Thursday, 15 April 2010

Review: Lose #1 & 2, Michael DeForge (Koyama Press, 2009-10)

Lose 1 & 2

Sitting here, listening to cartoonist/ illustrator Michael DeForge's faux-video game midi soundtrack, it couldn’t be clearer to me that he’s a man of many talents. Starting his career creating posters for bands in order to get on their guest lists, he soon branched out into online comic strips and professional illustration. Now, the Toronto-based creator (whose work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, amongst others) has moved into the world of print comics. Industry, beware.

Lose, published by Koyama Press, is DeForge’s foray into the criminally diminished area of single-artist showcases. Coming of age with comics over titles like Eightball, Acme Novelty Library and Dork, my inner comic-geek can’t help but feel some kind of primal attachment to this format. Maybe it’s the heady mix of staples and ink-slathered dead trees, but I always feel a little giddy when some brave, bold publisher/ creator releases something in this format.

The back cover from Lose #1, based on old CBS comic advert (see DeForge's website)

The first issue of Lose is perfectly suited as a “jumping in” point to DeForge’s work, highlighting his obsessively detailed, hyper-warped cartooning; his pop-culture pastiche; and the outlandish but frequently dead-pan humour he employs. Fragmented in layout, the issue features several short skits and strips that are interspersed throughout and serve to break up the main chunk of story.

“Dogs in College” operates, on the surface, like a classic one-panel gag. Although outlandish, it’s a simple, traditional-feeling comic-strip, in that it exposes every day “slice of life” moments via a juxtaposition of character and context. In short, it’s a bit like Peanuts, only with dogs instead of eight year olds, and set at college instead of the pitching mound. Oh, and with canine involuntary erections instead of Linus. Ok, fine; it’s nothing like Peanuts, but you get the picture. 

We've all had this conversation at some point.

DeForge brings a higher level of intricacy to his pop-culture parody, setting this kind of work, as well as the superhero send-ups of the issue, apart from similarly minded “alternative” comics. Just like his classic video game inspired, chiptune-esque compositions, there’s a postmodern element to his work  as he takes pre-existing pop-cultural strata, breaks it down and builds something from the semiotic rubble that remains; reliant on the pre-existing meaning of the characters and ideas, but not explicitly bound to it.

Nowhere can this be seen so well as in the first issue’s untitled main narrative. Following “guardian elf” Lemon Nesbit’s decent into hell after an argument with God following a botched “It’s a Wonderful Life”-style assignment (featuring DeForge himself in the James Stuart role). Nesbit must work his way to Abbadon, the King of Hell, to ask for his release, but first he has to get through the murderous (and more often than not creepy) world of damned cartoon and comic characters.

The most crowd-pleasing moment occurs in a bar that exists within Nancy’s (from the classic cartoon strip of the same name) hat: The reader is treated to a selection of drunk (or getting there) characters from pop culture past and present (Bullwinkle! Bimbo! Bongo! Barney Rubble!).  Remember that scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit where you see Betty Boop, a shadow of her former self, waiting tables? Well, this is like that, only 100x more awesome and with Dick Tracy vomiting into his own hat and Mr Fantastic copping a feel of Clarabelle the cow. There's also a ritualistic sacrifice to Charlie Brown himself later on, just in case you needed any more incentive to pick up the comic.

You can't really argue against this image

Issue 2, on the other hand, is much more straightforward, both in its content and the linearity of its plot. Narrowing his focus to just one, uninterrupted, narrative (with just three pages of additional content following it), it allows DeForge to show that the staccato format of the preceding issue was definitely not to cover any failings he may have had as a comic writer. Narratively sophisticated, it represents a genuine achievement with the writer/ artist creating a genuinely poignant comic that left a lasting impression on me.

“It’s Chip” is a wonderfully gut-churning story of childhood isolation, suburban blankness and well, grotesque flesh-eating spider-things. Ostensibly labelled as a “horror comic” by DeForge, it reads akin to an episode of The Twilight Zone, only with a more intentional humour that supplements the haunting themes within. 

Hi-ho Silver: Decompose!

Chip, the titular character, is a small, silent, child; a social-misfit who longs to be a cowboy. One day, walking through the woods with his abusive elder brother (the karate-chopping overtly macho big brother stereotype), Chip encounters the rotting corpse of a horse, viscera splayed out, being consumed by the aforementioned spider-things. Undeterred by the decomposing gastric mess, he takes the horse’s detached head and wears it as a hat, gleefully running about. Assaulted, ridiculed and abandoned by his brother, Chip is delighted to find one of the gigantic spiders crawl under the rotten head, creating the appearance of a tiny horse for him to ride.

Without giving too much away, the story continues as a massive inversion of the status quo: whilst Chip becomes increasingly happy and problem-free in the company of his newfound pet, the world of the bullies, parents and teachers around him gradually descends into chaos, with a strange epidemic affecting the population. Like, I said, I won’t give too much away, but I will say that it ends with, in my opinion, one of the most triumphant sequences in recent memory.

DeForge really demonstrates a phenomenal understanding of structure, with almost all of the comic taking place in a 3x3 grid of panels, which occasionally open up into panoramic drawings of his richly detailed vistas. Having most of action take place in tight, super-compact panels gives the story an essential claustrophobia that compliments its atmosphere of suburban anxiety and abuse, and allows a contrast to the joyous freedom that Chip feels when travelling with his noble (although fetid) steed.

It also features the phrase "ass dust", which is pretty triumphant in itself.

DeForge's arresting and disarmingly complex visuals are consistently brilliant throughout both issues. Comprised of sweating contorted characters, unsettling scale of body parts, festering flesh, and constantly engaging the cute/ abhorrent aesthetic,  the core components of his style are by no means unique, but he has that rare ability of alchemising them into something idiosyncratic and irreducible. This, combined with his flawless understanding of construction, both visually and in the pacing of his stories, helps make his work essential for anyone interested in the new comics vanguard.

To conclude, I really cannot recommend Lose enough. With these first two issues, DeForge has shown that  he has the kind of potential that makes reviewers want to throw around phrases like "the next big thing". His work has an integral personality to it that has the potential to one day sit in the hallowed echelons of comic auteurs. It’s an absolutely histrionic statement, but one that I damn sure can’t deny.

Lose 1 & 2 are available for purchase for via DeForge's website now (see below). Produced with fantastic super-glossy cardboard covers and filled with impeccably detailed cartooning, Lose looks like the missing link between the independent comics of yore and their much more enduring sibling, the graphic novel. Whilst you won’t be able to display the issues in your bookcase, they're definitely going to make all those other comics in your longbox green with envy. Take that, real Green Lantern!


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