Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Koyama/Space Face: Michael DeForge's Trophies, Lose #7, Dressing

In addition to being a cartoonist, Michael DeForge also does quite a bit of illustration work. Space Face Books published a collection of some of those illo jobs in a broadsheet titled Trophies, a fitting name for an item that's a bit of a DeForge collectible as well as a record of DeForge's own illustration trophies. DeForge is an ideal illustrator for someone who wants an image that will catch the eye, no matter what it's advertising. For DeForge, this has evolved from his days when he mostly worked in black & white and thus made intricately and even obsessively illustrated drawings that emphasized grotesque and even horrific images to something more layered and sophisticated. Since working mostly in color, he hasn't had to rely on that level of detail, instead using unsettling design and figure drawings that were simplified so as to emphasize specifically unsettling details. Be it a figure in the water who's been stung repeatedly by a bee, variations on his wolf or Leather Space Man aesthetic (the predator vs the unsettling observer), or even an interest in combining psychedelia with huge swathes of negative space (like for a Speedy Ortiz concert poster), one can see how DeForge uses this venue for his drawings as a kind of laboratory that allows him to work out and work on specific visual ideas that he might incorporate into later work, or else it's an aesthetic approach that has really drawn him in (the classic DeForge melting figure).

Speaking of DeForge's laboratory, a new issue of Lose can be considered a peek into his current aesthetic interests. #7 features three stories, all of which are about body transformation and its larger implications. The first story is a kind of childish game, the sort where if someone told you to hold your breath and cross your eyes then your face would get frozen or something. In this case, it was a highly detailed method to make one's head bigger so that one resembles an adult. In the story, this led to it being a fun game of "parent and child" and quickly warped into a power game where the "parent" wound up putting her "son" in jail. It's a very Foucault way of looking at relationships as power relationships.

The third story aesthetically sees DeForge move in a direction closer to Big Kids in terms of the design of the boy who is also a bird: a face with six furry appendages flapping about like a Dr Seuss drawing. The bird/boy is aware enough to realize that his state is less than ideal; it's a transformation or evolution that's in fact quite stupid, as he can never really be a bird or a boy. He's drawn to the ornithologist who studies him and she tells him that she longs to be like him, but that she can't have a relationship with a subject. The bird boy finds her desires to be like him to be as stupid and baffling as his own existence is. This story is interesting because it's a brutal takedown of startling surface beauty being utterly pointless if there's no utility or possibility of meaningful contact that can go along with it.

The second story, "Movie Star", is the longest of the book, and it's one of DeForge's best. It touches on family, transformation and alienation. A young woman named Kim is living with and taking care of her ailing father, who is constantly on her case and refuses to listen to anything she has to say. In one of her daily runs (a key metaphor), she happens across some Blu-Rays on the street and she watches them with her dad, who has a contrary opinion from her on each and every one. She does notice that in a dumb action film, there's a buff guy who looks exactly like her dad, which he dismisses as nonsense even though he was adopted and doesn't know anything about his birth family. Things start to escalate when she comes home and the actor is there being chummy with her dad, as they discover that they are related. He spends more and more time with him and his wife, to the point where they both start having sex with her and he decides to essentially cut Kim out of his life for his new life. At every turn, Kim is gaslighted by her father and told to get a job, and every bit of "growth" that he makes is entirely at her expense. Every slow reveal astounds more and more as Kim is slowly pushed out of his life after previously being entirely dependent on her. Visually, it's among DeForge's more conventional comics, with a fairly unwavering eight-panel grid and a thin line that almost seems like a Chris Ware homage at times. It once again makes that point that not all transformation is growth, and it in fact can induce myopia and narcissism.

Dressing is another crucial Koyama Press collection of DeForge's short stories from all over the place: minicomics, anthologies, etc. The title of the collection refers to the idea of dressing up, of changing identity, and of being in the process of dressing or transformation. The first piece, "Flu Drawings" is about a teenage boy who's drawn the attention of an older teenage girl, until one day she makes him dry her off after a shower and then after she models some outfits, she makes him put on some of her outfits and makeup. What's interesting about the story, apart from its erotic content, is that the narrator notes that the experience was not only not transformative for him in terms of identity, it actually allowed him to see what his future self would look like. There's an intricacy and decorative quality to these illustrations that adds to the story's tension. On the other hand, "Mars Is My Last Hope" is all about the desperate need for transformation for a group of humans colonizing Mars, because the Earth had become uninhabitable. Success meant not only their bodies transforming into something more appropriate for Mars, it meant human language slipping away as well, with only the concept of erotic desire remaining. "Dot Com" follows up on that run of stories about desire, this time commodified in some vague way by a dot.com business that specializes in mermaids. It's a brilliant parody of corporate speak that clearly indicated just how much trouble that business was really in.

"My Sister Dropped Dead From The Heat" was a brutal, almost obsessive sketchbook exercise about a relentless death march, while "Websites" explored involuntary identity transformation by way of the internet through a law firm that no doubt engineered it. It's DeForge exploring dystopias and Kafkaesque nightmares, as is "Redundancies", which is about the government outlawing twins, triplets, etc for population control reasons and the resistance that springs up against it that's ultimately doomed to failure. "Christmas Dinner" is about the worst possible holiday meal imaginable, played out on a beautiful table filled with filled by tiny, violent little creatures. "Elves" is a Santa conspiracy tale, while "Wet Animals" is a hilarious story about desire and "flirt fish" gone defective; instead of issuing come-ons, they started issuing insults, all in the background of one woman's crush that went to a very strange place.

"My Interesting Mother, One Billion Miles" is the prototypical DeForge piece in that it presents an absurd premise (in this case, a leaping mother) as defacto reality. "Actual Trouble" uses a slightly nauseating color palette to discuss both the long term (a guy thinking about the entirety of his life and and how he wound up as a teacher) with the immediate (his boyfriend's inability to get rid of his erection). "Gun Cats" is both funny and a little more on the nose than usual for DeForge, as local animals are given guns by the authorities in order to make environmental activists look bad, resulting in all kinds of deaths. "Tiny Opthamologist" short-circuits its own narrative of control and transformation as all parties involved admit to the ridiculousness of the situation. Finally, "All Of My Friends, Up High, In A Jumbo Jet" is an aesthetic rhyme for the book's first story in that it's illustrated text rather than a comic, its action is mostly abstracted and it has a deliberately vague conclusion. The material here overall isn't as strong as in Lose or his most recent comics, but it also shows how DeForge has both refined and expanded his aesthetic.

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