A crack-smoking mayor, a monkey found cruising an Ikea carpark wearing a mini shearling coat and a “rage room” where you pay $20 to smash shit up: things can get weird in Toronto. But not quite as bizarre as in comic strip Leaving Richard’s Valley, a mythical version of the city from illustrator and Toronto resident Michael DeForge. Ruled by mysterious autocrat Richard, the Valley is full of a collection of sycophantic creatures, navigating a world with a logic that defies understanding. Given Michael announced that he’s putting the comic to bed next month after more than a year of daily updates, we were keen to quiz him on the cult he’s created and whether he’s sad to be finally leaving the Valley himself.
“I’d been wanting to draw a daily comic for years, but it always seemed like such a huge commitment,” Michael tells It’s Nice That about starting the daily Instagram comic in January last year. “I was always looking for the perfect time or the perfect venue. Then my day job ended (I worked as a designer on Adventure Time for years and the show got cancelled) and it gave me a large enough gap in my working week that I figured I might as well finally give this a shot.”
Based in a mythical version of Toronto, the comic folds in a lot of real-life Toronto personalities and lore into Leaving Richard’s Valley albeit with some considerable twists. “I like that Toronto’s actual history is surreal enough that someone could read it and easily confuse it with fantasy,” says Michael. In developing the characters Micheal was interested in charismatic people who might start out with the best of intentions, but “accidentally” turn into manipulative wheelers and dealers. “I’m surprised at how often that’s been the case with cults and cult leaders,” says Michael. “They’re not always con artists, tyrants or egomaniacs from the get-go, but all these people start flocking towards them and it just sadly works out that way.”
In the Valley, even the happy moments seem to be underpinned by a kind of desperate anxiety. Everyone loves Richard, but you’re never quite sure whether that’s because they’re brainwashed or coerced. “I think most people living in a city in 2018 feel under constant threat,” says Michael about the inspiration behind the comic. “We’re all developing these very ugly, antagonistic relationships with our homes as our neighbourhoods get built over and our communities are torn apart.” As characters leave the Valley to seek a better life, their former friends are thrown into existential crises. “All of the characters in Richard’s Valley are trying to figure out whether or not it’s even possible to carve out spaces for themselves in a city like Toronto, and all the inevitable wrong turns and false starts that go along with that.”
A big fan of routine, Michael found inking the comic each morning a perfect set up for the day. “I would wake up, post a strip, draw a strip, go running, then spend the rest of my day on other work,” he tells It’s Nice That. He’d serialised comics before – Sticks Angelica and Ant Colony were both weekly strips – but this was one of the first that he’d actively enjoyed. “I know I get some other benefit from comics, some sort of gradual, emotional benefit, but up until now I’ve always found the actual process kind of unpleasant,” says Michael. “But this comic was genuinely fun to work on. It was a new feeling for me, and I really cherished it. I’ll definitely miss it.”
Stopping because he feels like the story is finally coming to an end, Michael also felt like he couldn’t keep working on the comic for free indefinitely. “In a perfect world, I could see myself drawing Richard’s Valley forever.” Whether the series ends with a bang or slips into a precarious coma, you’ll just have to wait and see.