completely. But now I’ve put out enough that I am more able to look at something like an early issue of Lose, like, I’m not happy with this, but I’m not embarrassed by it anymore. It feels like someone else made it, and in a bunch of ways, somebody else did make it. There’s issues, where I’m like, “I would take back that one” [laughs].

MOK: And you have, also.

DEFORGE: I have, kind of. The stuff I’ve let go out of print, I don’t feel like I took it back. Like, I didn’t take back the comics I drew in high school, I just never reprinted them. There’s work I’m embarrassed by, but I try not to—I mentioned this in another interview recently, I’m trying not to do that cartoonist thing of just hating yourself and everything… I have a fair amount of self-loathing, but we shouldn’t all revel in it.

MOK: [laughs] I agree, I find it extremely frustrating that it’s become a yardstick or a standard, this idea that you have to hate yourself, you have to be like a version of Chris Ware that doesn’t even really exist in the same way anymore to be a “real cartoonist.”

DEFORGE: Yeah, a romantic idea of a self-flagellating cartoonist. And I have those tendencies, but those have not been healthy tendencies for me, so I’m trying to cut it down a little. I try not to look back too much in general, either looking back and cringing, or looking back and being happy with it, or obsessing about it. I always try to chase a new feeling. I tend to find my energy is always on to the next project.

Dressing_CoverMOK: Your collections of shorts and reprints—Dressing, Very Casual, and A Body Beneath (2014)—have no editorializing whatsoever. Except for a little intro in A Body Beneath, there’s no new words. I’ve seen a gradual shift in less and less biographical information about you in the books. It’s gone down from a paragraph, to a sentence in Dressing, and in Big Kids it’s literally nothing [laughs].

DEFORGE: I think for that, D+Q gave me the option for a bio, and I was like—I have the option, it’s fine [laughs] without it. Yeah, especially for DressingVery Casual and A Body Beneath were very much odds & ends collections. They were only edited in that I selected work from that particular time period. But Dressing I was trying to make much more succinct. There was a lot of work I made that could have been in there that I decided just didn’t fit. I wanted it to feel like a cohesive collection. So I feel like it didn’t need very much editorializing. A Body Beneath I felt required an introduction, like, “There’s a reason why the third story sucks,” in order for it to make sense. But I hope Dressing made sense on its own.

From “Flu Drawings,” in Dressing.

From “Flu Drawings,” in Dressing.

 

MOK: That verbalizes something that I noticed and loved about this collection, which is that it is more like a considered short story collection. It hones in on certain themes. Visually, the stories still have drastic shifts, but have more of an internal logic or consistency between them. And the way it shifts in color palettes, or panels versus more open stories with [computer] type, seems deliberate and adds a push-pull and a rhythm to the whole thing.

DEFORGE: I’m glad it worked out that way. I think going forward, I want all of my collections to feel that way. I think I started out being happy with the idea of doing a lot of stuff that never got collected—like, “This minicomic exists as a minicomic and is now gone forever.” Or is not gone forever, but you either got one of the 100 copies or you didn’t, and that’s fine. Then a thing happened—I don’t know if you felt this, too—once you start publishing more books and doing more collections, everything you do, you start thinking in the back of your head, “Could this go into a book, or something bigger?”

MOK: Oh yeah, definitely.

DEFORGE: So I’ve been trying to fight that a little more, and be cool with having some strips that just stay as a weird—maybe goes online, or some anthology, and then it just sort of floats off.

MOK: There’s so many strips of yours that are favorites of mine that feel that way, and it’s interesting to think of them as this Prince B-side object, like that duck story [in New Hits], and then the airplane story.

DEFORGE: Every now and then, I toy with making that a graphic novel [Mok laughs], I don’t know if it’s time yet.

MOK: Oh my god, I would love it! I remember the way you said that you might make it a graphic novel sounded so contrarian, in the way that I think of early Low—I’ve heard [cartoonist and ex-Low bassist] Zak Sally describe [those shows] as aggressive in their slowness or quietness… Are there any things in your work, ideas or threads that you feel that maybe people have not picked up on, or not picked up on as much as you would expect?

DEFORGE: I don’t know if there’s overarching things. There have definitely been times where I’ve seen something reviewed, and I thought, “I never would have thought of that thread,” or that thread as opposed to the one I had in mind. But there’s not ones where I thought, “Everyone’s missing this.” And if there were, I think I’d be real reluctant to say what they were. I never wanna be annoying and coy about my work, but I like being surprised by the reactions it might get, and the interpretations I’ve read.collegegirl

MOK: Coming off of interpretations, there are things that I see cropping up in your narratives about queerness, [gender] presentation… I see it in that story “Queen” in Very Casual, where that creature picks up all this organic fleshy material to make a glam sort of suit for themself. In “Flu Drawings,” this kid makes friends with this young girl, and she puts makeup on him, and it’s this sweet moment. And then of course in “College Girl by Night” (2011), your strip for the series you co-edited with Ryan Sands, Thickness. And then the main relationship between Adam and his boyfriend for a period of time, Jared, in Big Kids, and then this story “Actual Trouble” [in Dressing] with Wattie and Jason. I am so pleased and happy to have this stuff in the world. There’s so little stuff, especially, about male queerness in comics, or media in general. I think people like to pretend that things are much more open than they are, but art comics still being this [majority] white dudebro culture… it’s interesting to note how surprised I am to see queer male relationships, male characters playing with gender presentation or glamness. Can you talk about that stuff in the work?

