Teen Trees Get Knowledge: Michael Deforge’s Big Kids

Big Kids, Michael Deforge, Drawn & Quarterly 2016Big Kids

Michael Deforge
Drawn & Quarterly
Janurary, 2016

The new graphic novel from Michael Deforge, his first since Ant Colony, is a queer coming of age story with a fantastical, metaphysical edge. Like a lot of Deforge’s work, Big Kids exists in a world that’s slightly strange, as far as the rules of science go. It’s not as much bent on exploring the consequences of these fantastical elements to the fullest; the premise—the core difference from our world—is instead meant to be jarring, funny, and an excellent hinge for everything else the cartoonist is interesting in doing. Ant Colony is about an actual ant colony but more akin to the way Kafka’s Metamorphosis is about a cockroach than the way the Disney cartoon Antz is about ants. Similarly, Big Kids is about adolescence as total body and mind transformation, a species transplantation more than simple vertical growth and functional maturation—and it’s more interested in how that feels than what its consequences are.

Let me start with the plot. Adam’s a queer teen navigating the savagery of high school, closeted and trying hard to maintain his place in his tribe of cool-but-disaffected youth. His family life is ordinary but strained. He senses distance between his parents; he loathes his abusive uncle; and with a new student boarder, April, moving into the basement and taking up more and more of his mother’s time, Adam senses a new distance between himself and his mother. He experiences self-doubt and hatred (inner and outer directed) about all of this, and he spends his time thinking, thinking, smoking, thinking. It’s teen stuff, a bildungsroman with a hint of flat-affect otherness, something hiding below the surface.

And then Adam turns into a tree.

One day, after getting his heart broken—his sort-of-boyfriend Jared dumps him for a loser (Tyson, that nerd!) and the two of them come out—Adam smokes too much weed and wakes up with a rapidly transforming body, complete with new senses. “Oh,” says April. “I see what’s happened.” What’s happened, she explains, is that he’s turned into a tree that doesn’t look quite like a tree, that she too is a tree, and so is his mother. Lots of people are trees. But lots of other people are twigs, stunted beings who see and experience the world like we-the-readers do: full of people and animals with heads and arms and paws and tails; governed by strict laws of physics and a a biology of discreteness outside of the microscopic level. In the trees’ world, this all breaks down—synaesthesia and connectedness is the rule of trees. Their bodies, nodules, roots and flowering lungs relish chemical stimulation, twine together, can even be broken, separated and still thrive, unless they’re chopped to the smallest, stunted form of themselves—a twig.

Adam considers his new treeness to be a sign of his superiority, so absurdly obvious that he has trouble relating to his twig dad and twig uncle. When his uncle, over for a dinner, becomes abusive, he explodes into a signature lo-fi Deforge violence. Adam throws his twig uncle out the window like a dog owner playing fetch. His dad sees a fight, punches. He sees an offhand fantastical demonstration of frustration and dominance. Fuck twigs.

But it’s also a source of confusion, both further isolation from his old peers and communion with his new peers—with other trees. Trees and twigs have a fundamental disjuncture in understanding, in being and seeing. They literally do not see the world in the same way, and when they speak, their words signify different things. That doesn’t mean that trees and twigs can’t have friendships or romantic relationships, though—Adam’s family is made up of both trees and twigs of course—but twigs never know about the difference, even if they can sense the edges of it.

His mother feels the gap deeply, a daily ache, and is so charmed by April not just because April is so confident in her treeness and so easy to get along with, but because she is developing a game which allows trees to see the world as twigs do, and to create avatars of themselves with their old twig bodies. Representational art—graven images, cartoons, paintings—remain as to trees as they are to twigs. So Peanuts is still the same old Peanuts, Scooby Doo the same old Scooby Doo. Movies and photographs, on the other hand, reflect twig life to twigs, tree life to trees. April’s video game somehow creates an impossible point of connection: her 3D models simulate twig life for trees—something they’re no longer capable of seeing or experiencing.

