Review by Karl Verhoven
It’s always pleasing to note about a graphic novel that readers are unlikely to have experienced anything similar, and Birds of Maine certainly qualifies.
Michael DeForge begins his surreal world-building with a young teenaged red cardinal we’ll later come to know as Ginni questioning her father on what the world above and the world below are like, and receiving honest, but bleakly unsuitable responses. The birds’ society uses fungal based computer systems, and over the course of 450 individual strips DeForge explores that society and how it reflects our own.
Limitations were placed on the strip when originally produced. There’s a uniform six panel grid, and DeForge posted to Instagram five days every week, about which there’s an irony as some strips burst the balloons of the self-obsessed. In terms of content, though, Birds of Maine is a free range zone. There’s no compulsion to end each strip with a joke, and contemplative endings are common, while an occasional wordless six panels will reflect the world without any greater point made. Deadline pressures are the likely cause, but these strips have a calming effect, apart from the occasional exception of artistic experimentation.
What immediately strikes is the vivid brightness at the start, although that’s later toned down. It may reflect the intelligent birds as the sole occupants of a better world on the Moon, while life on Earth has deteriorated. Abstracted shapes are simply rendered for surroundings, and the birds themselves bear little resemblance to each other, even within the same families. That’s probably more to do with keeping DeForge interested rather than the later explanatory comment about families being chosen. This Maine is a family name, not the American state, although that’s mentioned as the birds act with disbelief when learning about the old world, with capitalist principles a particular source of befuddlement. “I don’t get it”, says one bird, “why would some other guy own my home?” One strip reveals historical re-enactment societies just do paperwork.
That’s very representative of DeForge’s sly sense of humour. There are joke strips, but as the sample page acknowledges, not everyone will slide easily into his world. The surreal mixes with social commentary and while themes are followed it’s a rare strip that definitively connects with one before or after. Intelligence is all-pervasive, as is a well-formed and questioning worldview, and the result is a constantly shifting and fascinating experience.