Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our ongoing work at the best of the web! Today, we’ll spotlight the surreal, detailed work of one of today’s most prolific alternative cartoonists.Still in his early 20s, Michael DeForge already has an impressive body of work that draws from multiple eras of comics, with cartoons and illustrations that celebrate both the innocence of imagination and the darkness of the world, while often still being hilarious.
DeForge is about to launch the latest issue of his anthology series Lose at the Small Press Expo (SPX), has designed characters and backgrounds for TV’s Adventure Time, participated with the best of the indy world for Marvel’s Strange Tales II anthology, and currently posts a wide variety of cartoons and illustrations online, including his current series Ant Comic, which has already been picked up for a collection by Drawn & Quarterly. We got up with DeForge to discuss ants, animation and more.
Newsarama: Michael, you’ve done a number of comics online, and Ant Comics is what you currently have running. What was the inspiration for the strip?
Michael DeForge: I was looking at a few old Sunday strips - Gasoline Alley and Krazy Kat, specifically - and wanted to draw a strip in a similar format. I liked the idea of working full color and filling up a huge space.I drew the first installment as a contribution to an issue of Smoke Signal. I was initially talking to some college and alternative papers about printing the strips on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, but each one flaked out. I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up anyway, because those papers stopped printing comics years ago. So I kept it online.
How long do you see Ant Comic running? Bonus points if you ever had any figures from the short-lived 1980s toy line Army Ants.
DeForge: I haven't seen those toys, but they look awesome! Ant Comic will run around 60 installments - maybe more, maybe less.
Nrama: Tell us a bit about the collected edition coming up from D&Q.
DeForgeThere isn't a lot to say about it yet! Since I haven't finished drawing the strip, we haven't discussed many of the details. I'm still just in the excited/nervous phase! I'm hoping everything reads smoothly as a collected book.Since I've been drawing it week to week and have been trying to make each strip somewhat self-contained, I don't yet have a good sense of how it all reads together. I imagine there will be strips I'll want to add, take out or rearrange when collecting it.
Nrama: Something I've gotten from Ant Comic and some of your other work, like the LSP story in the Adventure Time comic, is a fascination with environments and societies.
DeForge:Yeah, I like hinting at all these convoluted societal structures in my comics, even if they only exist on the edges of a story.
NramaSo you've talked about this elsewhere, but explain your love of the comic strip Shoe, because I wouldn't have made that connection based on your work. Also seen the influence of some classic strips in your work -- the Nancy piece was great -- and was interested in what classic comic strips were an influence for you.
DeForge: I like the drawings and character designs in Shoe a lot. I like that the premise is such a bummer - depressed newspaper employees who hang out at a bar all the time.Strips that were an influence on my early on were Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County. Those were the strips my parents had collections of. I also like Krazy Kat, The Little King, Gasoline Alley, Garrett Price's White Boy and Nancy, which have all informed either my drawing or my humor at different points.
Most of my comics are staged like comic strips - like, two characters walking from left to right on a flat surface and talking to each other. I draw very flat comics.
Nrama: I'm also curious about how you occasionally look at Canadian culture in your work, because I have a strange and irrational obsession with Canada -- take a look at my Kate Beaton interview if you don't believe me. Specifically, I'm interested in what you feel is unique about Canada, and also what the community of cartoonists is like up North.
DeForge: Most Canadians feel pretty attached to nature and tradition. I've been drawing some stories that are part of an ongoing series about a weird, alternate universe history of Canada.
Spotting Deer that was the first in the series, two stories I drew for Lose #4 are the second and third, a story I'm drawing for Lose #5 called Muskoka is going to be the fourth, and there's a graphic novel I want to start in the winter about living on a commune that will be the fifth.The scene up here is pretty great! It's great to live in the same city as a lot of my favorite cartoonists. The Beguiling is obviously a fantastic store and does so much to support the community here. I feel really lucky to be living in Toronto right now.
Nrama: Tell us a little about your drawing process -- what are some of the unique challenges in doing such detailed pages, both in terms of design and in the number of panels you fit on each page?
DeForge: My drawing process is pretty basic. Most of my stories are on a uniform grid, which makes it easier for me, since it's sort of like the pacing and beats for the entire story have already been laid out for me. I thumbnail and pencil a page, then I scan it and ink it digitally. I tend not to write dialogue until the inking part.
