Graphic Content: In conversation with comics artist Michael DeForge about his surreal illustrated worlds

Monday, April 8, 2019 - 4:30pm

The second installment of Graphic Content

The second installment of Graphic Content Buy this photo
Courtesy of Cassandra Mansuetti

Making a single comic strip, however simple it may be, is a painstaking process. I learned this in fifth grade, doodling comics in my workbooks and spending way too much time trying to get my characters (Kirby rip-offs and an OC named Bob, who was essentially an oval with Ls for legs and an isosceles triangle of a nose) just right. Now take one of those single comic strips — say about four panels — multiply it by over 400 and distribute it daily. It takes commitment, dedication and an extremely sharp drawing hand to pull off something like that, which is exactly what Canadian cartoonist Michael DeForge did with his latest work, “Leaving Richard’s Valley.”

“Leaving Richard’s Valley” takes place in this bizarro and bleak version of Toronto, one where animals can talk to humans. Groups of animals and humans form, and most of them turn out to be cults. The titular character, Richard, is one such cult leader. With his band of racoons, spiders, frogs and college classmates, he lives on a section of land in a public park he claims as his “Valley.” City officials can’t be bothered enough to throw them out. The multiple intertwining plots are thrown into motion when a group of four animals are kicked out of Richard’s Valley for trying to save their sick friend with what Richard deems as unpurified water. As per most daily comics, hijinks ensue and lessons are learned.

However, “Leaving Richard’s Valley” is unlike most daily comics. DeForge’s mode of distributing his comic was via Instagram — all 475 pages that constitute the recently released print collection can also be found on your phone @richardsvalley. While I’ve seen other Instagram artists that have attempted drawing (mostly) daily comics for however long a time (@tommysiegel and @nathanwpylestrangeplanet come to mind), they lack the overarching themes and stories that DeForge brings to life, facets that bring to mind the best of “Peanuts” and “Calvin and Hobbes.”

I recently had a chance to interview Michael DeForge over email about social media, solitude and his new graphic novel, among other things. DeForge will make a stop in Ann Arbor at the Vault of Midnight on April 13 for his international book tour promoting “Leaving Richard’s Valley.” Check out his words below, and perhaps get a chance to hear some different words in person later this week.

"Leaving Richard's Valley"

"Leaving Richard's Valley" Buy this photo
Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly

The Michigan Daily: You’ve been in the comics scene for quite some time now, not only traditional print comics, but also online ventures and even TV animation. How did you first get into the world of comics, and how would you reflect on your career so far after multiple years in the business?

Michael DeForge: I’ve been drawing comics since high school, but things really changed when Anne Koyama (of Koyama Press) first noticed my what I was doing. She took a big risk publishing someone so completely untested. In general, I owe a lot to people taking those sorts of chances on me. That was certainly the case with my job in animation, where I was invited to audition for a design position despite not having any formal training in the field. I feel very fortunate and I’m very grateful.

TMD: I’ve never been to Toronto — never been to Canada, in fact — but I definitely got a real sense of the city through the comic, even though “Leaving Richard’s Valley” presents a more fantastical world. How would you describe your approach to this, blending elements of fantasy with more gritty realism?

DeForge: I wanted to make the environment seem very “lived in,” so I added a lot of both real and imagined bits of Toronto history to the book. Hopefully, spending so much time hashing out those details helped make it feel like a real city.  It was important that the characters be tethered to a specific place and time.

TMD: “Leaving Richard’s Valley” was originally distributed via Instagram, with you posting one comic a day for over a year. How do you feel about social media having become this new home for comics and illustrators, particularly Instagram and Twitter? Are there differences to the varying social media platforms that makes one an ideal choice for hosting a comic?

DeForge: I’ve always posted my artwork online, so sharing work that way has been pretty natural for me.

There are aspects to Twitter and Instagram I dislike — I particularly hate having our livelihoods be so wrapped up with corporations who don’t care about us in the slightest, and I miss the days when online platforms were a little more personal and customizable — but I also understand this is the primary way people follow me. I don’t actually think either website’s format is that ideal for hosting a comic, to be honest, but I feel sort of stuck with both for the time being.

TMD: The mood of “Leaving Richard’s Valley” is definitely a somber one, especially highlighted by the color scheme (or lack thereof). Could you explain the stylistic choices behind the comic, particularly the black-and-white artwork?

DeForge: I like switching between color and black-and-white projects so that I don’t get too bored with any one style. I think the look of the comic really came together once I figured out the collage elements and the photocopied textures. I wanted to make the city feel cluttered, rather than just being generally and vaguely “dirty.”  It’s a very specific type of noise and mess I was trying to evoke.

TMD: Reading “Leaving Richard’s Valley” reminded me slightly of Larry Marder’s “Beanworld,” a comic I randomly happened upon as a preteen, although it seemed the connection existed mostly in my mind. What were your personal biggest inspirations and influences for the creation of the comic?

DeForge: Ha, I loved “Beanworld” as a kid! Berkeley Breathed’s “Bloom County” was a big influence on this comic, as well as on my last strip, “Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero.” I liked how it covered this broad community of characters so lovingly, and how fleshed out the setting felt. There’s obviously a “humans talking to animals” thing that’s present in my work a lot. I barely understood most of the jokes as a kid, since a lot of them were fairly topical, but I ate it up anyway.

TMD: I’ve read that you worked on “Adventure Time,” which I’m sure amounted to something like a dream job. What role did you play in the making of the show? Would you ever want to helm an animated TV series of your own?

DeForge: I was the props and effects designer, but I ended up doing other things as well — character design, storyboarding, concept art, title cards, whatever.  The concept art I was able to contribute to a few episodes is some of the work I’m proudest of from my time there.

“Youth in Decline” publisher Ryan Sands and I were developing a show called “Mall Nation” for Cartoon Network that they ended up passing on. It was about the student body of an elementary school getting indefinitely locked inside an abandoned shopping mall, who are forced to build this new, anarchic society for themselves. It would have been fun to work on if it got off the ground, but the pitching process was exhausting and ultimately pretty heartbreaking, so it’s not something I’d be all that eager to jump into again unless I really had the right idea for it. I like being focused on comics.

TMD: How does it feel embarking on an international book tour to promote “Leaving Richard’s Valley”?

DeForge: Drawing comics can be solitary work, so having the opportunity to travel and talk to readers on tours is real nice. It’s certainly not something I expected I’d ever be able to do when I was first starting out.

TMD: What’s next for Michael DeForge?

DeForge: I have a shorter comic coming out from Koyama Press in the fall called “Stunt.” Aside from that, I’m just chipping away at stories that probably won’t be published for another two years or so.

"Leaving Richard's Valley"

"Leaving Richard's Valley" Buy this photo
Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly