Michael DeForge is the creator of Lose, a psychedelic comic book series that deals with spiders, severed horse heads, and Bullwinkle in Hell. Winner of the 2010 Doug Wright Award for Best Emerging Talent, DeForge also does illustration, gig posters, and the occasional gallery show.
Dalton Sharp: Why comics? Haven’t they become an archaic form?
Michael DeForge: I was introduced to comics at a pretty young age, which I think is how a lot of people get into comics. My dad collected a lot of superhero comics and he threw them out at some point, but there were a few still left in the house and I would read them a lot. Really early on I learned to read and draw by reading Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts collections, Bloom County. I didn’t even get all the jokes at the time I was reading them, but I could understand the rhythm.
DS: I remember reading Doonesbury when I was ten and all these references to stuff like the Black Panthers.
MDF: You understand there is a joke; you understand the joke being constructed even if you don’t get the specifics of it. I think you pick it up.
DS: It’s also great there wasn’t a ton of comics you were stumbling on. That they were kind of precious.
DS: The two editions of Lose that have come out have been really well received. Any theories why we’re not seeing more of the comic book pamphlet format?
MDF: Comic book shops aren’t the only avenue to buy comics any more. You can go to a bookstore, though the preference there is for graphic novels. I guess even the preference for a lot of graphic creators is for graphic novels. Daniel Clowes is looking like he’s only going to do that instead of another issue of Eightball and Acme Novelty Library is still serialized, but the format resembles a book more than a pamphlet. So the distribution model has changed a little bit. I guess there was a time when people could only do comics in that format, so it’s pretty liberating for creators who didn’t really want to work in that format. They can now do a book and it can be any size.
I’d like to see more in the format I work with because it’s what I was introduced to, but I understand that it’s no longer necessary that everybody works that way. You end up seeing a lot more in different forms.
DS: I guess it makes it more of a treat when you do come across a comic.
MDF: There are still a lot of creators. I’m pretty sure there’s a new issue of Crickets that’s going to come out, Injury Comics by Ted May is still done that way, and Angry Youth Comix by Johnny Ryan.
DS: Still, there just doesn’t seem like there’s as much as there was in the early ’90s when that was the main form.
MDF: That’s my favourite way of taking in anything, in small doses. Growing up I only had so much money to spend on comic books so I liked the idea that I could get a sampling of all sorts of different stuff. That format introduced me to Eightball, Weasel, Yummy Fur, Hate. It was a great way to get into these creators.
DS: That’s a great series of comics to stumble across.
MDF: I was usually just buying superhero comics and then to find one of those. It was crazy. I’d see it and take a chance on it.
DS: It’s fantastic that you had those guys. I like the vulnerability and physicality of comic books vs. web comics.
MDF: Yes, I really like working in print. I try to design for print. I think most of my favourite artists have that in mind, what it’s like to turn a page and see a new spread and how your eye hits it.
DS: Any thoughts on digital comics and e-readers?
MDF: It’s cool that people are working with that. I’m still figuring out how to work a printed page. I know a lot of people feel threatened by it, but I don’t know if it will ever replace printed stuff . It will just be another venue.
DS: It’s probably fair to say that the best days of newspaper syndicated strips are gone, and I think it’s a trend now that most alternate dailies are scrapping their comics. What do you think of that?
MDF: There was a time when you could pick up one of the weeklies and there would be Life in Hell, Shrimpy and Paul, Slow Wave, etc. I saw Marc Bell’s work for the first time in Exclaim.
DS: It was a real loss when Exclaim got rid of their comics, but it’s great that people are stepping up and creating something new.
MDF: It’s also the cheapest way to distribute something. You can make the unit costs really low with newsprint.
DS: Have you ever spilled ink on a picture you were working on?
MDF: Yep, but lately I’m more digital so I have that problem less.
DS: So you’re working from scratch in digital?
MDF: It started out half and half, some of my inks would be by hand and some of it would be digital, but now for the most part I do all my pencils and I scan them in and do all the inks on my computer. It came to a point where when I worked by hand I would white out stuff a lot or I’d paste over panels a lot cause I get sort of anal retentive about how things line up and the angles on everything. Doing it on the computer makes it way easier for me.
DS: Have you ever read a comic that made you cry?
MDF: Sure. When I was a kid Peanuts would make me cry. Calvin & Hobbes would make me cry. I’m sure I cried at the last Bloom County, Chris Ware, plenty of them.
DS: I’ve never read a comic that’s made me cry yet! I guess some have come close. Do have any goals like that in comics where you’re trying to provoke a difficult emotion?
