Michael DeForge is probably best known outside the realm of graphic novels and comics as a character designer for the hit cartoon Adventure Time. The show has managed to become at least as popular among young adults as with its younger target audience. It’s useful to mention Adventure Time here for anyone who’s seen it and, most likely, deeply enjoyed it. DeForge utilizes the same sleek, abstract, and colourful style of Adventure Time in his new graphic novel Ant Colony. But the dark and weighty themes only tantalizingly hinted at by the kids’ show are now brought into explicit, made-for-adults focus. Ant Colony aspires to the sincerity of subversive literature.
The first page shows our unnamed protagonist in the middle of having sex with his lover, followed by a game of cards. Most of the character development centres around this relationship which, like almost everything else in the book – from most ants to the colony to the Queen herself – seems to be heading toward an unhappy ending. All of the characters that are still alive, including this central couple, are nameless. The relationship the protagonist has with his sociopathic father and his struggle with a strange power he gains early on in the story constitute the book’s other main narrative thrusts.
But it is somewhat against the spirit of this novel’s rather discontinuous and diffuse structure to speak of discrete narratives. Ant Colony’s disorienting climax-less narrative is probably its most subversive or experimental characteristic. The aforementioned virtual lack of names, for example, breeds confusion, all while every panel episodically encapsulates often very distinct scenes. At one point, you’re surrounded by the slime of dying pupae, deep underground, amongst dark beiges, greys, and reds; the next, trailing a surreal yellow bumblebee through purples and more reds, as poor young Topher pukes (more or less) rainbows.
The illustrations, like Topher’s rainbows, are bright, sometimes almost fluorescent. They are vivid and clearly delineated like DeForge’s famous but usually simple designs in Adventure Time. Everything is rather more surreal and disturbing in this book, where censorship for a very young audience is not an issue. Many designs, like the spiders (who he renders as eight-legged dog-heads) and centipedes (snarky purple train-limos), could simply pass as childish fancy. But other choices, such as the ubiquitous rendering of all black ants with their guts visible, or the domineering and frank design of the queen at all stages of her life, are enigmatic and help articulate the weighty themes and motifs of the book, which include sensuality, fertility, and inevitable decay. The stunning visuals, in other words, help direct the snappy dialogue tremendously: this is a true graphic novel in that almost nothing about it can be told without the image.
The task of saying something intelligent about the nature and relevance of the narrative itself is near impossible. In a crude attempt at summarization, this piece can be called a tragedy. There’s a general theme of cataclysm, and the second act is largely a story of survival, but the tone of the novel is far from tragic. It is funny, light – maybe absurd. The premise alone is extravagant: ants, living in and around a rotten apple, who end up going to war with another group of ants. The book’s first frame is of this apple, from afar, speckled by innumerable buzzing little dots. With several such extreme long shots, readers are reminded of the characters and their world’s insignificance. What DeForge does is make this theme central to his narrative. How fitting, then, that no living characters have names: why must these specks be dignified with titles? The only one who transcends such futility, in some regard, is Topher.
This may indeed riff off the cultural trend of comparing human insignificance in the universe to the plight of the ant. We are but crude, ‘teensy’ life-forms, living on and destroying a tiny speck of dust barreling through a cosmos far vaster than our own world. ‘Existentialism,’ unsurprisingly, is brought up explicitly within the book’s first few pages; this philosophy grapples with the undefinedness of our irrelevant existence by claiming that our identity is simply ours to form. Actions define us, in this regard, and we can only truly be judged after all our actions are completed. Maybe that’s why the only names of ants we hear are those of dead ones; maybe that explains Topher’s enigmatic question which awaits the reader at book’s end.
The existential doubt in this piece does not end at the level of identity. This can be most powerfully seen in DeForge’s portrayal of violence. In illustration, it is rendered viscerally real, by the seemingly solid, abstract forms of the page. It arrives unceremoniously, there’s no lead up. As in everyday experience, the violent act is not necessarily recognized as such until reflected upon and named in retrospect – like a dead ant. We see a snarky purple train-limo (“Centipede”) racing across the landscape, then, in the next frame, without reason, a spider (dog-head with eight legs) impales the creature, to let it rot until darkness. Or red ants appear, throw a rock at a black ant, causing him to die a feeble, undignified death. Almost every other act here happens similarly: whether sex, decay, or the unwitting consumption of poison. These are not events as a focused story would frame them.
But readers shouldn’t let this violence dissuade them. Ant Colony is bleak, yet it is also comical. It is superficial and profound, accessible and esoteric. These are not mutually exclusive terms when it comes to this colourful book. DeForge captures these contradictions, showing us that there are no conclusive, cut-and-dry answers.
Michael DeForge’s Ant Colony is available at Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard W.) for $21.95.