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book review

Detail from a panel in Very Casual by Michael DeForgeMichael DeForge

Reviewed here: Very Casual by Michael DeForge (Koyama Press, $15) and Lose #5 by Michael DeForge (Koyama Press, $18)

Welcome to the world of Toronto cartoonist Michael DeForge. Here, you will discover that zebras are in fact extinct – zoos paint stripes on horses and donkeys, effectively hoaxing the public. Gangs of litterers roam our streets, flashing each other hand signals about where to expect their next garbage spree. And Muskoka is a desert, its desolate terrain home to outlaws and renegades, though a man may make his fortune there prospecting for gold.

DeForge's is a world apart from our own, askew ever so slightly. It's a world of uneasy cuteness, of pop art degeneracy, and it rewards the curious traveller with remarkable imagery and unsettling stories. With the release of both Very Casual, DeForge's first book-length collection of comics, and the newest issue of Lose – a comic book series that has lately added a spine and ISBN, freeing it from the confines of comic book specialty stores – many readers will now light out, for the first time, into this eerie and deviously funny territory.

No secret to comics readers, DeForge has competed for major awards in the field, inspired vocal admiration, and left a trail of distinctive comics in diverse and far-flung venues. In Very Casual, these restless stories – corralled together at last from sundry Tumblr postings, handmade mini-comics, Latvian and British anthologies – reveal themselves to be hardly casual at all. On their own, they had seemed like singular achievements, fitful one-offs; sequenced in a book, they become rather more feverish, visionary and admirably consistent.

Consider All About the Spotting Deer, which lends the volume its striking cover image. A disquisition on a breed of ambulant slugs that only look like antlered fauna, the strip resembles nothing so much as a bizarro Wikipedia page, explaining the social life of these creatures in deadpan, clinical terms. This comic rhymes nicely with Aesthetics, which theorizes new ways of playing basketball, or Cody, which discourses on the advanced techniques of hard-core litterers, such as "live litter" – "wherein pets, children or elderly relatives are abandoned in crowded spaces."

Cody may deal with the simple act of dropping trash on the ground, but it's also a pointed, ironic parable about temptation and addiction. Like many of the author's stories, this one takes the everyday and commonplace – litter, team sports, even Dilbert – and makes it strange, thanks to the absurdity of DeForge's surreal conceits. And as in the work of Magritte or Dali, the straight-faced seriousness with which the artist presents his visions demands that we accept his universe as real.

With the fifth number of Lose, these po-faced fancies only become more intricate and compassionate. This latest entry in the series – a solo comic book showcase in the tradition of Chester Brown's unpredictable Yummy Fur – features DeForge's most nuanced work yet. Here, teenagers develop crushes on each other, or a father attempts to provide for his family, but these humanist stories of trust and responsibility get staged in terms of wild hallucinations or Old West bloodshed. Every detail of these scenarios is cleanly realized, but pustulent, oozing, and malformed – DeForge's world is not for the squeamish. But it is one whose grotesqueries increasingly mirror, rather than distort, the mundane world with which we think we are familiar.

Sean Rogers is a PhD candidate at York University, studying Canadian comics. He has written for The Walrus and The Comics Journal.

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