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Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Michael DeForge

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Michael DeForge’s recent graphic novella (Stunt is too short to call a novel) is a compelling combination of excess and restraint. Except for the red letters snaking cage-like around the main character in the cover image, DeForge limits his palette to blue and white on black backgrounds. The dimensions of the physical book are unusually limited too, about 3” x 8”, making each page a small, wide rectangle that DeForge consistently grids into single panels or two equally sized square ones. The book could have been printed in a more standard shape, arranging three rows down each page, but the resulting 24-page comic would be less engaging. Like the title letters, the physical format creates a kind of “stunted” cage holding the main character inside rigid panels made even more unescapable by the ever-present page edges surrounding the black margins.

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And that form is a good match for its story. DeForge’s narrator is a suicidal stunt double trying to escape the confines of his existence. He fantasizes about plunging to his death while shooting a skyscraper scene. He literally dreams of crashing a car into an exploding oil tanker, but even then he survives due to a filming mishap that placed the actual star at the steering wheel. The stunt double (he goes unnamed except for one severely cropped panel of his imagined “in memory of” death credit at the end of the film) is terrible at dying. Even his actual suicide attempts by razor and pills fail, leaving him still boxed inside DeForge’s panels.

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While the book’s structure coordinates well with its subject matter, DeForge’s drawing style deepens those connections further. Like most cartoons, the stunt double’s body is impossibly malleable. His rubbery muscles enclose only the vague idea of a skeleton as the lines of his body curve to exaggerate his actions. Sometimes the exaggerations are loosely naturalistic, as when DeForge draws him from extremely foreshortened angles, but the effects run much deeper, altering the fabric of the story reality. His hair could be a fifth limb. His blue skin sweats blue droplets as if his whole figure were in the process of oozing apart. When he imagines his fatal impact, his body seems to splash across the sidewalk. When he imagines being consumed by blue flames, the lines of the flames are indistinguishable from the lines of his body, as if emerging from him.

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Instead of windows into a film-like story world, sometimes the panel edges serve as barriers that his body contorts to fill.  When his suicide attempts fail, he imagines exercising himself to death, literally wringing his body out: “Nothing left of me but knotted muscle and pools of sweat.” DeForge draws the visual metaphors of a twisted towel and puddle—but are they metaphors? Is this a naturalistic story drawn in a distorted style, or is this an actual cartoon world that obeys different laws of physics? DeForge exploits that ambiguity well.

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The world is absurdist. The narrator doubles for an actor named Jo Rear, providing the dreamed death headline joke: “Rear, Ended.” Fortunately, DeForge mostly avoids that kind of comic excess, instead emphasizing the surreal plot development of Jo hiring his double to impersonate him in his so-called “real” life. Starting with innocuous commercial photoshoots, the arrangements escalates to TV interviews and then personal dates. Together the two attempt a kind of career suicide, turning “Jo Rear” into a self-destructive, relationship-ending, contract-breaking, conspiracy-theory-espousing, public-urinating performance piece. The “stunt,” however, only makes the persona more popular, spurring a viscous cycle of increasing degradation and humiliation.

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But who is declining? Is it the actual Jo giving the look-alike main character his instructions? Is it the double literally embodying the role? Is it some third, technically non-existent entity who exists only in performance? Is it all of the above? None of the above? The interrogation of identity extends to Jo and the narrator even when alone together and so not performing for the public. Their bodies seem not only increasingly interchangeable, but the two figuratively and literally merge as they have sex in the walled privacy of Jo’s mansion. Though homoerotic, DeForge’s images are too surreal, too formally abstract to create any prurient effect. These aren’t two human bodies having sex. It’s barely even cartoon sex since so many of the curves and blue shapes are indistinguishable. Out of context, the last two panels of the sex scene wouldn’t even register as representational images.

I won’t give away how DeForge concludes his metafictional comics stunt, but it is a fitting ending to both his narrator’s personal plot as well as his own visual experimentation. Since Koyama Press is closing down soon too, Stunt may also be a fitting ending to DeForge’s multi-book career with the publisher.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

 

 

 

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Sometimes I think I’m reading Michael DeForge the wrong way. His Instagram strip Leaving Richard’s Valley is out as a book collection from Drawn & Quarterly, but I’m catching up on Brat released last fall from Koyama Press. It’s a story of an aging celebrity, a former juvenile delinquent still renown for acts of vandalism appreciated by her now middle-aged followers as art installations. But I’m not sure “story” is the best word to describe the graphic narrative. Or rather it’s one perfectly accurate description that might accidentally obscure what’s most interesting about DeForge’s art.

