Lose #2- “It’s Chip.”
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Michael DeForge is probably the universal answer for everyone when they are asked “who’s the greatest cartoonist coming up today?”, which is probably a weirder fact than it seems. Because there actually is a universal answer, it is kind of hard to know about DeForge and not acknowledge that the guy is amazing, whether you’re coming from seeing him in Strange Tales or Vice online or are actually lucky enough to find a physical copy of his own books – no matter what it is undeniable what the guy is capable of, regardless of the reader’s tastes going in. Personally, I’ve only seen bits and pieces of DeForge’s work, and Lose #2 is the first thing of his I’ve read that goes past a few pages. What struck me the most when reading it wasn’t just how well it was drawn (and make no mistake, it is), but how gripping “It’s Chip.” is as a story.
DeForge has developed the strangest tone – I’ve seen it compared to David Lynch but that’s not right. Lynch is similarly interested in brushing the horrifying with the banal, but even at his weirdest, Lynch is easily understandable as exposing the emotions underneath the common and the everyday. Lynch is about the unconscious in a really straightforward way, and “It’s Chip.” really doesn’t feel like it is aiming for those buttons at all. It feels like Deforge is more interested in underlining a specific series of types (he gets the way people speak down on the page, especially kids) that just happen to be suburban people, instead of make a commentary on them, Lynch-style. The story of “It’s Chip.” is a kind of update on an old Night Gallery trope of having a small child fall in love with something that’s not just horrifying, but dangerous to the entire community surrounding the child. The update here is that instead of illustrate some kind of emotional damge in the child, Rod Serling-style, there is an almost Miyazaki-like sweetness to Chip. A sweetness, as blind as it is, that is absent in the whole of the characters he’s got to interact with. Chip and his brother Reggie (who has a great line “He’s that weirdo whose Dad talks all retarded because of the war or something”) find a rotting body of a horse infested with giant insect-spider things, and Chip falls in love with one of the spiders that walks around with the horse’s severed head on it like a hat.Instead of being about how society tries to separate Chip and his pet, it is kind of played as a real love story for Chip – with the spider-horse wandering off in the night to leave him despairing, only to find a sac full of hundreds of spider maggot babies he can love in it’s place. It’s like My Neighbor Totoro with devastating physical deformities or Charlotte’s Web with death creeping around the edges.
Chip’s love of the thing is shown to be pure and innocent. And the spider, while malicious, seems to hold the same affection for Chip, at least temporarily. But it’s played for tragedy, which only adds to the sickening crawl of the story as a whole. This is as successful a horror story I’ve read in comics – it kind of gets at the ability of images to add up to a feeling of unease, which I associate with Otomo’s Domu more than any comic I’ve read that’s been labeled “horror”. Telling a horror story in comics is always going to be reliant on how grotesque the artist can get and still be coherent, and DeForge has managed to be both consistently clear and increasingly contagious.
The control of the page DeForge has – this works the way it does because of the clockwork pacing his choice to use the 9-panel grid makes the piece read like a metronome, reliably drilling to the reader as the story takes confounding turns or shows us something scarily brand new. The pacing remains the same no matter what – if it is a conversation, a series of actions slowly delineated, or vast jump cuts. It creates a sense of mundanity even with the most disturbing drawings, but it also creates a kind of continuity so all the scenes maintain a visual tone even though the emotional tone goes through huge shifts scene-to-scene.
It isn’t all cute or disturbing, either. What the most affecting about “It’s Chip.” is how beautiful it sometimes is. The page where the horse-spider walks through the darkness, it is simple and does narrative work. In leaving, there is more of a separation going on than a phsyical one, it falls apart in the next scene because of the separation from Chip, and it’s visual annihilation is a great foreshadowing of that. But it is also just this gorgeous, lyrical moment that shows a lot of atmosphere and motion without really changing much from panel to panel. It is the key moment to the story, not the venom-fried face of Reggie or the army of spiders swarming the school, or even any scene with Chip. Here’s where DeForge wins me over forever, the horse head bobbing in the night wind. Horror is rarely this pretty, and never in comics. Yeah, DeForge can make your skin crawl or your heart break. But lots of people can do that in comics. Taking your breath, that’s not an everyday thing.
-Sean Witzke, April 2011
(Special thanks to Matt Seneca, bad motherfucker who sometimes writes about my favorite comics ever, for the hook up)