CANADIAN cartoonist Michael DeForge is one of the most original and productive comic creators working today. Since he started publishing his own comics some 14 years ago, his output has been prodigious and singular.

DeForge’s work exploits the possibilities and elasticity of the comic book form. His image-making often mixes up anthropomorphism with comic-book surrealism. “I generally want my comics to feel like dreams,” he once said.

And yet his stories are underpinned with a real concern with culture and politics while playing with media-saturated alternative realities.

His latest book Heaven No Hell is a collection of short stories that show the range of his work and the originality of his ideas.

DeForge talked to Graphic Content about his approach to comics, body horror and his idea of hell.

HeraldScotland:

Heaven No Hell is what? Your 11th or 12th book? The first thing I wanted to ask was do you not have a life outside cartooning?

I’m pretty sure I have a life outside of cartooning, although during this pandemic stretch, I have less going on than usual. I think I’m actually pretty good at portioning off my workday now. I don’t pull all-nighters the way I used to.

Heaven No Hell is a gather-up of short stories. What can readers expect from it?

It’s always so hard to describe short story collections, but I lean into science fiction a little more in this one. I’m frequently interested in writing about the ways we relitigate and relive old traumas throughout our lives. I write a lot about communities struggling to create something utopian in unideal situations. I try to switch up the visuals a lot from story to story, so there’s a lot of formal experiments here. Hopefully, it’s funny as well.

HeraldScotland:

“DeForgeiana”, “Deforgeia”, “the Deforgiverse”. Whatever you want to call it, your work has a coherent, distinctive visual sensibility. It exists in its own universe. I just wanted to ask how you arrived at it? What was feeding into it when you started drawing and when did you arrive at something you were satisfied with?

I want to do something different for each story and enjoy approaching drawing from a slightly new angle each time. I get bored very easily and don’t like the feeling of my work stagnating. I think it’s good for artists to feel like they’re always in a little over their heads with a project — not too much but challenged just enough that it feels like they’re struggling to figure out something new.

I love the cartooniness of what you do. Bodies morph and mutate, landscapes flicker and transform. What’s the appeal of that for you as a creator?

I started out as a pretty rigid cartoonist but at some point felt more confident loosening things up a bit. I’ve always been attracted to really elastic cartooning. Lynda Barry, Noel Freibert, Gary Panter, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Walter Scott, Eduardo Munoz Bachs, Lale Westvind, Seripop, Tsai Chih Chung and Saul Steinberg have all produced the sorts of drawings that inspire me a lot. Bodies and forms don’t ever have to be grounded in space and time on a comic page, so I try to really put them through the ringer when it feels right.

Are you keen on body horror?

Yeah, that stuff has been a big preoccupation of mine, and something that’s been an influence on me — especially body horror movies. I’ve moved a little bit away from the horror genre in my work over the past few years, though. It’s definitely still very present and I still work on horror stories (I’m in the middle of a long-ish one right now,) but I’ve been more interested in depicting ways that bodily transformation can be liberating or exhilarating as well. That was my hope with my book Big Kids, where characters are undergoing physical changes that are terrifying but also emancipating and funny and erotic and whatever else. The changes can be ambiguous and not just horrible.

Quick question for you: Is life essentially absurd?

I think it would be hard to have lived through any of the past 10 or so years and not feel like things are pretty absurd.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to humanity?

One aspect of being a socialist is believing that people, if left to their own devices, are inclined to provide for and take care of each other. We currently live in a system full of obstacles stopping that from happening. There was a world before capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, police and prisons, and we can build a world without those things. If I didn’t believe it was possible to move closer towards that world within my lifetime, I’d have killed myself many times over by now. So, I’d say I’m an optimist.

HeraldScotland:

In the story Role Play your characters pretend to be surgeons and policemen. If you could impersonate another profession, which would you choose?

I suspect I might already be impersonating the profession I’m in to begin with.

What’s your idea of heaven?

I’ve been trying to write about different types of utopias from different angles for a few years now, and part of the reason why is that I don’t think I’ve quite sorted my answer out yet.

What for you would be the worst possible hell?

More of the same.

If you had a cartoon body what would you prefer, a huge eye or long arms?

Long arms.

Who are your greatest influences?

Derek Jarman, Saul Steinberg, Seripop, Hideshi Hino, John and Faith Hubley, Gilbert Hernandez, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Lynda Barry, Eduardo Munoz Bachs, Joanna Russ, Stuart Hall, Tariq Ali, Brian Chippendale, Peter Greenaway and Prince are all artists who have informed my work and practice in different ways.

Complete this sentence: “When I’m not cartooning I …”

Am running.

HeraldScotland:

Heaven No Hell by Michael DeForge is published by Drawn & Quarterly, priced £16.99