Robot 6

‘I generally want my comics to feel like dreams’: An interview with Michael DeForge

Adding the RSS feed for Michael DeForge’s blog to your Google Reader this year was a bit like wrapping your mouth around the business end of a firehose. Barely a day went by without DeForge posting some beautifully strange, strangely beautiful new illustration or comics page. And at the rate he was producing work, there was no telling where it would be from — his two minicomics series, the art-world satire/science fiction Open Country and the kids’-comics oddity Kid Mafia; his ongoing bug’s-life black-comedy webcomic Ant Comic; “College Girl by Night,” his gender-bending contribution to the erotic comics anthology he co-edits with Ryan Sands, Thickness; the third issue of his flagship solo anthology series, Lose, from Koyama Press; various previously published works now archived at Jordan Crane’s webcomics portal What Things Do; comic strips and illustrations for magazines like Vice, Maisonneuve, The Comics Journal and The Believer; contributions to anthologies including kus, Smoke Signal, Gang Bang Bong, Root Rot, Sundays, and probably more that I’m forgetting.

But even more astonishing than the sheer volume of his output was its quality. As I wrote in CBR’s Top 100 Comics of 2011 countdown, DeForge published his four best comics last year, and many more thrilling works besides. I focused on that killer quartet of Lose, Open Country, Ant Comic, and “College Girl by Night” for this interview with DeForge, looking back on amazing year and teasing what’s to come in 2012.

Sean T. Collins: Sexy stuff first. I have a few questions about “College Girl by Night,” the story you contributed toThickness. Since you co-created and co-edit the series with Ryan Sands, I’m wondering which came first, the idea for the story, or the idea for the anthology it eventually appeared in? Did wanting to make smut also make you want to create a publication to house it for yourself and others, or vice versa?

Michael DeForge: My idea for the story came way, way later. I think that’s why I wanted to be slotted in the second issue instead of the first – when we decided to do the anthology, I had no idea what I wanted to draw yet. “College Girl By Night” was actually my second story idea, too. My original comic was going to be a homoerotic riff on the movie Class, starring Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy. I did all these character designs and had all these plans on how I’d draw their outfits and the prep school the comic would take place in, but everything fell apart when I actually started to plot it out.

Collins: Seems like two common threads connected the story you ended up doing with the one you abandoned, though — school and homoeroticism. Another chicken-and-egg question: Were these issues you intended to tackle all along?

DeForge: Not exactly – I intended each comic to be about shame and repression, and the school setting works out well for that. As for the homoerotic thing – I went through a few different versions of the thumbnails for “College Girl By Night” before I really sorted everything out. At first, his transformations back to male form were cartoonier and played mostly for laughs, and separate from any of the sex in the comic. In another, I didn’t show him in male form at all, and the transformations were only referred to in narration. Then the version after that was 3/4ths gay sex. It took a while before I figured out where I actually needed to take the premise.

Collins: “College Girl by Night” combines a lot of different genre strands. There’s the genderflipping element, which is common in manga and which you’re beginning to see infiltrate nerd and fanart culture here in North America as well. But the use of the full moon, and the “by night” suffix for the title, links the story to werewolves, which obviously also have a lot of cultural currency right now. Transformation and shapeshifting have a body-horror element, especially when they’re tied to sex like they are here, and body horror has been a touchstone for you for a while. So too has been the presentation of fantastical material in a deadpan, slice-of-life narrative style. And of course there’s the porn element, in that this gives you the opportunity to draw both straight porn and gay porn. Had you made any or all of these connections before you started working on the comic, or did they emerge for you later in the process? Would you say any one of them was paramount in what appealed to you about making the comic?

DeForge: They all came out as I was working on them. The title was kind of stuck in my head for a while, I think since it sounded like a good song title, or something.  I initially envisioned the final comic as being a lot goofier. I think my idea was to use the premise to make a bunch of lame jokes about college hook-ups. It would have been terrible.
I was hung up on the challenge of making a “sexy” comic, which seemed really far out of my comfort zone. When I was actually writing the narration for the story, it immediately went off these other directions – I became more engaged with those tangents than my initial plan. It stopped feeling like some one-off divergence into porn and more like a natural progression from the other stories I’ve been drawing this year.

Collins: At a certain point, the narration sort of peels back from the actual events being depicted. This is an effective way of packing more information about the character and his/her situation into the strip, but it also has the effect of making it seem like he/she can’t quite confront the tumultuous events of the comic, instead preferring to think and talk about other things. Is that a fair characterization?

