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A Body Beneath by Michael DeForge Review

May 21, 2014  |  4:06pm
<i>A Body Beneath</i> by Michael DeForge Review

Writer & Artist: Michael DeForge
Publisher: Koyama Press
Release Date: May 13, 2014

Before he published the high profile Ant Colony earlier this year, Michael DeForge had been annually releasing Lose, a soft-bound single-author anthology. Now you can find issues two through five of the series in DeForge’s new compilation A Body Beneath, but not the first issue. DeForge explains in a brief foreword that, although this omission might seem odd, he considers the first issue of Lose “very bad.” Indeed, he expresses his discomfort with the whole project, pointing out that the issues were designed to stand on their own and that much of the writing and art is substandard. “It’s like looking at old yearbook photos,” he writes. All of that may be true, but for the newcomer to his work who can’t be bothered with tracking down the individual floppies, the collection is invaluable. Consider it the equivalent of a compilation of, in a slightly more polished and accessible format, a bunch of mini-comics. Yes, in some ways it’s a violation of authorial intent, but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

No issue of Lose focuses on a single story; each narrative contains between three and five shorter works, some as brief as a page, others much longer. They vary in tone, too, from explicitly satirical to depressive, but there’s a clear voice at work. DeForge’s writing is saturated with the casual profanity and cruelty of young adulthood, even from its early moments. In this respect, he is not unlike Dash Shaw, who also plays around with ultra-contemporary language and the ways people fail to relate to one another through it. Shaw uses less language, though, whereas DeForge’s stories would almost work without their imagery. This is not to say these stories tip toward “literature” rather than sequential art. Instead, DeForge’s loopy, grotesque drawings possess a softness and roundness that deliberately plays against the harshness of his words. The visuals are often strangely gentle, even when they show great violence — which they frequently do. Some stories have no words at all. (And if you see echoes of the protean forms of the animated series Adventure Time, that’s no coincidence: DeForge is a crucial voice shaping the show).

Another contemporary who deserves comparison is Joseph Lambert, whose collection of shorter pieces in I Will Bite You! have a similar reliance on psychedelic imagery and also flower out of the same instinctive understanding of the comics form and its possibilities. Lambert’s youthful gropings matured into his astonishing biographical comic on Helen Keller, while you can see the threads and concerns that became DeForge’s Ant Colony in this earlier work. In other words, it’s a fine time to be reading comics that tilt to the experimental side of things. There are strong minds at work, and plenty of them. DeForge judges himself too harshly in the introduction. Yes, the stories on display here are uneven, but they are also primordial in more than one sense: they give insight into his growth and development as an artist, but, even more so, they arise from a place of guts and muck only thinly overlaid by civilization and pretense. Like folk tales, they fill us with dread and take terrible but expected turns. This sort of viscera-level reaction is precisely DeForge’s greatest strength, and it has clearly been present from the beginning of his career.

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