August 17, 2020

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"I Don't Know Who's Going to Read This. I Know it Doesn't Matter." Diving into Michael DeForge's Familiar Face


I’ll admit that I wasn’t quite prepared to read Familiar Face. It is a metaphysically heavy read, one belied by its diminutive size (just longer than a CD case) and its seemingly scattered abstract figure art. But, I’ve read it twice now, and I’m convinced that with Familiar Face, Michael DeForge accomplishes a unique feat, producing a work that is a functional blend of science fiction and abstract art.

The best science or speculative fiction is almost innately experimental, and there are certainly fantastic elements of avant-garde sci-fi, but DeForge’s Familiar Face works in a more synchronous way. The narrative essentially necessitates the abstract form, which in turn necessitates the narrative more so. By experimenting with form, DeForge urges the reader to question themselves. His ponderings are both metaphysical and existential.

No stranger to the avant-garde, DeForge’s style consistently evolves, and he is equally concerned with the use of form as much as he is in pushing forward his concept. As such, the narrative and art are paired seamlessly, and that is a difficult accomplishment because Familiar Face is a very busy book. But it is precisely its business that we can get a better grasp on DeForge’s intentionality. These aren’t cluttered pages. They’re meticulous.

With Familiar Face, Deforge continues on the artistic path he began with Brat and continued with last year’s Leaving Richard’s Valley. By no means was DeForge ever a conventional artist. It isn’t as if you’d confuse his early works with DC house style, but his trio of most recent graphic novels have certainly heightened his experimentation with shape and structure. Parts of Familiar Face feel free form as if the doodles coalesced on the page magically while DeForge unconsciously moved his pencil around the page. It is almost impossible for me to accurately describe the art style of Familiar Face. But, if I were pressed to, I would say that Familiar Face represents an artistic marriage of elements from Keith Haring and late period, post-Cubist Picasso, with the ever-so-noticeable inspirations of Jack Kirby and R. Crumb. The experimentation with form, though, defines both DeForge’s artistic and narrative objectives.

DeForge opens the book with his main character – one whose name we never learn, thereby confirming the state of ironic anonymity forcibly conferred upon the individual in late digital capitalism – proclaiming, “I would hold up and an old photograph. My name would be written on it, but I’d have no idea who or what I was looking at,” and continuing onto the next page, “With every passing year, our bodies became more and more optimized. But optimized how? It was impossible to say.”
The beginning of the story focuses on establishing the setting and context for this story. Ostensibly, this is a world similar to ours, but that is difficult to discern. The figures DeForge chooses to use for his characters and even inanimate objects like subway lines or buildings function more as grotesques, warped objects whose connection to the world we perceive is tenuous at best.

Our protagonist also works as our narrator. She describes her world as one of constant - and importantly - non-communicated updates, almost like apps or computers, restarting to patch flaws or provide different usability. The difference here, though, is that these updates affect the physical world: bodies change, maps shift, buildings move neighborhoods overnight. Our narrator, who remains nameless throughout the book, describes the difficulties of this reality, namely the nature of adaptation in the face of consistently uninterrupted change, not just in the environment, but in interactions with one another. Specifically, she explains the need for she and her girlfriend to rediscover how to physically love one another again. The opposite of intriguing or spontaneous, the constant changes make even sex a burden.

Our narrator speaks directly to the reader for approximately the first quarter of the book, the primary exposition, full of explanations of the world of Familiar Face coupled with some reminiscences and declarations of love for her girlfriend, Jessica Jha. That Jessica is named but our narrator is not hints at some of the philosophy behind Familiar Face, namely that the modern, hyper-technological world robs us of our individuality, even if just incrementally.

She works as a customer service representative of sorts, reading the complaints submitted by other humans before archiving them. She has no ability to take action on any of those complaints. Rather, she simply reads them and acknowledges that they were made, allowing those who submitted the complaints to know they weren't merely screaming into the void. DeForge uses a specific method for the complaint scenes, abandoning the thick colors for black and white scenes framed in triangular panels. There is a specific comment that the complaints could be years old because of a backlog to get through them all, and DeForge confirms this by using typical human properties and body types compared with the abstract grotesques who populate Familiar Face.
The conflict in the story arrives when Jessica disappears. Jessica works as a map maker, and prior to her disappearance, a number of strange map updates occurred - roads were moved, public transit shifted, and houses changed. The day Jessica disappears, the layout of their apartment shifts, and their building itself moves to a more desirable area of the city. The rest of the book is devoted to finding her, or at least coming to terms with her sudden disappearance. Our narrator fluctuates from reasonably heartbroken to (perhaps also reasonably given the environment) obsessive and delusional. She buys a roommate, because you can do that in this world, and that ends poorly as well. Eventually, her depression and despondency spill over into work.
The growing exploration of concepts like trans-humanism or post-humanism permeate Familiar Face. Wrestling with a post-humanist identity is new for neither philosophy nor science fiction, but DeForge’s approach is. By entering through the abstract, DeForge brings a new take on how the corporeal components of post-humanism will play out, namely how the human body will interact with a world defined by and, in increasing cases, created by technology. There is a definite element of control, as the individual has no control over the setup of their body, nor much say in its purpose. In this world, human bodies serve the system. There is an idea of order, or perhaps orderliness, but there isn't necessarily one of cohesion. DeForge takes the commentary about the individual's place in society further by diving into the way work defines the individual. There is a biting critique of the neo-feudal nature of late capitalism at play as DeForge creates a hierarchical work structure where the apparent motivation is a seething bullpen of potential workers waiting to take your job. In many ways, the inhabitants of Familiar Face are living to work.
Somewhat predictably, this society devolves into a revolt. It was incredibly surreal to read Familiar Face as the Black Lives Matter uprisings began. In this world, there was a similar convergence of frustration and some similar results as people began to take back control of their communities.
Michael DeForge’s art has always stuck out for me. With each book, he pushes himself deeper within his experimentation with form. Consequently, the bulk of Familiar Face is about the dissolution of form, and the question about what makes us human – physical or emotional qualities, or perhaps the combination of both. That question is the crux of what DeForge explores with this offering. It is a question that defines contemporary philosophy of mind discourse. In Familiar Face, we’re asked to consider these implications as well, and we’re forced to reckon with how to interpret our humanity in the digital age.

One of the art choices that jumps out at me is the way DeForge colors Familiar Face. He works in dark, bold colors that feel thickly applied, almost matte. There is little to no use of hue, and there is very little fading, very little overlap. Everything seems to stand out on its own. There is a general trippiness to the art, but it’s different from a psychedelic blending. Rather, there is a liquidity to it, but one with some viscosity, like oil and water, or mixing paints caught swirling together, maintaining their own color and line just before being blending into a new color. The plane often feels deliberately two-dimensional.

While so many artists are working to perfect the form, DeForge pulls the rug out from underneath it. There is a Picasso quote my wife loves. It’s on a magnet we used to keep on our fridge. I’m paraphrasing, because the magnet is in French, but it’s something along the lines of, “I spent my whole life learning how to paint like a child.” I think that accurately describes the genius of DeForge’s approach to Familiar Face. It is so simple, it’s sublime.