After a Climate Catastrophe, These Birds Flocked to the Moon
'Birds of Maine,' about a colony of birds fleeing disaster, showcases Michael DeForge’s trademark blend of the enigmatic and the ridiculous.
By Etelka Lehoczky, The New York Times, Sept. 2, 2022
BIRDS OF MAINE, by Michael DeForge
A new release from Michael DeForge should be met with trumpet blasts across the length and breadth of the book world. With his artistry, intellect and wit, it’s a mystery why he hasn’t been dubbed the next Dan Clowes or Chris Ware by now. Not that DeForge’s style bears any resemblance to those two standard-bearers of ’90s comics — or that he hasn’t collected his share of praise (plus a smattering of awards) since he began publishing in the late 2000s. But he deserves to be known even by those who don’t necessarily follow comics.
Like two of its predecessors, “Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero” and “Leaving Richard’s Valley,” “Birds of Maine” began as a webcomic. Its subject is absurd: an imaginary society of birds living on the moon. They may have left their home planet behind, but these are Earth birds with Earth concerns. They’re alternately jealous of and attracted to one another’s plumage and wingspans. They’ve created an internet out of terraformed fungus, which they use to communicate and record their history. Three adolescents are at the center of many of the book’s strips, and they act like teenagers everywhere. They form a band, but worry that their songs are monotonous: “They can’t all be about alerting other birds to nearby food sources.”
The first striking thing about “Birds of Maine” is DeForge’s trademark abstraction. It’s difficult to tell what any of his drawings represent without some squinting, at least until you get used to his unique style. Though his compositions nod to the work of great artists, it’s his sly, accessible sense of humor that paradoxically gives “Birds of Maine” its intellectual payload. Most episodes have the same rhythm as the Sunday funnies, with similarly corny punch lines. This doesn’t only prevent the reader from equating abstraction with the highbrow. It quietly compels her to ask what does, and doesn’t, count as “serious” art.
As DeForge’s larger story takes shape, the irony underlying his light humor becomes clear. For all its silliness, this is a tale of cataclysm and its aftermath: The birds, it emerges, left Earth to escape the effects of global warming. Maine is now underwater, and the humans who remain spend most of their time apologizing for the catastrophe — either that, or pursuing the same banal fixations that brought it about in the first place. When an astronaut from Earth comes to the moon, they are too busy brooding about their ex, Brad, to pay much attention to their incredible surroundings. Eventually they’re absorbed into the fungal internet, where they can’t do any harm.
DeForge doesn’t seem to have decided how he feels about conventional narrative. The astronaut plotline is one of several that he advances throughout the book, but he never weaves them together into an overarching tale. As a result, “Birds of Maine” meanders more and more in the last 100 pages or so. By the time the book reaches its close, on Page 459, it all seems frustratingly repetitive. For most of its length, though, “Birds of Maine” is a nicely calibrated blend of the enigmatic and the ridiculous — a blend that DeForge should, by now, be well known for.