On the moon, there are no humans. The birds that populate the lunar planet don’t get caught up in ideas like weekends or “the economy.” They stay connected via a vast fungal network, and there is plenty of universal worm (there’s one big worm that they all eat) to keep everyone fed.
Michael DeForge’s latest graphic novel, Birds of Maine, chronicles this utopian avian society with his usual deadpan humor and surreal drawing style. DeForge’s book tour for Birds of Maine will hit Pilsen Community Books on October 14. The prolific comics artist and former Adventure Time illustrator began serializing these comics on social media in April 2020. In August 2022, publisher Drawn & Quarterly dropped the book.
In Birds of Maine’s moon setting, the birds have abandoned Earth traditions as arcane and laughable. Instead, they have roosted into an easy socialist existence. The systemic conflicts of capitalism may be gone, but there is still room for plenty of plot. A kiwi bird and a penguin attempt a long-distance love. An angsty group of teen birds start a punk band. A young cardinal strikes up an email correspondence with a human stuck on Earth—throwing into obvious light how much bird society reflects and refracts our modern dilemmas.
Birds of Maine by Michael DeForge
Drawn & Quarterly, hardcover, $34.95, 464 pp., drawnandquarterly.com
We talked to DeForge about utopias and dystopias, alternate technological histories, and what goes into building a fully realized fantasy world.
Megan Kirby: How did you start building the world of Birds of Maine?
Michael DeForge: I’d been thinking about ideas around technology for awhile. One of the things that happens when you read the history of computing or the Internet—and you see how both of those things have wound up fairly dystopian—is that you end up seeing this alternate history of technology where things didn’t have to develop according to the whims of capitalism or imperialism. The infrastructure of the Internet is built on those two things, but you can imagine this alternate history of something like the Internet that is built to be as egalitarian and liberatory as some of its biggest cheerleaders were saying at the dawn of the Internet. I wanted to write about technology that was built on a different infrastructure.
At the same time, I remember reading about the ways people have talked about mushroom computing, within fungal networks. I thought that was a really good starting point to build a whole world out of. A lot of the world-building was just me trying to figure out how they developed this technology. They’re not built for humans, they’re built for bird use—and mushroom use. I wanted the mushrooms and bugs to be as involved in the creation of the Internet as the bird. I also wanted it to seem alien and foreign to us. I spent a lot of time thinking about mushrooms, which was a pleasant way to pass the time.
Was there a moment you realized this was the project you wanted to pursue?
There was always this issue of Kamandi by Jack Kirby. It’s a future where there’s not very many humans, a Planet of the Apes-style future where animals all have their own kingdoms and technologies and stuff. There’s one where he goes underwater, and he sees dolphin technology. Because they’re dolphins and they’re all underwater, there’s no up or down to them. It’s just a series of connected boxes with little buttons that are pulls, because the only way that dolphins would be able to interact with technology is with their noses. As a kid I thought that was really funny, and as an adult I kept thinking about that. I reread the issue as an adult, alongside an Ursula Le Guin story where in the future people are deciphering ant poetry that’s been written on germinated seeds. When I put those two things together, that was the spark to really delve into thinking about bird communication, bird technology, and what that might look like.
The book really explores capitalism and imperialism through their absence. How did you form the tenets of bird society?
One of the rules I set out at the beginning was that I knew there was going to be conflict and friction within the book, but it needed to all remain interpersonal. I didn’t want there to be scarcity or some war. I wanted to depict a world where there was still conflict and problems and tragedy and grief and despair, but they’ve built a utopia that is sturdy enough to hold all of those things. I didn’t want it to be so rooted in humans and our present culture. I didn’t ever want the birds to explain exactly what type of communist they are.
You’ve explored dystopias and the idea of chasing paradise before. What draws you towards those themes?
I’m interested in the way people try to build up structures for themselves and then fail. There’s been so many utopian projects, especially in contemporary western history. And I think there is a tendency to write off their failures, or if they dissolve, to write off the whole experiment like a failure without maybe properly looking at the things that were successes. Some of the reasons that these attempts maybe collapse is that it’s very hard to build something new within an infrastructure that is already there, and sucks, and is working so hard to destroy you.
Because I do focus so much on our present calamity, I wonder how—not that art needs to be productive, but it can feel a little unproductive to always be fixated on disaster. Because we live in disaster. I don’t always think it’s that helpful for art to explain the disasters. Everyone knows everything sucks. No matter where someone is on the political spectrum, I think most people feel that deeply. I find it more a challenge to write about alternatives than to just write about how things suck.
I loved the way the book explores the Internet. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to the Internet as an artist?
It’s weird because I sometimes feel like I should be more grateful for the Internet. I grew up online, and I developed as an artist online. And career-wise, I’m quite reliant on something like Instagram or Twitter. But alongside all that, I’m of course extremely resentful that we are all beholden to these companies that do not really care about the artists using their platforms for their livelihoods. The whims of some company can change and then suddenly you’re out of work. It hits me less hard than if I was drawing more pornography or if I was involved in sex work. You can see these cases of all these people and their livelihoods just getting decimated by these choices.
Are you working on anything right now?
I just started serializing a new comic on Twitter that is about a touring pop group. It’s going to be weekly. I’ve been reading a lot of pop memoirs. Maybe it’s because I haven’t traveled in the pandemic yet, so the idea of touring is interesting to me.
If you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be?
I think I’d be a kiwi . . . That’s been my answer for favorite bird, but I also feel like that’s a very niche bird. Not for everyone, that’s my type of bird.
Michael DeForge and musician and author Sadie Dupuis in conversation with musician and writer Jes Skolnik
Fri 10/14, 7 PM, Pilsen Community Books, 1102 W. 18th St., pilsencommunitybooks.com
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