‘I Like Writing Stories That Get Carried Away’: An Interview with Michael DeForge

Talking to the author and artist of Leaving Richard’s Valley and Stunt about addressing working conditions in comics, benevolent cults, and the pleasure of soliloquies.

Leaving Richard’s Valley, the graphic novel by Michael DeForge published earlier this year by Drawn & Quarterly, begins with half the cast fleeing paradise, banished from their anti-technology cult for importing forbidden “toxins.” They’re all talking animals, heart-shaped raccoons and pasta-legged spiders, as if the fauna got thrown out of Eden rather than the humans. DeForge follows them from that Toronto park to DIY venues and alternative schools, affectionately satirizing the city’s history of experimental living. Anxiety prevails: Lyle the raccoon spends much of his time sickly and weeping, while buff frog Caroline tries manipulating her way into the human guru’s heart. (“I love Richard so much, sometimes I want to hug him until his head explodes. I want to kiss his arms until they become skeleton arms.”) Even Richard himself proves to be less of a cult leader than a lost, forlorn mystic.

DeForge originally serialized Leaving Richard’s Valley on Instagram, with an episodic structure of four-panel scenes—a contrast from his new book Stunt, which scales the heights of theatrical obsession. It matches the pace of a place devoured by capitalism, one where property receives care denied to mere tenants. Midway through the book, one exile asks: “Do you ever get this feeling that living in a city is kind of like being at a party that’s gone on too long, and all the cool people left way earlier in the night and the only ones still sticking around are just a bunch of desperate losers?”

Chris Randle: One of the things I loved about this book is the way you braid together all these strands of Toronto subculture, from ’70s experiments like Rochdale College up to the precarious spaces where people try to throw noise concerts or whatever now. I mean, there’s a Cineforum joke in it, that’s a pretty deep cut. How did you begin synthesizing that history?

Michael DeForge: I didn’t want to pretend that I could do a very comprehensive history, but Rochdale was certainly something I wanted to at least evoke. I tried to map out a lot of my own experiences in Toronto, that are specific to art spaces or DIY spaces here, which is why they were a little more prominent in the present-day storyline. Rochdale is sort of alluded to as something from the past. A lot of the time I did feel like I was writing it for other Torontonians, and I wanted them to be able to recognize their city in it. I hope it’s accessible enough that anyone can read it, but I did hope that people from Toronto would recognize it.

I feel like Toronto is also unusual—in a place like New York, most of these stories have been told many times across decades, ’70s New York has been mythologized to an absurd degree. Some people enjoy careers from being around back then. Whereas Toronto really was a colonial backwater for so long. Wyndham Lewis called it a “sanctimonious icebox” when he was living here in the 1940s, that conservatism and cursed Methodist repression. Here it feels like more of a rupture from what came before. Did you do a lot of research, or was it sort of stuff you already knew about?

I didn’t do much research, just because that’s not the type of writer I generally am. There are parts of the city’s history that I’ve sought out because it’s something I’m interested in, but I didn’t do research specifically for this book. Things like Rochdale, or things like Therafields, or histories of certain neighborhoods are just something I’m naturally interested in, but I wouldn’t want to pretend to be a historian or do a very good job of that, which is why a certain amount of the book is made-up stuff … I’m interested in the history of the city, the history of different communes here or different art spaces, and specific to this book, certain cults.

I thought it was interesting that you go into Richard’s history as well. There’s this ambivalence about him—I love that early shot of him mantled in shadow, striking a commanding pose, while he also has a tiny frog on his shoulder. He kind of wavers between creepy and laughable. Did you have a particular cult leader in mind, or…?

I didn’t want to model him after anyone in particular, but the types of cults I’ve always been interested in tend not to be the ones run by people who are just bad-faith actors from the beginning. Outright con artists, or sociopaths, or whatever. I’ve always been interested in ones that maybe start out well-meaning, and it brings out some aspect of a leader’s personality, or there’s something inherently flawed or toxic about the power structure.

