On April 16th, today, Michael DeForge will post the last Leaving Richard’s Valley strip. Normally I am a big fan of creators ending series on their own thoughtful terms, but this comic has been a particular highlight of my daily social media browsing. While the overall plot is engaging and intriguing, DeForge ensures that each one- to four-panel strip has a humorous punch line, a biting comment on gentrification or related issues, or an exciting moment of character development (or more often, character stagnation.) He’s truly shown that he can make a serialized comic that brightens your day. To say goodbye, I offer up this love letter to what has become one of my favorite webcomics.
When it first began, I thought Leaving Richard’s Valley was going to be a simple farce about cults. Richard’s followers believe in him with a naïve optimism that DeForge quickly reveals to be dangerous; Lyle—a raccoon and one of many talking animals in this world where science has allowed humans and animals to live as relative equals—grows sick and can’t be healed by water run through stones, which Richard claims can purify any toxin and keep valley residents healthy. When his friends give in and bring Lyle real medicine to save him from death, Richard banishes the group for disobeying the rules of the valley. To his friends’ chagrin, Lyle is furious with their choice and would rather have died than have to leave the valley.
Richard himself has a kind of larger-than-life personality that persists through most of the comic. He is a brick of man, broad-shouldered, made perhaps even square-er by the large coat he wears, and clearly has a kind of presence and power of persuasion that makes others want to follow him. However, his flaws are obvious; he selfishly plays favorites, honoring those such as an injured spider who turns out to be a great masseuse, and he is unsurprisingly careless and arrogant. It’s the flaws in all DeForge’s characters—Lyle is angsty and inconsiderate, Caroline (a frog) is jealous and disturbingly comfortable with theft and lies, Snake Mark luxuriates in lovesick melancholy, and on and on—that make them so delightful to read. The aforementioned Caroline is my favorite character; when she leaves the valley in a fit of jealousy, unable to accept no longer being Richard’s favorite, she throws herself into work and begins building shoddy houses and offering to plow snow. The city interprets her structures as art and the “sculptures” inspire many, but Caroline is completely self-absorbed and out only to find some sense of satisfaction for herself. I almost crave these characters’ bad decisions, but I never cringe at their actions. In their own ways, each anthropomorphic animal is trying to find their place in a nonsensical, gentrifying city that makes just as much sense as a valley filled with tripping cultists.
This commentary on gentrification, hipster culture and the exclusionary nature of “progressive” groups is another great delight DeForge delivers to his readers. Reading the comic on twitter or instagram, day by day, sometimes means missing pages due to the nature of timing and algorithms. However, in several strips DeForge offers up biting observations about the worst aspects of living in a city— like finally, after a long, wandering homelessness, building a community on top of an imposing statue, only to have it torn down. As readers we take in a light-hearted, often humorous story about animals who are supposed to live outside, but the truth is that this is what cities do to homeless people who create their own communities. When the city ignored all protests and tore the Lyle statue down, I saw echoes of the recent forcing-out of a tight-knit tent city in my own Chicago neighborhood.
DeForge has always pushed boundaries artistically, creating unique character designs that are often literally out of this world. With Leaving Richard’s Valley he also played with the medium, and spent various chunks of time making four-panel comics with little animal sculptures or simply refining his designs to make each character more emotive. Few of the animals are drawn realistically—in perhaps a surreal twist on his personal style, DeForge has Ellie, a squirrel, wear Omar, a spider, on her head, and together the two become a new persona, Julianne Napkin, who eventually gains low key star status as a performer—but it’s easy to dive into their feelings and motivations. DeForge also occasionally plays with the background illustrations, giving the valley a kind of fantasy feel with its craggy rocks and leafy plants, but sometimes rendering the city with an almost dystopian realness: dark inks, thinner linework and lighter shading to highlight graffiti and broken fences, trash cans, broken everything. It’s been exciting to see his work shift and change through daily updates, and all of the experimentation makes me want to see this comic collected in a book.
If you’ve never even peeked at a Leaving Richard’s Valley strip I ask you, beg you, to just go and take a look, and then maybe read the whole thing, from start to finish. DeForge has created a world that initially feels simple but is quite expansive; the development of these likeable but conceited, oblivious characters, the commentary on displacement and gentrification, on cults, on the search for self-identity within groups all kinds, show his understanding and skill in using webcomics as a medium. It’s the small moments that make Leaving Richard’s Valley so good. You owe it to yourself to experience them.