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CR Sunday Interview: Charles Forsman
posted July 28, 2013
's formidable, nascent comics presence is split between his cartooning work and his publishing/distribution efforts. Forsman was born in 1982 and raised in Pennsylvania. A high school dropout, he returned to school first at community college and then as part of the second class to matriculate at The Center For Cartoon Studies
. His mini-comic Snake Oil
won the outstanding comic and outstanding series Ignatz Awards at the 2008 ceremony.
This month sees the Fantagraphics publication of The End Of The Fucking World (TEOTFW)
, a deliberately-paced study of two teenagers adrift in an alternatively empty and disappointing world. That work was originally serialized as a series of eight-page mini-comics through Forsman's successful Oily Comics
minis making and distribution network. I think it's an intriguing debut, almost like watching a percussionist or other music-maker attempting to play with only the most rudimentary version of his chosen instrument. TEOTFW
is a spare work, providing heaping dollops of emotional turmoil for whatever it lacks in rendered, drawn detail. I'm grateful Forsman took the time to speak with me, and wish I had a photo later than 2008. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Am I right in thinking that
The End of The Fucking World is the first thing you've done of this size and scope?
That's been published.
SPURGEON: Did you even expect this one to end up in that form? Because notably this was a series of mini-comics first. Were you aiming towards a book collection while you were doing the minis, or is that something that kind of locked into place after you did a bunch of the work?
This one was sort of an exercise to do something completely different and have a little more fun again. What happened is I finished this book Celebrated Summer
-- I guess a few years ago now. Fantagraphics
is reprinting that one later this year. Those pages are really dense [laughs] and there's a lot of hatching involved. I wanted to do something I could draw fast, sort of the opposite of that project. Something cheap: $1 comics. That's kind of how it started.
I did not plan for it to be collected or anything. The reaction to it after three or four issues... people seemed to really like it. Publishers told me so. [Spurgeon laughs]
SPURGEON: Did that change how you approached the story at all? Did you perhaps start seeing it as a single piece more than as a series of vignettes?
I think so. It was probably a good thing, because it forced me to become serious about where I wanted it to go. It was a probably a combination of things: the reaction from the readers, stores ordering it, and people wanting to publish it. I think it forced me to figure out what I wanted to do. Part of me wanted to keep it going forever. [laughs]
SPURGEON: You probably could have, too.
I don't know if I was ready to do something like that. I think it was good. I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out.
SPURGEON: Something we don't talk about in terms of comics a whole lot is a work suggesting to the creator what it's about in the process of the creator bringing it to life. That's a pretty common way to discuss writing a play or working with prose. A fairly common model for less labor-intensive forms, at least in terms of the basic building blocks of it, is for a creator to just starting working away and afford the material itself some sort of voice in how it's shaped after a certain point. Were you surprised by anything that happened with the book during its creation?
The seed of the whole thing started with a feeling. I had a time and a place and teenagers; I had this sort of vague, mid-'80s feeling that [laughs] I tend to put into a lot of my work. And I had a little bit of violence and sex. The characters definitely ended up taking it where it ended up. I think I enjoy that a lot when I work. I tend to leave things open quite a bit. I don't want to say I'm totally improvising, because I had a rough plan as to where it was going. But I definitely leave it open when I write. Things are changing even when I go from pencils to inks.
SPURGEON: There's a simplified art style here that you talked about being a bit easier for you -- or at least it was different. Was there a conscious choice to match that basic artistic choice with your writing? Was there a similar writing style that you employed here? For instance, where you making bold, quick choices, or were you cutting down dialogue? I don't even know how you write, Chuck, just more generally. How did you write this piece?
I sort of do very short, little paragraphs in my sketchbook, as far as the story goes. I did this thing issue by issue, so I knew what had to happen in that issue, and then I would write small phrases for each scene that needed to get done. I needed to have this
feeling, or have this
character get to here
. And then I map it out in thumbnails. Then I write it in pictures and then I put in dialogue.
SPURGEON: What do you mean by wanting a feeling out of a scene? I'm not used to hearing that in terms of comics, either. What would be an example of how you wanted to convey a feeling?