I remember reading, because he died recently—it was this obituary of Lyndon LaRouche in Jacobin. I didn’t know that he had been a goofy but broadly conventional leftist-intellectual wannabe in the 1950s, and only later on started claiming things like the Beatles being a psy-ops plot created by the royal family.

In general I like writing stories that get carried away, and in Valley I wanted that to be Richard’s arc, that things maybe just got away from him and he sort of becomes aware of it at some point, like, “Oh, I started a cult.”

Did you ever see The Master?

Oh yeah, I love that movie.

One of the things I love about that movie is how the central relationship feels so unstable, their co-dependency. There’s a father/son dynamic, but also audience/performer, and at the end, this gesture towards being thwarted lovers. I think the characters here were similarly complicated.

Yeah. The Source Family was another one that I thought of, they operated in California. As far as cults go, they were… fairly benevolent? I don’t know if that’s the right word, but their leader didn’t necessarily set out to deceive anyone. And they mostly funded themselves off of money they made from one of the earliest vegetarian restaurants, one of the first health food restaurants in the U.S. And they made a lot of music together, Sky Saxon [of the Seeds] was one of the more famous members. They’ve reissued a bunch of those records.

The park that the valley of the title sits inside, is that a specific location?

I wanted it to take place in High Park, but it’s not important that it takes place there.

Do you think running has changed the way that you see the cityscape? I was thinking of that thing you did on Instagram, when you got locked out while training, that really funny series of stories responding to events around you.

Only in that I see more of it than I would if I were just using transit or just walking, because running for so long, you end up in new nooks and crannies out of sheer boredom, you want to change up the route… I thought the idea of a group living in a park was funny, and I liked the joke of the early strips being them secluded in nature and then realizing if you just walk 300 feet there’s, like, a traffic jam or something.

I really liked the set design of those scenes, the cobwebs and rocks lying around. Do you feel like working on prop design for Adventure Time influenced that?

I don’t know about that, but part of the premise of the characters going through a city was it having a road-trip feel at different points, seasons changing, that I could switch up the settings a lot. Knowing I’d be working on the strip every day, I wanted to be flexible enough that I wouldn’t get bored, and if I did have it take place entirely in the park or entirely on one sidewalk or whatever, I would get bored just drawing bricks all the time, drawing leaves all the time. I feel like so many of my design choices in comics are just ways of tricking myself into staying interested, because it’s so boring to draw the same characters with the same setting over and over again.

I think a lot of my favorite writers or artists don’t really care about plot. I mean, I respect people who are good at that, but—I remember you said once that Gilbert Hernandez was your favourite living cartoonist?

Yep.

I feel the same way, and one reason for that is that he has these obsessions, some of which are… easy to spot, and he just goes ham on them, but not in a repetitive way. Elaborating on them over and over.

Yeah, especially where he’s taken his genre work lately, where each one feels like he’s expanding on—the way he keeps expanding on his world is so inspiring to read.

I’ve noticed there’s one technique you return to often, sort of direct address, when characters are speaking directly to the camera, as it were. And in this book there’s the musical interlude, which might be a new variation, the Sondheim-style emotional plea. Why do you think you keep going back to that?

Some of that was just switching up—doing a daily strip, I think I would’ve had a hard time if it was just back-and-forth dialogue, or if it was only narration, so being able to switch it up was interesting to me. But I think in general I like having characters that deliver a lot of soliloquies. I just think that’s a funny comic-book thing, like, walking along and delivering some big speech. I always found that funny. There’s a joke with Richard’s Valley where I wanted each character to be secretly a musical-theatre nerd, which is also why I have them sing all the time, I wanted that to be a part of it that never actually got addressed.

There’s a scene in Richard’s Valley where this male model speaks out in defense of labour rights and the evil of unpaid internships. How do you feel about the state of labour organizing in comics specifically?

