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“Don’t Overthink It!”: Walter Scott & Michael DeForge, Chatting Online

What follows is a conversation between Walter Scott and Michael DeForge, two of the most notable figures in Canada-based alternative comics. Both have had recent books released by the venerable Montreal publisher Drawn and Quarterly: Scott's Wendy, Master of Art, a satirical dramedy of arts education; and DeForge's Heaven No Hell, a new collection of short works. Here, the two candidly discuss their artistic practice, as well as the expectations placed on theirs and all of our works as performers in the great public spectacle of online. This interview was composed in Google Docs, and reached completion on April 8, 2021.

This person is Walter Scott.
This person is Michael DeForge.

Walter Scott: Hi Michael! Glad we can chat. Thank you for your new book, Heaven No Hell. Right off the bat, I’m thinking of the story in the book “Raised”, and how through the couple melding their faces together on an app, they are able to see what their future child might look like. The story ends up folding in their (maybe your?) anxieties about our social and political futures. I’m always interested in works of fiction that seem to say something about the author’s own feelings or life. How close do you feel to your work, in that regard?

Michael DeForge: I still hope it never just reads as a mouthpiece for what I’m thinking. Like, I have one or two comics that are explicitly that, and I think I make it very easy for anyone reading my comics to suss out my worldview, but I try to make room for ambivalence and ambiguity in my stories.

I still do feel very close to it, and very exposed. It feels very embarrassing to write this way. I don’t know, is that a feeling you ever have? I feel like what we do is so embarrassing all the time.

I struggle with that too. I think a major question readers have about my series, Wendy, is if it’s “based on my life” and more pointedly “Is this character based on this person? Did this really happen? Who is who? Is that me?”, which I think is besides the point. Zadie Smith has said that fiction is the realm of the hypothetical, a place to play out all of the neurotic fantasies and anxieties that reality gives you. Even so, I struggle on one hand with creating a story that cuts to the bone of an emotional truth, and on the other, protecting the people around me that I care about, who might see some version of themselves in the story and feel either exposed or implicated. In that case I guess “Write it first and ask for forgiveness later” makes for a good story but perhaps a miserable life. LOL. In some way I have envied the surreal worlds you create, because I presumed it served as a buffer of some kind, from embarrassment. But I guess I’m wrong!

It’s an aspect of Wendy I’m jealous of, how flexible that character is. As someone who knows you, I sometimes think I can pick up what parts of it are you and what parts are the comic being given a life of its own. I know readers aren’t really making those differentiations, obviously.

I once introduced someone I was dating to another cartoonist, and the guy immediately asked her, “So which of his stories are based on you?” Which is of course a horrendously obnoxious way to talk to someone, but my fear is that’s how people in my life are actually reading my stories. “Is this one me?” Have you ever had people confront you about believing you wrote them into your comics?

Oh yeah constantly! Sometimes people are even like, “Hey, great takedown of [Insert Someone Here]!” Which feels kind of weird. But also, interesting. In the fictional Wendy characters, readers see their least favorite art teacher or nemesis immediately. One thing I think about actually, is this direct identification people have with their fictional characters nowadays (thanks in part to our current weird parasocial lives). I feel like viewers and readers often expect them to reflect their own feelings and worldviews. If Wendy sold NFTs or bought a condo it would be a betrayal to a certain section of her readership. How does one make everyone happy in this world?

Yeah, it’s fascinating to read people talk about being “betrayed” by certain pieces of art. I mostly don’t give a shit on some level -- like, these tendencies come and go, and people can consume art however they like -- but I find it very difficult to relate to.

Wasn’t there some study that showed that in a lot of ways, your brain can’t tell the difference between watching a sitcom week to week and having actual friends? I assume this past year has only made that worse.

Yes weird! More than ever, because of the pandemic, our “selves” have been flattened and reduced to digital stimulus, which was already tricky to navigate before, to say the least. The “Roleplay” story in Heaven No Hell where the doctor and the cop and everyone are actually just roleplaying, feels relevant to now - where every interaction on the internet feels like some miserable, artificial version of an actual conversation, with people performing a version of themselves. It makes my brain unsure what is a human interaction and what isn’t. Your stories deal in the pathos of that very succinctly. Even this interview is weird, because we’re doing it in a Google doc and as soon as I’m done typing I’m waiting for your little cursor to come to life, and my brain wants it immediately.

