ANT COLONY by Michael DeForge (Drawn & Quarterly), 112 pages, $21.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Michael DeForge's deranged yet adorable debut graphic novel hits the mark on many levels. It's experimental without ever derailing its narrative, existential yet light-hearted, surreal but deeply human, and always visually engaging.
Set in a black ant colony under attack by red ants high on spider blood, the story focuses primarily on a politically radical father and his naive young son who turns into an oracle after ingesting an earthworm, and a gay couple with communication problems at a crossroads in their relationship.
Most of the ants are male, ruled by a hippy-dippy Queen who demands "seed" around the clock to keep the complex, tenuous society running. Cop ants investigate a series of escalating deaths, and infertile females and deformed babies are kept on the fringes so as not to threaten or distract the Queen.
Toronto-based DeForge lays out his bonkers story with intelligence and sensitivity, dispersing fascinating insect facts throughout. The often disarmingly honest dialogue is incredibly effective. Sure, it's sometimes difficult to tell the ants apart and, therefore, keep their storylines straight - the narrative jumps around freely - but it all comes together by the end, and is an even richer read the second time around.
Minor characters fill out the world. The ant youths are, at least on the surface, street-wise and tough, guaranteed to get laughs. A cowardly cop is all facts and figures and no emotion.
But the gay couple is the story's beating heart. Existential angst has isolated and incapacitated one ant, while his more carefree lover's preference for community and action leads to another kind of trauma.
Their story will ring true to anyone who's ever suffered a broken heart, as will their instinctual efforts to rebuild.
DeForge launches Ant Colony at the Beguiling on Monday (January 27). See book listings.