Review: Lose #4

Alex Hern reviews an unexpected "fashion issue" of Michael DeForge's comic.

Lose #4
Michael DeForge
Koyama Press.com, 44pp, CDN$8.00

When you buy a comic described as "the fashion issue", normally you know vaguely what to expect. If it's not actually stories about clothes, then it is stories involving fashionable people, stories about the world of fashion, or just lots of pictures of people looking good. With Michael DeForge, you can be certain that you won't get what you expect.

Lose #4 — the fashion issue — is lead by two stories. The first shows at a teenage boy's literal metamorphosis into a leather-and-studded punk; the second is an examination of the lives, fashions and mating habits of the Canadian royalty. Neither of them start, or finish, or do any of the in-between bit, quite like any other short story I've read before. I mean… look, the very first page of the book features a couple having sex as they watch a porn film featuring newspaper comic stalwarts Dilbert and Nancy. It doesn't get any more conventional from there.

The first of the stories, "Someone I Know" is most reminiscent of other works, particularly Charles Burns' coming-of-age classic Black Hole. David, a young film-school student, takes a girl to a new club, Grand Room, to show off. He realises his mistake when he gets in and sees the leather everywhere; Grand Room is a sex club. But when David wakes up the following morning, there's a metal stud poking out of his arm, and it won't come off.

The cover of Lose #4

"Someone I Know" is followed by the stranger still Canadian Royalty: Their Lifestyles and Fashions. Presented as an anthropological guide, DeForge explains the life of the Canadian royalty. Not, mind you, Queen Elizabeth and co. The Canadian royalty are, instead, a semi-human race with their own customs, physiology and, above all, fashions. "If a royal ever undresses, he or she is stripped of his or her title. A famous example of this is Princess Charlotte's public disrobement on national television."

The common thread between the two stories is the freedom they give DeForge to show off his wonderful sense of design. The studded, buckled and leathered outfits of Grand Room, and the ludicrously elaborate and malproportioned robes of the Canadian Royalty, are both things which you can get lost in, mentally mapping every seam, every change in texture, every safety pin and fold of fabric. For good reason, the Canadian royalty section in particular is broken up with galleries of the royals themselves — Margrave Blunder (1945-2001), Prince Theodore (1987-present), Viscountess Mary Pillow (1952-2009) and so on.

The names should give a hint as to the sort of humour DeForge employs. He has much time for silliness — not just the weirdness of the stories, but also things which would be more at home in a Python sketch. A character, handed an x-ray by his doctor, points out that it's actually an ink drawing. The doctor ignores him and carries on. The lives of the royals are ghoulish, but Princess Charlotte flopping on the floor after disrobing for the first time in her adult life has a dark edge to it.

But the best piece in the book is the one which is played far straighter. "The Sixties" is the beginning of something out of the Twilight Zone. A teenage girl narrates her perfectly normal life in a town where everything has a disease called stacyface. It only has one symptom: your face becomes Stacy's. It starts with typical DeForge weirdness, as she meets a deer in the forest with the same face as hers. But the sheer normalcy of so much of the rest of the story — the lack of the over-the-top oddities of the others — gives it a very different, and far more unsettling, feel.

It's still weird seeing, like, old man bodies with stacyface. Babies, too. Fuck this fucking town!

A page from Lose #4. Image: Koyama Press

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The cult of clean eating in a fast-food nation

In Britain, it used to be vulgar to comment on one’s food. Now, it’s a bit weird not to.

These are the top food trends that the British media predicted for 2016: seaweed, parsnip puddings and sprouted seeds. And yet what was the most popular recipe on BBC Good Food, the country’s biggest cooking site? Lemon drizzle cake. When it comes to the food that we eat, the gulf between fantasy and fact has never been wider.

A third of British children are overweight, yet from the pictures tagged as “kids’ food” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram you would think they lived on pumpkin muffins and raw breakfast cereal. The same site boasts 290,229 posts on #avocadotoast and a mere 7,219 for #baconbutty, but I would bet my best spiraliser that we eat more of the latter.

Food trends have always been the preserve of those wealthy enough to enjoy the luxury of choice. If social media had been around in the 18th century, the exotic pineapple would have been trending heavily even as the majority of Britons subsisted on bread and gruel. Yet rarely have these fads been so hard to ignore: right now, we are a society obsessed with our stomachs . . . or, at least, our eyes, given that these seem to do much of the consuming.