DEFORGE: It’s interesting—all of those stories you mentioned are all about very different things. To a degree, it’s hard for me to even think of them being related. “Queen” specifically, I wanted to make a visual metaphor for feeling, a little like what I was talking about earlier, having all these bits of unrelated things and then trying to build something beautiful out of it. And then “Flu Drawings” was specifically based on a few things in my childhood. Then “College Girl by Night”—and I did a sequel in Thickness [the upcoming collected edition]—I wanted to write about a specific type of… I don’t know if I’d ever feel like approaching the subject of male sexuality and repression, just ‘cause it feels exhausting to write about at this point [laughs]. But that was definitely my concern when writing the first of those stories. And then the second one, I wanted to write about sharing in a sexual relationship, generally. But when I depict a relationship with two men, it tends to just make sense in the moment. I myself am bisexual, and when I make those choices, it’s all for a myriad of reasons that seem unrelated to representation. And that’s a happy byproduct, but the choices I make in the moment like that… It’s hard to talk about all those stories all at once, ‘cause I do think of them as all very different.

MOK: Yeah, they’re all in different modes, narratively. It’s interesting to mention “College Girl by Night” and talking about male sexuality as being exhausting [to talk about]… I feel like a superficial view of male sexuality is common, but more nuanced looks at sexuality are actually still quite rare.

DEFORGE: Yeah.

MOK: It’s quite touching with [Russ in “College Girl”], this kind of werewolf transformation that he goes through [to become a girl one night a month, that] allows him to make all these decisions and explore all these things that he can’t do as a male. It gives him this freedom.

DEFORGE: Yes.

MOK: It goes back to this threshold thing, where these characters are crossing this threshold into a bigger and more frightening, but also liberating world.

DEFORGE: Yeah, it’s not that I don’t think there’s more room to talk about sexuality, but I think my starting point with that story was a character coming to grips with repression and self-loathing, in a way that feels kind of standard for a lot of other [male] cartoonists writing about sex. I imagine if I were to write that story again today, I’d maybe pick a different starting point.

MOK: What does the process of making comics give to you, and how’s that changed over time?

DEFORGE: It’s really like, kept me alive, which always seems dramatic to say. I was pretty anchorless, and this has been sort of the thing that my life has organized itself around. I get confused really easily, and I’ve mentioned not always having an easy time sorting out information, or hierarchies of information, and all the different stimuli that’s coming externally and maybe internally, like the weird triggers in my brain. Comics has been the only way I’ve been able to organize any of that. I always hate thinking of my craft as being therapeutic, because if it is, I would want that to be secondary to what it is. But it definitely is that, still [laughs]. It’s been the only thing that added any sort of structure to my life and my head.

“I can’t sleep drawing” from Michael’s flickr.

“I can’t sleep drawing” from Michael’s flickr.

MOK: I really appreciated you talking about having a suicide attempt in [the intro for] A Body Beneath. It’s interesting that it does always feel dramatic to say that comics or art saves one’s life, but I feel like for a lot of people, that’s literally true.

DEFORGE: Sure. Certainly, there were times that when I was taking it very seriously and not like, dabbling in the odd zine, it felt like it was the only thing I could rely on, and the only thing I could put work into and reliably get something out of. There are times in people’s lives when you feel like you can’t rely on the people around you, and you can’t rely on your own body or brain. Comics was the reliable thing [laughs].

MOK: I almost get the sense of you and Anne Koyama—maybe it’s reductive to say “coming up together,” but I feel like you were one of the flagship artists for Koyama Press. The production values and the way the books came out, you’ve really grown together, which is cool to see. Of course, that’s within the context of the greater Toronto comics and art scene. Like making Risograph comics with Patrick Kyle, and Mickey Z. (who’s obviously in Providence), and being in the band [Creep Highway] with Patrick. Just this idea of all this creative energy feeding into each other and making this larger thing. And that’s actually a line in—not that this is a direct connection—there’s this line in the last story in Very Casual, where there’s a literal threshold that the characters cross. These characters cross through this fire barrier to become the “real” versions of these cartoon characters that they’re dressed as, as a futuristic biker gang. The character who turns into Dilbert says, “I’ve always yearned to become a part of something larger than myself.” Can you talk about these connections that seems to be an exciting creative world, that seems to be really nourishing?