Oh, man, let me flip through the book.
SPURGEON: I'm going to put you on the spot a bunch of times like this, Chuck. Make you check back to the work.
[laughs] It's funny. I feel like I say that a lot. This project in particular, there's a lot more story than I'm used to in terms of their being a plot and things moving along. I'm more focused on getting certain feelings across. Let's see: I'm looking at issue #3, and the scene where they break into a professor's house. There are quick panels of them watching TV, looking at his bookshelf, looking through his photos. Like that. To me, that gets across the feeling of what a teenager would do if he broke into someone's house. They would eat and look through -- I'm sure everyone has had that experience, being left alone in your own home or in your friends' house. You start snooping. So for me, trying to get that sort of thing across is more important.
SPURGEON: So it's a particular circumstance or impression of a way of looking at or experiencing things you're talking about, rather than a specific emotion you want to convey. You're not saying you want them to be sad pages. It's more like scene work.
Maybe feeling wasn't the best word -- it's just the way I think about it. I tend to think of the way the characters are feeling.
SPURGEON: No, I think that "feeling" communicates. Now what made this story event-centric for you, then? Did the length of the serial, or the fact that it was in component parts, have an effect in the way you needed to show something?
It was definitely that it was serialized. I had never done that before. I had to do it every month, and I only had eight pages to get across whatever I wanted to get across. It forced me to make each issue satisfying. I wasn't thinking about it that consciously. But even just in terms of having a bit of a cliffhanger, that was new to me. I really started to enjoy it. I feel like I really took to it. [laughs] Maybe that just comes from watching a lot of TV.
I really enjoyed building something with smaller bricks. I guess that's how I've always thought of comics, breaking it down into scenes. Even when I'm just doing one book. I also like to mix the bricks up a bit. I've done a few things like that, where I'll mix the scenes up so that the time line is no longer linear. I think that's more interesting for the reader, to make them work a little bit.
SPURGEON: I have no idea what your range of influences might look like. I do know you have an atypical path to comics. You left them for a while and came back, which is something you see from a lot of people. But that you ended up in school for comics, and maybe in school at all, is surprising given the direction of your life at one point. You talked about this a bit in Rob Clough's massive Oily Comics-focused interview at TCJ.com. It's also true that because you attended CCS, you would have had an opportunity to become immersed in a lot of different comics once you came back to them. What is the constellation of your major influences? Are there people that were particularly eye-opening to you when you started to practically apply your skills?
I think the big one at school was probably Chester Brown
. He was a big thing. Sammy Harkham
, too -- he was big for me in part because he was closer to my age. Those two, and the really old newspaper cartoonists. I was really into [EC] Segar
and Frank King
at that time.
SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about your experience processing these cartoonists while in school? It sounds like you would have had the opportunity to become immersed in these cartoonists -- I've heard CCS students describe their experience in terms of there being nothing to do but make comics, experience comics and socialize with cartoonists in that small community there. So were you seeking out stuff and reading it? Were you tracking down things you heard about in class? Were you receiving ideas from classmates?
You become very close to your classmates. I was lucky in that we had a nice core of people; we really got close and I trust a lot of their opinions. I worked in the library, so I was around a lot of stuff and I would pore through it. It was all about trying on different costumes. Every assignment or project I felt I tackled in a different way. I hadn't really drawn comics that much before I went there. I had to cycle through all of that stuff, just to get through it and figure out what worked for me. There was a lot of experimentation. It was weird. I had railed against going to school for so long, but I was really open to it when I was there.
SPURGEON: I had a potentially similar experience in that I went to grad school in a field for which I was not previously prepared. I remember feeling super-far behind everyone else. Did you feel that scramble to catch up? Do you feel like that had an impact on how you process the comics you read?
Yeah. I constantly feel like that. [laughter] That I'm always catching up. Yeah. I went to community college before CCS for about a year. I hadn't done any school since I'd dropped out of high school five or six or seven years before that. That was a really great experience. I had the fundamental courses, like Intro to 2D Design. For other people, that class was probably second nature to them. For me, it opened my eyes, just these simple things about design I kind of had a clue to, but no one had ever spelled it out for me.
