ANT COLONY by Michael DeForge

antMichael DeForge’s ANT COLONY is a wonderfully whole piece of comics craftsmanship. Externally baffling but internally consistent, it does what great art comics often do – it teaches you how to read it. Best experienced in a single reading, it’s a book that you swim through. And by the time you reach the far shore, gasping for air, you’re tempted to return to the beginning and dive back in. Not because it was such a pleasurable reading experience, but because you’ve only just absorbed its language. Now that it’s over, you’re finally ready for it.

It begins with a statement of ennui that’s at once existentially universal and hilariously particular. It’s like the setup of a joke: two ants stand on a decomposing apple, and one asks the other, “Why does everything have to be so tiny?”

“I’m just so sick of this itty-bitty lifestyle,” he goes on. Most of us can relate – who hasn’t anxiously pondered their own insignificance? – but there’s something disorientingly funny about watching an ant’s spiritual crisis as he discovers his own puniness. It gives us a God’s-eye-view while speaking directly to our experience. We’re drawn in and held at bay, watching the ant farm and staring out from behind the glass.

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That seems to be DeForge’s great trick in this disturbing, uncomfortable opus of a graphic novel, and it forms a tension that never slackens. We’re introduced to a large cast of ants and other bugs in a detailed, surreal insect world. We’re given so much to identify with, so much that’s recognizably human – the dissatisfaction and intractable misunderstandings of a squabbling couple; a child dealing with his abusive, mentally ill father; ants sitting on couches, watching TV, bitching at one another. But there is also so much that is strange, repulsive, and unknowable – the boy who inhales a cloud of microscopic earthworms and is transformed by them; the spiders with the heads of Tex Avery wolves, who copulate by extending worm-like appendages into one another’s bodies; the queen, drawn like some byzantine flat-perspective centerfold, her legs spread as she’s rotting and dying. The book invites our identification, then rejects it. It gives us recognizable figures in an alien world – one as frightening and foreign as (if not particularly similar to) the insect kingdom itself.

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Though there are a lot of strange pleasures to be had here for the reader who enjoys this sort of thing – morbid comedy abounds, DeForge’s linework and design sensibility are inimitably striking, and the bold color choices are directly appealing – ANT COLONY is at its core a very dark, ugly book. DeForge creates situations in which we expect the drama of human connection – a couple divided by war; five runaways trying to find or build a home; an orphaned child, rescued and raised by enemy combatants – but instead gives us amoral coldness. In one typical exchange, one ant says, “What are you doing? Why are you trying to drown that baby?” and his boyfriend replies, “I dunno.” There is a lot of murder and death in this story, none of them crimes of passion – they’re all committed with a casual shrug, as a procedural necessity or a way to fend off boredom. These ants seem to kill each other the same way we kill them – absentmindedly, and sometimes for no reason at all.

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The exception is that one ant from the opening, the one bemoaning his itty-bitty stature. He seems to feel in a recognizably human way. He meditates, declares himself a pacifist, and refuses to take part in the war with the red ants. He reaches out for his boyfriend, who’s never anything but surly and aggressive. When he and four other ants go on the run, he tells them that they’re a family now. Watching his constant (sometimes pathetically needy) attempts to engage emotionally as they’re met by the pure autistic insectoid impassivity of the characters around him is the most affecting element of the book, its emotional core. But don’t mistake him for a point of view character – DeForge’s storytelling here has a blank, loveless gaze. Though often hilariously funny, his point of view is algid and bleak.

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Last week I reviewed Drawn & Quarterly’s translated edition of BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet; these two books make excellent companion pieces, if you enjoy being ushered by stellar cartoonists into the heart of teeny-tiny sociopathy. But there is a key difference: while both are frightening and morbid books, the reading experiences diverge. BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS, for all its existential snarl, enraptures you with beauty and cuteness, begging you to offer up your heart for it to devour. It fills you with rage and hurt. ANT COLONY, meanwhile, has a flat affect and implacable presence. Both stories sweep you through carefully designed, grimly vicious universes, baffling nightmares where nothing vulnerable is safe, and where weakness is death. The difference is that BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS is a tragedy, and ANT COLONY thinks that shit is funny.

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-Josh O’Neill

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The LOCUST MOON TOP 40: February 2014

40. UNDERTOW

With an intriguing premise from Steve Orlando and moody, expressive artwork from Artyom Trakhanov, we can’t wait to see where this new Image title takes us.

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39. SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN

Following Hawkeye’s mix of humor, character-driven realism, and gleeful formal experimentation, SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN has quietly become one of Marvel’s very best books. Don’t let the secret out, but it almost seems like somebody over at the House of Ideas got it in their head that superhero comics are supposed to be fun…

38. This Shirt

Yeah, what if??

