Last week I went on a three day Michigan getaway. It was a non-traditional family vacation of sorts, comprising five adults and three boys aged six months, three years and six years, respectively. Although I’ve done some teaching, I am a childless only child and a hermit to boot. I find the emotional extremes of children simultaneously grating, overwhelming and profoundly relatable. One of the first things that every child must learn is that actions have consequences. That when you kick sand in someone’s face, or pull too hard on their nose ring, you are causing them pain. It’s a lesson that some people never internalize.
It’s no secret that artists, like children, are often self-centered, capricious and melodramatic. We spend a large portion of our lives trying to tap into states of being that others strive to avoid, and we’re often rewarded for our bad behavior. People live vicariously through artists and celebrities, fantasizing about a bohemian existence completely outside of societal norms, or a life so cushioned by money and fame that one’s actions no longer have consequences.
Ms. D, the protagonist of Michael DeForge’s Brat, is a has-been, a washed-up celebrity, over-the-hill at age 33. Famous not for acting, singing or painting but for outrageous acts of delinquency in a society that rewards transgression, Ms. D has become rudderless in her old age, a cult figure worshiped by a few die-hard fans but with no clear-cut map for the future. Although she longs for her actions to have consequences, she can’t even get a rise out of the cop whose car she sets alight. It turns out he’s a fan as well. As the story progresses, the depressive alcoholic directs some of her energy towards “mentoring” her unpaid intern Citrus Chan, an aspiring prankster so preoccupied with the minutiae of the craft that she feels unable to commit her own acts of vandalism. And yet, Ms. D’s primary concern is always, only, for herself.
DeForge, himself a remarkably accomplished and dare-I-say mature artist for his age, is clearly examining his own experiences throughout the book. Most cartoonists will relate to the following monologue from Ms. D’s mom: “You know, I remember when your performances were just old-fashioned temper tantrums. Eventually, they evolved into full-blown episodes. Your school would pull me away from work after you’d have a bad one. I never realized at the time that they could become some sort of job opportunity. My mistake.” As far as my family is concerned, cartooning is a bad habit I never grew out of. How about yours? (Of course, unlike Ms. D, most cartoonists don’t have the crushing weight of fame to carry. Lucky us.)
Ms. D acts out many tropes of the celebrity enfant-terrible, which are painfully familiar from television and film, but DeForge keeps the book fresh with his characteristic razor-sharp dialogue and mind-bending visual inventiveness. In one memorable sequence, Ms. D, dehydrated from a multi-day bender, becomes a literal twig. In another, she is transformed by jealousy into a ravening wolf who then pisses onto the floor.
Over the years, the artist has continued to develop his distinctive visual language, removing more and more information from each panel to enhance the overall clarity of his pages. Most of the hatchmarks, screentones and patterns that gave earlier works such as Very Casual (2013) and A Body Beneath (2014) their lysergic qualities have been removed in favor of clear outlines and flat color. Shapes have been simplified, with cars and trees, for instance, becoming the platonic ideal of themselves. The page layouts here are, for the most part, simple six-panel grids, interspersed with some lovely pages of thin horizontal panels, and again, this feels like a departure from layouts in earlier stories, where DeForge sometimes stacked many irregularly-shaped square panels to create an almost claustrophobic atmosphere. Fans of this earlier work might find themselves missing some of the drippier, gooier and more Cronenbergian aspects of his drawing, and I can understand why, but I appreciate the streamlining. In a culture that often equates complexity with maturity, most cartoonists paradoxically tend to whittle away visual information as they evolve. The bright, unmuted colors and clear line also speak to children’s book illustration, highlighting the work’s central themes. Oddly, given his relative obscurity, I was reminded of Jack Mendelsohn, another cartoonist who used clear outline and flat color to charming effect. That could be a stretch, however. It could just be a lion thing.
Avid readers will still find all of the classic DeForge hallmarks here-themes of body horror and physical transformation, science-fiction scenarios interspersed with mundane scenes from the real world, in-jokes about artists and creatives, yet the work should be accessible to any fan of contemporary comics or post-modern literary fiction. Reading it, I was reminded of Donald Barthelme and George Saunders, both profoundly inventive short story writers who speak truth to the absurdity of modern existence and the corrupt and ridiculous people who would claim to lead us without sacrificing empathy for their characters.
In the book’s final pages, Ms. D commits one last act of vandalism with extraordinary consequences. Recently I’ve been doing some graphic journalism gigs. This past weekend, I covered the Bughouse Square debates, a raucous event where activists present their ideas before a crowds of people gathered in Washington Square Park in Chicago, where I live. One of the presenters, a woman from the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, spoke about a bill that would tax carbon emissions. A heckler in the audience insisted there were no reliable alternatives to fossil fuels, and yelled “you’re living in a dream world.” I couldn’t get those words out of my head today, and I’ve been thinking about them in relation to Brat. Children are capable of tremendous selfishness, but they have access to undiminished reserves of creativity. The central question in Brat seems to be- “If we could all move beyond our narcissism and tap into our imaginations to collectively dream a better world, what could we achieve?”