Oh, look, a Great Comic.
Ant Comic, Michael DeForge’s magnum opus (so far; give him time), tackles the big issues—sex, war, parenthood, family, labor, love, the Other, death—with such brio and ease that it’s more like a shopper methodically checking items off his grocery list in a supermarket he knows like the back of his hand than an artist grappling with the stickiest issues imaginable. That’s because, in this story about a handful of insects living in a black ant colony that makes a disastrous decision to go to war with the red ants who live nearby, he’s found the perfect vessel for all his preexisting preoccupations as a cartoonist.
Take his penchant for crafting baroque, inside-out character designs. Even in comics where the sartorial weirdness is the point, like Leather Space Man or Canadian Royal Family, DeForge can hit a point where the complexity of the drawing undercuts, or rather overwhelms, its communicative value. In Ant Comic, however, the bizarre visual interpretations of the bugs in question are pitch-perfect distanciation techniques, driving home their alien biology by depicting them in ways we’ve never seen, not even close. Spiders are just fanged cartoon dog heads with eight legs sticking out of them; centipedes look like the world’s longest stretch Hummer limos; worms resemble sex toys from the Gimp’s treasure chest and emit a constant stream of mindless ha-ha-ha-ha laughter; fruit flies are multi-eyed entities that look like they erupted out of a carcass in Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit; the ants themselves sport visible internal organs in an array of bright colors, like anatomical models; the queen of the colony is a behemoth, a tangle of canals and orifices before which the males of the colony queue up and into which they enter three by three to deposit their ejaculate — an EPCOT Center attraction designed by Salvador Dalí at his most trollish. Only the red ants actually resemble what we might think of when we think of the insect in question, although they’re so busy forming a sex-death cult centered on the consumption of hallucinogenic spider semen deposited into a decoy made from black-ant carcasses that you might not even notice.
The power of these designs fuels the deployment of another one of DeForge’s go-to techniques: juxtaposing grotesque and high-stakes events with blasé, workaday reactions by the characters involved. Ants reference going to shop class in conversations about ingesting ant poison and going insane. Non-queen females reminisce about forbidden dalliances with male ants like confessional blog posts at XOJane while wandering a wasteland after fleeing the colony while the queen slowly decomposes and dies. A gay couple breaks up like any couple might, even as they attempt to rebuild their society from the ground up with just them, a cop who went AWOL from the big battle, a child whose consumption of earthworm particles has given him prophetic powers, and a baby red ant none of them can understand.
It all fits: Ant Comic is an existential horror story about going through the motions. Life is boiled down to the precious few biological drives ants possess—reproducing, eating, killing threats—which in turn become the social mechanisms that drive the entire colony. Even when they are totally undone by this tag team of id and superego, even when they quite openly address the inadequacy of everything they’ve done in the past and are attempting to do in the future, they still can’t do anything but fight, fuck, eat, and hope that doing so provides…enough. And lest you think there’s some alternative available, the one survivor who chooses not to play by the rules, the prophet child’s father, gradually reveals himself to be a “some men just want to watch the world burn”-style sociopath. It’s all colored like a firework display, yet somehow I don’t feel like celebrating—do you?
Ant Comic marked the moment I stopped giving a shit about print. At least, showed me I didn’t have to give a shit about print, not anymore, not if I didn’t feel like it or couldn’t afford it or couldn’t swing the shelf space. With each new page he posted, Michael DeForge demonstrated that the web is as efficient, and sufficient, a delivery mechanism for artcomics as print, just as surely as The Sopranos proved week in and week out that TV could do drama on the level of cinema. That he initially did it without really leaning on any of the inherent characteristics of webcomics—continuous scrolling, inventive formatting—only speaks higher of the robustness of the medium, and DeForge’s talent.