It’s not simple nostalgia that makes this so compelling for Adam’s mother, but the longing she has to close the gap between her and her husband, to return to twig life. Eventually, she does it. One day, Adam comes to the dinner table to find his mother and father sitting together, visibly in love for the first time in years, and both twigs.

Mars Is My Last Hope, Michael Deforge, 2014
The fluidity of Martian bodies!

It’s possible, he learns, to go back. But going back means giving up knowledge—yeah, hey, trees of knowledge—connection, and a whole way of being and feeling.

It’s not the first time Deforge has explored body and mind transformation. In Mars Is My Last Hope, a short comic in which human colonists of Mars consume a twig that transforms their bodies into alien elongated, variously patterned, non-linear beings, the transformation is permanent. The comic ends with a colonist losing their Earth language in favour of Martian language— unparseable by the reader or by the colonists-in-transformation. The completion of the twig process sees them remove their helmets and live and reproduce as Martian beings. There is no way to bridge the gap between human and Martian but still we ingest the twigs and seek to transform. “There are no cities left. Mars is my last hope,” says one of the colonists.

In Mars Is My Last Hope, transformation is a matter of survival, but in Big Kids it’s philosophical. The twig and tree worlds exist superimposed, one on top of the other, so fully occupying the same space that there are no points of connection except moments of complete transformation. A tree can force themselves back into being a twig, through a kind of spiritual destruction, aggressively cutting off that which makes them a tree, branch by branch. And a tree can turn another tree into twig, as Adam learns, tearing Tyson apart in a moment of frustration—almost rage but too muddled to be just rage—physically ripping him apart and abandoning him, now a twig, alone. It’s a violent act, both physically and emotionally, and the opposite point to Adam’s transformation into a tree. Both moments are about their shared sort-of-boyfriend Jared, inasmuch as any teen coming of age sign post is really about one shitty boyfriend or another. Our protagonist is jealous, irritated, self-deprecating, self-aggrandizing, and angry all at once. He rips this boy apart—a high-achieving beauty as a twig, nervous and ill-formed as a tree—and forces a reverse transformation on him, to no consequences from his fellow trees (Won’t somebody think of the twig children?). Tyson was looking backwards, like Adam’s mother, and there was something grotesque in that for him.

Michael Deforge's Big Kids, Drawn & Quarterly, 2016
Shame distorts Adam’s tree being, bringing back some of his pre-tree self?

All of this is presented with a peculiar lack of wonder, the fantastical flattened into the mundane (“and then he turns into a tree.”), but without a true sense of ordinariness. It’s all weird, sure, but it’s not to be remarked upon or goggled at. So he’s a tree. Don’t stare at his flower-lungs. The emotional highs and lows are found in the experience of teenhood, of coming of age, not yet so much in the tree-twig divide. It’s hard for Adam to understand the profound despair his mother experienced as a tree-wife to a twig-husband, or the total disinterest in twigs and lack of angst that April, who transformed as a child and can barely remember the twig world, feels. He’s kind of a shitty teen, it’s true, and he’s only just beginning to understand what it means to be a Big Kid.

This is of course a metaphor for the kind of mundane enlightenment-as-alienation that teens alternately feel and long for—no one else understands me, just this select group—that is absolutely real (how much does anyone ever understand anyone) but also cliche for a reason. It’s horrible to feel alone and misunderstood. It’s wonderful to know something others don’t. It’s exhilarating when these things come together.

Big Kids invites us to see the mundane with new tree eyes, the human warmth and depth that exists beneath cliches of disaffected teens and troubled marriages. The conceit of trees and twigs, the synaesthetic rereading of the ordinary world, is cleverly and prettily presented. The palate is mostly gentle, the trees and their movements lovely. It’s an easy book to read, visual metaphors and motifs, as weirdly fun as they can get, are never overcooked. The beauty isn’t a by-the-way; it helps build the point. Adam is terrible and beautiful and he feels, as he says, a lot of things. Big Kids is comfortable in that complexity.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.