The performance is especially funny now that it’s become so explicit in certain online spaces, the preoccupation with “authenticity” versus “performativity” or whatever. I try not to think of online spaces as being “less real” than IRL spaces at this point, but just “differently real”? It sucks to think about how we are both exactly old enough to remember when all of this seemed potentially liberating or emancipatory in some way. Going onto the internet and being whoever you want to be vs. going on the internet where you’re obligated to have one of, like, three personalities.

Oh for sure! These days, I am the blandest, least interesting version of myself on the internet. I save my feelings about the world for my books - it gives me time to actually think about what I think, instead of just posting and posting and posting and getting madder and madder and madder. You know?

I try to think of the internet as where I bare my ass and sabotage my career via shit-talking industry figures. Has that ever been a concern with Wendy, speaking of? I know the fine art world loves self-criticism, or pretends to love it, but is there ever a fear that what you’re writing about in Wendy ends up burning some professional bridges or anything like that?

Whoo boy. Now we’re getting to it. I try not to punch down too much. My last book featured a really difficult art professor that was somewhat inspired by a real one. But I sense, from their teaching style at least, that the real professor is a “dish it and take it” kind of person. So I feel like they would be okay with it, and maybe even like it.

The stakes seem higher in the art world just because there’s more money involved? Comics is full of petty people, but the stakes are piddly enough that getting yourself in hot water isn’t always the biggest of deals.

My experience of the Canadian artworld is a lot of applying for grants and crossing your fingers. I think there’s a lot of burnout too; I can see why people leave the artworld at a certain point for something that feels more stable, somehow. The gag is, it’s not like some people are in hot water and some aren’t, we’re actually all in a slowly boiling pot of water together. I’m losing the thread! And now I’m depressed!

I was hoping to figure out a better way to segue into this, but we can also talk about how we both got to know each other from being into a very specific noise rock scene in like 2005 or whatever. We can talk about gig posters, if there’s anything there to talk about! I don’t know if that’s more or less depressing a subject.

Great, subject change! Yeah, you know, I feel like my noise rock art career was really only a few years, like 2007 - 2012. It always feels longer when you’re old. You were living in Ottawa and I was living in Montreal and we were both making posters for local shows. We once tried to do a collab zine but it fizzled out, a lot because I don’t think I understood how to collab at the time. It’s still hard to do!

Oh yeah. I think at the time, I thought I could be some really expressive and free artist. I was really inspired by all the different people in art collectives, working on these collaborative drawings together, call and response zines, that sort of thing. At some point, I realized I’m a fussy control freak who doesn’t work all that well with others. I talk about lasting lessons I’ve learned from working on posters, though - color theory, type design, that sort of thing. I think that ethos informed my practice to some degree, too.

Same here, learning how to separate a poster into layers (even though I often didn’t even screenprint them) taught me something about the economy of image making - something comics lend themselves to anyway. Wendy for sure still has a gig poster ethos. Even her color-halftones represent a way of reproducing images that doesn’t totally make sense anymore, haha. She’s retro.

So many aspects of that noise scene are really embarrassing to look back on, but I think I’m far enough away from it that I can indulge in more nostalgia for it. The gig posters thing was so weird, that so many of us were operating as though silkscreening band posters could be an entire career, as if there would just somehow be a lasting demand for that. I do love looking at your older silkscreens still. Up until I moved studios this year, I had a few on my wall. Yours have aged well, and didn’t have too many band names I wouldn’t want to have displayed on my wall as a fully grown adult.

I think any scene like that, when you’re in it, seems like it’s going to be your life forever, man!!! I thought I was gonna make posters forever, for sure. But whatever, things change. I still really value the spirit of experimentation that was a part of a scene like that. Sometimes there’s pressure in (my corner of) the artworld to be austere and research-based. I feel lucky I can temper whatever instinct I have like that, with a personal history of making for making’s sake.

Yeah, having some space to fuck around and incubate like that was pretty important to me. Knowing how conditions are only getting worse for artists coming up - like, I always feel like an asshole when someone asks me for advice, when my answer is, “Try experimenting with different types of zines!” Because that is not a great answer to someone trying to work this shit out while keeping their landlord at bay and their boss in a holding pattern. It’s not like it was easy before, but all signs point to things sucking even harder now.

