Theorist Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? coins a phrase to put a name to the sense that distinct limits have been placed on our imaginative horizons, making it impossible to envision an alternative to the capitalist system that currently dominates our world. Instead, people scheme to devise ways where they can be reconciled to a system that’s hostile to them, with one of the consequences being widespread depression. A followup work postulating “Acid Communism,” about the alternatives suggested in the sixties by psychedelia and the New Left, never got written, as Fisher committed suicide in early 2017. In the absence of an articulated alternative, the tool we’re given to work with is simply the name for a framing which has invariably affected one’s own thinking.
In 2020, Michael DeForge tweeted the first two pages of a story called “One Of My Students Is A Murderer… But Which?” which went kinda viral. I don’t wish to ascribe too much meaning or importance to virality, but it does tend to suggest that the thing being said is something that people were hungry to hear. That story, as well as 16 others, are collected in Heaven No Hell, for you to read in print. They are all, to varying degrees, funny and exciting and all of the things I want a comic to be, and they are all so assured in their worldview a reader may initially blanch.
There’s a part of me that finds the idea of a class of schoolchildren objecting to a FBI investigation and saying they’re not going to cooperate ridiculous in a bad way, even while a larger part finds it ridiculous in a good way: I laugh at the joke, but I hesitate that it could be construed as didactic, preaching to the anarchist-socialist choir. While I agree with all the precepts, I know that I’m in the minority and come off as ridiculous to most people, and it is for this imagined audience’s benefit I hesitate. Still, when I think of how many nineties comics I have read, (both Fantagraphics-style alternatives and Vertigo’s mainstream-adjacent stuff) built around a tone of complaint about how everybody is repressed and sucks so much, I remember that the best way to overcome such an adolescent viewpoint is to spend one’s adulthood in the company of people you actually like.
The political content in DeForge’s stories is never annoying because the tone isn’t self-congratulatory. The politics being casually expressed are never the point, and they are not meant to satiate the readership’s desire to feel they’re being agreed with. It’s understood we can agree on all certain principles, but that there’s still going to be conflict, and there’s still going to be mess. But in the same way it’s not worth arguing with people online, it’s not worth writing characters into fiction to simply serve as strawmen to rage against. Many authors do this in the name of realism, and then, for the sake of further realism, empower the characters who possess a noxious ideology so it’s clear that this is who runs the world. In DeForge's comics, realistic depiction of the world where most people have dogshit politics is bypassed completely, and we as readers get to participate in a world unburdened of the need to explain itself.
“New Museum” states the case particularly straightforwardly. “Every realist was, at last, maimed, beheaded, or crushed under boulders. No more hand-wringing, we lopped off their hands. The mealy-mouthed had their tongues forcibly tied,” it begins, the narrative caption over an image of soft-edged rainbows, pink ground, and some shapes that vaguely suggest boulders crushing people and leaving small puddles of blood. His visual language backs up his narrative voice’s adamance, free of any burden to realistically depict anatomy or proportion. The compositions still read, and remain fun to look at, even if the reader doesn’t know what they’re looking at is supposed to be.
DeForge’s comics are the alternative to capitalist realism everyone’s been clamoring for, and Heaven No Hell, his best short story collection to date, makes that more clear than it’s been before. The tonal register of these comics includes humor, tenderness, and joy, and all these things seem earned. Partly because it’s implicit to the reader what all needs to be overcome to get to these places, the “real world” being avoided. Maybe the gentlest story here is “Surprise Party” which, as a reading experience, is defined in large part by the abstract depiction of a physical space within it. The cartooning may be cute, there may be a main character that talks to fish about how they should be prepared and eaten, but it’s also, in a pretty real way, challenging to make sense of the way the sprawl of physical space is reduced to these glyphs of the story’s visual language. It makes it clear that this is a particular way of looking at the world, and it requires effort to do so. The payoff, of sorts, is when this main character nestles themselves against the face of their beloved. Love can be larger than the outside world, and it’s really only when oriented to this perspective that things feel ok.
“Album” is a short story where every panel is, ostensibly, a photo of the narrator’s mother. In every panel, her head is turned away from us, the camera, and, implicitly, her child. The way of drawing makes a character design out of the posture, and for all this seems clever or funny it is also incredibly moving for how it uses the nostalgic effect of looking at old photographs and blurs it with remembered posture. The emotional effect is built on the formal language of comics, this sense of experimentation, this borderline-archness, but there is so much feeling of forgiveness in it, even as it forsakes a tone of nostalgia to encompass an impossible and omniscient view of the future, that includes death and cosmic rebirth.
I find the majority of North American cartoonists that work primarily in a horror mode completely uninteresting, as the clarity of their intention renders their work as feeling contrived. One of the things that makes DeForge more effective is that you don’t know what exactly you are getting when you start reading one of his stories. Only one story here fits within the realm of horror, maybe more, depending on how the effects each story stirs up register to you. The story I’m thinking of, about a person who sees a chessboard every time they close their eyes but also hallucinates the chess pieces transforming into monsters, is uncanny in a particular way that also reflects how one of the strengths of DeForge’s work is his particular relationship to abstraction: By not being rooted in figurative realism of the body, which most working in horror love as a baseline because they can show it being violated, his work is always at least halfway into the uncanny already and inhabiting hallucinogenic nightmare realms. As each new story adopts a new style, there is this sense that they are animated by the unfathomable, a thing beyond the known where horror could easily spring from even if it mostly doesn’t. Still, by rendering the body anew in pretty much every story, a sense of the narrating consciousness being estranged from a body occurs at a subliminal level: This dissociative effect can be horrific or deeply soothing depending on where the story goes. It’s a good jumping off point every time.
DeForge’s comics feel several steps ahead of everyone else’s thinking. I’m really only ever comparing him to his own work. Few cartoonists feel as liberated, in a sense of starting from a place of exploration, just starting to draw to see what happens, with few decisions made in advance or thought out beforehand to ensure a story works. There is a sense that reader and author are journeying out together into some unexplored landscape where it’s not clear yet how safe anything will be. That's the future I believe we're all hungry for.