Michael DeForge writes about cults & cluttered cities in Leaving Richard's Valley

Michael DeForge collected his popular daily Instagram comic Leaving Richard's Valley into a full-length graphic novel.
Leaving Richard's Valley is a comic by Michael DeForge. (Matthew James-Wilson, Drawn & Quarterly)

Toronto comic creator Michael DeForge grew up reading daily comic strips his parents left around the house — classic stuff like Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side — which turned into a lifelong love of the form. His comic books are frequently featured on award shortlists around the world. Last year, he won the Cartoonist Studio Prize for the webcomic Leaving Richard's Valley.

Now collected as a full-length book, Leaving Richard's Valley follows a group of anthropomorphic animal characters who are expelled from their cult and forced to make it on their own on the streets of Toronto.

DeForge talked to CBC Books about how this world came to be.

First daily strip

"I'd been wanting to do a daily strip for a long time. I had done weekly strips before — Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero and Ant Colony — but a daily strip was something that was a little more daunting because the deadlines are more rigorous and demanding. I had a day job in animation for about six or seven years and when it ended, I thought it was as good a time as any to start one. I knew I wanted to write about cults because that is something that I had been ruminating on for a while, brewing up different ways to approach in a thoughtful and interesting way."

An excerpt from Leaving Richard's Valley by Michael DeForge. (Drawn & Quarterly)

Cluttered city

"I wanted to do something that took place in Toronto because I'd been thinking a lot about cities and their purpose. I wanted to do something specifically about the city I lived in, something that was tethered to real-life Toronto. I used photo collage throughout the book. A lot of it was either scanned images and scanned photocopy textures. But a lot of it was just images of specific streets and buildings that I took around the city. Some of it is street corners and some of it are specific businesses or locations that I wanted to pay tribute to.

I wanted to show the mess and debris and clutter in the city.

"I wanted it to look cluttered. I don't think of Toronto as dirty, necessarily, but I think of it as cluttered. There is a visual noise that I wanted to evoke. I wanted to show the mess and debris and clutter in the city."

Michael DeForge took photos of Toronto and used them in his daily strip Leaving Richard's Valley. (Michael DeForge, Drawn & Quarterly)

Building something new

"I think I have written a lot of fiction that was concerned with dystopia for a long time, these almost post-apocalyptic narratives. I still see value to reading fiction like that, but I'm no longer interested in writing stuff that's purely concerned with disaster and calamity. I know I'm not the type of writer to be able to write purely utopian fiction, but I want to at least attempt to write about characters trying to build something new. They sometimes fail or sometimes the results are a little messy or ambiguous, but the idea of characters trying to seek out alternatives to these suffocating oppressive power structures that they live in is a thing I've been interested in writing about over the past few years. I also frequently like writing about characters where they're just beginning to see the edges of their world. Sometimes that looks like a rule or a border or a law and then they press up against it a little more."

An excerpt from Leaving Richard's Valley by Michael DeForge. (Michael DeForge, Drawn & Quarterly)

The daily grind

"Having to think of something new every day could be rough. It ended up being a challenge I enjoyed. I tried not to write too far in advance, so I was put on the spot all over again. It ended up producing some pretty interesting results where the strip took a lot of detours that it wouldn't have gone on if I had planned it all out in advance very meticulously. Being forced to improvise like that was a challenging, but something I enjoyed a lot. 

Having to think of something new every day could be rough. It ended up being a challenge I enjoyed.

"Sometimes I had a silly joke and I couldn't think of anything else that day, so I put that down to paper. There are a few strips that were based on small real things that happened. There's a subplot where the character Caroline, who is a frog, starts a small business stealing snow shovels, creating a demand for them and then selling them back to the people she stole the snow shovels from. That was based on a story from [comic creator] Jillian Tamaki. The house that she rents from had their snow shovel stolen. A group of teenagers were caught stealing snow shovels en masse from everyone on the street. They never found out the reason why they were stealing everyone's snow shovels in the neighbourhood, but I just thought that was funny."

An excerpt from Leaving Richard's Valley by Michael DeForge. (Michael DeForge, Drawn & Quarterly)

Feedback from Instagram

"I appreciated it. It was something that I hadn't experienced before, even when I was serialising weekly strips. For some reason it being daily and maybe it being on Instagram encouraged readers to respond more than they normally do to my comics that I post online. It was a very new experience to me and it didn't change the way I wrote very much, but I enjoyed hearing that sort of feedback because it was so novel.

"There was one character where did it feel like a dare from readers [to explore more]. They didn't like Caroline at all. She has, I guess, an abrasive personality and people would comment about how much they hated that frog. It made me start to like her more and it felt like a dare to get readers on board with Caroline. I think, in the end, she did become one of the more beloved characters."

Caroline gets buff in Leaving Richard's Valley by Michael DeForge. (Michael DeForge, Drawn & Quarterly)

Michael DeForge's comments have been edited for length and clarity.