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Michael DeForge Is Not the Weirdo His Characters Are

I interviewed Michael DeForge and all I got was a story about needles in a urethra.

By Anne Ishii

AAWW board member and resident comics expert Anne Ishii keeps it coming with her new series of conversations with Asian American (and Asian Canadian) comics artists in The Margins. Check back for more.
In a world of metaphors, it’s important to be able to draw a boundary between fiction and reality. The equal and opposite is true of memoir. After a 2000s rife with both conceits, however, independent comics today tend toward a blended ego of the surreal and mundane. And while comics have always been prone to such distortions, Michael DeForge is unique in his ability to splice universal narratives with synesthetic cues. His comics speak in a vibrant vocabulary of absurdities tied to reality—in the latest installment of his series “Sticks Angelica,” for example, the cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt makes a guest appearance as a moose studying the law. While tethered in equal strength to space and Earth, his art becomes its own metaphor. I talked to the sleep-deprived musician and artist about his relationship to his craft. He explains why working in genre categories like “horror” or “porn” doesn’t mean he’s into leather or body dismemberment.


Anne Ishii: How’s it going?

Michael DeForge: Alright. Typical workday.

Typical workday? What’s that like?

Wake up early, then work on Adventure Time until I’m done with that. Then draw comics until I’m done with that.

Wow. That simple huh? Wake up, Adventure Time, comics, sleep?

Yea, that’s sort of it actually.

I’m kind of surprised you’re a morning person. [We’d arranged to chat at 9am, which is “early” for me.] Have you always been?

Well it’s not so much that I’m a morning person. I just don’t sleep very much.

This is because you have that terrible speed habit, right?

Basically yes. Well, insomnia runs in my family, so I’m a light sleeper, I guess.

That does actually explain a few things. I mean I’m not going to psychoanalyze your artwork, but there’s something sort of absurd about the characters you’ve created. Maybe you can psychoanalyze yourself. If you were a psychoanalyst, how would you dissect yourself?

I don’t know if I’d ever try to do that. I had an actual therapist look at my comics, but I don’t know if I’d try to analyze myself, especially based on my comics, because my comics present a heightened version of myself.

I’m interested in this bit about a therapist seeing your work.

It was fine. I wouldn’t show her everything. But if she asked “what was your week like?” and I spent all week working on this thing, it seemed like I might as well show her that stuff. It was cool to have someone read my comics who wasn’t invested in comics at all.

Bookplate from Michael DeForge's Ant Colony
Bookplate from Michael DeForge’s Ant Colony

But comics being an extension of yourself, or a heightened version of yourself, as you said, and then a therapist being able to read into it… maybe you don’t have to psychoanalyze your own self but what do you think has largely been the interpretation of you via your artwork? What do you hear people say about you vis-à-vis your artwork?

There are people who maybe have an idea of who I am based on what I draw, and I guess it’s maybe a funny version of it. Because I work on Thickness, and some of my comics have sexual content in them, and I do a lot of stories that are at least related to the horror genre… because of that, for a while I would get a lot of emails from people who would just send me just indiscriminately fucked up shit, which was a little upsetting. Because people knew I like horror manga, and I like Junji Ito, and I worked on porn…I would be like, I don’t just want to indiscriminately see fucked up things. I’m not into seeing urethras with needles in them without any context, and I think people assume that stuff about me, that I’m into that.

You’re like “I’m into the art of needles in urethras, not the lifestyle of needles in urethras.”

Yeah. It’d just be a weird thing where I’d get “Faces of Death” style images, and part of me is like, I guess it’s nice somebody saw something they thought I’d like, and were prompted to mail it to me, but I want to be like, “Guys, this is not for me.”

Yeah, no kidding.

Especially because I don’t think my own work is that graphic…I would never consider my work to be particularly violent.

I would actually argue that your work is too metaphorical, so like even when it is graphic it’s always in the realm of metaphor/allegory. You’re discriminately weird, not indiscriminately weird.

I hope so. I hope when I do show violence that there is some weight to it, because I do have a lot of sort of body-horror stuff, but it’s usually reacting to people’s bodies transforming. I am trying to make it more transformative. Even when (what I’m depicting) is disturbing, it’s maybe something falling off, rather than being torn off.

What’s your general stance on fan interaction? Do you have any rules about personal privacy? Like, (Massive) deals with artists (in Japan) who feel really strongly about not getting their personal lives too entwined with their work because of the pornographic content.

I guess that sort of thing rarely comes up. I get the odd invasive or inappropriately personal question in my inbox and my Tumblr (which I deleted since we last spoke) and I ignore those. But I generally don’t have a problem with my personal and professional worlds brushing up against each other. Most of my friends are artists, and my job thankfully doesn’t care if I spend all day drawing dicks as long as I meet my deadlines. I’m not planning to ever run for office, etc.