Speaking about working conditions in comics can be a little frustrating, because we spent so long making sure comics could be accepted, or a reputable art form, and we’ve gotten there. A lot of people could identify Robert Crumb or Rocket Raccoon on sight, we’re on magazine covers and art galleries, whatever. But that hasn’t improved the working conditions of comics that much, and there’s clearly money to be made in comics, because if there wasn’t there wouldn’t be film studios or the world of illustration or animation all pilfering from us. It’s just rarely cartoonists making that money. So it can be very frustrating, because we still end up getting sidetracked by these conversations about respectability when I don’t think that’s the conversation. And I’m speaking as someone who’s lucky, I get to make a living off of my art. My publishers have given me a pretty fair shake, they’ve always looked out for me, which is not the case with most people and their experience with publishers, either on the mainstream or alternative side of comics… It’s a weird thing where comics are big, comics are everywhere, why is it so impossible to make a living as a cartoonist? There’s a disconnect, and I feel like fixing that should be the problem, not just boosting the visibility of comics or whatever.

I haven’t lived in Toronto for several years now, but whenever people post apartment listings online, when friends are looking for a place, it just seems nightmarish.

Yeah, I’ve said this when talking about this book before, my relationship with Toronto. And I don’t think I would—if I moved here now at the age when I first did, I wouldn’t be able to live here. I probably wouldn’t even have considered it, and I wouldn’t have been able to make the connections that I made and build the peer group that I built, because so much of that was because I was able to do a lot of low-stakes experiments with friends. And I don’t think there’s space to do that here, and it really freaks me out—I don’t know if it’s too late or not, but that’s a death knell for an arts scene, when there’s so much pressure to turn a profit off of your work. That’s how you end up with an arts scene like New York’s, where nothing can blossom except under extreme duress. I don’t want that for Toronto, or for any city.

It’s not related to Richard’s Valley in particular, but I know we both adore Derek Jarman’s films, and I’ve never seen anyone ask you about him in interviews. What is it that you love about his work?

The thing that first attracted me to his work was his set design, because I watched [Ken Russell’s] The Devils before I’d watched any of the movies Jarman directed. And I really liked how intricate it was, but also how slapdash, and reading about the process behind those sets was especially fascinating. It was all just, like, leftover brick material, and I found that really inspiring. That carried over to my interest in his movies, and I like that they’re so humane and thoughtful and funny and devastating. I love how funny he is, I think he’s kind of underrated as a comic director.

Wittgenstein has shots that are almost like sight gags.

Yeah, all of his movies have those sorts of tableaux, like, gags. I don’t go very deep with movies generally, but I’ve always loved Jarman’s.

You are someone who plays the card game Magic: The Gathering [laughs] … If you’ve been drawing for eight hours, do you find that it’s a good way to, I don’t know, relax? Or is running better for that?

Running’s better. I get kind of worked up with Magic. I’ve realized that I really enjoy forms of gambling, and Magic is the least damaging way I can indulge that [laughter]. The one and only time I went to Vegas, I fell asleep at a slot machine. Somebody had to pull me away. So, I couldn’t say that Magic is a cheap hobby, but it’s like one of the least harmful ways I can indulge that.

I feel like I have a similarly compulsive personality in that way, and yeah, nobody’s going to break your legs over Magic.

I had to put certain limits around how seriously I could take it and how much I would play, because in general, yeah, when I get into something I tend to get pretty obsessive about it, whether it’s running or butter tarts or whatever, I have a hard time doing anything halfway, that’s just the type of personality I have. I have a hard time picking up a casual hobby. So I had to put limits around Magic, like, I can’t play more than X number of hours per day, I should never spend more than X amount of dollars on it, all these things, because it’s such a time suck.

Can you tell me about Stunt? It’s one of the last comics Koyama Press will ever publish, right?

