THIS BEAUTIFUL, CONTAGIOUS WORLD: MICHAEL DEFORGE'S "VERY CASUAL"
This generation's Chris Ware-meets-Dan-Clowes-meets-Charles-Burns, darling of the art comics world -- and rightfully so -- has produced dozens of minicomics, page after page of webcomics work, four-plus issues of a solo anthology, stories for BOOM!'s "Adventure Time" comics Marvel's "Strange Tales," and more. He's been extraordinarily prolific for an artist who produces comics primarily in his spare time. But in this age of graphic novels, he hasn't yet released a book-with-a-spine suitable for your fancy shelving unit. Until now.
It's Michael DeForge we're talking about. You know, the guy who wrote and drew the Best Comic of 2012, according to at least one vaguely reputable source. Well, pay attention, because "Very Casual," DeForge's first reasonably-thick collected edition, published by Koyama Press, comes out this Spring. Actually, it's likely already available at your favorite brick-and-mortar or online retailer already. You'll want to buy it. It's a thick slice of amazingness.
If you haven't immersed yourself in DeForge's unusual world yet, his imagery might seem a bit off-putting at first. He revels in grotesquerie and absurdity and there's a deep and profound sadness to much of the work even when the pages burst with a celebration of oddball joy. Disfigurement is not uncommon. And contagion is a leitmotif. DeForge's comics are gloriously enchanting, but brutal. Yet they never seem cynical. Reading his stories is like experiencing a sickeningly beautiful echo of our reality drenched in unusually specific dreams.
DeForge started working as a designer for the "Adventure Time" animated series beginning with its third season, and that seems exactly appropriate for someone with his sensibility, but in the stories found in "Very Casual" it's like we're seeing the twisted underworld of the "Adventure Time" aesthetic. You'll find no candy princesses or rock and roll vampires here, but you will discover incomprehensible beasts and fantastic landscapes and lumpy basketball players and Snoopy as someone's torso and Nancy and Garfield as motorcycle helmets. It's safe to say that these DeForge stories don't spend much time verging on anything close to realism. You could say "surrealism," I suppose, if that word hadn't long been drenched of its value, but maybe the term could find new life as it accompanies DeForge's unique depictions of something that makes its own kind of internal sense. DeForge doesn't eschew story structure or plot or characterization, but he doesn't seem bound by them either. His stories feel organic rather than constructed via some guidebook about what a story should be.
Though "Very Casual" is sprinkled with brief images and comic-strip-style asides, it's primarily anchored by a few longish comic book stories originally published elsewhere. The first of these, "All about the Spotting Deer," was released as a Koyama Press single issue a couple of years ago and presents a documentary-style look at an unusual creature. Presented in a matter-of-fact, narrative-caption-and-single-image style, the story immediately makes its intentions clear: this is a parody of the kind of nature shows that would detail the biology of a particular animal. Only, DeForge doesn't stop there. That parody soon becomes increasingly extreme, seemingly uninterested in the comedy of the extreme oddness of the "Spotting Deer," and becomes a cultural critique about portrayals of the animal in various media. But it's also not really about any of that, as the story pulls back to show the biographer of the creature, and his sad obsession with something no one else cares about. DeForge gives us all of that in 23 pages, two panels per page. It's a surprisingly dense story written and drawn in an open, inviting format, and like most of DeForge's stories, it's a haunting piece of work.
Another selection in "Very Casual" is "Aesthetics," which smashes the sports narrative with the comic book theorizing of Frank Santoro -- the opening of the story revolves around a basketball player who has sketched some new ideas for court design based on the sports writer "Spank Fantoro" and his theories on how grids affect play. Like DeForge's other stories, the comic soon moves beyond its initial impulse and goes deeper into its own reality, with the weird-looking, knot-headed basketball player developing his/her/its own remarkably ornate uniform and presenting it to the team in absolute silence.
Some of the selections are presented in garishly beautiful color -- lime greens, oranges, and yellows seem to be DeForge's hues of choice -- while others are black and white (and maybe gray). "Peter's Muscle," one of the black-and-white stories, provides the artist's perspective on a Peter Parker haunted by nightmares of Aunt May and Otto Octavious, followed by short color segments of Lynchian weirdness and then the two-page "Splitsville" which is an ultra-condensed look at the narcissism of love.
The point is that whether it's three panel off-beat gag strips or multi-page slices of narrative, DeForge transforms his style and yet maintains a similar sense of tonal unease. These are comics that worm their way into your brain even as you try to process them. In the best way imaginable.
One of DeForge's comics included in "Very Casual" is the tale of "Cody," reprinted from his minicomic of the same name, a story framed like an urban western but with self-proclaimed "litter gangs" and the saddest kind of mutant powers and an almost-post-apocalypse that's really just our world with more trash lying around. Its sometimes a near-superhero comic without any costumes and also a nightmarish autobiography, as a supporting character named "Michael," drawn to resemble a shadow world variant of Michael DeForge himself, proclaims "I have a heavy hand. Clumsy, leaden, inelegant -- build with only purpose. A hand built to crumple."
There's nothing, of course, clumsy, leaden, or inelegant in the pages of "Very Casual." This is a work of supreme skill and unique sensibility. And, perhaps most importantly, it's an exciting book -- filled with comics that don't look or read like the pages produced by anyone else -- that could only have come from the singular talent of Michael DeForge.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.