At one level, Brat is simply a cartoon—albeit an extreme one. While all cartoonists simplify and distort natural proportions, few stray quite so far from recognizable anatomy. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts characters have impossibly large and round heads, an effect further exaggerated in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park cast. The character Brat’s head is large and round too—at least five times larger than the tiny circle of her torso, with pipe-cleaner-like limbs extending almost tenfold.  If any other male artist drew his female protagonist in a nude shower scene on the second page of a comic, I would worry, but there’s not even the most remote element of eroticism here. While still somehow registering as “human,” the level of abstraction breaks even the most expansive norms of cartooning.

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That abstraction applies to the rest of the story world too. While DeForge is capable of drawing geometric depth, complete with multiple planes and vanishing points, he prefers flat surfaces that evoke while also rejecting the illusion of three-dimensional space. Sometimes he combines the approaches for discordant effects. As Brat spray-paints the cascading walls of a building complex, the street beyond features solid red vehicles above a grid of sidewalks squares. Not only is the 90 degree angle entirely flattened, the cars look like stenciled cut-outs reduced to their absolute minimal shapes. Any further reduction and they would cease to represent anything at all.

While dimension-deforming environments are another norm of cartoon worlds, few wander this far to the edge of pure abstraction—let alone cross it. When I say I’m reading Brat the wrong way, it’s because I’m spending too much time actually reading. DeForge’s layouts are traditional grids, most often 3×2 with a range of full-page and other variants to give the reading paths some visual rhythm. Most panels also feature a cluster of words, usually in a talk balloons as characters converse or Brat’s monologues break the fourth wall. Both acts—following a sequence of images and decoding written words—are considered “reading” when it comes to comics, often with an emphasis on the literal, word-focused sense. That’s also usually where “story” happens. And DeForge supplies plenty of that—Brat torches a police car, Brat reads her fan mail, Brat shits on the floor—but there are other kinds of stories on these pages too.

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As I wandered deeper into the story-world narrative about the narcissistic crises of a still-profitable has-been depressed by her nostalgia-driven fanbase, I found myself more interested in the surface qualities of the images themselves—how the identical black dots of Brat’s eyes and nose shift within the panel frames, or how an x-shape of a cat wraps itself around the column of Brat’s nominal leg, or how two figures move through a landscape of … are those clusters supposed to be stars or tumbleweeds or just random shapes? When the young Brat narrates in a flashback, her body’s tiny shapes occupy only a fraction of panels that alter color with each iteration. The colored squares do not represent the actual colors of walls or anything else in the story world. They’re just squares of color arranged on the surface of the pages. Even their sequence breaks down since there’s no narrative logic to which color appears when in the story and so where on the page. The effect is closer to one of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe grids than to visual storytelling. It’s just abstraction.

And what would happen if there weren’t any words? The back of Brat’s head—two yellow swaths above a black semicircle–is visually undecodable out of context. Many of these panels would lose all representational meaning. DeForge is of course fully aware and manipulating these effects, and some of the book’s strongest episodic sequences take full advantage of them. “Tantrum,” for instance, begins with Brat crying and swearing as her body warps into even more impossible proportions, deeper distortions of her already cartoonish distortions. In “Hi Mom,” the figure of Brat’s crying father bends and merges with her mother until the two are a single yellow pyramid. “Immodest” features Brat’s drunken form devolving into squiggly shapes and then retracting into single lines before shrinking into literally nothing. While the images do nominally represent events in the story world—she’s depressed, she’s drunk—the “story” is about the shifting relationships of shapes on the page.

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There’s plenty more of the conventional kind of stories too–a fling with an interviewer, the corruption of an intern, a kidnapping, various more meltdowns—but while each is entertaining, the bigger conceptual picture and its baseline pseudo-reality of extreme abstraction is the novel’s main strength. Because comics are traditionally understood as literature rather than art, and so are “read” rather than viewed, it’s possible to appreciate Brat as just a fun riff on a comically and nihilistically self-involved performance artist-criminal twirling through a sequence of chaotic plotlines. But that requires looking not at but through the images, attending less to their actual qualities, and understanding them primarily as symbols and so almost as words that represent events in some other far-off place and not as arrangements of ink on the physical pages in your hands.

While DeForge offers both kinds of stories, Brat is at its playful best when viewed rather than merely read.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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