DeForge: Yeah, that was the idea. At some point when roughing everything out, it started to make much more sense for the narration to be at odds with what was happening panel to panel.

Collins: It seems important to me to note, given that this is a porno comic we’re talking about, that the College Girl is really sexy. Frankly that’s probably not a word associated with your work very often. Can you walk me through the process of drawing an attractive character? How do you settle upon certain details that make them attractive without pushing it too far over the top?

DeForge: I’m not sure I’m even able to do it that well, so I’m glad to know you think I pulled it off. Sometimes I try to look at the drawings with fresh eyes and think, “This woman I drew looks like a bug-eyed alien. Why does she have a bobble head?”

I think Gilbert Hernandez’s character designs are a big inspiration for me.  Luba is the best example of a character who’s obviously incredibly attractive but also a bit funny-looking and a bit creepy all at the same time. He always hits the perfect balance with that stuff.

Collins: The irony there is that the ostensibly erotic elements of his work are an acquired taste even for some readers who appreciate other aspects of his comics. Certainly recently, with the Fritz-based material, he’s pushed the envelope very far. Presumably this is less of an issue for people picking up an anthology explicitly billed as erotic, but did you give any thought to similarly alienating any readers?

DeForge: No. That would be such a slippery slope, and require way too much second-guessing. I know I’m always going to end up alienating somebody anyway.

Collins: Open Country is one of the best art-school/art-world satires I’ve seen from comics in quite some time, but this isn’t the first time you’ve tackled that subject–there’s the intro to Lose 3 about the internship, there’s the Justice League parody you did where the other heroes complain about Hal Jordan’s stint in art school. I’m not sure of your background in this regard, but you appear to have emerged relatively intact and achieved some success at a young age–do these issues still affect you, or is it just good fodder for comics?

DeForge: I mean, I still spend most of my day stressing out about “the creative process” or whatever – and that’s probably true of most of my social circle, too – which is why it keeps making its way into my comics. I’m afraid it’s a well I draw from a bit too much at this point, though! I hope I’m not getting repetitive.

Collins: It’s fine with me. Open Country also shares with some of your other work, such as S.M., a depiction of a hallucinatory state. But given what your “normal” worlds look like, I’m wondering how you approach that sort of thing. How do you know…I guess the best way to put this is, how do you know what weirdness to reserve for altered states versus what weirdness to put in the everyday sequences?

DeForge: I think it’s mostly intuitive. In a few cases, I don’t want there to be very clean divisions between those states. Most of my comics end up having a dream-logic to them anyway, in terms of how characters react to things. 

But yeah, I can’t think of many comics I’ve drawn that end up in “normal” settings. Even when just drawing a forest or a city or a suburb, they’re always such stylized versions of those things.

Collins: The central strip in Lose #3, “Dog 2070,” is an object lesson in this. If you just read the words without really looking at the images, you could easily see it drawn by Adrian Tomine. When you open your eyes, it’s the world’s ugliest anthropomorphized dog-flying-squirrel-things wandering through a postapocalyptic urban wasteland, and occasionally gliding. Julia Gfrörer recently told me that she introduces the fantastic into her work because rigorous realism would bore her eventually. Is it the same for you? What do you feel you can access by these unusual settings and character designs that you can’t otherwise? I realize I may be asking you to eff the ineffable here.

DeForge: That’s a hard one for me to answer, because the reasons shift from comic to comic. Sometimes I’m more concerned about establishing a tone, sometimes I’m referencing genre, sometimes I’m just trying to be funny, sometimes the symbolism is supposed to be much more overt (like in Lose 3,) and it’s usually a combination of all those things. I generally want my comics to feel like dreams.

Collins: Do you draw on dreams directly? I often find myself really enjoying dream comics up until the point where the artist adds the “Dreamt on December 23″ or whatever tagline at the end. That sucks so much of the mystery out of it. There are exceptions — Emily Carroll’s dream comics come to mind — but to me a comic that employs dream logic without coming out and saying it’s a record of a specific dream is much more effective.

DeForge: Yeah, I tend to agree. There are cases when I’ve directly pulled imagery from dreams, but I try to just use those as jumping off points. That horse head thing in Lose 2, for instance, came from a dream. But I don’t think trying to directly transcribe one of my dreams would be very interesting to anybody. Usually, it’s the logic and tone I’m trying to recreate.