As far as challenges with detailed drawings go - I guess my hand cramps a lot? I was getting some shooting pains in my wrist during some stretches at my drawing desk, but my buddy taught me some exercises to stave off carpal tunnel syndrome.When I look back at some of the comics I've drawn I'm a little mortified at how overworked the pages are. I have a tendency to try to hide flaws in design or storytelling by loading up pages with superfluous detail and rendering. I'm a really inelegant cartoonist. There are a lot of real "try hard" moments in Lose #3. I can't stand the way I drew that thing.
I'm trying to loosen up on a few projects. I draw an ongoing comic called Kid Mafia that has much simpler, pared-down pages. I drew a short story called Incinerator in a similar way. I'm working to be a more efficient cartoonist. I still like really busy, dense pages in
general, but I'm hoping I'll be able to switch up my style more on stories where it's appropriate.
Nrama: What's the experience of working on Adventure Time been like? I've
talked with Jesse Moynihan, Pen Ward and Tom Herpich for this site in the past, and it's become really interesting how many small-press cartoonists work on the show. I'm also curious about some of the specific things you've done for the show -- I know you designed “Beautopia,” and also the hamburger and hot dog monsters in “Dad’s Dungeon.”
DeForge: I'm the props and effects guy, but they sometimes give me character designs or concept art they think I'd be uniquely suited to (like the hamburger and hot dog monsters.) I got to take a crack at a few of the weird spirit creatures that appeared in a recent episode, for instance.I worked on my first storyboard with Cole Sanchez a few months ago, too. I got to do the “Beautopia” stuff before I was hired as a regular on the show, and that was a lot of fun to work on. I did concept art for the monsters and some of settings in the episode. Once I got hired, I was then able to design the final drawings for the monsters, too.
I love the job and it's amazing to be able to work for and alongside other cartoonists. Andy Ristaino's notes on my designs have really helped me improve my drawing ability. He's one of those guys who can just draw everything.
Nrama: What are the biggest challenges in balancing working on the show withv your comics work?
DeForge: I actually feel pretty lucky because it's not too difficult for me. I like being at my drawing desk all day. Since I live alone, live cheaply and don't sleep very much, I've never had a hard time balancing whatever day job I have with my comics.Making a living drawing comics would obviously be ideal, but I'm not expecting that to happen any time soon -- or ever, really.
Nrama: What's coming up in Ant Comic?
DeForge: There's a battle between two ant colonies in the strip right now, so that will be wrapping up soon. It's kind of a meandering comic. It's mostly just ants walking around some dirt and talking to each other. So there will be more of that! More talking.
Nrama: Something I've been asking everyone in this series is about what new opportunities they feel have been offered by such delivery systems as iPads and smartphones, and what individual creators and larger companies can do to take advantage of these opportunities.
DeForge: I don't actually know much about what advantages of iPads or smartphones have, because I don't own either. I feel like reading my comics on a phone would be really frustrating, though.It's funny because even though I draw a web comic and have put free content online on What Things Do and Studygroup, I don't actually enjoy the experience of reading a comic on a screen. I usually wait until web comics are collected in print to read them. Although Dash Shaw's Bodyworld is a notable example of a comic I enjoyed more in its online format than I did in print.
Nrama: Tell us about what you've got out for SPX -- you're also doing the program cover in hard-copy form, which is a change for you.
DeForge: It actually wasn't that big a change, since my process inking by hand and my process inking with my tablet is essentially the same, except my tablet lets me fix mistakes faster. I'm at the Koyama Press booth, and we'll be bringing Lose #4 to the show. I'll hopefully have some new mini comics out by then, too - Kid Mafia #3 and some other stuff. It's my first year, so I'm pretty excited to see what it's like there.Nrama: What are some other comics/creators you're currently enjoying, both online and off?
DeForge: Leslie Weibeler, Patrick Kyle, Edie Fake, Andy Burkholder, Dane Martin, Chuck Forsman, Lale Westvind, Leslie Stein, Dan Zettwoch, Jane Mai, Katie Skelly, A Degen, Jesse McManus, Noel Freibert, Ben Marra, Lala Albert, Ines Estrada, Sakura Maku, Lamar Abrams, Lisa Hanawalt.
Nrama:What's next for you?
DeForge: Aside from finishing Ant Comic, I've started working on Lose #5, a Structures zine for Tom Kaczynski and a split mini-comic with Michaela Zacchilli. I also draw ongoing monthly strips in The Believer, Offerings and Mothers News.
Next: It’s Ancient Greece like you’ve never seen it before in Gastrophobia! Then, Phineas & Ferb’s Eddie Pittman takes us to Red’s Planet and Aaron Alexovich introduces us to Serenity Rose! All this and more as Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics continues!