In January, an article in the science journal ZooKeys described a newly discovered aggressive North American ant species called Temnothorax pilagens, or “pillage ant.” Pillaging is central to the ant’s livelihood; news stories announcing its discovery, stacked with descriptions of “slave-making,” “chemical camouflage,” and “mortal fighting,” read like H.G. Wells’s The Food of the Gods, or perhaps Ant Colony, a once Web-serialized, now print-collected comic from the award-winning Canadian indie cartoonist Michael DeForge. Heralded in comics circles for his distinctive range of illustrative styles, DeForge is also concerned, in his newest work, with these segmented insects.
It’s unclear which of the estimated 20,000 or so ant species is depicted in Ant Colony‘s richly colored strips, but that matters little. Visually potent and flecked with biting and often grotesque humor, DeForge’s oblong digest of insect daily doings is wild. Ant Colony hovers over one faction of ants—they, well, “service” their queen, they’re poisoned by discarded Sweet’N Low, they’re careful to steer clear of spiders, they squabble with red ants to keep their land. A scene that depicts the latter, spanning two pages, is owed a long look. There is some stomping, rock smashing, and good old-fashioned insect kingdom dismembering. The corpses are left to grow bloated in pink pools of spider milk, a well-known hallucinogenic in the community. “I drank spider milk once,” a gay ant confesses to his partner later. “It really messes you up.”
Anthropomorphism propels DeForge’s work, and Ant Colony‘s players are highly conversational beings. The dialogues swerve from complaints about vanilla domesticity to darker rants that contrast with the strip’s flashy backdrops, where understated pastels are lent a sort of movement in stray sporadic lines or bright swirls that pop on the page. Perched atop gloopy black bodies that appear to be in a similar state of near-constant undulation, DeForge’s ants’ heads are also fluid in nature. They’re hideous, differing strikingly in hue and shape from bug to bug.
Ant Colony‘s fun ugliness—and witty volley between banal chatter and more plot-driven conversation—can also be seen in the first three issues of Kid Mafia, a DeForge comic that’s just been collected by California comic shop and publisher Secret Headquarters. Kid Mafia follows a teen crime family helmed by a stringy-haired high school dropout named Franco DeMeo. Flanked by noodle-armed capos and hired guns, each with an oversize, pear-shaped head, DeMeo and his underlings sip Slurpees, go to punk shows, and conduct serious business near the neighborhood half-pipe. Mostly, though, Kid Mafia‘s crew is chatty and trigger-happy, like a pack of keyed-up insects defending their turf.