Webcomic Wednesday: First Year Healthy by Michael DeForge
A horror comic of exuberant restraint, Michael DeForge’s First Year Healthy is either a subtle story about violent mental illness, or an even more subtle story about lycanthropy. That it’s difficult to tell for sure is where the restraint comes in. The nameless narrator refers to a hospital stay following an “episode” that made her notorious in town and prevented her brothers from allowing her to visit their families; people around her slowly build up a habit of dying violently and disappearing; a massive cat-like creature with a mouthful of fangs and a mane like the blazing sun prowls around the periphery of the story for ages before entering into the narrative in a dramatic way during its finale. Visual clues — a second cat, smaller and silhouetted; the shadowy shapes of the cat’s mane and tale extending out from the woman’s distinctive hairstyle as though her head itself is the cat’s body — point to a connection between the woman and the cat beyond the folktale she describes, but how literally are we to take it? I’m not convinced it matters. The important thing is that this woman’s life has a dangerous presence embedded deep within it, and the drizzle of workaday detail she pours atop it — her job, her sex life, her living arrangements — cannot keep it down for much longer than the titular 365 days.
None of this speaks to the way the thing is drawn, really, and that’s where the exuberance comes in. As befits his side career as an artist for Adventure Time, DeForge’s work is highly…stylized seems both too broad and too specific a descriptor, but he draws people, animals, and plants with a near-total disregard for verisimilitude, or even for evoking some abstracted or poetic essence-of-person-animal-or-plant. It’s like he gets started, draws until he’s satisfied with whatever shape his pen has conjured, says “okay, that’s human hair” and calls it a day; his color choices are equally unpredictable and unmoored. When you place these far-out visuals in a story this muted, with a narrator this flat-affect, in a format this rigid — a series of stand-alone one-page illustrations, captioned with typewritten text — the contrast is vivid, memorable, slightly maddening. In other words, perfect for a horror story like this, though it takes a certain kind of vision to see it and make it so.