In a network of tunnels beneath a great plain, there exists a race of ants nothing like the ants that exist in our world. They live in service to their nightmarish queen, but their day-to-day is filled with an ennui almost as terrifying as the monstrous spiders and centipedes they face. When one of their number is found murdered, it sparks a war that upsets the entire balance of the colony, and forces a handful of ants to contemplate a life free from their social order.
Last week, Michael DeForge completed Ant Comic (NSFW), telling a complete tale of a bizarre and fantastical ant colony. (Entomology fans, be warned, this isn't meant to be a biologically or socially realistic; it's best to think of the ants as an entirely invented sort of creature.) Most of the "black ants" we encounter are male, living in a sexually segregated society apart from the infertile female ants. All these male ants must make regular deposits of sperm to their enormous queen, a commanding creature they largely disdain. Among themselves, they live in family units of fathers, sons, and brothers, with the occasional pairing off of gay ants. (Be warned: DeForge makes liberal use of the word "homo," which, while apparently not intended as a slur in this case, is jarring.)
While it seems that many of the ants don't question their hard and subservient lives, their existence is marked by constant danger. Poisonous Sweet-and-Low rains from the skies. Fearsome dog-headed spiders threaten to trap and devour them. A handful of ants begin to reflect on their lives—the smallness of it, the focus of life around the dreaded queen, whether it is possible to be a pacifist and be an ant.
Then a dead ant is discovered, apparently murdered by a rival colony. The black ants find themselves moving against the rival red ants, setting in motion a bizarre chain of events. A pair of black ant lovers try to parse their roles in the conflict and their responsibility to the colony. A young ant finds himself transformed into a prophet, but no one will heed his warnings. His father explores what it is like to exert his independence from the hive.
Ant Comic is brilliantly surreal; DeForge manages to create a complete world that feels alien with touches of the familiar. The ants encounter earthworms, bees, centipedes, and spiders, and occasionally feel the little-seen hand of humankind, but nothing operates quite the way it does in our world. But while ant society and ant reproduction are utterly different from our own, DeForge grants his ants a human philosophy as they explore notions of family, love, loyalty, and what it means to think about the future. It's a short, strange trip, but one filled with thoughts and visuals that will haunt long after it's over.