Like the title letters, the physical format of Michael DeForge's Stunt creates a kind of cage holding the main character inside rigid panels.
Michael DeForge's new graphic novella (Stunt is too short to call a novel) is a compelling combination of excess and restraint. Except for the red letters snaking cage-like around the main character in the cover image, DeForge limits his palette to blue and white on black backgrounds.
The dimensions of the physical book are unusually limited too, about 3" x 8", making each page a small, wide rectangle that DeForge consistently grids into single panels or two equally sized square ones. The book could have been printed in a more standard shape, arranging three rows down each page, but the resulting 24-page comic would be less engaging. Like the title letters, the physical format creates a kind of cage holding the main character inside rigid panels made even more unescapable by the ever-present page edges surrounding the black margins.
DeForge's narrator is a suicidal stunt double trying to escape the confines of his existence. He fantasizes about plunging to his death while shooting a skyscraper scene. He dreams of crashing a car into an exploding oil tanker, but even then he survives due to a filming mishap that placed the actual star at the steering wheel. The stunt double (he goes unnamed except for one severely cropped panel of his imagined "in memory of" death credit at the end of the film) is terrible at dying. Even his actual suicide attempts by razor and pills fail, leaving him still boxed inside DeForge's panels.
While the book's structure coordinates well with its subject matter, DeForge's drawing style deepens those connections further. Like most cartoons, the stunt double's body is impossibly malleable. His rubbery muscles enclose only the vague idea of a skeleton as the lines of his body curve to exaggerate his actions. Sometimes the exaggerations are loosely naturalistic, as when DeForge draws him from extremely foreshortened angles, but the effects run much deeper, altering the fabric of the story reality.
His hair could be a fifth limb. His blue skin sweats blue droplets as if his whole figure were in the process of oozing apart. When he imagines his fatal impact, his body seems to splash across the sidewalk. When he imagines being consumed by blue flames, the lines of the flames are indistinguishable from the lines of his body, as if emerging from him.
Instead of windows into a film-like story world, sometimes the panel edges serve as barriers that his body contorts to fill. When his suicide attempts fail, he imagines exercising himself to death, literally wringing his body out: "Nothing left of me but knotted muscle and pools of sweat." DeForge draws the visual metaphors of a twisted towel and puddle—but are they metaphors? Is this a naturalistic story drawn in a distorted style, or is this an actual cartoon world that obeys different laws of physics? DeForge exploits that ambiguity well.
The world is absurdist. The narrator doubles for an actor named Jo Rear, providing the dreamed death headline joke: "Rear, Ended." Fortunately, DeForge mostly avoids that kind of comic excess, instead emphasizing the surreal plot development of Jo hiring his double to impersonate him in his so-called "real" life.
Starting with innocuous commercial photoshoots, the arrangements escalates to TV interviews and then personal dates. Together the two attempt a kind of career suicide, turning "Jo Rear" into a self-destructive, relationship-ending, contract-breaking, conspiracy-theory-espousing, public-urinating performance piece. The "stunt", however, only makes the persona more popular, spurring a viscous cycle of increasing degradation and humiliation.
But who is declining? Is it the actual Jo giving the look-alike main character his instructions? Is it the double literally embodying the role? Is it some third, technically non-existent entity who exists only in performance? Is it all of the above? None of the above? The interrogation of identity extends to Jo and the narrator even when alone together and so not performing for the public. Their bodies seem not only increasingly interchangeable, but the two figuratively and literally merge as they have sex in the walled privacy of Jo's mansion.
Though homoerotic, DeForge's images are too surreal, too formally abstract to create any prurient effect. These aren't two human bodies having sex. It's barely even cartoon sex, since so many of the curves and blue shapes are indistinguishable. Out of context, the last two panels of the sex scene wouldn't register as representational images.
I won't give away how DeForge concludes his metafictional comics stunt, but it's a fitting ending to both his narrator's personal plot as well as his own visual experimentation. Since Koyama Press is closing down soon too, Stunt may also be a fitting ending to DeForge's multi-book career with the beloved publisher.