Michael DeForge's new book, Stunt, marks the end of an era. A decade ago, Annie Koyama published the first issue of his series Lose, which established him as a major young talent. A decade later, this prodigy's career has been notable for its unpredictability and commitment to constantly evolve. Stunt is DeForge's final book with Koyama before she shutters Koyama Press in 2021 and it's a book that recapitulates many of his career-long themes in a compact, powerful space. DeForge has always been interested in unusual formats and designs for his work, and, true to form, Stunt is printed landscape-style, with dimensions of 8" x 3". It's in black and white with extensive use of blue tones, reflecting that it's set in the world of movies. Not unlike Dan Clowes' Ghost World, the blue indicates the flickering blue light of TV or movies.
This simple story has all of the typical DeForge hallmarks: body horror and dysmorphia, identity warping, bold sexuality, and grappling with the ideas of public vs. private. Setting all of this in Hollywood amplifies these themes. A nameless stuntman is the narrator of Stunt, working on a set with an action blockbuster superstar named Jo Rear. The plot involves the stuntman working with Rear on an action movie shoot, then being flown out to L.A. to act as Rear's full-time body double. The nature of what he does as Rear's replacement gets deeper and weirder as the book proceeds until it concludes in a nihilistic fashion that is entirely consistent with the book's themes. The ways in which their personas shift and warp into each other, focusing more on their bodies than their actual personalities, dominates the visual narrative. The stuntman is very much an unreliable narrator in this regard, understating or ignoring the actual events he is a part of.
DeForge's use of language, though seemingly banal at times, is actually extremely precise. The first line of the book, "I worked as a stunt man. I kept fit." is notable because it's in the past tense and it refers to his body, first and foremost. In the context of the book, the stuntman has no other identity other than being a body. He is not only just a body but an expandable one at that; he fantasizes about dying in a stunt accident, noting right away that he has tried to commit suicide before but failed. So he remains "open" to accidents, but one dark fantasy of his is that instead of dying in a failed stunt, the actual star of the movie dies instead. He achieves a moment of fame only because everyone blames him, but at least he takes solace in knowing that he was on camera in replacing the star.
The bulk of the book, wherein the stuntman is Jo Rear's body double, is indeed a kind of "stunt": a prank, or a piece of performance art. If the stuntman wants to kill himself, then Rear wants to commit career suicide. In neither instance is it revealed why they want things to end, just that they do. The duo prove to be perfect collaborators, as the stuntman doesn’t have the agency to kill himself, and the actor doesn’t have the courage to end his own career. He is used to having people step in for him and do his dirty work, so why stop now? He is an actor, after all, used to pretending. The stuntman finds the experience freeing and exhilarating, as he is willing to go to extreme lengths to pull off the sort of public stunts that draw outrage.
The themes of duality, obsession, and the idea of two people somehow combining to form one all remind me of the Ingmar Bergman film Persona. Some of the plot details are different, but there's a lot that's similar. In some ways, Stunt perhaps acknowledges that influence and deliberately moves its tone in a funnier but equally dark direction. Persona is a film about the relationship between two women (an actress and her nurse caretaker) who are in isolation together. Childbirth is at the heart of the central conflict, as one woman has a child but doesn’t want him while the other woman desperately wants to have a child. In that isolation, and because of their physical similarity, there is an attraction between them that is narcissistic. It is an obsession with one's own self or falling in love with a slightly warped mirror version of oneself. In both cases, there is a hierarchy in place; Persona's actress is famous and has a child, and the nurse is clearly in a servile role. In Stunt, Jo Rear is a famous actor, and the stuntman is there because he's been hired to do a job. In both cases, the servants transcend their relationships to some extent in the way that their bosses come to be obsessed with them, or rather obsessed with them because they are obsessed with their own reflections. They are also obsessed with the other person because they see the possibilities of a different life path in them. In Stunt, you also have someone who yearns to create in the stuntman vs. someone who rejects being a creative force altogether.
At a certain point in Stunt, Jo Rear gets what he wants. His plan of total public degradation almost backfires, as the public grows more interested when they think it is a publicity stunt (and with the antics of actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Charlie Sheen, anything is possible). Eventually, the public loses interest. At that point, all that's left are the actor and the stuntman, and all they have to do together is "work on our bodies." This is one of many clever turns of phrase with multiple meanings from DeForge. The duo does indeed completely abandon the life of the mind and creativity in favor of exercise (an act the stuntman earlier refers to as "beating my body into submission"), but that later sequence features the stuntman's banal, dispassionate narration with ten pages of them having passionate sex. They are "working on their bodies" in more ways than one, but the question remains as to what it means. Is this a genuine connection, or more an act of masturbation?
In the end, when Jo Rear chooses his final stunt to be his suicide, the stuntman is happy to go along with it. He's not even getting paid but he "was more than happy to work for exposure." I laughed out loud at that line, one of many dark laughs in Stunt because DeForge is riffing on the idea of artists working for so-called exposure instead of getting paid. However, all the stuntman craves at that point was exposure; he wants an audience, to be thought of as creative. In the final frame, the stuntman knows that he's been cheated out of everything he wants. It may be his death, but he's been robbed even of that agency since everyone assumes it's Jo's: "In my last few moments, I pictured the scene: Oh, how I wished it was me! If it could only be me...!"
DeForge's work fuses many genres, but psychological and body horror have always been his main areas of interest. Persona was described as a "psychological horror" film, and that's very much the case here, albeit frequently leavened by humor, satire, and DeForge's well-developed sense of the absurd. The twisting, warped character of his line defies the "beautiful people" aspect of Hollywood, but DeForge is careful to capture the visceral, sweaty quality of the bodies of the main characters, sometimes to the point where they are no longer identifiable as actual people, just a mass of "knotted muscle and pools of sweat", which happened to be the ultimate suicide fantasy for the stuntman. The only imperative that the actor ever gives him is to "keep fit." Neither one of them is ever recognized for their inner lives: one is just a face, the other just a body. Neither makes choices to assert themselves otherwise in any kind of positive way, which brings us to the book's most essential theme: the traps in which mental illness can ensnare us. The stuntman is deeply depressed and suicidal, and he is only alive because he doesn’t feel he has the ability to kill himself. The actor is also clearly depressed and feels trapped by his life, but he is also a sociopath. Instead of taking responsibility for his actions, he literally takes the life (in all sense of the term) of another to escape. To where, and to do what? It doesn’t matter. This is another level of the horror of the book: that the actor is a sucking void of nihilistic narcissism and that the stuntman is sucked up into it.
Stunt is a fitting farewell for DeForge's work with Koyama Press. While it is a visceral, uncomfortable experience to read, DeForge's sense of restraint never sees him overplaying his hand. One can see DeForge's evolution as an artist at work in Stunt, because while his early work was powerful, he also tended to let the reader have it with both barrels. Every work since has been subtler and more refined in terms of its themes and execution, even as his art has become more abstract and grotesque. DeForge's work has become increasingly ambiguous, especially with regard to his stories' resolutions. While carefully crafting his narratives to create certain kinds of reactions, DeForge always leaves room for the reader to interpret the work on any number of levels. Stunt's horror is effective precisely because it is unsettling on psychological, existential, and emotional levels.