Michael DeForge continues to be one of the most prolific and aesthetically curious cartoonists around. While exploring a number of the same themes, his visual approach shifts, mutates and warps from project to project, having cycled through the artists he admires and moved on to his own set of changing strategies. Rites of passage have often been a resonant theme for DeForge, because transformation in general is something he seems to be fascinated by. In particular, the idea of something being irreversibly changed and then being forced to adapt to a new life, be it positive or negative, is a pretty regular theme for him. In Big Kids, the transformation from human form to tree form is not just a metaphor for adolescence, but rather a metaphor for a certain kind of awareness of the world that not everyone possesses.
A teenage boy named Adam is constantly being beaten up by the kids at school, but he also is happy that he is sexually active and has a boyfriend. The book opens with Adam trying to describe memories: of the way people looked, smelled, tasted, etc. It reads much like a past-tense journal of some kind, as though something traumatic had occurred to make him think about life in those terms. Instead, the "change" occurs, which not only alters Adam's perception and understanding of the world, but it also sees DeForge transforming his line into something that was still comics (he rarely wavered from the six-panel grid) but that also resembled a Wassily Kandinsky painting. In this new aesthetic understanding of the world, it was explained to Adam that he was now a tree, which gave him several levels of sensory understanding and experience that he did not possess before. Those who had not yet made the change (including most of the people he knew at school) were referred to as twigs, because that's precisely what they looked like. What was interesting was that many adults were still twigs, including both his asshole cop uncle and his left-leaning reporter dad, implying that neither were ready to evolve or even understood what that could mean.
While the change to a tree often occurred at puberty or first sexual experience (which made his mom, also a tree, very uncomfortable to think about), it didn't always happen. Nor did the transformation include any kind of real enlightenment. Simply put, there was just a greater awareness of one's environment. It didn't give one any ethical or moral enlightenment, as the actions of Adam and others showed in the back half of the book. Whereas his uncle was once a threatening bully, he was now a twig to be easily flicked away. A lecture from his father about the use of violence barely registered. His miserable mother voluntarily went from being a tree back to being a twig so she could be freed of this awareness and happy with her husband again. In a brutal act, Adam turned his lover Tyson (the ex-boyfriend of his ex-boyfriend) back into a twig by physically peeling away his tree-ness. This was in reaction to what turned out to be a key subplot of the book: a computer program that allowed one to see one's old form in animation. When he saw his mother watch the animation and saw her weep, he knew this was something he should not have seen, and he transformed his shame into not just violence, but precisely the same act his mother was contemplating doing to herself. DeForge has often used body horror as a metaphor for transformations gone wrong, but this was body horror on a whole different level.
For the many scenes of tree perception, DeForge created an entirely different kind of visual language. The trees were figures with heads and eyes, arms and legs, etc, but they also had flower baskets. They saw the world in a way the looks warped but was described as simply "more". The "DeForge Detritus" often seen in his work is different in this book: it's more organized, indicative of being part of an ordered system rather than simply chaos. It's both beautiful and strange to look at, and while it may have its own logic, it seems clear that DeForge didn't want this aesthetic to be easily absorbed by human eyes. It is deliberately alienating, forcing the reader to consider the emotional landscape of the book more than its physical landscape. It's a blunt and direct book with subtle subtexts, and while there is obvious regret on the part of Adam, it only goes so far because the relationship between trees and twigs can only go so far. Allowing a lack of closure is ironically what makes this one of DeForge's most assured comics to date.
First Year Healthy (from 2014) takes a different approach, even as both books have a somewhat unreliable narrator. Instead of being a comic, this is closer to a children's book in terms of format with an illustration on each page with a clump of text. There are several different levels going on in the book, and it's not clear which of any of them are true, or if that even matters. The first level is the unnamed protagonist's perception of the world after coming out of a mental institution for an "outburst". The book has a lot of smart things to say about mental illness, not so much in terms of the experiencing of it, but how others perceive and treat you after such an outburst. For her, she was given a job by her brothers and cared for in that sense, but they kept her at arm's length otherwise, something she only understood much later. A running theme in the story is her dawning realization that her senses in many respects had become numbed to the possibility of dangers in the world. The reader is very much asked to wonder how much of what they read in this book is "true" vs being a hallucination of some kind, or an elaborate story made up to trick herself into ignoring reality.
Another level of the story, and this is aided by the format, is to consider the entire thing to be a fairy tale allegory or a bit of magical realism. That's not just because of the intervention of a "holy cat" mentioned early in the book in saving her life, but it's also the presence of the criminal who threatened to kill her like a big bad wolf figure or her suddenly being given the responsibility of taking care of a baby. Is the reader meant to think of these things as ordinary events given magical qualities (like her "hearing" the fish under the ice when it reality it was the ice cracking under her)? Did her slitting the criminal's neck with a knife cause another mental breakdown, leading to her seeing the holy cat? Or was it the realization that she was truly alone while wandering through the forest, trying to escape but finding nowhere to escape to that broke her down? Or was all of it real? DeForge provides no easy answers, just clues to be picked up on, clues that sometimes discussed how consensus reality can mean different things for people from different cultures.
Through it all, the reader is meant to wonder what form the protagonist's original outburst took. Was it a public breakdown where she screamed at those around her? Was it a public and messy suicide attempt? Or was it strange behavior that violated social mores? Throughout the story as we see her in that titular first year, she is kind, supportive and unquestioning. Perhaps she should have been less naive and more aware of her circumstances. She appears to be someone with no boundaries, for good or ill, as she moved in with "the Turk", a co-worker, after a little while and never once questioned his job as a crime boss' thug. When suddenly presented with taking care of his infant son, she tried to breastfeed him, a gesture that was done less of feeling maternal and more of feeling curious, as though she was playing a game with herself to see what it would be like--as though she was crossing a frozen lake. Her behavior is clearly atypical, but DeForge once again makes the reader ask precisely what unhealthy means in this context. Did she retreat into fantasy at the end of the story, or did she simply enter into a different level of consensus reality, like Adam did in Big Kids? What DeForge suggests is that all of these answers are right and wrong in their own way. Visually, the characters are classic mid-period DeForge: distorted and exaggerated hair, tiny bodies that look like Peanuts characters, grotesque facial features and a mostly ugly color palette that looks like bruises, with the exception of the holy cat, who's almost an Aslan-type figure.