Independent comics are a relatively porous industry so it’s so easy for people to come in and out of it and talk to creators. I can see how you might interact quite freely with your readers, in your own personal guise. But I also feel like until recently, a lot of indie comics were pigeon-holed as direct representations of writers’ actual personal lifestyles. Reviewers and fans couldn’t help but draw connection between comics and their creators. Your work is vastly different in that it’s so metaphorical. Do you have thoughts on the boundaries artists do or don’t draw between their work and their personal lives, and trends toward or away from autobiographical comics? What do you think when readers use your work to draw conclusions about your personal self? When is that a good problem to have?

I think it’s inevitable that readers will assume certain things about me and my personality. I mean, I put a ton of myself out there in my comics, even if I’m not writing straight autobiography, so they’re not always wrong for making those assumptions. Putting work out there means giving a lot of yourself away. People end up drawing some incorrect conclusions about me, but I suppose that’s fine, in the same way readers might misunderstand my intentions with regards to the work itself. It’s all stuff I can’t control.

Why’d you take down your Tumblr?

It’s a nice website, but I think it was bad for me. It fed into my most narcissistic tendencies–being able to compulsively check comics for notes or reblogs so quickly after finishing them. I also didn’t like the way my comics looked on that infinite Tumblr scroll, having to compete for attention sandwiched between RuPaul reaction gifs and 10,000 word essays about Firefly. I like the idea of my comics being just as accessible and free to look at, but on a clean page. If someone feels like reading them, they just have to spend five seconds to visit my website, rather than my having to throwing that shit in their faces all the time.

Haha damn, that’s thoughtful. I hate the Tumblr backend, the dashboard–full blown hatred–but can’t isolate why or the solution. kind of miss my ugly blogspot joint.

Tumblr is over if you want it.

The future is going to be FedEx-ing smartphones with a pre-loaded app of the Massive store and making everyone update the app everyday for new blog posts.

If you want a vision of the future, imagine the opposing pectorals of the two men on the Jiraiya sweatshirt crushing a human face, forever. Wait what were we talking about again?

From Sticks Angela by Michael DeForge
From Sticks Angelica by Michael DeForge

OK so it might be a particularly American obsession to draw corollaries between artist and their art, but are you prepared to speak on behalf of Canadian artist’s everywhere?


No, I’m totally kidding, but this is my way of dove-tailing and asking if you feel any sort of relationship against or with any strain of comics or regionality or regionalism? [It should be noted that this interview was conducted as part of a series of chats with Canadian or Canadian-born artists courtesy of the Toronto Comics arts Festival. Don’t want readers to believe I am arbitrarily fascinated by Canada. There is nothing especially fascinating about Canada.]

Uhh sure. I think there’s sort of a Canadian-ness that kind of comes out in some of my comics. I have a sort of an informal weird Canada series and a number of the stories I’ve done take place in this fictionalized Canada I like to draw. In each story I try to exaggerate or write about one aspect of Canadian-ness, like Canadian history or the Canadian landscape, or regionalism, or things like that. But aside from that I think there’s a really specific type of Canadian landscape I think shows up. Like Canada’s full of these open spaces, and I think that comes out in my work, and obviously that’s not native to Canada. I think if I lived in the Midwest I’d have a similar vibe, but I think that’s a weird Canadian thing. Like, Seth has written about it a lot and a lot more articulately than how I’m able to describe it. I feel like being Canadian I have some affinity towards nature that’s purely just based on weird historical stuff I read as a kid or landscape art I had to look at in art class.

Well give me an example of something from Canadian folklore you were interested in.

I think every Canadian is super into this national heritage thing kids would have to watch, this NFB-looking cartoon, I don’t know if it was actually a NFB cartoon interspersed with old footage and an old folk song about how gentlemanly log drivers were. It sums up a lot of weird Canadian stuff. Like everything about folklore and culture and history is summed up in this weird goofy video that I feel like if someone grew up in Canada at a certain age they would know about.

I don’t know what a log driver is.

They hop on logs to drive them down the river. If you get sucked in, you would not be able to get yourself out of the water.

That’s… amazing.

Google “log drivers waltz” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

I’d literally never heard of a log driver before. This is a testament to how un-Canadian I am.

It was just on TV all the time, there’s no reason I should know it, it was just on TV all the time.

Are you a TV addict?

Yea I watch a lot of TV now since I work, I have to either have talk radio on, or TV that’s kind of junk, TV that I don’t need to pay attention to the screen as I watch it.

What do you feel like you want more time to be able to do?

Just everything. I always feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day to draw as many comics as I’d like. And even now it’s sort of a thing where I’d used to be in my early 20s be able to pull crazy all-nighters all the time; come home from working a shift and still draw for 8 hours and then wake up and start it over again. Now I can still pull all-nighters, but I feel it more. So it’s just the natural thing of not having as much stamina.

A Body Beneath by Michael DeForge, published by Koyama Press this fall.
A Body Beneath by Michael DeForge, published by Koyama Press this fall.

So you’re feeling that in your age then? Like you just stop going as fast?

