I was nervous before dialing Michael DeForge’s number one grey morning last week. I had been reading his interviews online the night before to get a sense of his personality and, though I had also already read some of his work, including his newest graphic novel Big Kids and the universally acclaimed Ant Colony, I still felt no closer to knowing anything about him. In interviews his responses were short and direct, answers on the FAQ section of his website even more so. A man of few words, the interviewer’s worst nightmare. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. DeForge’s comics and graphic novels are populated by honest, strict dialogue, saying only what needs to be said. It is his art that does most of the talking—stark lines against backdrops of dramatic colour that punch deep in the gut. His characters, as in Ant Colony and Big Kids, are often dealing with existential crises—they could have long, drawn out discussions on the meaning of life, but they don’t. Michael DeForge is a master of the “show, don’t tell” rule, and as someone who often “tells” for a living, I was intimidated. By the end of the interview, however, I was impressed and grateful. Our talk was shorter than most of the interviews I have conducted, yes, but it was also honest and forthright. There was no beating around the bush, no humming and hawing, and I didn’t have a huge transcript to cut down into manageable chunks. What follows below is exactly what we said, nothing more.
Shannon Tien: What was the inspiration for Big Kids?
Michael DeForge: I’d written a number of comics that circle around adolescence a little and I thought I’d sort of been circling around it long enough and it might be an okay subject for a graphic novel.
ST: And why adolescence?
MD: A lot of my work has to do with transformation, and adolescence is the time when those transformations seem the most drastic. I think it’s sort of debatable whether or not they actually are the most substantial transformations you actually undergo in your life, but at the time they seem the most drastic and traumatic. And it’s the time when you’re least used to it, I guess.
ST: Why trees and twigs as the metaphor for transformation? I love that.
MD: I mean I was almost worried that the visual allegory was a little too obvious, like having things blossom and having flowers in their lungs, but generally I draw a lot of flora and fauna and I draw a lot of kind of wormy veiny things, so stuff like trees and veins and plants show up in my work a lot already.
ST: Is there a reason for that?
MD: It’s just an image I like. Yeah, I’m not sure.
ST: Is it easy to tell in your own life who are sticks and who are trees?
MD: No [laughs]. I also don’t think about myself as particularly enlightened in any way.
ST: Right. So you don’t see your own life in those dimensions?
MD: No, and part of the book is about how sometimes...you’ll reach what...seems like an epiphany but after a little while, you realize it’s a little disappointing or a little underwhelming or it wasn’t quite the epiphany you thought it was.
ST: How did you figure out how to draw tree sex? Like, what was your process there?
MD: Oh, sure [laughs]. Yeah, I don’t know about that one. I did find that across 2015 I was drawing a lot of comics about kissing and touching and...big and small interactions like that, physical interactions. And I think my work before…I don’t have a very sensual line...I have a very sterile, thin pen line. So I do like having some tension between what I’m depicting and the way I’m depicting it, which is why I’ve probably been drawing scenes like that for the past while.
ST: Is experiencing pain always the catalyst for becoming a tree?
MD: I wanted it to clearly be different for each person and to be a little ambiguous about what caused the change. Like sometimes it could seem very small, but sometimes it could seem very large, whatever would trigger the transformation. For the protagonist I wanted it to be kind of an act of callousness directed towards him to be the catalyst for change because at the end he acts in a way that is fairly cruel and callous himself to someone else and I wanted it to kind of mirror itself that way. I wanted that symmetry, I guess.
ST: Did you have your own “becoming a tree moment” in adolescence?
MD: I don’t think so. I think that’s one of the funny things about writing a coming-of-age story, well what’s ostensibly a coming-of-age comic. And It’s sort of funny, reading a lot of coming-of-age books, or movies or whatever, as a teenager is that they all seem very eventful and tumultuous. I was definitely full of angst but my life didn’t feel very eventful in my teens or in high school. I mostly just drew and went to shows. I didn’t have very many huge upheavals or anything like that.
ST: Oh, ok. No one broke up with you?
MD: No, I was single throughout high school [laughing]. So I didn’t get to experience all the stuff that my characters do in this book, I guess.
ST: What was high school like for you?
MD: It was pretty miserable. You know I think that’s the case for most people. Yeah I really didn’t enjoy school and I was a pretty bad student. I think I mostly just out of class and [drew] or [went] to record stores in my city, or something. But I think for most people high school’s a fairly miserable time. It was one of those things where it seems like the worst thing in the world when you’re experiencing it and then everyone else seems to be having such a great time and you’re the only one who’s not and that once you’re a little bit past it you realize that everyone else felt the same way as you. It’s nice to figure that out later on.
ST: Near the end of the book April says there used to be theories about why the way we view graphic representations doesn’t change. They’re supposedly impure. Not of this world. Can you expand on that a bit?
MD: Well it was another idea I just wanted to hint at, the idea that some of these graven images, some of these representations were so imperfect that they wouldn’t change at all, I guess. I guess it’s hard to explain, but just like trying to recreate some memory of yourself or something else will never actually be accurate, which is ultimately why her virtual reality project was kind of futile in the end.
ST: Does it have anything to do with your own theory about graphic art?
MD: I’m not sure. I mean, there’s definitely a weird thing of—I’m constantly depicting aspects of myself in my work…my work isn’t overtly autobiographical, but a lot of my experiences end up worming their way into it. I’m always trying to recreate certain memories or emotions...I’m always trying to hit it from a different vantage point, but I can never do it 100% accurately or depict anything in its entirety. I just have to hit at it through little slivers at a time. So maybe that’s a little bit why that portion is in the book [laughs].
ST: Ok. That makes sense. And the last line of the book just says, “I felt a lot of things”, which I feel is a beautiful way to end a coming-of-age story. It’s basically all you can say about being a teenager, like “I felt a lot of things.” I wonder what that means for the protagonist, Adam, if we’re thinking of this in terms of coming of age.
MD: I don’t want anyone to know exactly what I had in mind for the conclusions he comes to at the end.
ST: Ok, yeah. That’s fine.
MD: I’ve heard some people talk about it like he did go through some type of journey of enlightenment and then I’ve heard other people talk about how they felt he regressed in some ways to the end. And I like that being a little open ended. I have a clear idea but it’s been interesting and surprising to see how other people interpreted it, whether they thought it was an optimistic or a pessimistic note to end on.
ST: Yeah. Either way it’s an interesting note to end on for a coming-of-age story. There’s no clear triumph or anything.
MD: Ok. Good [laughs].
For more information about Michael DeForge's Big Kids, visit DrawnAndQuarterly.com.