"I like drawing creepy and ugly things."
One of the most promising young cartoonists to come along in years, Michael DeForge is an absolute comics blizzard. Reading his work is a transportative experience, a ticket into a world full of cartoon naivete and real-life nausea -- like watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons on bad acid. His comics, especially his Koyama Press series Lose (of which issue #2 has recently become available), showcase an overpoweringly seductive blend of lo-fi indie comics grit, superhero-informed dazzle, formal daring -- and best of all, an electrifying willingness to take his comics to places the medium has rarely gone before. By turns touchingly humanist and gut-wrenchingly horrific, Lose synthesizes the familiar and the unknown into a whole that is on par with the best sequential art being published today, and points the way towards a fascinating tomorrow. The Toronto-based artist recently took the time to tell me about his influences, his favorite superhero comics, the attraction of terrible events, and missing his friends' birthday parties.
Matt Seneca: Before we talk about your work, give us some insight into its creator. Who is Michael Deforge? When did you start drawing? Did you do any formal training, art school -- or were you self-taught? Talk about your development.
Michael DeForge: I'm 22. I grew up in Ottawa but moved to Toronto for school. I didn't go to art school and I dropped out of the English program of my university during my second year. I wanted to put more energy into drawing, and I thought leaving school would be the best way to go about doing that.
I've been drawing for about as long as I can remember, and I always wanted to draw superhero comics growing up. By high school, I still wanted to do comics, but kind of realized I would be a poor fit for superhero books. When I started doing flyers for local punk and indie shows I realized I could try to make a go of it as a commercial artist. That's sort of what I do now - support my personal work that doesn't make too much money with the commercial gigs I do.
MS: So how do you approach the illustration work in relation to your comics? Are there different levels of involvement? Different ways of going about making them?
MDF: Yeah, I end up going about them as two totally different things. I'm engaged with my commercial work and put a lot of energy into it, but I don't have any illusions about it. I know illustrators who live and die with each revision clients ask for. I just think of it as a job. It just happens to be a job I really enjoy doing. I try my best, but at the end of the day, you have to put aside your ego and work within the limitations you're given.
MS: Your comics seem very consistent and of a piece with one another, but your commercial work is more like a body of quick hits that sprawl out in various directions. Is there any unifying idea behind your illustrations? Anything you want to accomplish with them as a whole?
MDF: Not really. In fact, I like the variety. I get some energy from trying out different ways of drawing or being forced to draw things I wouldn't normally have any interest in depicting.
Some guys can sell a "style" but I've never really managed to sell my illustration work that way. I try to be more of a chameleon with my commercial work. I think it's always very clearly my hand behind each piece, but I try to adapt to whatever aesthetic the client is asking for.
MS: It's pretty cool that you've been able to keep your comics separate from the merry-go-round of making a living as an artist... I guess the only more "commercial" comics work I've seen of yours was the Vice piece. I've read that you interned for Vice -- was that how you got the Bunky and Scarface gig? And was it more high-pressure than, for example, an issue of Lose because it was for such a big publication?
MDF: I think I manage to keep my comics separate because my publisher, Anne Koyama of Koyama Press, has put so much faith in me. She's just been so supportive, and it's because of her that I'm able to make Lose entirely my own thing.
I actually got the Bunky and Scarface gig through Nick Gazin. He does regular reviews for the site and curates the weekly web comics. I can't say there was a ton of pressure because Nick seems pretty open to anything. For something like Lose, I actually feel way more pressure. I get kind of nervous about it, because each issue consumed a significant chunk of my year. Like, "This is my book! This is the reason I haven't had time to attend your birthday parties for the past four months! Judge me accordingly!"
MS: Would you ever take your comics in a more commercial direction? Do you like doing more personal work in less bright spotlight? A lot of Lose, especially, is pretty brutal -- do you think it's just got to be done outside the mainstream so you can get the ideas out with no interference?
MDF: I feel like I'd actually be thrilled to take a shot drawing comics in more commercial formats, so long as I could still come back "home" to doing things like Lose, where I get to do whatever I want. But it's one of those things where, like - I love the idea of just writing straightforward monthly superhero scripts, or doing a daily gag strip, because they're things that I'm really interested in. But I know I probably won't ever be able to, since I'm not sure I have the discipline for either of those things.
MS: Oh man, that was going to be my next question! Well, if you ever do get handed the keys to the DC universe or something, you’ll have at least one buyer. Let's talk about superhero comics, then -- who are your influences from that section of the field, and how much do they inspire your work?
MDF: Jack Kirby is huge for me. I consider him to be a big influence, although I don't think it shows in my actual drawing style. But I'm really inspired by the way he approached world-building and design and organized information in all sorts of interesting ways.
Neal Adams, Steve Bissette and John Totleben, Frank Quitely, Trevor Von Eeden, Mike Mignola -- there are artists who I love and study and take a lot of energy from, but it's sort of weird, because I don't think my artwork visibly reflects those influences. I just absorb a lot of it, and maybe some of it comes out and maybe it doesn't.
MS: Do you follow mainstream comics, and what do you think of the superhero industry these days as a whole?
MDF: I still buy mainstream comics, but I'm not sure if I have any opinion of the industry as a whole. For instance, I see people complaining about big crossover "event" comics. Something like Final Crisis isn't really my cup of tea, but I don't really have anything to say about it because I just skip over that stuff. I'm following Batman and Robin but I skipped Final Crisis, you know?