Yeah. My wrist hurts more, like I’m getting carpal tunnel. I have to force myself to take breaks more. And it’s just natural stuff, but I used to be able to do more. I still can do a lot, but I know I’m only going to get slower.

This ties into the fact that you have insomnia.

I’m really happy if I’m getting 5 hours a night.

So what happens when you’re sleep deprived? Do you feel like you’re better when you’re in that weird mental state or when you’re more well-rested and healthy?

Oh, I definitely feel better when I’m well rested. I’m more focused, my writitng is more focused.

See I’m envious of that. I’m sort of an insomniac myself. There are days when I can’t fall asleep to save my life. The whole time I’m up, I’m convinced I’m getting better writing done, which is probably totally false, but it’s the lie I tell myself to stay up all night. There’s something about sleep though that’s so fascinating. When its’ elusive to you I think it becomes sort of a fascinating thing. Not really a question.

I feel like I have that tone a lot in my comics, even if I can’t really work when I’m in that state. I think a lot of my comics have that sort of “midway not sure if you’re dreaming, or it’s reality” thing. Or when you have stretches when you’re trying to remember if you talked to someone or if you just imagined having a conversation with them. I think a lot of my comics do have that sort of sleep-addled stressed out tone to it.

There’s sort of weird dream state quality to the stories for sure. The characters who actually dialogue in your stories are very …. It’s not absurd to the point of nonsense, but I search for the meaning of the metaphor in it, and I don’t always have an interpretation, but that’s also what makes your artwork interesting. It’s not quite storytelling as it is just truly a form of narration plus art. Have you written a saga?

Ant Colony….that’s the closest. In most of my comics there aren’t a lot of plot points, or if there are it’s not so much a tight kind of web, but just things escalating to unbearable or absurd degrees. But Ant Colony is the closest I’ve come to things being a story rather than people just walking around, stuff happens, and they react to it.

You mentioned earlier that people send you a lot of indiscriminately fucked up thing, but what’s the most fucked up thing you’ve received?

I once got some actual “Faces of Death” insane cover art… Yeah, not my scene…I’m fine if other people are into it I guess, but not my thing.

Yeah I get a fair amount of that too, just cause of the whole Tagame thing.

I’m sure. Like there are other things about Tagame that make this work interesting, not just “the craziest shit you can print.”

Even in the interviews I’ve moderated for him the question are always “what’s the most fucked up thing you’ve done,” or “when was the first time you did something crazy.” It’s that sort of VICEtv mentality towards his artwork, when it does merit artistic discourse. But I don’t know… Your art is definitely more abstract in that sense, so I think you’d get less of the lifestyle questions, even though I just asked you ten lifestyle questions myself.

For a while I got a lot of questions about how into leather stuff I was, just because I drew a lot of leather clothes, so that was the lifestyle part I think.

What other forms of perversion do you think you’ll be drawing about or are fascinated in right now?

I did a comic last night about a car and an airplane having sex. But specifically someone who altered their body to look like a car and someone who altered their body to look like an airplane.

That sounds like a great match. I would definitely watch the infrared night vision video of that sex tape.

It was a weird time to draw it.

OK, now I’m just thinking David Cronenberg where it’s just people in automobile body-mod…. So I have a couple dummy questions to end with. What about pedagogical influences or artistic influences?

In cartooning Mark Bell is a big influence. Charles Steinberg, Hideshi Hino, Jack Kirby, all the big ones. Outside of cartooning, Paul Klee was really important to me, a poster group called Seripop was really formative for me…it’s a two-person printmaking group. It’s short for serigraphie populaire. Those are the big ones.

Michael DeForge. Photo by Robin Nishio
Michael DeForge. Photo by Robin Nishio

Last question, what are you going to do, do you have anything lined up that’s fun and worth talking about?  

I have an ongoing webstrip called Sticks Angelica . And I’m still doing that. And I have another comic that will be shorter that I’m also serializing online, and that’s called a werewolf mid-transformation.

Oh yea I love Sticks Angelica. That’s my favorite. It feels more accessible to me, it feels more philosophical.

Thank you. I’m trying to phase that one more slowly than some of my other strips. Also most recently, A Body Beneath and Ant Colony were published. And Ant Colony is Drawn & Quarterly, so I guess those are the two biggish releases I’ve had this year.

Any other book deals?

Early next year, Drawn & Quarterly is collecting a 30-page comic I drew. It’s actually more like, illustrated texts. Not exactly a comic, and that’s called “First Year Healthy.” I guess it’s a Christmas story, weirdly.

Does it involve a log driver?

Oh shit, I do really want to incorporate log driving into something, but I feel like it would fit the world of Sticks Angelica. I haven’t figured out just how to introduce it into the story organically.

Inorganically would work too.

Yeah I can just shove it in there.

Yeah, shove it! Just stuff it in there.

Well that’s it.

I hope I was alright, I’m never sure how I do in interviews.


Read other interviews in Anne Ishii’s series Cartoonists Talk:


Koyama Press: Saving Artists, One Canadian at a Time

Jillian Tamaki’s Eileen Fisher Armor