MDF: I try to create an emotional response. I don’t know if crying would be the one I’m going for. I’m really interested in horror and making an audience feel uncomfortable. I don’t know how extreme a reaction I want from them, but I’m aiming for discomfort or humour usually or the two combined.
DS: In the first Lose issue there’s a great scene with a collection all sorts of iconic comic characters from the past gathered in Hell. Is the vast history of comics more of burden or more a source of creativity for you?
MDF: I see it as something I can draw on. I drew each of the characters in there for specific reasons, even if it was an aesthetic reason. I feel I learn when I look at another artist or try to figure out how they do something or how they construct a character, or something about their style. I steal a lot from other artists really. I’ll figure out something about the way they draw hands. I feel it’s more like an arsenal.
DS: Your comics seem quite free of a lot of the angst that a lot of alternative cartoonists have. It’s almost like a dystopian view your characters have, that things are not going smoothly, but there’s also a generally optimistic tone.
MDF: Sure. That’s sort of what I hope for. The second kind of has a happy ending, the first maybe doesn’t.
DS: Even if the happiness is in the form of maggots. You’ve done a guest cover for Orc Stain. How did that come about?
MDF: I’m a big fan of that comic. It’s by James Stokoe and it’s really great comic book. It’s an insane fantasy comic that’s totally dick obsessed. It’s really funny and it’s gorgeously drawn. He has these colour schemes that are really psychedelic. His art work is super dense. There’s a lot of world building that I really like, all these details of the world and its hierarchies. I’m super into it; it’s my favourite running series right now. I think I just bothered him on Twitter. He’s getting a few people to do alternate covers and he let me do one.
DS: Are you comfortable or uncomfortable with the fact that things decay, that living things mutate and change?
MDF: I don’t know if I’m comfortable with it, but I’m sort of interested in it. I’m always interested in the way something will turn in on itself, the way the human body can turn on the person.
DS: Tell me about this Lady Gaga project.
MDF: I co-edited a zine with Ryan Sands called Prison for Bitches, which is a Lady Gaga tribute zine full of artwork , writing, and comics, and we both just sort of like the way she dresses, the way she stages things, her persona. I like her music but I’m kind of clueless as to a lot of her personal details.
DS: There seems to be this merging of video games, comics, music, all intersecting at this time. Do you have any theories about why it’s all smashing together?
MDF: There are a lot of people coming up now who are coming from a different tradition from other comic traditions that used to exist. There’s an alt-comics tradition, a comic strip tradition, a super hero comics tradition, and different cultural traditions. A lot of people grew up in a generation where those divisions weren’t as clear. They might have been reading alt-comics, but also been reading Manga and playing video games. I’m really interested in artists like Matt Brinkman, who’s really influenced by video games in his sense of design. I like that there’s all these different people drawing from all sorts of different traditions.
DS: I think it comes naturally to younger cartoonists.
MDF: You used to be limited to what your local comic store picked up, and that might be just one type of thing, but now because of the internet, or because Manga and European comics are being translated, or because indy graphic novels are in bookstores, you have access to everything. So your pool of influences is so much wider when you can suddenly access everything.
DS: It’s possibly overwhelming.
MDF: I like the treasure hunt of finding stuff. If every comic I ever wanted to read was available on my computer or even if it could just show up as a physical object I don’t know if I could have the same joy as finding something weird that I hadn’t seen before in a back issue bin or reading through a superhero comic and finding a page layout that stands out. There’s a real joy of discovering a gem that way then to just being able to cherry pick from everything ever. That hunt gets lost.
DS: Are you happy with Toronto?
MDF: Yep, I really like Toronto. I like eating here, I have a lot of friends here, my publisher Anne Koyama lives here.
DS: That’s a luxury that a lot of cartoonists don’t have, to be in the same town as their publisher.
MDF: Yes. And the Beguiling is an awesome store. It’s the best I’ve been to in North America.
DS: JK Rowling just opened a ‘Harry Potter’ theme area in Orlando. Would you ever be interested in having a theme park based on your work?
MDF: No, it’d be a horrible thing. I feel like I do nightmarish work and Disneyland is already that. It’s already a scary mix of cute and horrifying things. There’d be no need for me to design a theme park, it’d look exactly like the way they’re set up now.
DS: Do you have a dream gig poster?
MDF: Prince. Prince, or the Oblivians, or anything Greg Cartwright related.
DS: If you had enough money to retire what would you do?
MDF: Probably I same thing I’m doing now. I’d probably do fewer commercial gigs, but yeah I’d like to work on comics as long as I can.