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DeForge’s Big Kids packs a stunning coming-of-age tale in a small package

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Big Kids by Michael DeForge, a graphic novel that uses abstract visuals to tell a poignant story about the emotional turbulence of adolescence. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)

Michael DeForge has paved a remarkable career path in the last five years, regularly putting out exciting comics that reveal his evolution as an artist and storyteller. He does this while working as a character and props designer on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time (he also wrote and storyboarded the episode “Little Dude”), a day job that keeps him engaged with his craft while affording him the financial stability to pursue his many personal projects. Perhaps as a creative response to working within the confines of an all-ages cable cartoon, DeForge’s comics have become increasingly experimental, sophisticated, and mature, exploring complex ideas about identity, sexuality, and society with a strong authorial voice and unique artistic perspective.

DeForge’s comics read unlike anything else being published today, and his new Drawn & Quarterly graphic novel, Big Kids, is his best yet. A brilliant showcase of his talent for crafting introspective personal narratives and inspired alien worlds, Big Kids is a bildungsroman that focuses on how one’s perspective of the world changes as they get older. That perspective shift is especially dramatic in DeForge’s story, which breaks away from a literal (but still stylized) interpretation of reality as the main character, Adam, transforms from a twig to a tree. That change gives Adam a completely different view of the world, which is reflected in an explosion of color and an abstract design sensibility that turns familiar objects and environments into strange, otherworldly visual elements.

In Big Kids, “twig” and “tree” represent different states of being for the human characters. DeForge doesn’t explicitly state what causes a person to ascend from the plain reality of a twig to the heightened consciousness of a tree (and in rare instances descend from tree back to twig); it’s a misconception that people tree after losing their virginity, and later events suggest that the transformation may be caused by a more general loss of innocence, a broader idea that invites the reader’s interpretation by avoiding firm conclusions. A.V. Club contributor Zainab Akhtar’s review of DeForge’s last Drawn & Quarterly graphic novel, First Year Healthy, talks about how these myriad possibilities and interpretations are a major part of the beauty of DeForge’s work, and the abstract nature of Big Kids makes it a particularly beautiful piece in this regard.

DeForge’s uses a limited color palette for Adam’s pre-tree life, and the bright yellow and pink serve very specific purposes in the story. Yellow is uniform color of all twigs, and its prominence in the first part of the book reinforces that this is the twig perspective of the world. Pink is the color of the tree Adam becomes, and using it in the first part is a subtle way of using color to foreshadowing his coming transformation. The visuals contain many hints about the discoveries to come, like the spindly arms of people that are twigs (Adam, his father, his uncle) evoking the later look of these people as twigs. The tree characters (Adam’s mother and Alice, a college student living in Adam’s house) both wear puffy tops that give them more volume, and their fuller silhouettes are an early indicator that they’re different from the other characters on a deeper level.

An important scene in Adam and Alice’s relationship is dominated by pink, and DeForge primarily depicts the event from a shot showing Alice watching TV in the foreground with Adam on the stairs behind her. The emphasis on the pink and the stairs (which occupy most of the space in the panel) indicates that this is a major moment of transition for Adam. Stairs take a person from one level to another, and having them on upward angle teases that Adam is about to ascend to a heightened perspective, especially when they’re paired with the book’s major foreshadowing color. That scene is immediately followed by an all-yellow dream in which Adam has a premonition of his future tree self, showing what he will become but using the color that represents what he still is.

The moment where Adam actually transitions into a tree is all pink, but after that, the palette expands considerably to create a far more colorful world. Everything changes in that moment, and from that point forward, Adam has a completely different view of his surroundings. The television he fell asleep watching is still there, but its box shape is replaced by an asymmetrical curved black object containing other shapes and patterns on its surface, and the light from the TV now materializes in the air in red blobs that float toward Adam. It only gets more surreal from there, and one of the most delightful aspects of this book is how DeForge transforms the ordinary into the fantastic by playing with geometry, line, and color. (One of the cleverest transformations involves the physical form of music, which turns into a little creature that latches on to Adam and spits in his ears to represent a song getting stuck in Adam’s head.)

The visuals are constantly surprising, and there’s an element of sensory overload on some of the pages that reflects the rush of stimuli experienced by Adam and the other trees. What makes Big Kids so powerful is how it uses these bold visuals to explore the mindset of an adolescent boy, specifically how his feelings of alienation and contempt influence his interactions with family and friends. His status as a tree distances him from the many twigs in his life, but with that distance comes liberation, and he’s able to experience the world more fully than he did before. That also creates a bias against the twigs, though, and Adam begins to hate those beneath him, which causes him to often act violently against them.

Tyson is another new tree that Adam starts to hook up, but Tyson has still held on to some twig tendencies (a mindset reflected in his more twig-like shape), which prevents Adam from making a stronger connection with him and ultimately leads to Adam breaking up with Tyson by literally breaking him down into little pieces. It’s a brutal scene made especially chilling by Adam’s detached view of the events, but ends with a bit of humor as Tyson, now broken down to a twig, continues to proclaim his love. As a teen, Adam is already a slave to his chaotic feelings, and his transition into a tree invites even more feelings that he’s struggling to sort out.

Last year’s Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years Of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, And Graphic Novels contained a quote from cartoonist Eleanor Davis exploring what makes physical comics such a unique medium, and her words shed light on why Drawn & Quarterly titles like Big Kids are so attractive. When reading a great prose novel, the book and the words cease to exist as the reader is mentally transported into the world of the story, but comics don’t work like that. The images demand autonomy, and each one exists in its own world on the page, which is next to other pages containing other images that, as Davis says, “Are worlds as distinct from—and as interconnected with—one another as one moment in time is from the next.” Davis argues that this is the reason why readers love physical comics in a way they can’t with prose books:

Loving a book containing prose is like loving a cup filled with a wonderful drink: the cup and drink are only connected by circumstance. Loving a comic book is different. The content and the form of a comic are connected inextricably. The little autonomous drawing are held tightly in the pages of the book the comic is printed in, and they cannot get away. When you hold the comic book, you hold those worlds. They are yours.

The world of a prose novel doesn’t exist until the reader starts building it with the construction tools provided by the text, but the visual element of comic books means that the world of a comic exists on its own whether or not a reader is engaging with it. A comic book written and drawn by a solo cartoonist given complete creative freedom is a pure representation of that person’s vision, traveling directly from the mind to the page to the reader’s hands and eventually a bookshelf, where that vision will continue to exist exactly as the cartoonist intended.

Drawn & Quarterly is a publisher that understands this aspect of physical comics’ appeal, and each book they put is impeccably designed to have a distinct look and feel. Big Kids is a small graphic novel that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand, with a matte hardcover binding that feels very sturdy and also has a bit of texture. It’s also the very first DeForge graphic novel that hasn’t had some portion of it serialized online before, debuting first as a physical object before it’s converted for digital. These small pages contain a sprawling world overflowing with imagination and emotion, marking a new high point for one of the industry’s top cartoonists.