PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

Michael DeForge's 'Brat' Challenges the Act of Reading Comics

While dimension-deforming environments are normal in cartoon worlds, few wander as far to the edge of pure abstraction—let alone cross it -- as Michael DeForge does in Brat.

Brat
Michael DeForge

Koyama Press

Sep 2018

Other

Sometimes I think I'm reading Michael DeForge the wrong way. His Instagram strip, Leaving Richard's Valley, is coming out as a book collection from Drawn & Quarterly soon, but I'm catching up on Brat, released last fall from Koyama Press. It's a story of an aging celebrity, a former juvenile delinquent renowned for acts of vandalism as art installations. She's still appreciated by her now middle-aged followers. But I'm not sure "story" is the best word to describe these graphic narratives. Or rather, Brat is one perfectly accurate description that might accidentally obscure what's most interesting about DeForge's art.

At one level, Brat is simply a cartoon—albeit an extreme one. While all cartoonists simplify and distort natural proportions, few stray quite so far from recognizable anatomy. Charles Schultz's Peanuts characters have impossibly large and round heads, an effect further exaggerated in Trey Parker and Matt Stone's South Park cast. In DeForge's book, the character Brat's head is large and round too—at least five times larger than the tiny circle of her torso, with pipe-cleaner-like limbs extending almost tenfold. If any other male artist drew his female protagonist in a nude shower scene on the second page of a comic, I would worry, but there's not even the most remote element of eroticism here. While still somehow registering as "human", the level of abstraction breaks even the most expansive norms of cartooning.

That abstraction applies to the rest of the story world, as well. While DeForge is capable of drawing geometric depth, complete with multiple planes and vanishing points, he prefers flat surfaces that evoke while also rejecting the illusion of three-dimensional space. Sometimes he combines the approaches for discordant effects. As Brat spray-paints the cascading walls of a building complex, the street beyond features solid red vehicles above a grid of sidewalks squares. Not only is the 90 degree angle entirely flattened, the cars look like stenciled cut-outs reduced to their absolute minimal shapes. Any further reduction and they would cease to represent anything at all.

While dimension-deforming environments are another norm of cartoon worlds, few wander this far to the edge of pure abstraction—let alone cross it. When I say I'm reading Brat the wrong way, it's because I'm spending too much time actually reading. DeForge's layouts are traditional grids, most often 3x2 with a range of full-page and other variants to give the reading paths some visual rhythm. Most panels also feature a cluster of words, usually in talk balloons as characters converse or Brat's monologues break the fourth wall. Both acts—following a sequence of images and decoding written words—are considered "reading" when it comes to comics, often with an emphasis on the literal, word-focused sense. That's also usually where "story" happens. And DeForge supplies plenty of that -- Brat torches a police car, Brat reads her fan mail, Brat shits on the floor—but there are other kinds of stories on these pages too.

(courtesy of Koyama Press)

As I wander deeper into the story-world narrative about the narcissistic crises of a still-profitable has-been depressed by her nostalgia-driven fanbase, I find myself more interested in the surface qualities of the images themselves—how the identical black dots of Brat's eyes and nose shift within the panel frames, or how an x-shape of a cat wraps itself around the column of Brat's nominal leg, or how two figures move through a landscape of … are those black those clusters supposed to be stars or tumbleweeds or just random shapes? When the young Brat narrates in a flashback, her body's tiny shapes occupy only a fraction of panels that alter color with each iteration. The colored squares don't represent the actual colors of walls or anything else in the story world. They're just squares of color arranged on the surface of the pages. Even their sequence breaks down, since there's no narrative logic to which color appears when in the story and so where on the page. The effect is closer to one of Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe grids than to visual storytelling. It's just abstraction.

And what would happen if there weren't any words? The back of Brat's head -- two yellow swaths above a black semicircle -- is visually undecodable out of context. Many of these panels would lose all representational meaning. DeForge is, of course, fully aware and manipulating these effects, and some of the book's strongest episodic sequences take full advantage of them. "Tantrum", for example, begins with Brat crying and swearing as her body warps into even more impossible proportions, deeper distortions of her already cartoonish distortions. In "Hi Mom", the figure of Brat's crying father bends and merges with her mother until the two are a single yellow pyramid. "Immodest" features Brat's drunken form devolving into squiggly shapes and then retracting into single lines before shrinking into literally nothing. While the images nominally represent events in the story world—she's depressed, she's drunk—the "story" is about the shifting relationships of shapes on the page.

There's plenty more of the conventional kind of stories too -- a fling with an interviewer, the corruption of an intern, a kidnapping, various emotional meltdowns -- but while each is entertaining, the bigger conceptual picture and its baseline pseudo-reality of extreme abstraction is the graphic novel's main strength. Because comics are traditionally understood as literature rather than art, and so are "read" rather than viewed, it's possible to appreciate Brat as just a fun riff on a comically and nihilistically self-involved performance artist-criminal twirling through a sequence of chaotic plotlines. But that requires looking not at but through the images, attending less to their actual qualities, and understanding them primarily as symbols and so almost as words that represent events in some other far-off place, and not as arrangements of ink on the physical pages in your hands.

While DeForge offers both kinds of stories, Brat is at its playful best when viewed rather than merely read.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.