Michael DeForge is a Toronto-based creator who has won awards for comics like Leaving Richard’s Valley, Dressing and Lose #1. Other acclaimed books include Stunt, Big Kids, Ant Colony and Sticks Angelica Folk Hero.
DeForge was a finalist for the 2021 Doug Wright Awards for Canadian comics for the 2020 graphic novel Familiar Face.
His latest work is Heaven No Hell, a collection of comics that explores the nature of relationships, life and society. The included stories range from an angel touring heaven to a couple following their pregnancy with an app to a couple who make terrible choices after an experiment goes wrong.
Deforge cites influences as varied as Jack Kirby, Daniel Clowes, Hideshi Hino and Eduardo Muñoz Bachs.
He spoke with CBC Books about Heaven No Hell and how a passion for comics fuelled his current career.
How has the current pandemic affected your career and life right now?
Thankfully, my work was from home to begin with, so my day-to-day has gone unobstructed. But, like a lot of people are experiencing, it’s harder to write nowadays — it’s hard to process everything and do that work at the same time.
There is some consolation in knowing that the feelings of despair and the feelings of outrage are being held collectively right now. It’s frustrating because that doesn’t always translate into getting us any closer to the world we want, even though it feels like we’re all together on hating everything and being dissatisfied with how things are going right now.
There is some consolation in knowing that the feelings of despair and the feelings of outrage are being held collectively right now.
But I’d say it’s overall despair. There are certainly moments over the past year or so of intense optimism, seeing some of the mobilization that happened last year during the 2020 uprisings, and then, pre-COVID, there were the Canadian pipeline and railway protests. There were moments of intense hope and feeling like people are mobilizing towards building a different world.
But certainly right now, it’s hard to feel particularly optimistic.
How do you feel about awards — and winning them?
It’s certainly nice. There’s the stereotype of cartoonists just spending all their time holed away in seclusion. But you do sometimes forget that people read the work — and sometimes like it! So it’s always a nice thing.
It’s not the most important thing to me, but especially with the Doug Wright Awards — being nominated among peers whose work I hold in such regard. lt is truly an honour to be counted and in such good company. I definitely appreciate it.
When did the desire to create comics start for you?
I’ve always wanted to draw comics. When I was about 14 or 15, I started making zines for the first time. That was when I started becoming aware of the punk scene and the noise scene and DIY communities. I started discovering alternative comics and underground press work.
I started making zines and I started printing my own gig posters for punk shows around where I grew up. Then, when I was 19 or 20, I’d been working on all this self-published material and Koyama Press agreed to publish Lose #1. That was the first time that someone else was interested in printing one of my comics.
I’ve always wanted to draw comics. When I was about 14 or 15, I started making zines for the first time.
I would say that was when I started taking it much more seriously — I was going to commit to longer narratives and make a go of telling longer stories, rather than fussing around doing these one-off experiments. I wanted to try to build something bigger storytelling-wise.
What types of comic books did you read?
I was probably a Marvel Comics kid. I read a lot of everything and then at some point, you’re reading all these superhero comics and you start having interest in reading a romance comic, or a mystery comic. You start reading about superheroes, but you’re eventually going to be interested in a more expressive or experimental drawing style.
At some point you realize you can find stories that aren’t attached to the superhero genre at all. And that was when I started finding out about Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, the Hernandez brothers, Daniel Clowes and Highwater books and all these other breaking away points. High school was when I started becoming aware of alternative comics — and how much else comics have to offer.
The thing that started blowing stuff open for me was the work coming out of the Fort Thunder art scene in Providence, R.I., and artists like Brian Chippendale and Mat Brinkman. Part of that was because the music I was listening to was punk and noise, which reflected a frenetic energy. I love Clowes and Chester Brown — all those artists have been influential on me.
At some point you realize you can find stories that aren’t attached to the superhero genre at all.
I didn’t see that kind of frenetic energy reflected there, until I found those comics that looked like a punk song or looked like a noise song. From there, it also introduced me to traditions of cartooning and illustration that were adjacent to comics, but not strictly comics. Cuban poster art has been a huge influence on not just my posters and illustration, but on my narrative work and all of my comics as well.
