Michael DeForge’s new book Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero begins with all the elements of a classic comic strip. You’ve got the flawed main character, Sticks Angelica, a know-it-all chatterbox who, feeling underappreciated by society, moves to the wilderness to be alone. She fancies herself a survivalist: “I run twenty kilometres every morning. On days I don’t bathe, I rub flowers on my armpits.” And she claims to live the life of a folk hero, wrestling bears when she’s bored and devising homeopathic cures for hangnails.
And then there’s the supporting cast: you’ve got assorted talking animals to keep her company, including a rabbit named Oatmeal who harbors a massive unrequited crush on Sticks. (“How I long to nibble on her earlobe; to eat a carrot out of her hands; to have her carry me into a shared room, which we decorated together.”) Her social circle includes a moose named Lisa Hanawalt who is not to be confused — or, hell, probably she is to be confused — with the cartoonist of the same name. In the background, you’ve got a chorus of simple-minded geese who run around haranguing each other. (“…But we’re geese. Not — not coyotes. Geese are supposed to be Canada’s most trustworthy creatures,” one scolds the other when they accidentally murder a fish. The other replies, “That’s just propaganda from the goose lobby.”)
It even looks like a comic strip collection: Sticks Angelica is laid out in a series of single-page gags, many of which made up of eight panels. For a while, the last panel on every page has a punchline centered around the characters, like, say, Garfield or Dilbert. And unlike those two comics, Sticks Angelica is actually funny.
But then Sticks Angelica starts to deconstruct itself. Sticks violently assaults a nosy reporter, buries him neck-deep in the ground, and leaves him there. That reporter’s name? Michael DeForge. Things get more and more surreal — beyond even the everyday comic-strip surreality of a world with talking animals. A few pages feature recipes for impossible foods like “Classic Monterey Kebab,” which includes a fish scale, a twig, and a precious flower skewered on a stick and heated over flame. We learn about the mating rituals of shape-shifting birds. Visually, DeForge creates whole panels made out of abstract shapes, with non-narrative captions laid over the top. Some of the pages are just tone poems.
Everybody in the book suffers. Sticks Angelica is eaten by bugs: “I’m covered in bites, rashes, sores… even if I wanted to come back to the city, I’m marked.” Michael DeForge is eventually dug up from his hole in the ground, but his body has atrophied to the point where it’s as thin and light as paper, so he floats around like a ghost, haunting the forest animals. A goose is killed by smoke inhalation after it swallows a worm whole and the worm builds a cabin in its gut, which then burns down in a fire.
It’s true that thanks to the deterioration of comics pages in recent years, even strips as banal as Mark Trail have become weirder and more disjointed, but Sticks Angelica is something else again. It’s a newspaper comic strip that has been visited by several Biblical plagues and survived them all out of sheer spite. Everything about the book, from the art to the characters to the plot, is designed to confound its readers’ expectations. It builds comedy out of heartbreak and spins tragedy out of gag strips. Just when you thought you’d seen everything that could be done with eight boxes, a cast of talking animals, and a punchline, along comes a book like Sticks Angelica to remind you that the form can be endlessly refreshed.