Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Entry 61: Michael DeForge

Today is one of those days when, rather than focusing on one particular comic, I’m going to focus on one particular cartoonist. Michael DeForge can build whole worlds in just a handful of panels, inviting readers to explore, to discover, and to try to understand. His comics are dark and whimsical, full of imagination and full of life.

One thing that I value, in comics and other art, is exposure to ideas and expressions that would never have occurred to me on my own. It’s one thing to show me an image I couldn’t have drawn, or a series of events that I couldn’t have written, but it’s far more impressive to make me think thoughts I could never have thought without an outside influence. With surprising consistency, Michael DeForge becomes that outside influence, taking my brain and inserting concepts there that I would never have been able to consider otherwise.

Lots of his comics are pretty short, and many are (at least on the surface) fairly simple. It might take no more than a minute or two to read, but I have never stopped at reading a DeForge comic just once. These comics demand lingering attention. After I finish my first impulse is to go back and read it again, to keep engaging with the comic, dwelling on individual panels or actions until I’ve reached some sort of conclusion, for the moment, about what it means to me.

I reread hoping for greater understanding, for insight. Though I may occasionally miss a detail or two in my first reading, that’s not usually what defines my understanding of the comic. I don’t go back and read everything over in an effort to grasp complexity, but in an effort to make sense of the bizarreness. Truly engaging with DeForge’s work on an emotional level requires me to twist my mind in just the right way, to find the perspective from which all the details slot into place.

My relationship to these comics winds up being so personal, so entwined with who I am at a particular point in time, that if I come back to them months or even just days later I may get something entirely different out of them. I don’t think any two people will get quite the same thing out of a DeForge comic, even if those two people are just me at different points in my life.

The first place I ever read a Michael DeForge comic was over at What Things Do, where you can access a selection of his work. For the meantime, that’s the best place I can direct you to access his online comics. His Patreon page contains a purported link to a comprehensive list of his free online work, but the last time I checked the link was broken. (I’ll update here if that changes.)

If you’re on the fence about diving into All The Michael DeForge Comics, I encourage you to at least check out “Rescue Pet.” It might just be my favorite short-form comic of all time. I mean, not to overhype it or anything, but it’s definitely one of the greatest comics ever created and will completely change your life forever.

Writing this post about Michael DeForge brings up some questions to me about his relationship to webcomics, and the definition of webcomics overall. I don’t think I’d call DeForge a webcartoonist, because though some of his work is available online, the bulk of it is exclusively (or at least originally) intended for print. But of course, most artists engage in some sort of hybrid, printing some comics and distributing others online, or distributing much of their work in both digital and analog formats.

Indeed, many cartoonists reject the “webcomics” label entirely, finding that the separation of online comics into their own category is unnecessary and fractures the world of comics. Obviously I continue to use the term “webcomics,” since it’s part of the title of this blog and everything, so it must mean something to me. There must be a line I draw, however arbitrary, between webcomics and other comics. When most newspaper comics are available to read online on the same day of their publication, and when many of what I call “webcomics” have some sort of concurrent or parallel print distribution, I still apply some sort of criteria that tells me that Girl Genius is a webcomic, while Garfield (despite its comprehensive online archive!) is not.

Generically, I’d define webcomics as “comics that are primarily or initially distributed online.” What it boils down to, for me, is often my own primary or initial way of interacting with the comic. Reading a comic in an online archive is a fundamentally different experience than reading it in a book or a newspaper. And personally, I prefer the experience of reading comics online. It tends to be more comfortable for me.

I first came to know Michael DeForge’s work through his comics that have been posted online, and no matter how many print comics of his I read or how long a period of time elapses without any more of his comics being put up on the Internet, I will always associate his work with webcomics. That’s just the impression that I got early on, and it’s going to stick with me.

Lately, DeForge has been distributing comics digitally through Patreon for $3 a month. Technically that fits under my definition of webcomics, but it’s outside the scope of this blog, because I avoid writing about comics that you can only read if you can afford to pay for them. I would never argue that comics are not worth money or that artists don’t deserve to be paid for their work. However, I’ve spent enough of my life being unable to pay for things that I really appreciate finding works that anyone can engage with for free. When I write about webcomics, I limit my pool to those that a potential reader can experience without any commitment to spend money that they may or may not have.

That said, I love “Mars Is My Last Hope,” one of the Patreon comics, so much that it could almost displace “Rescue Pet” as my favorite Michael DeForge comic. So even though it’s not free to read at the moment, I think it’s worth mentioning for those who might be saying to themselves “Sure, I can afford to spend that money, but would anything I might get out of the exchange be worth it?” For me, the answer is surely yes.

Though What Things Do is the primary place I’d recommend to find free online Michael DeForge comics, it’s certainly not the only place you can do so. His work pops up in all sorts of places, often places where I wouldn’t have expected to find comics of any kind.

For instance, the band Speedy Ortiz got him to draw a comic announcing their upcoming album, Foil Deer. Now, I am not at all in touch with the world of music. I rarely listen to songs that I haven’t heard already. I haven’t bought an album in like two years. But I really want to buy Foil Deer, because Michael DeForge made a comic for it. I am at least 1000% more likely to buy that album than I would be if I had never seen that comic. (The math works out. Trust me. I took AP Statistics in High School.)

The message here is that if you’re in a band, or if you do publicity for a band, and you’re puzzled about how to get me to buy the music you’re selling, you should hire Michael DeForge to make some comics for you. End of story.

Michael DeForge makes comics that nobody else could. There’s a particular emotional quality to his work that I’ve never found elsewhere. Though his comics are almost always sad, they don’t leave me feeling down or exacerbate my depression. In fact, many of them elevate my mood. The melancholy aspects feel honest, and so do the optimistic aspects. Through surreal and outlandish scenarios, he manages to highlight a deep truth about living in an imperfect world and how to be okay with it.

At least, that’s what I’m taking out of the Michael DeForge comics I’ve read at the moment. Tomorrow I may feel that they give me something totally different. A year from now I’ll probably think something about his work that I’m not even capable of formulating at the moment. But in the meantime I’m going to keep reading, and rereading, all the Michael DeForge comics I can find, and see what comes to me.

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