What are your thoughts on how people have responded to your work, particularly earlier work like Leaving Richard’s Valley?
I’m happy people responded to that one. That was the most fun I’ve had drawing a comic because I do get some sort of psychic benefit out of drawing comics over and over again, clearly.
But it can be kind of tedious. I don’t always find it very pleasurable. But with Leaving Richard’s Valley, I had fun. Part of it was that I enjoyed being with those characters so much. I’m very happy that people responded to it, and especially because some of the audience response was the most I’ve ever received.
What’s your take on the current comic book scene?
It’s pretty exciting to see the fights to have comics be respected seem to be over. Comics are now everywhere. It does sometimes feel odd for comics to be so visible — and to see in advertising to see comics or the language of comics get used.
It doesn’t always feel much easier to make a living drawing comics. People are making money off comics but it’s not necessarily the cartoonists themselves.
The Next Chapter15:04Michael DeForge on Familiar Face
The Toronto Comic Arts Festival, or TCAF, runs every year in May. How influential was the comic book festival for you?
TCAF is such a huge festival. Because I live in Toronto, it has been especially important to me. The festival was also where I met Annie Koyama for the first time, who is publisher of Koyama Press. She gave me my first break, she took a huge chance on me. She was the one who introduced herself to me as I was probably too nervous to make a proper introduction myself!
She didn’t even know me for my comic. She had just seen my posters around the city and wasn’t aware I drew comics until we started talking.
TCAF is online this year but those physical spaces are something I miss. Even though the Internet does flatten things out a lot more — and make it so that people can interact with each other around the world — a lot of my closest friendships and closest professional relationships have been made at those festivals.
What’s Heaven No Hell about?
The origin of each story was a little different, and they were made across like maybe three or four years total. Because it’s such a smattering of short stories, I hope they read cohesively. You don’t really find out what the short story collection is about until you’re actually piecing them all together — and deciding what order they’re going to be and deciding what gets included and what gets cut.
The big things that come out from Heaven No Hell is that I’m clearly interested in utopian societies. I’m trying to work out different ideas of what utopia could be. I have spent so much of my career creating dystopias and drawing disasters and calamities.
I’m trying to work out different ideas of what utopia could be. I have spent so much of my career creating dystopias and drawing disasters and calamities.
I’ve done post-apocalyptic work. But it makes sense to be working that way because we live in a fairly dystopian time — but a powerful thing that art can do is also show alternative ways of being and living.
I’ve been interested in trying to work out those ideas — and not always working out! My utopias don’t always succeed unambiguously, but it’s valuable to try to sort that out on the page. Even as valuable for me personally, because I find it interesting to pose these hypotheticals and to try to work out what it would look like, if we got what we wanted.
What themes does Heaven No Hell explore?
I didn’t come from a religious background. My parents were both religious, but not heavily so. It wasn’t that present and in my upbringing. But I would say it was more political texts which have informed my thinking, because that also informed my idea of what heaven should be like and what hell should be like.
I do try to write from an abolitionist perspective because that informs both my life and my work.
I play around with the idea of hell and punishment. I do one story in the book that is explicitly like a murder mystery. I do try to write from an abolitionist perspective because that informs both my life and my work. I wanted to find roundabout ways to make those ideas, without it being too overt, at least have those be present just in the background. My ideas around them seep out, hopefully.
What is your general outlook on life? How does that shape your work?
I sometimes think about whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic overall. I have a certain set of political beliefs — I’m a socialist — which I think means that you have to be optimistic. You have a belief that people, if left to their own devices, can and are willing to take care of each other.
I think that’s reflected in my work. But I’ve also had people tell me — because there are so many dystopian pieces and I write horror comics sometimes — that my work is pessimistic. That is why I’m interested in writing utopias — I’m trying to be a bit more explicit about saying, “Hey, this is what I believe, or here’s what I think is possible.”
You have a belief that people, if left to their own devices, can and are willing to take care of each other.
It’s hard to tell if my outlook in life is always reflected on the page. Again, obviously, both of those things get challenged a lot.
It’s hard to feel particularly optimistic right now — but we’ll see if we do another interview in three years, how we both feel about these things!
Michael Deforge’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.