Art comic asks big questions through small characters

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Outside of “Adventure Time” character designer Michael Deforge’s work on the popular Cartoon Network show, the Canadian writer/artist makes comics that tackle existential angst and interpersonal conflict through his unique artistic and storytelling style.

In his latest graphic novel, “Ant Colony,” Deforge creates a fascinating and disturbing world filled with insects that have no clue of what to make of any of it. The book provides an interesting exploration of life at a miniature scale, mimicking our society’s struggle to understand tragedy, love and sentience.

“Ant Colony” is a mixture of nightmarish pastel landscapes and a loose network of subplots that, put together, tells a tale of uneasy relationships in the face of an indifferent, hostile environment. As the title hints at, the story focuses on a colony of black ants that are trying to figure out their place in the world while going about their lives that are fraught with danger at every corner.

All of the male ants in the colony are required to scavenge for food and copulate with their towering, human-shaped queen, but engage in romantic—and often messy—side relationships with each other. Roaming Deforge’s eerie landscape are wolf spiders, omniscient bumblebees and infinitely-multiplying earthworms that also seek out food and comfort, but are perceived by the ants as horrifying oddities.

Nearby is a colony of red ants that, high on the sexual secretions of the wolf spiders, murder black ants in order to construct a spider-shaped mass that draws spiders in, producing more “spider milk” and fueling strife between the two colonies. After a bloody war and a magnified sun beam described by one character as a “giant pyramid,” both colonies are decimated. A few survivors remain, including a couple going through relationship problems; a young ant that has prophetic, but unreliable, visions brought on by ingesting pieces of an earthworm; his sociopathic father-brother that encourages, and takes part in, transgressive behaviors; and a morally questionable ant cop.

Their varying responses to the multiple tragedies that befall their now-destroyed colony is one of the most compelling aspects of “Ant Colony.” Deforge does not shy away from natural, brutally realistic dialogue that reflects the ways in which organisms—human, ant, bee or whatever else—attempt to make sense of their place in a detached universe. These characters are deeply flawed and confused, only able to react to whatever ills come their way.

In the ant society that Deforge builds, however, none of the main characters really come across as admirable. For example, the male ants’ view of female ants, or “infertiles,” is usually in negative opposition to the queen, and the one female ant who the survivors come across post-decimation is only important to the story as a potential new queen. This misogynistic view of female beings is something that humans encounter on a daily basis and are still working at fixing; in this way his storytelling as social commentary shines through, as all good art should.

Similar to his work on “Adventure Time,” Deforge’s character design is wholly his own, drawn unlike any others in contemporary independent comics. The creatures that litter every page of the comic look almost nothing like their real-world counterparts, reinforcing his strange, almost fever-dream like art. Deforge’s unconventional use of standard nine-panel grids, along with full-page scenes of war and bloodshed, highlight his incredible attention to detail and worldbuilding ability.

“Ant Colony” is an ambitious book that attempts to answer a central question of life: what the hell is going on? As is the case in life, the comic provides no real answers, only more questions, but it does so in a way that is entertaining, darkly humorous and all-too-relatable.

Youssef Shokry covers literature. Contact him at [email protected].