Mainstream books I've liked in recent months have been Criminal, Orc Stain, the JH Williams Detective Comics issues, the Ultimate Spiderman relaunch, Hellboy and BPRD, Young Liars and the Matt Fraction/Howard Chaykin Punisher issues I've been buying from back issue bins. I try to buy comics that Doug Mahnke draws, but I really dislike Geoff Johns, so I've been skipping his Green Lantern work.
MS: How about influences from outside the mainstream? What art/"alternative" comics artists do you see yourself as carrying on or developing traditions and ideas from?
MDF: Mark Newgarden, Igort, Brian Chippendale, Mat Brinkman, Marc Bell, Dan Clowes and Chester Brown have all been tremendous influences on me in one way or another.
Aside from art comics, Kazuo Umezu and Hideshi Hino have both been huge for me. Herriman and Schulz. I love Jules Feiffer, although I think it's the same case as with Kirby - I doubt the influence is visible at all. In fact, I don't think my drawings could resemble Feiffer's drawings any less. Maybe it shows up in my writing or humor more.
A lot of other types of art and design informs my comics work as well. Poster design and children's illustration especially.
MS: As somebody whose comics showcase an affinity for both sides of things, what's your take on the disconnect between comics' mainstream and alternative worlds?
MDF: Frank Santoro and Jog have both written a bit about cartoonists who are informed by a much wider scope of work than just the North American traditions of cartooning. They aren't on a "genre comics" path or an "alt comics" path, they're just sort of feeding off everything. I feel like that's a lot more common lately. Dash Shaw, James Stokoe, the Closed Captioned Comics guys, Bryan Lee O'Malley, Sheldon Vella, Hellen Jo, Zack Soto, Jon Vermilyea, Michaela Zacchilli, Paul Maybury -- they're just doing the work and aren't really concerned about what camp they're in.
MS: Let's talk about Lose. It seems like there are some very specific things you're expressing, both in terms of ideas and formalist genre concerns. For example, both issues have been more "horror comics" than anything else, but they're not easily classified as belonging to any horror comics lineage -- they're just your own thing. What do you want Lose to accomplish as a comic? Do you think it accomplishes your goal or goals, or are you still working on saying what you want to say?
MDF: It's a weird thing to talk about, since if I'm honest, my goal isn't much more broad than, "I have an idea for a comic, I sure hope I don't screw up drawing it."
I started the first issue during a really rough year. I mean, it's not like I set out to "write a comic about my feelings!" or something, and I hope it doesn't read that way. I just wanted to write a funny and compelling comic - but looking at it now I can see that it reflects a very specific time in my life, and drawing it was a good way of organizing a lot of what was going on.
MS: You stay more or less focused on horror comics -- what is it that you like about that style of stories? Any other genres that particularly attract you?
MDF: I just sort of fell into doing horror stories. I didn't see the first Lose as a horror comic at all, until I showed the finished pages to people and they described it like that. I like drawing creepy and ugly things, and I'm also interested in stories where characters are swept up in terrible events beyond their control, so that's what attracts me to horror.
There are other genres I'd like to do. I'm interested in doing a crime story and a science fiction story right now, but I haven't developed either of them very far yet. I'd like to do more straightforward humor stuff, too.
MS: Your website says Cave Adventure is an abandoned serial, but then it popped up again in Lose #2, albeit in a pretty different form. Nesbit Lemon also made a re-appearance in that issue -- again, in a totally separate milieu than we saw in issue #1. Do you plan to continue with "Cave Adventure" or Nesbit? And if so, will you keep changing them or do you have specific plans for their future use? Do you typically plan things like that out far in advance, or just let it happen as you're working?
MDF: There are definitely going to be more Cave Adventure strips, but they're all going to be self contained shorts and not have much to do with the serial. I like the idea of having a "cast of characters" I can come back to. Like that self portrait Ernie Bushmiller drew where he's looking at his creations and saying "Who's got a gag for me today?" So I have plans to go back to using a few characters again, although most of the stories will be unrelated to each other.
I plan things out in advance, but find it impossible to stick to any plans.
MS: Yeah, life is usually too interesting to plan it, I suppose. That said, is there anything you're working on right now that you want to tease?
MDF: I have a bunch of projects that I'm just finishing up, actually. I did a small book of drawings called "Maxim's Top 100" that's gonna be printed by Simon Bosseé, and an 8-page silkscreened comic called "Wet Cough." The eight-pager was drawn to accompany a short animation that's being screened for the Out Loud Book Arts Show on April 3rd at the Philadelphia Print Center. I just finished a three-page strip for Vice's website that I'm really proud of, and hopefully will be on their site in a month or so. I did a two pager for the next issue of Diamond Comics, which is the newsprint zine that Floating World puts out. I also just wrote a 12-page Spiderman comic that I might work up the nerve to start drawing later this week.
MS: Last question: as a young and obviously very talented guy who's established himself but is still relatively new to comics, what do you like about the medium, the business, the culture? And is there anything you'd like to see change or evolve?
MDF: I feel really cheezy writing this out, but I really just feel excited about comics, all the time. It's a really good time for comics, and I feel very privileged to be living in it. Comics from the past or from other countries are so easily available to me, and that wasn't the case 10 years ago. I never get bored with comics because there's just so much new stuff to be found.
As far as how it will develop, my buddy Ryan, who runs the Same Hat blog, has been talking to me a lot about internationalization, and that seems about right. It's exciting to be able to read cartoonists from other countries, informed by a set of influences completely new to me.
Bulletproof thanks to Michael DeForge for his time and consideration in giving me this interview! You can buy your copy of Lose #2, as well as a bunch of other great DeForge comics at his website while you check out the incredible artwork on display there.