Cartoonist Michael DeForge Talks Adolescence, Anxiety, and Working in a Porn Shop

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Cover of Michael DeForge's First Year Healthy. Photo: Michael DeForge/Drawn And Quartley

In the world of comics, there’s no shortage of narratives about adolescence. But you’ve probably never read one as memorably surreal as Michael DeForge’s Big Kids. DeForge is one of the most inventive and prolific cartoonists working today, producing pieces in the form of book-length narratives or short pieces compiled in his periodic series Lose. His work runs a bizarre gamut, from invented biographies of hideously deformed Canadian monarchs to the tender inner monologue of a misshapen bird.

Big Kids is a small book — only a few inches in width and height — but it packs a punch. It follows the tribulations of a teenager who one day finds himself transformed into a spindly, branch-shaped structure. He soon learns he’s become something called a “tree” (which isn't exactly the same as a root-and-branch tree), and that he’s not alone in his transformation. The ensuing story is alternatingly wistful and stomach-churning, and DeForge’s deceptively simple line-work gives the whole tale a dreamlike quality. We caught up with DeForge to talk about bad adolescences, his work as a designer on the hit cartoon Adventure Time, and the time he worked at a porn shop.

Big Kids stars an anxious kid. What makes you anxious?
Everything makes me anxious. I realize I'm anxious for no reason or reasons I can't always control, but yeah, I was an anxious kid. Now I'm an anxious adult. Even when my comics aren't overtly about that, they do depict a world that has a very nervous, hostile energy to it, because I think that is still the way I entered the world. I feel like there's a buzzing hostility underneath the surface of everything, even though I know rationally that's not actually the case.

What kinds of comics did you read when you were a kid?
My parents had a lot of collections lying around. They had a lot of Bloom County, Calvin & Hobbes, Far Side, and Peanuts collections. As a kid, I was always interested in those. Then my dad also used to read superhero comics, so he had a lot of those lying around as well, and that was something I became interested in throughout my adolescence. I basically learned to read through those collections lying around, so it became a thing that stuck with me.

And when did you start making comics, yourself?
I've always been working on them. As a kid, I'd always have these false starts with comics and throughout high school —

Cover of Big Kids. Photo: Michael DeForge/Drawn And Quartley

Wait, what do you mean by “false starts”?
I'd have some very ambitious idea, and then I'd only draw three pages of it and then move on to the next idea, which I think is pretty common as a kid, where you spend a long time designing characters or coming up with ideas that you never follow through on. Then in high school, I started making zines. I just kept working on it, and all those experiments and false starts and small projects culminated into Lose No. 1 eventually.

What were you doing for money in the early period of your comics work?
I was just working odd jobs. I was dishwashing a lot. I worked in a lot of kitchens, warehouses, telemarketing, worked in a porn store once — just, like, anyone who would pay me. I dropped out of college, and then I just bummed around for a little while. Working on comics at night and then any odd job that would pay me during the day.

A porn store! Any useful lessons learned there?
I don't think anything useful. It was certainly an interesting type of clientele. It was specifically people who, for whatever reason, couldn't access porn at home, and they used the booths. I don't think I picked up anything very useful. It was not one of the cool, progressive sex shops. It was a scuzzy, piece-of-crap place.

At what point did you unclench and say, “Okay, I’m someone who makes comics and that’s a sustainable thing for me”?
It just worked out in bits and pieces. I'd always been doing some freelance illustration on the side, so for a while I was hacking it out that way. I did have a stretch where I was able to stop dishwashing and just do the freelance work. For probably about a year, I was coasting with that. Then it wasn't until Adventure Time hired me that I stabilized, and that's been my steady gig for a few years now. It's a job I like, but it's also nice to know I'm not constantly in danger of having to go wash dishes again.

Excerpt from Big Kids. Photo: Michael DeForge/Drawn And Quartley

What are your daily tasks for Adventure Time?
I'm officially the props and effects designer, so I mostly draw coffee mugs and swords and stuff. Like lightning bolts and things like that. I've done a lot of odd jobs for the show — like, I've done concept art and co-storyboarded an episode.

I hope this isn’t too personal, but you’ve mentioned in your comics that you were hospitalized for mental-health reasons a little while back. Once you got out, how important was your comics work during your re-acclimation to daily life?
It was very important. It became, for a while, the only thing I felt I could rely on. I guess I was struggling with other things in my life, and I felt like I had a hard time relying on my body or the chemistry in my brain or my friends, as these things happen when things get out of control. You feel like you can't really trust yourself or people around you. Artwork became the thing I felt like I could rely on.

How did that trauma influence your work, if at all?
The big thing was that I came to it with a deeper focus, maybe. Like, Okay. I'm going to stop just noodling around. I want to actually finish comics on a regular basis. I don't want to just keep doing these experiments that don't really go anywhere. I was really deciding to throw myself into sustained narratives, more ambitious projects, things like that.

Speaking of sustained narratives: What was the origin of Big Kids?
I wanted it to be a coming-of-age story. I think, originally, it was more of an idea that the trees in the book were like a secret society rather than like a mental and physical maturation. It was a secret, hidden, underground society somebody becomes privy to. Then as I wrote it, the secret-society aspect I just abandoned. It became much more about seeing the world in a different way.

Excerpt from Big Kids. Photo: Michael DeForge/Drawn And Quartley

The book is probably the longest use of a motif you use a lot in your work, which is physical transformation. What is it about transforming bodies that appeals to you so much?
It's something I think about often. I write a lot about times in peoples' lives where you feel like you aren't in control of your body or you start to realize there's a pretty harsh separation between your body or the chemistry of your brain and your self. You don't have agency over it. I like writing about transformation because I find it something that can be both exciting and empowering and then also very frightening in the same breath. Adolescence is full of all of those transformations, which is the allegory in Big Kids.

On a scale of one to total hell, how bad was your adolescence?
It was pretty rough. I think it's pretty rough for everybody. It's a really crappy time to be a person.

How important is doodling in your creative process?
It's very important. A lot of my ideas just come out of just hashing stuff out in a sketchbook. I work in a sketchbook a lot, and it tends to be the default thing. If I'm just in a bar or getting dinner or something, I'm usually just hacking away at something. I tend to find a lot of my ideas come out of that and by accident. I'll draw something and realize, Oh. This might be something I want to explore later on. I'll get asked questions about design and where my choices come from, and it's always hard to explain because the answer is always, "Yeah, just kind of made sense in the moment." Like, it just looked right. I can never tell how I actually got there.

Do you ever get sick of what you’re doing while you’re in the middle of a story?
Oh, yeah. This is probably also a reason why I'm attracted to transformations in comics. I'm the type who gets sick of drawing the same character over and over. At some point, I just feel like I've been drawing the arc of a nose 300 times already. I don't want to again. There was a comic I was drawing where I got so sick of the character's haircut that I just made him shave his head in the middle of it, just so I could draw a different shape for a little while.

Excerpt from Big Kids. Photo: Michael DeForge/Drawn And Quartley

A lot of your stories, including Big Kids, lack traditional endings. The narratives often seem to almost cut off mid-sentence. What do you have against endings?
I don't like endings that feel like they're very punctuated. Real life doesn't have very clean resolutions, and I like the idea that my stories feel like you are just getting a little snippet of someone's life. I want you to feel like the characters have had some sort of arc, like they realized something about the world or something about themselves has changed in some way at the end of it. I like the idea of it feeling that you drift in on their life, and then you drift out of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed