Canadian cartoonist Michael DeForge has a style immediately familiar for its distinct line work and abstract character designs. In books like Big Kids, Ant Colony, and First Year Healthy, he renders humans and nonhumans alike in a variety of forms, suggesting representations of the characters and their states of mind rather than literally depicting them. His newest graphic novel, Familiar Face, takes this sensibility to the next level, concocting an entire world of shapeshifting people and landscapes.
In the futuristic setting of the book, society has prioritized “optimization” to such a degree that bodies and buildings alike are constantly updated. People will wake up one day to discover that they have completely changed form, that the layout of their neighborhood is different, or that their car is gone. The alienation induced by our rapid rate of technological advancement is here accelerated to a fantastical degree. The unnamed narrator feels it acutely. It doesn’t help that they work at a government department which fields complaints about the consequences of various “system updates.” Vignettes depicting these complaints are peppered throughout the story, deepening the reader’s sense of this world, as well as the pervasive feeling of dread and dissatisfaction.
DeForge has a ton of fun using this premise as an excuse to not just draw whatever he wants however he wishes to, but also to change how he imagines it from one page to another. Mass transit systems are elaborate ecosystems, with organic trains crawling along giant veins. The narrator’s one constant companion, their computer OS, manifests as an animated browser window which changes form as it doggedly tries to keep its master happy. (“I’m sorry. I can’t help you with this query. Would you like to watch pornography?”) Color is employed to differentiate certain individuals and themes — the narrator is white, their ex is red, the complaint episodes are always in black and white, etc.
Familiar Face transposes the limitless possibilities of crafting one’s identity through new media to the physical realm, but brings with it the involuntary, data-minded controls from that media as well. In doing so, it explores both the possibilities and the limitations of the ways in which technology lifts restrictions on humanity which were once believed immutable. Far from a “Sometimes I think smartphones … are making us dumber!” treatise, it instead takes seriously the new challenges that come with a new world.