Michael DeForge had a tremendous 2014. The cartoonist’s year kicked off with Ant Colony, followed up with A Body Beneath (Koyama Press’ collection of his occasional publication, Lose), concluded with Lose #6, and featured plenty of his singular webcomic, Sticks Angelica. Those are just some of the main works that marked the 365 days that concluded last month; he catalogues the full list on his website. Not only did he produce sequential art like a comics firehose, but the quality remained unbelievably high, marked by experimentation with both form and content. Now with the new year kicked off, DeForge has released the print version of First Year Healthy, a short Christmas tale that he originally posted online. Transformed into a physical object by publisher Drawn & Quarterly, the pages feel bigger and the colors subtler; and the three different finishes on the front cover will make you want to repeatedly run your fingertips over it. Explaining what it’s about (a woman starts a new life in a small town) is, as is often the case with DeForge, besides the point, but he did give us some insight into his work in the following email interview.
Paste: When I read your work, it tends to seem like you start from a concept that isn’t necessarily plot-based. Sticks Angelica, for example, reads like a collection of different ways to make things difficult for yourself as a cartoonist by imposing restrictions. First Year Healthy definitely reinforces that idea for me, but could you talk about whether or not you think that’s true? And, if not, how do you approach creating a comic? You don’t seem particularly invested in traditional narrative.
DeForge: Yeah, my stories are all pretty meandering. My own life chugs along without very much structure or order, full of odd detours and tangents, so I guess that ends up being reflected in the way I write.
When I’m planning a comic, there might be a character I want to develop or an idea I want to unpack. But I never think of stories in an “x happens, and then y will happen, and that means z can happen!” way.
Paste: I understand you don’t sleep a whole lot. Is that what enables your ridiculous creative pace? What do you do when you can’t sleep?
DeForge: Insomnia runs in my family. I’m on a really good stretch these past two months, sleeping about five or six hours every night (on bad stretches, I’ll only get two or three a night). I don’t have any solution for it. I just sometimes have to live without regular sleep.
I don’t know if it helps me work that much faster, or better. I certainly have more hours of the day to fill, which means more time for drawing. I’d still prefer to have a clearer head and a rested body. I always get more done when I’m focused. I used to romanticize being this unhealthy work machine fuelled on nothing but insomnia and solitude and junk food, but I was being an idiot and I work much better now.
Paste: This project also continues your interest in rural settings. You didn’t grow up in the country, right? Where does your fascination with it come from?
DeForge: I’ve only lived in cities. For First Year Healthy, it was important that the story be about reintegrating into a small community, and a rural town seemed like a good setting for that. I wanted to write about the ways a tight-knit community can be supportive, and the ways it can be suffocating.
There’s also something very romantic and Canadian about rural settings, which has probably wormed its way into my work.
Paste: Talk to me about color. It’s definitely a hallmark of your work, but it’s also different for each project. What suggested this palette for First Year Healthy?
DeForge: I wanted to work with earthy, natural colours on this one, since my tendency is to go with loud palettes and harsh neons. It’s important to switch it up story to story — I don’t want to get too reliant on any one way of working, or get stuck in any habits.
Paste: You’ve worked a lot online. How do you think webcomics differ from print-first comics? What webcomics do you read?
DeForge: I generally design all my comics with print in mind, even if they wind up online first. I prefer print over digital work and I imagine I always will. But I couldn’t serialize things as cheaply or efficiently in print the way I do online, so the web is very convenient for that. And I also recognize not everybody shares my reading preferences, which is fine, of course!
Webcomics I try to keep up with are Special Friend, SuperMutant Magic Academy and Starfighter. I only read webcomics that start with the letter ’S’. There are others I’ll read, but I tend to just wait for a print collection.
Paste: A lot of your comics have this almost Biblical tone, like the early, fiery, weird scriptures (the holy cat being a great example). Were you raised with a religious background?
DeForge: I was never religious, but I did do a bit Bible study for the fifteen seconds I was in college.
Paste: We’re a bit past Christmas now, but First Year Healthy is a kind of Christmas fable, right? Did you set out to make it one?
DeForge: I have an annual tradition of drawing Christmas or holiday-themed comics, so that was completely intentional. I just like Christmas shit. Which is funny, because I don’t do very much to celebrate it every year.