Whit Taylor Reviews: Michael DeForge’s ‘A Body Beneath’
[Note: I had originally planned to review this for Panel Patter, but realized after the fact that it was already going to be reviewed by another one of our staff writers. Rob McMonigal was cool with me putting it up on my blog.]
I’ve got a confession to make: this was my first time reading anything by Michael DeForge. I know, I know, this might seem sacrilegious in the “indie” comics world, but just like laser disks or the existence of Carrot Top, there is no reason for it. Given this, I decided to review A Body Beneath, treating it as a crash course in DeForge’s work. A Body Beneath is a collection of DeForge’s annual publication, Lose, which is published by Koyama Press. The book covers Lose 2-5, but omits the first one, which I will get into momentarily.
DeForge prefaces his book with a short piece called “Context”. It is an explanation of why the book was compiled, as well as a brief critique of his work. “Context” largely colored the way I read the book. DeForge explains that he did not include Lose 1 because it is “a very bad comic book”. He then goes on to criticize his earlier stories, especially from Lose 2, showing some hesitance on his part to even re-release them. My first reaction was “Really? The general consensus is that your stuff is awesome and you are an incredibly talented artist, so why the need to say something that is clearly not true?”
On the other hand, as a cartoonist myself, I totally understood where he was coming from. Most cartoonists wince at their earlier works, as they see a myriad of flaws and things that they could’ve done differently… or not at all. DeForge’s expression of his dissatisfaction and embarrassment over his early stuff is normal, showing a refreshing honesty that any artist can identify with. I did find however, that his self-deprecation set me up to read the book with more scrutiny and analysis, instead of pure entertainment and enjoyment. Now, as a reviewer, this inherently comes with the territory, but it made me more self-aware of my job.
Lose 2, the first compilation of stories, showcases an earlier DeForge who has not fully come into his artistic style or storytelling abilities. “It’s Chip”, the first story, is clearly still DeForge, but the art is not as iconic or distinctive. He says that the art is “lousy”, which I disagree with overall, even though the composition and pacing are nowhere near his later material. This story kickstarts his continued interest and coverage of certain themes that run throughout his stories. DeForge has a fascination with the alteration of organic forms, particularly, plants, animals, and people. Ingestion, decomposition, growth, consciousness, and ultimately evolution thread throughout each Lose in an unromantic and graphic way that may be jarring, but expose the reality of the one constant in life: change.
What I can say for Lose 2 and 3 is that his storytelling is a bit less compelling than the latter two comics. As DeForge mentions, a year between each Lose is actually long, and allows for great developmental leaps. “Dog 2070”, a story which DeForge says is poorly written, is very wordy and disjointed. Wordiness is necessary at times, but in this case, some of the details that the protagonist articulates could be whittled down. Despite this though, it is a thought-provoking character study of a man (or rather dog) who has not moved on from his previous life and relationship and lives as a metaphorical ghost, paralyzed and detached from the world.
Lose 4 is a major artistic and storytelling leap for DeForge. It’s also the first comic where DeForge starts to use expository narrative skillfully. There is a lot of stigma attached to using exposition in the comics world, as it is often seen as a crutch. I believe this to be true when the narrative tells exactly what is happening in the art or dialogue. In DeForge’s case though, he is able relay necessary information that could not be gleaned through the rest of the story, ultimately enhancing the piece.
The Lose 4 and 5 stories showcase why DeForge’s work is so arresting and unique: the juxtapositions between his spare but effective dialogue, his straightforward and dry, yet subversive expository narrative, the outrageous yet down-to-earth content, and the bizarre yet whimsical art. “Queen Video” and “Someone I Know” use dialogue conservatively, letting the images guide the story of a man whose venture into a bondage club leads him into a terrifyingly disorienting journey where he can not distinguish between fantasy and reality (another recurring theme in DeForge’s stories). “Canadian Royalty”, a purely expository story, is fascinating in its absurdity and satirical political commentary. Plus, the otherworldly costumes of the Canadian royalty are truly stunning. “Recent Hires” also utilizes a similar narrative style and normalizes the story’s ridiculous premise with great humor.
At this point, I realized that another theme in DeForge’s work concerns the trials and tribulations that guys will go through to win a girl’s affection. This theme is in “Dog 2070”, “Someone I know”, “Recent Hires”, and “Living Outdoors.” This accessible theme keeps the reader’s feet on the ground, even if story details float one’s head into the clouds. “Living Outdoors” was my favorite story for all of the aforementioned reasons, with the exception of exposition, which is not utilized. The story is strange yet relatable, the characters are interesting and well-developed, and the art, which has a certain level of comfort and restraint, complements everything perfectly.
So, returning to the beginning, was “Context” necessary? Yes, I think it was. That’s because A Body Beneath is more of a study of DeForge’s evolution as a cartoonist than merely a collection of his stories. DeForge is the driver, the body beneath, and intimately lets us explore his progress as a cartoonist, humanizing a seemingly untouchable and revered “wunderkind” into a person just trying to reach his own idea of satisfaction.
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