Do you feel more of a pressure with your comics now that you’re a few books deep? A sort of self-consciousness? Or that there are more expectations wrapped up in them now than there was before?

Oh my god yeah, when I’ve taught a few university-level classes, there were people involved with DIY spaces, but it seems so much harder now. Wendy wouldn’t be able to give the same advice. But also, a lot of that has to do with herself simply getting older. She’s not at the crust punk loft anymore. And I wonder if she’s reaching the age where her stories might not resonate with art students after a while. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next issue, some of her friends have kids!

That’s another way Wendy seems so flexible. I’ve never had a character or premise I’ve felt I could do that with. Do you see Wendy’s life ever veering off from your own in a significant way? Would that be too weird?

If it did, I would have to just trust in my ability and interest to convey, in a way that resonates, what that other life might be like - which is the task of the writer anyway, if they want to make anything interesting. Because I don’t know, do you ever feel like comics are way too memoir-like? Too close to the pain of oneself, in the insular way that comic artists are obsessed with their own rashes? I do!

I think it’s hard to avoid early on. Part of why I’ve drifted away from more overtly autobiographical work is that I hate myself and don’t want to spend any more time with myself than I have to. I think that lets me be kinder to my characters, the further away I am from them. I can write more tenderly. I don’t have any empathy for myself, and I fall into the easy comics trap of just wanting to beat up on myself. I’m using the word “myself” five times in this paragraph.

And yeah, again about the hypothetical - it’s a way to imagine other ways of being. Our  characters get to react to things in a way we ourselves might not. And then we get to see how that plays out on the page. Writing is such a weird emotional exercise! The characters become like these jackets you can try on. A loose fitting coat that makes us feel what it’s like to be a different version of ourselves.

Actually this reminds me of something I wanted to ask. Some of the dialogue in your work seems like a call-and-response thing that feels like a poetic exercise, but also like you’re talking to yourself. Do you ever feel like your characters are just different versions of you talking to yourself?

Sometimes. I have a lot of stories where I’m really just trying to work out my feelings about something on the page. In my comics with big casts, I think that’s much less present. Like, they all obviously have some shreds of me because they come out of me, but I’ll populate those stories with characters that are pretty dissimilar to me in a lot of ways. I’ve been finding those types of characters more enjoyable to write lately. My book Sticks Angelica, or the character Caroline in Leaving Richard’s Valley - part of what I found compelling there was that I was working with people with very different worldviews than my own. I guess that’s like the thing of trying on a new outfit. It’s probably sort of freeing, in some way?

The call-response thing is definitely influenced by poetry. I try to be very intentional about the cadence of my comics. Trying to capture the real life rhythms of how people speak to each other is always so awkward in a comic. It never reads right. It feels much more correct to just have your characters just start delivering a soliloquy out of nowhere.

I think my dialogue has been influenced by text message exchanges lately, too.

Thanks for that generous answer. Trying to figure out how you feel about something on a page resonates with me. I also think it’s an opportunity to create situations where the easy answer takes a back seat to simply laying out the contours of human difficulty, with no solution in mind. Similarly, I appreciate your nod to a poetic strategy, complicating our understanding of language as we read it - creating schisms in the texture of the words too. Delivering a soliloquy out of nowhere often feels right, sometimes more resonant than, like, a storyboard-style comic that might try to replicate the experience and pacing of film. This is where I feel seen; I’ve been thinking of the bland situational TV comedy, and especially with my last book, I wanted to operate in the world of those sitcom conventions - as a counterpoint to the more absurd stuff in Wendy. Maybe it means I’m going soft! Maybe Wendy needs to break into a soliloquy too. At the very least, it’s an opportunity for her to be embarrassed in the next panel, lol. Do you gain inspiration from normal boring shit like binge-era tv and other “artless” things?

Oh, totally. I will watch just about any trashy teen drama, I really love that sort of thing. I’d like to write something like that one day. I don’t think I have the discipline to write one completely straight, but I’d love to try my best to make a melodramatic teen romance serial. One of the comics in the new book is basically my rewriting The Purge franchise, which is also a pretty garbage-y series of movies that I am also kind of an apologist for and could talk for hours about. Do you ever think about what it’d be like to work on a project like that? Would you write for a sitcom if they let you?

