May 27, 2014

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A Body Beneath by Michael DeForge

Written and illustrated by Michael DeForge 
Published by Koyama Press

 It’s the images in Michael DeForge’s A Body Beneath that really dig beneath your skin. They’re just not right in the head. If you could separate DeForge’s story in this collection from the artwork, you could almost mistake a few of the stories for ones by alternative stalwarts Chris Ware, Chester Brown or Adrian Tomine. DeForge’s short story “Dog 2070” feels like a classic alt comic about a middle age loser who is disconnected from his family, culture and the world. It could be almost any Daniel Clowes’ story. DeForge’s Stephen is cut from the cloth of the prototypical angsty male who has grown up to be awkward and socially inept in almost every case. It’s one of those lovable (i.e. pathetic) loser stories that so many comics have been made about. But more like Brown than Tomine or Ware, DeForge makes you squirm in as you read it thanks to his surreal art. Think of Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown crossed with Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time.

 DeForge's comics live in this weird nether space as a twisted reflections of our fears and insecurities. The stories in A Body Beneath work as nightmares and horror. His drawings are mesmerizing as he turns the world into something both beautiful and vulgar. His characters are anything but handsome or pretty. They're sweaty, gangly things that more represent what we actually think we and the rest of humanity are rather than what we want to be. He throws these sometimes cute and sometimes revolting characters into an uncaring world. "Living World," a story about first loves and mind altering substances turns the world into a bad acid trip. The laws of nature are bent to alter our own perceptions of reality. DeForge's drawings are nothing like what we see when we look outside of our windows but they reflect a secret reality that we experience when we close our eyes.

For DeForge's comics to reflect our worst dreams, we have to have those nightmares and fears. DeForge zones in perfectly on those bad dreams, everything from the perverse and secret history of Canadian royalty to the most basic fears of sex. His secret history of the Canadian Royal Family is everything we fear (and yet secretly want) from any royalty. There are secrets in every closet that he lays out from secret rituals to unknown members of the family. It's right out of any conspiracy gossip rag except that DeForge makes it more alien and monstrous than anything we would want to imagine. These are the people that rule and it seems so normal and right. DeForge creates a secret royalty that's so outrageous it's more believable than anything any royal family probably does partake in.

In A Body Beneath, there are the stories that are so unbelievable that they feel so solid and then there's the stories that take the normal and make them unbelievable sublime. "Dog 2070" is one such story. The other is "Someone I Know," a story where after visiting a sex club, David begins developing a second layer of skin beneath his normal skin, one of leather and metal studs. It's the thoughts of sex that lead to a body altering sexually transmitted disease. DeForge alters the world around us into a nightmare state in these stories that reflect back on us. We accept these stories and these dreams as some heightened reality in DeForge's stories because none of them feel so far gone into the realm of fantasy to make us doubt them. DeForge brings us to the brink but never pushes us over it into a clear fantasy world.

DeForge's stories in this book are not about how the world is but how we fear it is when we're not looking. In his previous books Very Casual and Ant Colony, DeForge still plays with their nightmarish qualities but he pushes you clearly beyond the point of reality. Ant Colony builds this completely other world of insects and hierarchies that clearly signal that you've stepped into something else. The stories in A Body Beneath never give you that kind of comfort. They never give you that out from the feeling that they're showing you some world that is more real that the world you experience day in and day out. A Body Beneath is about the world that exists once you've given over to dreams and nightmares. It's worlds of fears, insecurities, diseases, grime, filth and simply scary things. In a confessional forward to the book, DeForge admits thinking, "This probably won't be a very cohesive collection. Maybe that's fine..." DeForge's cartooning is the cohesive element because in each story as he gives us stories and images that we don't want see but he makes them so beautifully gruesome that we can't look away.