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37. THE BUS

We detect some of the spirit of Winsor McCay in Paul Kirchner’s quietly masterful surrealist comic strip.

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36. B + F

We were pleased to play host to Greg Benton and his huge, beautiful nightmare of a graphic novel. Greg is one of our favorite cartoonists and one of comics’ most righteous dudes, and we can’t wait to see what he does next.

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35. INSECT BATH

True to its title, this new alt-zine style anthology series feels like a submersion in the creepy, underfoot world.

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34. SPRING TRAINING

Baseball beckons, and with it a world made new.

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BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS by Vehlmann & Kerascoet

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One brief caveat: you should not be able to name something BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS, unless that something is an Avenged Sevenfold song or a student-run high-school poetry magazine. I’m going to extend the benefit of the doubt and assume that it sounds better in its original French, more like a gorgeous and powerful graphic novel than the LiveJournal page of a 17-year-old aspiring cutter. Because this book, newly translated by Drawn & Quarterly, is the best thing I’ve read in 2014.

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It starts with a tea party and ends with a holocaust. Our protagonist Aurora is shyly flirting with the handsome, dandyish Prince Hector over hot cocoa and cakes, when red globs begin to drop from the ceiling into their food. Confused, the two crawl into a wet, dark tunnel, where they see other cartoon people confusedly clamoring through the shadows. They climb up into some kind of cavity, out from their cover into the pouring rain, part of a refugee throng. Then the view opens up to give us context, and our stomachs drop.
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By the next morning the little people have set up camp around the girl’s body, cleverly re-purposing her belongings as survival supplies. A notebook becomes a tent; a pencil case becomes a watertight sleeping bag. Aurora, with all the pluck and self-sacrificing gumption (as well as the big dew-drop eyes and polka-dot dress) of a Disney heroine, takes it upon herself to lead the effort, setting up a kind of triage & rationing station inside the little girl’s purse. Over a few days, their society takes shape according to its needs and its personalities. Aurora makes friends with the field mice, who help her find berries.

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With astonishing elegance and economy of storytelling, Vehlmann & Kerascoet sweep us through the crisis, introducing their cast of instantly recognizable, idiosyncratic-yet-archetypical characters: Plim, the over-enthusiastic boy sidekick; Jane, the proud, self-sufficient loner with a pair of cuticle scissors strapped to her back like a samurai sword; Zelie, the preening, doll-like narcissist; the bickering ballerina triplets; Timothy, the shy, nurturing wallflower — to name merely a few. In a book that takes barely an hour to read, we are gifted with over a dozen characters who stand in sharp relief, imprinting themselves on our imaginations, such that when the frost takes hold and the plot threads tighten, we find that they have wound themselves, quietly and intricately, around our heart and throat.

The stage is set. We will spend three seasons here (summer, fall, winter — this is not a book about renewal), watching their social order shift as they struggle for survival in the shadow of a young girl’s decaying body. At first the threats are external: a cat, shadow-dark against the purple night, picking children off as they sleep; one of the triplets pecked to death by a bird. There is the expected squabbling over rations and rules, and while it might be said that we’re descending into Lord of the Flies by way of The Borrowers, the place we’re heading is actually much stranger than that.

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This is wilderness at its most gorgeous and frightening. The lush simplicity of these pencil & watercolor illustrations (credited to Kerascoet, which is a pen name for the Parisian artists Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset) are sumptuously appealing, with their rich colors and delicate play of light and shadow, but they are unflinching in the speed and casualness with which they shade into terror and violence. There is a smiley-face painted over everything, from a girl who’s poisoned by a plant and watches her body revoltingly balloon and malform, to the children playing ticklishly in the maggot fields. There is something otherworldly and profoundly unsettling about the giggling carelessness with which they greet the ravages of nature and society, and the storytelling and gorgeous artwork combine to keep you constantly off-balance in this perfectly realized, rapturously decaying universe.

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To say too much more would be to spoil this remarkable story (if I haven’t already), which subverts your expectations and implicates you in its horrors by your mere attention, such that by the time you reach its monstrous, shocking end you feel you should close the book with care and slowly back away.

It’s the natural world writ tiny, with cartoon faces and pipsqueak personalities masking a soulless, indifferent universe. This is a very French book: an indictment of mankind itself, the cute masks that we wear, the sentimentality, the tea parties and small kindnesses that hide our sharp teeth, our callous hearts & casual cruelties. And whether or not you share this miserablist view of the human nature, you will queasily recognize something in these characters, in the shrugging ease with which they slide from sweetness to savagery. This is a book that will linger, whether you want it to or not. It will stick to your teeth. It will make you look for the tiny cartoon monsters inside yourself.

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– Josh O’Neill