Recently damned by the faintest of praise by The Hooded Utilitarian, a re-posting of an old discussion between me and this website's editor Joey Aulisio on Michael DeForge's 'Spotting Deer'. Lets turn a post from an obscure blog into a post on a slightly less obscure blog (and also save me from needing to write anything new for another week). I'll be back next week with my write-up of my experience at the recent CAB fest in Brooklyn.
Spotting Deer: A Conversation between Shawn Starr and Joey Aulisio
Shawn Starr: Michael DeForge straddles the line between the alt-comics premiere horror creator and the next Clowes. His primary book, 'Lose', is probably the clearest example of this. 'Lose' #2 tells the story of a child befriending an animal and finding happiness. While that sounds like a made for Disney Channel movie (I’m fairly certain that’s the plot to "Air Bud" only without basketball and an evil clown), DeForge depicts the child not in the Disney-fied “I just moved to a new town that banned Basketball because the preacher didn't like all the gyrations” pre-teen angst way, but instead as an insular and bullied child. But, not to be reduced to a pure Clowes-ian mix of depression and cynicism, DeForge injects a horror element. The child’s new best friend is a severed horse's head piloted by an “alien” spider who infects the child’s tormentors with a horrendous rash and whose offspring eventually overrun the city.
In a review, Stephen Bissette said he would have loved to publish 'Incinerator' in 'Taboo', which is a perfect way to describe DeForge’s output. A horror artist / anthology that became so much more (from a re-imagining of EC to the publisher of 'From Hell'). Even his short in 'Thickness' #2 ('College Girls By Night') takes the genre tropes and overt social commentary of old EC horror stories and adds layers of depth that those stories could never achieve. It’s a simple werewolf story that’s inverted into a commentary on transgender sexuality and gender identity.
Dudes got chops.
'Spotting Deer', like 'Lose' and 'Thickness', takes on a familiar format and twists it. Riffing on old nature documentaries (the kind you watched when your Biology teacher is out sick), DeForge creates a near perfect homage. All the story beats are there, the uncomfortable section on mating rituals (DeForge’s depiction of the “Sexual Aqueduct” perfectly captures that feeling of awkwardness experienced in a sixth grade classroom) and the oddly nationalistic / hyperbolic statement on the animal's importance in popular culture and the ecosystem. The book is even designed to emulate an old CRT monitor, and its use of the four panel grid is reminiscent of a slide show presentation. Even the close up of the “Snout” resembles one of those cheap plastic anatomy figures you’d find in a high school science class.
So, Joey, what makes this your favorite work by DeForge?
Joey Aulisio: It’s not just my favorite work by DeForge but probably one of my favorite comics period. I told a story on a chemical box episode about how I read this comic and nothing else, every single day for about a month. Something about this book just hooked me like few other books in recent years have. That said, I have found it difficult to explain why it resonated with me so much. What I can figure is that at the time I read it, I was going through a phase where I was just sick of comics and “comics culture” and really contemplated disengaging with it permanently. I don’t know what your interpretation of the story is, but I saw it as Deforge going through that same line of thought.
I think DeForge started out trying to make a book savaging the “fanboys” and then by the end realizing he was just like them, which was the real horror of it all. That moment of realization rendered by DeForge is truly chilling, nobody draws disappointment and disgust quite like him. A turn of the cheek says a thousand words.
Shawn Starr: I hadn't considered that reading. It certainly makes the last page hit a lot harder. Obsessing over 'Spotting Deer' (or comics) for years and writing a book, just to be asked “Why?” during a reading. Then to add insult to injury, watching your life’s work end up on a bargain table and ultimately the dump being picked over by wildlife.
I think the “savaging” is too intimate to be from a fanboy. My reading of it is more as an affirmation of DeForge's place as a cartoonist. He may have started as an outside figure (the writer), but once he (the writer) appears it moves away from the first half’s exploration of “herd” (nerd) culture and becomes explicitly about cartooning.
The panel when the writer takes a picture of the spotted deer reminds me of those old sci-fi shows when people switch bodies or imprint their conscience on someone else. From that panel on, I think DeForge realized he was one of the spotted deer. A part of the “study group”. It’s even more explicit on the next page when all the “deers” social anxieties are superimposed over the writer’s image.
Then there is the “Deer in Society” section, moving away from home to the city (but not before being ostracized by your family / community), the “ink spot” neighborhoods, the livejournal communities and the “pay farms” where their “psychic meat” adapts the characteristics of other products; It seems to all be there, the artist communities, the livejournal groups (now twitter), DeForge’s work as a storyboard artist (along with countless other cartoonists).
Joey Aulisio: Maybe you are right in that a “savaging of fanboys” is too easy a way to reconcile this work, and it’s actually just about being a cartoonist/working in comics or maybe just working in a creative field to paint with a broader brush. It still seems like what DeForge is talking about is very specific to comics though (and how could it not be considering it was presented in comic form).
Comics have a certain stigma to them that other mediums do not have, you get the impression that if you worked for 20 years in comics and weren’t successful, most people would say “well why did you waste your time on these silly things” (you would probably get that reaction even if you were a success in comics, let’s be honest) whereas replace comics with film, literature, music, etc. the response would be “well at least you gave it a shot, you tried to live your dream”. Failure in other mediums is still viewed as more a triumphant than a success in comics which is still viewed as tragic or sad.
Now take Deforge, clearly a master of his craft just a few years into the game. He’s someone that sits heads and shoulders above his peers, and I guarantee he has been given more attention for working on "Adventure Time" (or his 5 page 'Adventure Time' story) than anything he has done in comics. That has to get to you after awhile. When the writer at the end stands on that podium and gets asked basically “why do you keep doing this?”, it really hits that point home and must be hard for you to reconcile after a certain point.
I am sure working in comics can be fun, but from all accounts it seems to be rather exhausting most of the time with little reward. “Depression. Anxiety Attacks, Migraines. and Sleep Disorders”, comics will destroy you if you let them. Now you sit in front of a desk drawing away at things that mean so much to you, and you put out something you feel proud of just to have someone in an audience ask “this is alright, but when are you going to move onto a real thing like a novel or a film?”, and then knowing your work is probably going to end up lining a litter box one day. It’s a sobering thought.
Shawn Starr: Yeah, it difficult to watch Ware and Hernandez remain in relative obscurity, while Mark Millar and Stan Lee are household names. No matter how much talent they bring to the craft, they’re always just making funny books. That is, until those funny books become movies.
Since I like to end things on a down note, I guess we’ll end things here
(this piece originally was posted here)