CCS: everyone says you get out of it what you put in, and I feel like I worked harder there than I ever worked in my life. Unless you count flipping pizza. That was a hard job. [laughter]
SPURGEON: There's working hard and then there are hard jobs.
I think CCS was the first time I was able to put hard work into a creative outlet like that. I'd always wanted to. In comics, I never grew up with any friends that read comics or did comics, so I didn't have any examples in front of me. CCS was the first time I was able to be around people that were doing it, and to justify doing it myself.
SPURGEON: You still have a 717 area code cell phone. Central Pennsylvania. A bunch of folks I would imagine are going to go at your personal teenage experiences in the next few months and how those might apply to this work, but I was equally interested in
The End Of The Fucking World's strong sense of place. Did you think about Pennsylvania when you did that book, your experiences there? I spent some time there, and that always felt like a potentially isolating place to me. There's a lot of physical decay in the downtowns.
The time I spent growing up there works itself into every story I do, particularly the stories about teenagers. I would agree with that. I wouldn't say it's physically... the part of Pennsylvania I grew up in was booming. Where I lived, we were sort of on the edge between suburbs and farmland. My 20 years there I saw the farms taken over by more and more suburban housing. But it is still isolating. I think I always hungered for community, which I never felt. I lived in Mechanicsburg, but miles outside the actual town. Me and my friends, we'd always go into town and hang out or skateboard or whatever, probably because we wanted to get to a city. [laughs] In reality, the town was really dead, but it was something different than what we were used to. Definitely Pennsylvania has a big influence on me. I think about it a lot when I write these stories. It's what I know.
SPURGEON: Do you consider a work like this one a purposeful indictment of that place, or those kinds of places? Because what you have here is a milieu in which these kids lose themselves, and they uncover this horrifying thing that ends up pursuing them. It's not exactly the kind of thing you'd slip into a realtor's catalog. [Forsman laughs] Are your feelings about that place this coarse, this hard? Do you really think these are places to be indicted to the level you do so here?
No. I can't say I've ever thought of it as that I'm indicting a place. I was very disappointed with my teenage years. [laughs] I had kind of a rough time. It wasn't awful or anything, but I think I grew up too fast. I was forced to grow up a little too fast. I became very cynical, I think. I wasn't happy being the age I was at the time I was and in the place I was. I hungered for something different all the time
. It's very easy to get forgotten. I was yearning for something. I wanted to do something different, but there were no adults I could connect to that might say, "Hey, you can do this!" That might help me out. It was more like, "You have to get into class and be like everyone else." [laughs] There's no other choice. And that's disappointing in a way. Even though I couldn't articulate what I wanted, I knew I wanted something different. That's very frustrating. I am very frustrated when I look back on those times.
SPURGEON: The depiction of the adults here is certainly bleak, Chuck. [Forsman laughs] There's not a prince or princess among them. It's sort of a rigorously negative portrayal of adults.
With the Satanist stuff I hinted at, that certainly wasn't something I experienced in my life. [laughter] I've read about, or seen on TV programs, that in the '80s there was this rash of Satanists Taking Over stories: "Daycare Centers Filled With Satanists Abusing Children." I'm attracted to this idea of there being underground evil in these mundane places. I like that idea.
SPURGEON: Certainly there's an element of hyperbole in there, but all of the adults are spectacularly awful. Her dad is horrible, and gives them up. The security guard has a bit of creep to him. The guy in the car has a little bit more of creep to him. [Forsman laughs] I'm not sure there is a positive adult role model. Her mother doesn't seem like much of a peach. She's not fully there.
I think it speaks to the way I felt as a teenager, a way a lot of teenagers probably feel. It's probably not true at all. There are probably adults in these kids' lives that are positive and trying to help them. But sometimes when you're at that age, you're in your way. You demonize adults at that age. You see them as squares or whatever.
