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Finding their place

Quirky urban critters offer insight into notions of community, friendship and home

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/4/2019 (453 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

First presented to readers through a now-concluded web comic on Instagram, Toronto writer/illustrator Michael Deforge’s Leaving Richard’s Valley is governed by an eponymous influencer who has accumulated a vast collection of literal followers. Cultivated by the mysterious Richard, the Valley is housed within a public park in an alternate-reality Toronto, and inhabited by a collection of anthropomorphic animals.

The story follows a small group of characters who are banished for using forbidden methods to help their sick friend Lyle the raccoon.

Though simply drawn, Michael DeForge’s characters are not lacking in distinct, expressive features. (Supplied)

Though simply drawn, Michael DeForge’s characters are not lacking in distinct, expressive features. (Supplied)

Once exiled, Leaving Richard’s Valley finds Lyle, Omar the Spider, Ellie Squirrel, Neville the Dog and Caroline Frog wandering around the big city in search of a new home and a new way to live.

Now existing apart from Richard’s cult of personality, the critters in this ragtag bunch are finally free to explore their own identities. DeForge’s black and white character design is understated, perhaps due to the fact this work began as a daily strip; each animal is represented with just a few simple shapes. Lyle, for example, is just a large heart with a sometimes-visible striped tail tacked on.

Though simply drawn, the characters are not lacking in distinct, expressive features, from Neville’s rabbit ears to Caroline’s omnipresent scowl.

It’s worth noting that DeForge has worked as a character designer on the cult-hit cartoon series Adventure Time, also teeming with deceptively cute, simply rendered creatures often imbued with profound sadness, or even malice.

Aware of his uncomplicated art style in this collection, the author also includes a few experimental pages depicted in more detail and literal depth, taking his characters from two-dimensional renderings to something resembling 3D balloon animals — incidentally, while the group discusses "copycats, cheap imitations… tributes (and) parodies" in art.

The book also plays with character tropes found in many an animal-led quest story. For example, Neville wants a democracy, whereas everyone expects him to be in charge just because, as a dog, he’s seen as a "natural leader."

As Ellie remarks to Omar, "I think the animals are symbols. What do you think we’re symbols for?" Ever the narcissist, Omar replies "I symbolize hotness; you’re a symbol for squirrels."

But if we take DeForge’s story as an allegory, the most obvious symbol is Snake Mark, who eventually also leaves the Valley only to start, and then be exiled from, a cult of his own (dubbed the Marksists.)

Through Mark, we see how easily Richard could have started the Valley to begin with, with just the right mix of charisma, melodrama and relatability. As Mark puts it, "What’s so wrong with snake oil?" Let me be your provider!"

The big city itself is a kind of snake oil, as illusions of a fresh start are quickly shattered once the critters experience the consequences of homelessness (the conceit being that these are animals that are meant to live outside).

DeForge gives us a stark, almost post-apocalyptic inner city; everything is broken, dirty, missing parts or covered in graffiti.

Issues of class come into play as the group takes up residence in an abandoned building. Ellie and Neville comment on how scary the cobwebs are, much to Omar’s chagrin; since he makes webs too, does that make him scary to his friends?

Gentrification also rears its head when a statue the gang eventually inhabits is torn down despite public protests. Once again, the Richard’s Valley expats are displaced, bringing into question what constitutes a public space as capitalism continues to govern what (and who) a city is for.

With its cast of critters constantly in a state of flux, the story highlights the value of finding one’s place in a world that is constantly growing and changing (and sometimes becoming increasingly toxic).

Though DeForge has skilfully created a twisted, bitingly funny parable about community and friendship in tough times, Leaving Richard’s Valley also remains steadfast in the principle to "never let anyone bully you into thinking you belong somewhere."

Winnipeg’s Nyala Ali writes about race and gender in contemporary narratives.

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