Sticks Angelica lives in the forest. On the days she doesn’t bathe she’ll rub flowers on her armpits. Every morning she runs 12 miles, and in the evening she wrestles local bears if she’s bored. This is the heroine of the celebrated Toronto-based cartoonist Michael DeForge’s latest work, Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero.
Published next month by Drawn & Quarterly, this mature collection brings together the web comics DeForge has been producing over the last year. It signals the artist’s move away from the neon, grotesque explosiveness we saw with 2014’s Ant Colony towards muted colors and a controlled mastering of narrative. In simple panels, DeForge relishes in the humorous cynicism that he’s always enjoyed, but there’s also a newfound sprinkling of verbal dead ends that heighten mystery and create a disarming sense of pathos.
DeForge sets the scene speedily so that he can then let his imagination spiral. We quickly learn that a gang of gossiping geese live in Sticks’ car, and a doe-eyed rabbit called Oatmeal suffers from unrequited love for the unlikely heroine. Before Sticks escaped to Monterey National Park, where she’s resided since her father was implicated in a scandal, her occupations included Olympian, headmistress, cellist, sculptor, scholar, activist, and libertarian. Now Sticks spends her days bonding with the local animal community who inevitably also annoy her. Once DeForge has set up his world, the real brilliance is unleashed.
A skinny character with a plaid shirt named Michael DeForge enters the narrative to interview Sticks Angelica for the biography he’s writing on her. Sticks, with characteristic cruelty, pummels him into the ground for impinging on her privacy, and DeForge the character becomes so entangled in roots that he can no longer pull himself out. Is this a metaphor for DeForge the artist becoming too consumed in his own imagined worlds? Producing a weekly web comic must be an intense and laborious task, so I wouldn’t be surprised.
After some seasons pass by, Sticks finally digs a battered Michael DeForge up out of the soil: his body is paper-thin and he floats, free at last, into the air. I can’t help but wonder if this is also DeForge the artist after months of being buried under the pressure of a project. Is it the moment he’s finally transformed his labor into the light, papery form of a comic collection?
There’s a lot more postmodern self-referencing in the book. A moose named Lisa Hanawalt (of Bojack Horseman fame) steals Sticks’ clothes at night, and tells us that she first named herself Lisa Hanawalt after finding the two “words” mysteriously carved on a tree stump as a child, as though Hanawalt were some secret goddess of the alt-comic universe. It’s an absurd homage: instead of an all-American depressed horse, in DeForge’s Canadian context, we have this anxious cross-dressing moose that bemoans her “moosly prison” and pines to become human. Later, she does transform into a powerful Law Moose in Ontario, shoulder pads and all.
It’s a book of many transformations: DeForge the character transforms after being bound to the ground, Sticks transforms by rejecting the elite lifestyle of her conservative family, a seven-year-old girl transforms from hunted criminal to Ontario songbird. That’s why I find DeForge’s botanical illustration style, which delights in depicting molecules and small organisms, as well as his forest setting, all so well suited to the story. Sticks Angelica is about growth, transformation, and change, and this is acutely communicated with the aesthetic. Even the speech-bubbles are “organic” shapes—instead of bubbles, lines are delivered in the form of fluffy clouds.
In Sticks Angelica, a self-referential sensibility collides with the mind of a child who grew up watching far too much late night Cartoon Network. There’s also the faintest echo of Henry Thoreau’s Walden in the mix because Sticks Angelica, after all, comes to the forest to cut ties with her family, celebrity, and government. Mostly, DeForge’s world is playfully rooted in years of anthropomorphic storytelling—it’s the hilarious adult conclusion to Winnie the Pooh. And of course, this is a comic that could only have come after—and which screams of—Adventure Time, which DeForge has designed and written for since its third season. The resulting collection is a bizarre yet strangely familiar world: a play on autobiography and biography that masterfully and humorously investigates our transformations, our sense of self, and the communities that we inhabit.