Brat, by Michael DeForge. Toronto, Ontario: Koyama Press, September 2018. 160 pages. $19.95, hardcover.
For years now Michael DeForge has been building these fucked-up worlds that sit on top of and inside our own world all at once, as if there’s a dimension we can’t comprehend where we’re all just twigs or neckless shapes with the same problems of simply not knowing how to be.
His new book, Brat, takes the idea of juvenile delinquency and turns into celebrity culture, a sort of performance art where the tantrums and lashings-out of its perpetrators into acts of beauty and admiration. I hesitate to call them “pranks” like I would hesitate to call “A Day In the Life” a “little ditty.”
These juvenile delinquents are Elvis and The Rock and Jennifer Lawrence, except their work is held up as a series of meaningful statements in additional to cultural touch-points. Through Ms. D, a once-incendiary JD who is in the twilight of her career, we get the disconnection between art and artist that makes this book run: Juvenile Delinquents are probably not as much pop stars as much as they’re just assholes who insist on bursts of disruptive selfishness.
Any artist reading this book will surely see themselves in it, because we’re all self-absorbed already. Ms. D makes sacrifices, namely her own happiness, in order to be the sort of person who can make the sort of art the sort of person like her makes. She’s beholden, always, to her poorest qualities and, thus, her greatest art.
So what if she wants to just disruptively burst the world with selfishness? She can’t! When she wants to lash out and blow off some steam, she’s doing it into a void. Someone like Ms. D can never see the world as it truly is, can’t have its vulnerabilities to engage with.
Using this idea of pissing on public property and breaking windows with sound-barrier adjusting machines as a stand-in for writing my poetry chapbooks or making my nine-minute prog rock song, I see growth and artistry and passion explored from both ends. I know that I personally think “I’m going to die someday,” whenever I finish something I’ve been working on.
Just as Ms. D is wondering what—or who, really—she does what she does for, a young up-and-coming JD named Citrus is wondering the same thing. The difference is that MS. D has done it both ways, pleased herself and her audience, and neither one feels good anymore. Citrus is like any other young person wanting to find their place in the world. Ms. D wants to let go of hers.
There’s something to be said about leaving art behind when it’s of no use anymore. How many truly do it? Marcel Duchamp quit art because he liked chess more, so fuck you if you liked his art. At some point, we need to realize that art exists to serve its creator—in the case of Ms. D, her art touched many and she still only cared about what it could do for her. Citrus, at the other end, has no idea what her own art even looks like or what it could do for anyone. She’s idealized ideas, which is how me and people like me got into this mess in the first place.
Brat is a book that lampoons celebrity culture and points out how dumb it all is, sure, but at the heart of it is a discourse on passion, the cultivating and diving deep into your own desire to make it bigger and bigger, giving in and realizing that satisfaction is its own form of desire and “more” isn’t always the answer:
The entirety of my review of DeForge’s collection Very Casual was just “Dude’s pretty fucked up.” His work has developed significantly from there, those short pieces of weirdness. With Big Kids, he turned a corner with a book that was certainly bizarre, but had real emotions wrapped up in it—especially those of confusion, destruction, and isolation that are painfully familiar and would become touchstones of all his work to come.
DeForge moves beyond tricks as easy as personification and delivers wholly creative work about loneliness and development. Brat is no different, as the world he’s built (less from the ground-up as in Big Kids or, my personal favorite of his, 2017’s Sticks Angelica) is malleable and bright, his characters shape-shifting as need be and wholly understood. Ms. D melts and floats and turns into scratchings and carries on conversations while doing so. It’s a world where people are understood as doing what they need to do while also being misunderstood as why they’re actually doing it.
DeForge’s work succeeds in that it can only be a comic. For as wild as his art and concepts are, his work is rigidly paneled, typically six panels per page. Reading it is a comfort, someone telling me that I fit somewhere.
The philosophical ideas that typically offer a tenuous backbone to the work—a trait I noticed in other contemporary comics like this—are more important here, but still secondary when compared to the creativity of the art and feral imagination of the execution.
Artists often work so hard to obtain their goals that those goals become the rote outcome of what is always misremembered as simple work. Brat tells us that whole sentence is wrong. It’s not about work and goals and outcomes. It’s about being happy and killing your desire before it kills you.
Ryan Werner is a cook at a preschool in the Midwest. He plays a Gibson Corvus and an old Ampeg VT-22 in a loud instrumental rock band called Young Indian. You can find him online at ryanwernerwritesstuff.com and also @YeahWerner on Instagram, where you will be inundated with picture of comic books, indie lit releases/excerpts, professional wrestlers, and 1980s guitar ads.