People who talk about comics talk a lot about connection. An image, after all, can spark understanding instantaneously, linking the artist's mind with the reader's in a millisecond while mere words — so weighty and awkward by comparison — lumber to catch up. It's no accident that the medium has always been associated with the semi-literate masses and with children; you don't have to learn to read a comic panel to be influenced by the person who drew it. Even within that panel, the cartoonist's standard drawing style of "distillation and condensation" (as Hillary Chute, er, distills it) can itself force a sense of identification. Scott McCloud famously wrote that when you look at a realistic drawing of a face, you see someone else, but when you look at a stripped-down cartoon face, "you see yourself."
Michael DeForge isn't sure whether or not he wants you to see yourself. He's profoundly ambivalent about his art form's power to hijack the reader's brain. But unlike other, similarly divided creators, he revels in a sense of ironical glee at his own dilemma. In books like Big Kids, Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero and now Leaving Richard's Valley, he alternately embraces, then rejects reader-friendly styles, images and themes. His comics have a vibrating, push-pull energy that can be either fatally off-putting or — equally fatally? — addictive.
Even the narrative of Leaving Richard's Valley is about ambivalence: belonging, displacement, escape and return. Richard, a mysteriously charismatic man who's obsessed with avoiding "toxins," has gathered together a group of people and animals to live communally in an Edenic valley. A few of the animals transgress against Richard's rules and are expelled, condemned to wander through a hostile city. Meanwhile, as other city dwellers attempt to form a cult similar to Richard's, the creatures back in the valley reconsider their relationships with the man — who eventually begins to doubt himself.
There's a lot here to draw the reader in, but DeForge blends it with an equal measure of ideas that repel. After the animals are kicked out, we learn the "valley" is just one corner of a city park in Toronto. The animals' struggles seem alternately pathetic and ridiculous — certainly not dire. There's a raccoon who wants to make noise music and a spider who wants to be a hand model.
Anything approaching a serious moment is usually followed by a joke, and the jokes are alienating, too: cheesy, "slice-of-modern-life" humor that makes you roll your eyes as you smile. "When I look back at this time in my life, I'll be able to say, 'I was a part of something'... yes, I'll remember this time fondly," a kitten muses. "Unfortunately, I'm completely unable to appreciate any of this in the moment."
More profound than the push-pull of DeForge's narrative, though, is the complex ambiguity of his art. Those animals whose journey we're following? We only know they're animals at all because the text tells us so. What they actually look like are white blobs bearing varying resemblances to raccoons, frogs or spiders. In fact, they've been "distilled and condensed" until they're nothing more than parodies of the idea of relatable characters. When their actions and dialogue evoke fellow-feeling (the plight of the would-be noise musician is rather poignant, as is a cranky frog's struggle for self-actualization) their rudimentary, inexpressive little faces and blobby limbs rebuke the reader's sympathy.
Around these unsatisfying characters, DeForge builds an intermittently beautiful world. He'll fill a page with elegant patterns in a flat, decorative style, then turn around and paste in rudely xeroxed photos as backgrounds. His drawings of people are uglier than his animals, which at least have a pristine primordiality in their whiteness. On the other hand, you can tell that his people are, indeed, people. His "raccoons" look like giant hearts with legs.
DeForge's enigmatic visuals would be absorbing even without a narrative that so elegantly reinscribes his aesthetic concerns. Leaving Richard's Valley was originally a webcomic, but this big volume feels like the best way to savor it. Taken alone, any one of these comics may seem pointless or flummoxing. All together? They feel like an elaborate, extended joke — one that you really want to be in on.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.