The Next Chapter

Michael DeForge loves dystopian fiction so much he wrote a graphic novel about one

The Toronto artist and illustrator is the author of graphic novel Familiar Face.
Familiar Face is a comic by Michael DeForge. (Drawn & Quarterly, Matthew James-Wilson)

Michael DeForge is a Toronto-based creator and illustrator who has won awards for comics like Leaving Richard's Valley, Dressing and Lose #1. Other acclaimed books include StuntBig Kids, Ant Colony, Sticks Angelica Folk Hero and more.

His latest graphic novel is titled Familiar Face. Featuring vibrant illustrations, the book is set in a world where technology has advanced to the point where people and buildings alike are constantly "system updated" to the point of becoming anonymous and impersonal entities.

At the government's department of complaints, the narrator of Familiar Face sorts through an endless pile of citizen-reported issues that range from trivial to heartbreaking.

DeForge spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Familiar Face.

Our present future reality

"I've always had an interest in dystopian literature and the current [COVID] crisis has been very instructive. A lot of apocalyptic literature would be so much about the calamity where people would be wearing spiky shoulder pads navigating a zombie wasteland.

We're seeing the worst happen but it doesn't actually look like the end of the world all at once.

"But when confronted with how it actually looks — with people still going to work but work is much less safe, of staying at home and not getting paid but you're stuck in your apartment. It's like an apocalypse, but you've still got to pay rent. That's going to inform a lot of my writing and, I imagine, a lot of the ways other people write about dystopia.

"We're seeing the worst happen but it doesn't actually look like the end of the world all at once. There's a gradual decline, where everything just gets cruddier in smaller and smaller increments."

An excerpt from Familiar Face by Michael DeForge. (Drawn & Quarterly)

Dissecting dystopia

"Growing up, a lot of the work that informed my writing was both horror and science fiction. So dystopia comes up a lot there. But I am also interested in writing about utopias as well. Ursula Le Guin was a big influence on both my work and my politics.

Dystopia is a good way of highlighting existing inequalities and then utopias are a good way of imagining alternatives.

"Even though Familiar Face is a dystopian comic, I try to do other work that is interested in building new worlds.

"Dystopia is a good way of highlighting existing inequalities and then utopias are a good way of imagining alternatives."

"I was thinking about the ways that aspects of the Internet that once seemed like they had a lot of liberatory or revolutionary potential — like the idea of being able to change the way you present yourself on digital interfaces and anonymize yourself. 

"A lot of those things now seem a lot worse, now that the internet didn't turn out to be this kind of wonderful anarchic playing field that a lot of people hoped it would be. Now it's something where you have very little option — you have to opt in and give up a certain amount of your privacy and your data and your security and it's controlled by a very small group of corporations. 

"It feels less liberatory. I wanted to write about what the ultimate version of that would look like, of constantly having your surroundings change, your lifestyle change, the way you look change and your physical body not just your appearance change. It's all being updated and designed by people who you don't really see and whose motivations might be kind of obscure to you."

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

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