Saying there's a new Michael DeForge comic out is a bit like saying the sun rose this morning -- it's undeniably important, but it's also such a reliable occurrence that it's easy to take for granted just how nice a thing it is. Well, there's a new Michael DeForge comic out, folks, and it just might be his best yet. Incinerator, a beautifully produced new minicomic, is a boldly drawn, disturbingly surrealistic bit of body horror about a human-beagle hybrid and what happens to his humanity once his animal side is forcibly removed. It's completely absurd stuff, so utterly bizarre that the reader forgets to find the strangeness amusing and gets taken over by the cold chills DeForge's increasingly stark, unsettling images call up. Cartooned so simply that it regularly approaches the breaking point of abstraction, the pages of Incinerator toy mercilessly with their hapless protagonist, too pathetic to even be likable, producing a a comic with a grimmer sense of humor than anything we've seen in a long time. It's a fantastic piece of work, and I was thrilled to be able to chat with its creator about the process and ideas behind its creation.
MATT SENECA: You've been sticking harder and harder to the six-panel grid lately, with this zine and Open Country. Can you talk a little bit about why? What does that particular layout offer a comics artist?
MICHAEL DEFORGE: 6-panel grids seem very efficient. You can put a beat on every second panel, and there's that zig-zag shape propelling the reader along. Panel to panel, it's a very even meter and it's fast for me to pace out sequences that way.
Also, I need my panels to have more room to breathe when working on anything "zine sized" (5.5x8.5) like Incinerator, so two panels per row works out well. Adding a center column at that width makes things too dense for the way I draw backgrounds. I generally alternate between having very busy, cluttered backgrounds to really sparse, minimal ones, so I want a wider space to lay out either.
SENECA: The most obvious influence on Incinerator is definitely Charles Schulz, who seems to be showing up more visibly in a lot of noteworthy alt-comics these days -- I'm thinking of Dan Clowes, Sammy Harkham, Jaime Hernandez. How has Schulz influenced your work, what about his comics is special to you?
DEFORGE: My parents had collections of Peanuts, Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes lying around as a kid, so those were the strips I grew up with and the ones that got me interested in drawing. I think I learned to read with them. Of those three, Peanuts is the only one I've consistently gone back to for every part of my life. Not that I don't revisit the other two, but I don't think I've ever actually stopped reading Peanuts.
Schulz has affected the way I approach comics as much as (probably even more than) the way I draw comics. Growing up, he was like my ideal -- this guy who poured his entire life into his work.
SENECA: Was anybody else's work a specific influence on Incinerator? I noticed that the half-dog, half-man design of the main character is super similar to something Ben Jones was doing in the latest Kramers Ergot, and after his surgical intervention he looks a lot like Cool George Herc from Powr Mastrs. Is any of this conscious? Who were you looking at while you were drawing this stuff?
DEFORGE: The character design was basically an accident. I was trying to draw that image of Snoopy and Charlie Brown from behind and wasn't really nailing it. I doodled a head and a set of legs on one of the Snoopy drawings, and thought it looked funny enough to keep drawing.
SENECA: I thought this was by far the scariest, most disturbing comic you've ever done; did you set out wanting it to be that way? Are there any strategies you use to create scary material specifically, or do you just draw ideas and hope they hit with people?
DEFORGE: In general, the horror elements in my work come from things I personally find unsettling or upsetting. I don't know if I have any specific strategies. Incinerator was mostly improvised, though. Everything just sort of worked out. I started the comic thinking it would mostly be gag-driven, but the tone would change as I drew it.
I actually thought it was one of my more lighthearted comics while I was drawing it - like, this fun, goofy thing. But then the finished product reads a bit differently, maybe? That happens, though.
SENECA: In your more recent work -- maybe your past two or three comics -- I feel like you've been turning away from more heavily detailed, illustrative drawing and toward a more broadly cartooned, simplified look. Am I right about that, and if so, what's the thinking behind it?
DEFORGE: You're right -- on Incinerator and Kid Mafia in particular, I'm trying to simplify my style a bit. There are a few reasons behind it.
My day job is doing prop designs on Adventure Time, and the show's house style is more minimal than how I was drawing before. I work under Andy Ristaino, and he sends me notes and corrections on all the drawings I give him. The note I get the most is that I have to simplify my designs. I'm usually hiding something I'm not confident drawing with some extra lines or needlessly complicated shapes. Andy is an amazing cartoonist and one of those dudes who can just draw circles around everybody, so seeing some of his corrections makes me realize just how vague and inelegant my drawing can be - so those are things I'm trying to work on (and hopefully slowly improving on.)
The other thing is, I just get sick of drawing one way all the time, so I purposely try to alternate styles between projects. I'm working on pages for a story for Lose #4 where my inking has to be denser, and I'm rendering a lot of tiny details on each page. I would do pages for Incinerator between those ones, where my drawings could be simpler and looser. Switching like that stops me from burning out too hard on any one comic.
SENECA: Finally, I wanted to ask how you feel about drawing the human figure. You mentioned something on twitter a while ago about not being particularly enamored of your figure drawing ability, but in Open Country I thought you were doing really fantastic stuff with it. Here, though, there's almost no figure drawing -- even the normal human bodies are either obscured or simplified to an enormous degree. Do you like figure drawing? Do you get much out of doing it?
DEFORGE: I don't think I'm very good at drawing the human figure, but I do enjoy doing it. But yeah, it rarely shows up in my comics. I think Open Country was the first comic of mine where it's actually a part of the story. Even there, I'm giving most of my characters the same default design characteristics I draw on everybody - oversized heads, skinny noodle arms, boxy shoulders. It's factoring more into some porn comics I'm drawing for some time this year, but who knows. It's something I want to keep working at.