SPURGEON: Did that make it difficult for you to be in an academic setting like you were for a few years? Steve [Bissette] and Jason [Lutes] and James [Sturm]... you also did an internship at Drawn and Quarterly. Comics people are sort of like adults, some of them. Was there a process for you to learn to trust people?
[pause] Well, between high school and going to CCS I changed a lot. I was out in the workforce [laughs] and learned what it was like to have no money. I learned what is like to be an adult really quickly. I think I had changed my tune about a lot of that stuff by the time I went to school. By the time I went back to community college I was hungering for it. I realized that I probably couldn't do what I wanted to do on my own. I needed help.
James Sturm, I call him my second father. I've never told him that. He was a huge influence on me and a big force in my life. All of the teachers there... I said I never had a sense of community, but there I sort of found it. It was the first time I felt a part of something. I'm a pretty shy person. I don't talk a lot. I tend to keep to myself. I think it helped to be in an environment like that where I was forced to interact with all of these people I would have been too scared to otherwise. But when you're paying for it, you tend to take advantage of it. [laughter]
SPURGEON: We mentioned that you talked to Rob Clough about Oily Comics in very thorough fashion. One thing I wondered is if the perspective you've gained by publishing mini-comics and distributing them has changed any of your attitudes towards the art you yourself are doing. I have to imagine that just having an idea of the realities of the audience might be something that makes you look at things differently than one of your peers that isn't involved in that way. For that matter, do you think in general that cartoonists your age have a realistic perspective on such matters?
The reason I ask you that second question is that comics has such a low threshold for participation -- you can just show up and start doing them -- and such a high threshold for doing them in a way that might provide a sustainable living or might help put you in a position so as to not be a drag on your doing more of that art.
SPURGEON: I kind of wondered what you thought about that. [pause] You know, I guess that's more than on question.
I hope I can remember them all. [laughter]
SPURGEON: Sorry about that. I guess I just wondered if you'll approach what you do differently for having more of a sense of the reality of the business.
I think... I was lucky enough to intern at Drawn and Quarterly
and work for some other publishers. Building a business like Oily on my own, even though it was sort of an accident, I think I have a better sense of how little money there is in it and how tough it is. I think at the most Oily has maybe 500 customers. You know? I've definitely been taken aback by the reaction, the questions people have when they approach about it. I think people think I've figured something out and as a result I'm this rock star in a sense or something -- well, not a rock star. [laughter] They act as if I've figured something out. But in reality, it's tiny. It's been successful, on my little scale, and it's worked out well and I get great feedback. I think young cartoonists think comics is bigger than it actually is. I don't think that's a bad thing. It's good to be a little ignorant, especially when you're starting out.
SPURGEON: The reason I asked is that this is a common indictment of CCS students or cartoonists more generally under 35. They talk in terms of vague ideas of a book deal or some sort of sustainable model based on scoring a book with Top Shelf or Fantagraphics, and these are not victory lap moments: they can be key moments, but moments that don't bring with them any immediate relief from the struggle of being a working artist.
Yeah. I understand all of that. In school, it felt like there was sort of a choice. You could become the kind of cartoonist that would go for doing a memoir and score a big New York book deal or whatever -- especially then; it felt like a lot of that was happening when I was in school.
SPURGEON: I always thought that was good timing on James' part.
Yeah, it was. [laughter] Or you could do sort of your own thing. Or you could be James Sturm and do a little bit of both. He has his personal stuff with D+Q, but he also does this stuff working with Scholastic and Hyperion and all of that. It takes a little bit of savvy to be a James Sturm. I'm not sure I have that. I think I ended up choosing to do my own thing. It's not smart money-wise, but it's what I always wanted to do. I want to follow this path until I give up and take a dayjob.
SPURGEON: A structural question about TEOTFW: you play around with page format
a lot. I don't know how instinctively you're creating in terms of those elements. This book's climactic scene you switched from a single-panel page to a two-panel page to a three-panel, to six, and then finally more -- a classic nine panel. You run through these very different grids.