I’ve thought about what that would be like. I don’t know if my sense of humor would be able to translate in a line-for-line kinda format. There’s so much more involved for me - beats, facial expressions, stuff like that. Kathy Acker wrote a script for that 1983 film Variety, and she’s all over it, in the sense that the writing is so weird and disjointed and intense. So maybe it would be a good thing to try to write a script, maybe weird things would come out. At some point I guess you and I will have to segue into a more stable career of Canadian screenwriting if we want to pay for our Toronto apartments. Might as well get started now! Have you ever seen Variety?

Yeah, I dig that movie! I like how it’s almost like a non-thriller thriller. The idea of bringing in collaborators and all these new inputs and variables is very frightening to me, but maybe it’d feel good to leave things in someone else’s hands. The idea of writing something and then letting go of it sounds appealing on paper.

I watched Blonde Death by James Robert Baker for the first time recently, and it was a really compelling way to watch someone take a sideways approach to a new medium. I think comics are good for that too, where a lot of the most interesting work comes from people who aren’t exclusively immersed in it, and come from different experiences or traditions. The first issue of Wendy felt like that, to me. Really fresh, and not completely bogged down with very comics-y comics conventions. It’s weird how many young cartoonists, including myself when I was in my 20s, are so fixated on the history of cartooning. It’s like a medium full of artists who skip straight to the part where we become boring old people obsessing over newspaper clippings.

I hope I don’t become like that! It is hard sometimes to keep surprising yourself as a cartoonist. Especially since once you develop a style, maybe it’s easy to stick to it, hone it, and just keep doing things one way. I’ve taught students of comics that are hung up on refining their style as soon as possible - I try to get them to place less importance on it. There’s gotta be room to surprise yourself!

It’s hard to reassure someone young that they’ll one day be completely sick of “their style”, that they’ll be working overtime to unlearn all their habits and tics that make it up. I try to switch up how I draw things from project to project pretty dramatically. Something inspiring to me about Wendy is how elastic her design is, though. I was aiming for something similarly elastic when I drew Brat and Stunt, or a few of my shorts. That seems like a good way out of feeling too locked in to any one style or design choice, to draw characters and create worlds you can kind of contort however you need.

I like to work in different mediums, outside of comics, to help keep me elastic. What other kinds of things do you make?

I wish I did more. I’ve sometimes written prose and I’d like to again. I miss playing in bands. At the start of 2020, I wanted to try to work more with sculpture, or just start thinking three-dimensionally, and started sculpting chess sets.

Saw those chess sets, they were great.

My plan was to make one chess set a month but after two months, the pandemic started and I kind of got distracted and gave up. Maybe I should try for it again.

Do you feel particularly beholden to one medium or world or the other? Visual art vs. comics, or the fine art world vs. publishing?

I do all sorts of stuff - graphic novels, public art, sculpture, video. I try to maintain a varied art practice, because they can influence each other in interesting ways. My most recent public art project is in Winnipeg on the side of a building - these huge hands kind of “drawn” out of metal that seem to be prying the window open, for instance. Where the language of comics, or panels, or “constraints” can occur alongside ideas about urbanism or the role of art in public life. In my comics, I benefit from making collage or more experiential drawings because I can transfer that spirit of experimentation in my pages. Also, it helps to be surrounded by and work in contemporary art, because I can make drawings of fictional artworks in my comics that actually might exist in real life, adding to the specificity in a way. Like for instance, my character Eric’s sculpture of a metal tub filled with a mysterious bubbling liquid. Or Madhuri’s paintings made with kombucha, using apples as paintbrushes.

I often find the larger artworld is often trying to figure out where I fit in, and why, but I think I’ll leave that line of questioning up to others. Being an artist means never being finished, so I embrace the ambiguity of my position.

It’s funny how so many of the artists who influenced me the most worked in a bunch of different mediums and I’m so hung up on comics. Even when I do something else, I feel like I’m just feeding it into my comics practice somehow, which kind of “ruins” it in a way. I did my first gallery show a few years ago where it was all these big ink drawings, and I was proud of the end result, but it still ended up being nailed down to my narrative work in a way I couldn’t really help.

It’s not like the process of making a comic is particularly enjoyable, but it’s apparently the thing I keep coming back to, so I probably shouldn’t overthink it.

Don’t overthink it!

Ok! 

Thanks Michael, for your time. I’m so glad we could chat. See you around town!

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