Please disregard the likes of Nut Job or Turbo or Open Season 3. While Hollywood animation studios continue to disgorge such vile specimens of anthropomorphism, comics carries on in the proud tradition of Aesop. The funny animal genre has long been among the strongest in comics, boasting achievements that range from George Herriman’s jazz-age Dadaist Krazy Kat, to Walt Kelly’s anti-McCarthyite satire in Pogo, to Art Spiegelman’s postmodern Maus, where the central metaphor of humans-as-animals gets pried traumatically apart.
Lately, artists have pulled a neat reversal of that old conceit whereby Donald quacks like a duck but acts like a man. In recent classics like Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions, where finches play the central roles, or Chris Ware’s Building Stories, where Branford the bee is one of the only characters bequeathed a name, we no longer see critters whose foibles and triumphs resemble our own. Instead, we’re confronted with something more alien and unknowable: the animal kingdom, in all its primal savagery, somehow granted speech and barest sentience.
Add Michael DeForge’s Ant Colony to the canon of great funny animal comics. The Toronto cartoonist’s first full-length graphic novel – and the follow-up to last year’s Very Casual, a dark but dazzling collection of shorts – Ant Colony depicts the mundane existence of a handful of black ants, and their aimless wandering once war with the red ants shatters their lives. In DeForge’s strangely abstract rendering, the ants become mutant cartoon Barbapapas, googly-eyed piles of globular lumps, with visible innards and too many legs, while their queen is a human-sized abomination, whose day-glo perversity owes much to both Hieronymus Bosch and Peter Max.
The look of these creatures – half precious, half preternatural – helps to distance us from their troubling behaviour, at the same time it asks us to laugh at their teensy-weensy anguish. Never strictly comic or tragic, but always horrifically both at once, DeForge’s tone wavers between pat distinctions in distressing and calculated fashion. A typical punchline has a pollen-addled father telling his son, “It’s making me want to beat you up,” while elsewhere an infant red ant swaddles himself in viscera. Funny? Sure, but DeForge does “funny animals” in the same way that Dante wrote a “comedy.” The centrepiece of the book, after all, is a two-page spread of itty-bitty insects at war, a colourful, light-hearted orgy of carnage and dismemberment.
It gives nothing away to say that this central battle ends with the abrupt and unexpected decimation of both sides. (In another of DeForge’s gallows humour routines, a centipede slinks through the corpse-strewn aftermath, yukking it up.) The characters we follow after this skirmish – the sole survivors of the black ant colony – are the same motley bunch whose lives we’ve seen in vignette from the outset. There’s the gay couple, the better-adjusted of whom emerges traumatized from the war, while his pacifist and intellectual boyfriend yearns ineffectually for something better and bigger than their tiny lives. They eventually cross paths with a cowardly cop who shirks battle and boasts of snitching on his superior officer. And then there’s a child prophet, who is kidnapped by bees, and has Cassandra-like visions of the colony’s fate.
The standout among the cast, though, is this child’s father, an epicure out of de Sade who delights in forbidden flesh and finds contentment in destruction. From the moment he forces his son to slice up a hissing earthworm (yes: hissing), his monstrous qualities begin to outgrow his wee stature. Left unchecked once war breaks out, he deems himself a “plague lord,” sics a flock of deformed children on the remnants of the colony, and espouses a kind of philosophy of evil – jovial all the while, and disarmingly cute.
This obscene father is merely the avatar of the masculine sociopathy that’s rampant in DeForge’s pastel-coloured neverland. When they aren’t feasting, battling, rutting, or laying waste, the male ants who make up this society engage in deep philosophical dialogue about the same. Or, worse, they browbeat and force-feed one of the few female citizens until she’s comatose, and treat their queen even more nightmarishly. These darling li’l critters seem to be hardwired for dissociative behaviour: when the bodies of their comrades burn in a solemn funeral pyre, the pheromones released make everyone randy and confused. But DeForge wouldn’t have us blame his funny animals for their own befuddlement, failure, and amiable brutality. After all, these puny colonists imply, it’s only human nature.
Sean Rogers's writing on comics has appeared in The Walrus and The Comics Journal. He guest-edited the comics issue of Descant, out this spring.