Rain Comic #1, cover and Riso printing by Mickey Z.

Rain Comic #1, cover and Riso printing by Mickey Z.

DEFORGE: Yeah, I owe a lot to the Toronto scene. It’s not that I think I would be working without them, but being here has given me so many opportunities. It’s been the sort of scene I always wanted to find. I don’t know if you experienced the same thing, but there’s this thing where you’re like, an angry person in high school, and you’re like, “All right, the punk scene or the indie music scene [Mok laughs], or the noise rock scene or the art scene, where I will find like-minded people.” And then you go, and it’s the same levels of bullshit [Mok laughs]. And not that there’s not that in comics generally, but I feel like the people I came up with in Toronto all were very like-minded. It was this weird gradual thing, where when I met a lot of them, I didn’t realize, “These are the people I’ll be making comics with five years from now, ten years from now.” But when I first started, I made a lot of zines with Jesjit Gill, who now does Colour Code Press. And then Patrick, and [Chris] Kuzma, and Ginette Lapalme. Anne, of course, has been one of my closest personal and professional relationships. And [comics shop] The Beguiling has been incredibly supportive, The Beguiling and TCAF. There’s a lot of just odd and interesting connections that gradually built up. At first they didn’t feel related, and now it is like, we are all related and we’re frequently working together. I never thought I’d actually collaborate as much as I do, and I don’t collaborate very much, but the extent that I do is always surprising to me.

MOK: Even if it’s not direct collaborations, like two people working on one comic, it seems like so much of what you do is ultimately with other people. Whether it’s you and Patrick and Mickey putting out Cop Comic and Rain Comic and stuff like that; the relationships that you have with Drawn & Quarterly and Anne Koyama, the way that these books are put out affecting the work and the way they look and where they go. There’s so many connections.

DEFORGE: Yeah, it’s the usual thing of having a real energy to feed off of. Toronto’s a good city for that. It’s changing a little and it’s getting more expensive, which is always sad, and inevitable and… It’s like fighting a tidal wave. I feel like it’s a city where it’s big enough that there’s still a lot of friction—you have to work to stay here—but it’s still scrappy enough that you can just buy a Risograph and make a bunch of weird shit on it. And do a lot of low-stakes experimentation. Like, put on a punk show, buy an art space. It’s still possible to do that. Not that those things don’t happen in somewhere like New York, but it seems like it’s just that much harder to do that. High price, the stakes are a little higher. So Toronto’s been for me, for the ten years or so I’ve lived here, the proper balance of big city and scrappy city.

MOK: What are your goals for the future? What are you interested in doing or making?

DEFORGE: I always want the new thing to feel new.

MOK: You mentioned a puppet show recently?

DEFORGE: Yes, I’m working on a musical puppet show.

MOK: Oh my god! Aaah, so happy!

DEFORGE: I don’t know how much I should talk about it, I don’t want it to be the thing I just talk about all the time and never finish. But that is ultimately a weird thing that I have no idea how to pull off, but I’m trying to work on, very small bits at a time.

MOK: Are you working with anybody [on it] at the moment?

Michael in a mascot head of a spider from Ant Colony, in a collaboration between him and Phil Woollam, at the Galerie SAW show All Dogs Are Dogs.

Michael in a mascot head of a spider from Ant Colony, in a collaboration between him and Phil Woollam, at the Galerie SAW show All Dogs Are Dogs.

DEFORGE: There’s some musicians I’d like to work with, but the sculptor Phil Woollam—he did a book with Anne Koyama [Crossways] as well, that’s all his two-dimensional drawings, which are excellent—we worked on sculptures before, the mascot heads. He makes mascot heads for a living, for sports teams and stuff. For awhile, he had a job as a butter sculptor.

MOK: What the fuck is that?! [laughs]

DEFORGE: At like a town fair, there will be chilled butter that’s shaped like a king or something. He was the guy doing that. He’s an amazing artist in his own right, but he’s also one of those dudes who can make anything he wants. So we’re doing a few other projects together. He’s doing a cool toy with Ginette Lapalme. A lot of weird stuff.


One Response to “Comics Was the Reliable Thing”: An Interview with Michael DeForge

  1. Wicked interview! I believe Big Kids and Lose 7 to legitimately the best things Mr.Deforge has done to date–and he’s made a HELL of a lot of shit-hot comics! The lad’s a bloody machine! And if by any chance you get to see this, Mr. Deforge–when are you gonna grace us with your presence over here in the UK again? I was poor as shit last time you came over…
    And Annie Mok–you are literally KILLING IT with your interviews and reviews lately, really developing a “voice”…and, of course, you’re a damn fine cartoonist yourself!

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