It’s the last one that I’ll be working on with Anne [Koyama], I think this fall lineup is—she’ll still be operating as a publisher for another year or two after, but this will be her final lineup of releases, I think. [Stunt] is a short one. I had a lot of trouble with it. It’s about a stunt double who gets hired to impersonate this actor in his real life, and he starts asking him to do increasingly self-destructive acts on his behalf, sabotaging his career and personal life. It’s 72 pages, a small book, and a lot of it ends up being about trying to write about suicidal ideation. It’s a pretty personal book because of that, and I actually considered not publishing it—I serialized a version of it on my Patreon, and I changed a lot since then. Even though I’m writing about personal experiences, I almost considered keeping this one unpublished, but I don’t know, someone talked me into it [laughter]. This was one that I agonized over a lot, more than others, and like many of my comics I’m sure someone might read it and not assume how personal it is, but for me it is, so I feel some amount of embarrassment. But I’m sure it’ll be fine once it’s out there.

I feel like the former cult members in Richard’s Valley are dealing with traumatic experiences, but they’re all these cute animal characters, which displaces it a little, and they don’t recognize what happened. They’re making deadpan jokes, like: “My mom is Richard’s wife now!” It sounds like Stunt goes into that more overtly.

I do still hope it’s funny [laughs]. I have all these hangups about it and all these anxieties about it, but I also recognize that, for most readers, it’s just going to be another one of my comics, and probably reads the same. My usual bullshit [laughter].

Is there anything else coming out that you’re excited about?

I’m working on a graphic novel that will hopefully be done this year, it’s a science fiction one. I guess I’ve done a few science-fiction short stories, but I don’t even know how to explain this book [laughs]. I’m excited to be halfway through it.

Is it like Samuel Delany science fiction or space-opera science fiction?

It’s more Delany than space opera. I don’t know if I have a space opera in me.

You know that he wrote a couple of Wonder Woman comics back in the day, right?

Those were a little disappointing. I spent a long time hunting them down at some comics convention years ago, and I don’t remember them being cheap either—I had high hopes for them, and they were a little disappointing, because I do like Delany a lot.

You’re expecting a Wonder Woman character to cycle through three different sexual orientations in this story, or the villain will be a fascist supercomputer, and then it’s just, like… a pretty good Wonder Woman comic.

Yeah, I was expecting at least a spectacular failure, but they ended up reading just like something he did for extra cash.

Is there anything you can say about Koyama Press in general?

Only that I’ve just been so grateful for her. And she’s such a dear friend I’m sad that I won’t be able to work with her professionally anymore, but as a friend I’m happy that she gets a vacation. I don’t know anyone who works harder than her, so the idea of her being able to have more time for herself makes me really happy. It’s bittersweet to see that Koyama Press won’t be publishing anymore, but I love her so much. I’ve spoken a lot about how big a risk it was that she printed me to begin with.

And just the fact that she’s alive is kind of miraculous, from what I understand [Anne Koyama had received what was thought to be a terminal medical diagnosis before going into comics publishing].

Oh yeah, I mean, her story is so inspiring. But even taking chances on new artists isn’t something that a lot of publishers do, and I think that doesn’t get spoken about enough. Now there’s an expectation, I think in every arts scene but certainly in comics, where you build an audience yourself, and then a publisher picks you up and gives you distribution or publicity or whatever. But that’s not the case with Anne, she still has that old—like when Drawn & Quarterly first published [Seth’s] Palookaville, working with someone who’s raw and an unknown quantity. There aren’t many publishers that still work that way, that’s just not the model anymore, for a bunch of different reasons. So to have someone in your corner who’s an actual advocate was so huge. Not every artist can build an audience for themselves.

Or they’re encouraged to do it by making, like, fan art. 

Yeah. Not everyone is making work that’s easily marketable, not everyone is good at being a cheerleader for themselves. People talk about how the internet has democratized art, and it’s like, well, yes and no. Because not everyone can do that, and to have someone who can advocate for you, contextualize your work, that’s the real value of a publisher, an editor, a curator, rather than just being a gatekeeper. That’s what Anne did for me, and I’m just so grateful for it.

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