A Cynical Hero in a Surreal Forest - Review of Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero

Perhaps what makes a hero is someone who is willing to help others out of the goodness of their hearts. This particular definition of the term “hero” is not applied in Michael DeForge’s latest graphic novel.

On March 16, Drawn and Quarterly’s bookstore hosted the launch party for DeForge’s latest graphic novel, Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero. This graphic novel was originally a webcomic that was updated on a weekly basis on Tumblr.

The idea for the graphic novel was inspired by one of DeForge’s favourite books, The Canadian Naturalist by P.H. Gosse. He resonated with the idea of how Gosse described his idealized version of Canada in his book. DeForge thought that it would be interesting to have his own character who has never lived in a forest and had their own idealized version of what the Canadian wilderness was like.

Also, since DeForge is a character designer on _Adventure Time_—one of Cartoon Network’s most popular shows—the art style is very similar to the style you’d see in the animated series itself.

Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero is the story of a middle-aged recluse named Sticks who abandons her celebrity status as the daughter of a prominent Canadian politician, and goes to live in the forest. Along the way, she encounters many unique characters such as Oatmeal—a bunny who is in love with Sticks after she saved him from being killed by snake venom—and Girl McNally, a human girl who only speaks in song who was once condemned for her father’s crimes when she was a baby.

Sticks isn’t your average hero. Early into the novel she comes off as a low-key tyrant, having ants act as her proxy and answering all her needs. In comic strips revealing Sticks’ backstory, the reader learns how she was a bully in her childhood wherein she constantly tormented her twin brother.

Despite imagining a kooky version of Canada’s wildlife, DeForge drew inspiration from real life. Taking his friend and American cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt and basing a character off of her: a moose who dresses in human garb who dreams of becoming a lawyer one day. Hanawalt is also the producer and production designer for the animated Netflix series, BoJack Horseman.

DeForge explained that he had a frustrating time rendering Hanawalt into a character for his novel.

“I didn’t want to do a crappy ripoff of Lisa’s work,” recalls DeForge. “So, I wrote her up and said, ‘Hey, is this fine?’ And she very generously. was cool with it when I showed her the scripts.”

As the narrative progresses, Sticks’s character development leads her into becoming a better person. She helps out Girl McNally in a court trial and gives a useful Secret Santa gift to one of the forest animals, despite the fact that she was reluctant to participate in the Christmas event at all.

Overall, Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero is an entertaining read. DeForge’s cynical humour takes on a lighter tone compared to his last graphic novel Big Kids, published in 2016.

The narrative fits into a continuous storyline with some stand-alone moments and mini story arcs that showcase a particular character. It is told mainly from Sticks’ point of view, but does switch between minor characters.

At the graphic novel’s launch party, DeForge did a live-reading of three comics he had written called All Dogs are Dogs, Meat Locker and Mostly Saturn. It was an interesting experience to have the author read aloud from his work, accompanied by a large projector playing a slideshow of the strips. The reason why DeForge did not read from Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero was because he felt he couldn’t provide a multitude of different voices for each of his characters, of which there are many.

DeForge explores themes of identity, transformation and community in Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero as a way to shape an alternate version of the Canadian wilderness. An example of how the theme of community fits into the narrative is that it establishes the forest laws in the fictional landmark, Monterey National Park. One law applies to those who are rejects of society or who have committed crimes. They are referred to as “unanimals,” creatures of the forest who have twine wrapped around their heads so they are no longer distinguishable and who lose their ability to speak.

Later on, there was time for a quick question and answer session with DeForge, wherein explained that he enjoys creating little snippets of his imagined world. Little moments where readers could sample a brief slice of a bigger and more surreal world.

DeForge’s simple yet charming art style paired with his writing style brings out the goofiness of the story’s characters. There are several minor characters in the story, but only the named characters get more fleshed out in the comic strips, such as Oatmeal, Lisa Hanawalt and Girl McNally.

If you are a fan of Adventure Time and you like a cynically funny narrative, then Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero is not a graphic novel that you’d want to miss out on.

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