The way I usually work is in my mind I set up those panel structures. "I'm only going to use these three or four set-ups." Whether that's one-panel or two-panel or four-panel. I do think about it. It depends on the scene. Some scenes, I think about it a lot. When I'm doing it very tiny, when I'm laying these things out, I'm only beginning to see the page.
When I say that, it seems ridiculous to me. [laughter] I don't know, it's hard to describe. I've done enough pages where it's beginning to be second nature to me, the timing. The climax of the book that you talked about, it's very important it start out with larger panels and that they get smaller.
SPURGEON: There's a build in the energy there.
It's something I think about. I just don't talk about it in real life. [laughs]
SPURGEON: The sound effects: you'll do them a variety of ways. You use this striking effect where you drop certain sound effects against black backgrounds, and then place them in a bold way that limits the width of your tiers. How intentional was that? Was that about emphasizing the noise, or language, or was that about limiting your space at all? Could it have been about isolating the words?
FORSMAN: My friend Sam Gaskin did a book -- Sugarcube -- that was about being diabetic
. He did that in there, these empty panels that were just captions. I think that's when I thought about doing that. In their own panel, it reads more poetic in a way. Their thought don't always match what you're seeing on the page -- very rarely in fact. I kind of wanted to make that distinction a bit more prevalent. You know there are two tracks going here.
SPURGEON: I thought the dialogue was strong in terms of it being appropriate to the narrators. Was there a process with that at all, in terms of how you worked with that material? Did you pare it down at all, check certain kinds of phrasing? Was it difficult to speak in those voice for a length of time?
The way I work is like a lot of cartoonists: there are a lot of steps in getting to the final page. I was able to pare it down that way. I run the dialogue through my sketchbook, I'm just sort of projecting myself into their shoes. Whenever I go back to it, I'm editing. For space or because they just wouldn't talk like that. I appreciate dialogue. My brother was a big film guy and still is and exposed me to a lot of film when I was a kid.
SPURGEON: Was there someone in that world that still sticks to you, Chuck?
SPURGEON: Perhaps in terms of the the dialogue work employed.
This is kind of embarrassing, but when I was a kid I was really into Kevin Smith
. [laughs] I haven't watched those movies in a long time. Quentin Tarantino
is a big one for a lot of people my age. There seemed to be at that time, the early '90s, a focus on the guys that wrote flashy dialogue.
SPURGEON: Just noticing an element of film like that can be a big deal. You said once that you liked Sam Kieth's artwork when you were a kid in part because it was so heavily stylized and clearly the product of an idiosyncratic approach to art. It wasn't so much that you were experiencing a surge of aesthetic agreement with that art. It made an impression for simply being different.
SPURGEON: One last big thing that popped out at me from the book: the humor. Is that a natural inclination of yours? I'm intrigued by your decision to have so much that is funny in this material given how dark a lot of it is.
I'm always kind of surprised when people see the humor. Humor for me is a big deal. One of my biggest influences was Peter Bagge. When I was a teenager and stopped reading superhero comics, I was really into Hate
. I've always wanted to do a funny comic, but I don't think I'm naturally that funny. [Spurgeon laughs] So I'm slightly terrified.
In a really serious story I feel like I have to put humor in there. I feel like I have to balance it off. Some people have told me I'm undercutting myself -- that by ending this story on a poignant note and then tossing in a joke on the last page, I'm failing to sustain a mood. I've just made a joke of the whole thing. That probably speaks to my personality more than anything else. I love humor. It's something I consciously think about. I want to have it in there. I'm worried about being taken too seriously. Humor is a good way to do that. It brings the readers guard down a bit, too. Really serious, depressing stuff can be oppressive on a reader; I think it's good to lighten things up.
* The End of the Fucking World (TEOTFW), Charles Forsman, Fantagraphics, softcover, 176 pages, 9781606996676, July 2013, $19.99
* an isolated visual from TEOTFW
, showing off how spare the cartooning is here
* cover to the new collection
* one of the pages from the sequence where the two kids find themselves in a home; also shows off his isolation of words into black-backdrop panels
* visual from a recent print
* cover to one of the Oily Comics-published minis
* from the climactic sequence
* image from early on in TEOTFW