Collins: Ant Comic has a similar stylistic rupture to that of “Dog 2070.” It more directly addresses the setting and nature of the characters in the text, but there’s still an odd disconnect wherein the ants, centipedes, spiders and so on don’t “really” look like those insects, but like some symbolic representation of them. I have a hard time fathoming how you make those leaps between “here’s what I want to draw” and “here’s how I want to draw it.”

DeForge: I guess it’s not a leap I’m always conscious of when I’m actually working. For Ant Comic in particular, the character designs are all coming very organically, on a week to week basis. With the Ant Queen, for instance, I had a loose outline of what I wanted the Queen to do in the story, but didn’t know how I was going to draw her. And then when I doodled a version of her having a giant, brightly colored vagina that other ants would have to line up to walk inside of, it was like “Oh, of course that’s how it’d be, that makes perfect sense.”

Collins: Ant Comic‘s color palette is really amazing to me. It’s bright and neon-y in a way that’s very fashionable right now, but it doesn’t actually look like anything else — not like Paper Rad’s colors orThe Problem Solverz‘ colors, to cite the tradition I think a lot of today’s eye-melters sprung from. I’d love to know if you were looking at any specific comics or other works for inspiration when you settled on coloring the strip the way you did.

DeForge: Thank you! I am trying to force myself to use a new palette every week for that one. I had noticed I had tend to use these sort of washed out, yellowy colors in a lot of my work, and have been making a conscious effort to shake out of that. One recent strip had a color scheme that I almost directly lifted from a Chester Brown Comics Journal cover. For the most part, the color schemes in Ant Comic are inspired by a lot of 60s poster design.

Even though it’s a web comic, I’ve been designing the pages to be sized at 11×17, so I’m imagining them as giant Sunday strips as I work on them and want the pages to be as graphically arresting as possible.

Collins: Frank Santoro has located you in the “fusion” movement of young creators who combine influences from various world traditions and genres while still making idiosyncratic, experimental, art-first alternative work. I don’t guess that you’ll say no, but do you think that’s an accurate assessment? I ask because I have a hard time seeing what it is that you’re “fusing” in international terms. It looks very much like North American art comics to me, albeit like no other specific ones.

DeForge: I think it’s an accurate assessment, but it’s of course not something I’m ever actually thinking about as I’m working, so who knows.  I think the most visible international influence on my work comes from Japanese horror comics – Hideshi Hino, Kazuo Umezu, Junji Ito, Suehiro Maruo. Hino in particular.

Collins: So it’s more of a tonal influence, or an influence of subject matter, than one of specific technique in terms of art style, layout, pacing, or what have you?

DeForge: I’d say it’s still both – I think all those artists have definitely impacted my drawing style, although maybe not my layout or pacing.

Collins: Thinking about this again, it’s not hard to see your book Kid Mafia in the context of various creepy-kids comics from those artists, although the genre idiom is different. I can, however, see the profound horror and science fiction influence on your work. Actually, that’s not at all the right way to put it — you aren’t influenced by horror and SF, you’re making horror and SF, as far as I’m concerned. Those are popular options for altcomix right now, perhaps oddly so. Are you comfortable with that characterization? Do you ever want to do something more like an Acme Novelty Library or Optic Nerve, a more straightforward form of literary fiction?

DeForge: I’ve plotted out a few comics that I might want to start drawing next year that don’t have any fantastical elements at all – just people hanging around apartments and stuff – but I don’t see them a huge departure from my regular work, really, because the tone is still there, and I’m writing about similar themes. So I guess I would like to get to those stories eventually, but they didn’t come out of any conscious desire to draw something “literary,” they just sort of worked out that way.

Collins: I get it. The tonal consistency is certainly there throughout your work. At no point do they take a TOTAL dive into genre storytelling tropes, where human concerns are abandoned in favor of hitting various marks familiar to fans. Does that make sense?

DeForge: It does! I never sit down to draw a comic and think “Okay, time to draw a horror story!” It just works out that way. Except for Thickness, I guess, which is why that contribution was such a challenge at first. I actually *did* have to think, “You are drawing a porn comic for a porn anthology.”

Collins: What are your plans for 2012? I’m guessing you have a lot, if your past couple of years are any indication.

DeForge: The projects I’ve been devoting the most time to have been Lose 4, which we’re hoping for a Summer or Fall release, and the ongoing Ant Comic strips. Every few months, I’ll also be hoping to drop Kid Mafia and Open Country issues, but I’m not keeping those two on any tight schedule. I have a mini-comic that I’ve been incredibly late on that Secret Headquarters is going to print for me that should be out shortly too, and ongoing gag strips in Mothers News, Offerings, The Believer and Frank’s TCJ column.

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