Review: Familiar Face by Michael DeForge

familiar face
Cover courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.

Michael DeForge’s characteristically busy panels full of simple, abstracted forms fit the world of Familiar Face, his latest comic, perfectly.  This is a world in unending flux. Every day there are updates, patches, optimizations, altering everything from the subway map of the city to people’s physical bodies. The changes are sometimes drastic and always immediate—no gradualism. One day the narrator character wakes up and finds her body has shrunk, another day the layout of her apartment building has totally shifted, and she’s surrounded by new, unknown neighbors. All these changes are for the benefit of the inhabitants of this world, supposedly, though from the outside they seem totally arbitrary.

As I said, DeForge’s art style is a perfect match. It doesn’t let your eyes sit still, and rarely explains itself. The narrator has a … cat? dog? A very angular spindly little creature which shows up in some panels depicting her apartment, never mentioned in the narrating text which runs over most of the graphic novel. That narrative text keeps the reader on track, helping them identify certain things (e.g. this text description of subway tracks is paired with a drawing of these veiny tubules, so those must be subway tracks), but on other matters the reader is left to strain at comprehension on their own. Is this squiggly blue bit here a car? A person? A dog? You’re as bewildered as the narrator, as anyone in this world, and often the panels are crammed full of this visual information, all in vibrant colors. Now, lots of what I’ve said here could be applied to other works by DeForge, but Familiar Face goes a step further by frequently changing the design of the main character. The one concession to the reader is that characters retain their color scheme, but that’s it—the changes go unremarked by the narrator, forcing the reader to keep pace. I remember at one point reading along and stopping short when I realized that the little four-legged creature I’d been following for a couple pages was, in fact, the narrator!

There is one interesting exception to this, and that is the complaint sections. The main character works in the complaints department, and it’s her job to read through complaints people send in. These are not just complaints about the city, but complaints about really everything a person could be upset over, grievances from the present day and from “years ago. / From eras I didn’t recognize.” Although they are framed in triangular panels, the art of the complaints (which act as interstitial mini-comics throughout the book) is mostly conventional. Human forms look like human forms, if a bit cartoony. Cars and tables and doors look like cars and tables and doors. And they’re all black and white. The complaints cut through the cacophony of color and abstraction, and for that reason they are all the more piercing.

Some of the complaints are funny. Some are heartbreaking. But the narrator’s job isn’t to answer the complaints. The system does that automatically. Her job is just to read them, “as part of an accountability effort / Even when their complaints were left unaddressed, people felt more comfortable knowing there was at least a person on the other end reading what they had to say”.  Reading through them, anonymized as they are and with no possibility for response, is a little like reading comments on long-dead forums, reports of computer problems never given solutions, attempts at connection never replied to.

And here we loop back around to the major theme of this book, optimization, or rather the myth of optimization, the myth of a just compensation for everything. Our main character is pretty soon faced with a problem, a complaint of her own, that optimization won’t fix—her girlfriend leaves her.

familiar face excerpt

Her first solution is to turn to an app, Roommates, which will send her an actor who will pretend to be her roommate, with a made-up personality and backstory suited specifically to her having just been dumped.

It doesn’t work out. It doesn’t fix the problem, nor do the updates to maps and bodies, nor do all the other optimizations.

There’s more that I can go into about this book—the kind of comedic but kind of symbolic use of eggs, for example—but this is a review not an essay. Suffice it to say, I think DeForge does a terrific job with these ideas and several others, and also the computer is my favorite character, and alright that’s it.

It’s a short, potent book. It’s funny and challenging and pretty mesmerizing. I don’t know how to recommend a book like this—if you’ve read Michael DeForge before, you probably already know whether or not you’ll like it, and if you haven’t this is as good a first taste as any.

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