The average British adult spends five hours a week watching, reading about, browsing and posting about food – and just four cooking it. A record 14.8 million of us tuned in to the final of The Great British Bake Off – almost as many as saw England’s dismal performance against Iceland in last year’s Euros – yet the most commonly eaten meal in the UK is a sandwich. That conjures a depressing image of each one of us sitting in front of a screen, scrolling through endless pictures of kale smoothies and activated quinoa as we tuck in to a floppy BLT.

A nation in which it was once considered vulgar to comment on one’s food has turned into one where it’s a bit weird not to. The current feverish interest in all things culinary feels, I imagine, like the Sixties must have done after Britain discovered sex “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”. And as with the sexual revolution and its fantasies of free love and cosmic joy through tantric chanting, perhaps the idea is more popular than the reality: increasingly, this endless parade of recipes cooked and meals eaten seems to be about more than the food itself.

While sex has (largely) thrown off its ancient shackles of judgement and shame, our diets are increasingly becoming their own morality tale. Once upon a time, “bad food” meant adulterated food – cheese dyed using lead, bread bleached with chalk – or perhaps cruel food, such as battery-farmed eggs. Occasionally someone who seemed to take too much pleasure in their meals might feel the weight of the country’s Protestant past, but wholesome food was generally seen as good rather than sinful.

Social media can’t be wholly to blame for the demonising of simple nourishment in the 21st century. Writing in the Observer last year, the philosopher Julian Baggini cited Salman Rushdie’s “naughty but nice” cream-cake advertising slogan from the Seventies as an early example; but “wicked” food was once a largely playful concept. Now, it is hard to find the humour in the modern idea of clean eating or, indeed, in its “dirty” dark side.

Clean eating, if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided the torrent of smoothie bowls and bone broths pouring forth from screen, billboard and printed page in recent years, is a way of life (most adherents reject the word “diet”) with many rules – the Hemsley sisters’ “simple, mindful and intuitive” approach for “a long-term lifestyle change” takes up six pages of their bestselling recipe book Good + Simple. But there is little consensus among its advocates as to what these rules are.

Although clean eating is often described merely as a movement that champions minimally processed, “natural” foods, one of the few things that unites its various congregations is the need to eliminate what they deem to be unclean alternatives. Gluten is a popular target for dismissal, because it can be “hard to digest”; legumes are sometimes blamed for “bloating”. Cane sugar is definitely out, but consumption of dates and honey is actively encouraged, often served with a generous spoonful of coconut oil or nut butter (but not peanut butter, because that “gives you cancer”).

Given the often spurious scientific grounds for these strictures (tomatoes are said to cause inflammation; dairy steals the calcium from your bones), it’s little wonder that clean eating stands accused of promoting what the food writer Bee Wilson described recently as a “twisted attitude to food”, valuing certain ingredients as pure and cleansing, while others come with an unwanted side order of guilt and anxiety.

The backlash wasn’t long in coming – and on social media, the crucible of the eat-clean craze, nothing is served in moderation. “Dirty” food, which revels in its own naughtiness, is the inevitable flip side of the clean-eating coin, a world where adherents compete to outdo each other in crimes against cookery. Online audiences encourage such extremes; they like their food, to misquote Longfellow, either very, very good or horrid. In short, a simple spag bol is never going to get as much attention on Twitter as an “Italian-style” beefburger, dripping with Bolognese sauce, drenched in Parmesan, and served between two slabs of deep-fried pasta (this does exist).

Such fantastical foods are fine online; as with pornography, the problem comes when they influence the way people eat in real life. Bee Wilson, who was subjected to a barrage of online abuse when she dared to question the thinking behind one clean-eating guru’s “philosophy” at last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, cites growing evidence of the dangers of clean eating from those working with people who suffers from eating disorders. One specialist in London told the Sunday Times in May that between 80 and 90 per cent of his patients were following so-called clean diets.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ­Oxford University study published last year in the journal Brain and Cognition explored the possibility that “exposure to images of desirable foods can trigger inhibitory cognitive processes such as self-restraint”. The researchers concluded that our brain has to make a great effort to resist temptation when looking at “food porn”, in order to “maintain a reasonably healthy weight”. And not everyone succeeds.

It remains to be seen whether this appetite for public displays of ingestion endures. I can’t imagine the world needs any more pictures of fried eggs but others disagree: 264 have been added to Instagram in the time it has taken me to write this piece.

Technology will decide – work is already under way on virtual-reality headsets that allow diners to eat one food while looking at an image of another. This is a significant development, as evidence suggests that changing the appearance of food can affect our perception of its taste and flavour.

It is possible to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, chowing down on a plate of steamed fish while gazing lasciviously at a bacon cheeseburger. Or we could just learn the old-fashioned art of moderation. Is there a hashtag for that?

Felicity Cloake writes the New Statesman’s food column

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times