Interview: Indie Cartoonist Charles Forsman Gets the Best of Teen Angst

“I find myself laughing at really bad situations.” Meet the brilliant cartoonist behind The End of the Fucking World, Celebrated Summer and Oily Comics.

March 06, 2014

"I find myself laughing at really bad situations."

Charles Forsman is a great explorer of small ideas. His comics constantly grapple with the concept of emotional uncertainty: teenagers long for what they can't have and probably doesn't exist; adults struggle with death, with being washed up, with falling too hard in love, or not loving enough. Each work is a brief moment in the life of a fully realized character.

To date, Forsman is responsible for two larger projects: the graphic novels The End of the Fucking World and Celebrated Summer (both published by Fantagraphics) as well as a series of one-offs and shorts in his Snake Oil anthology. Currently, he's midway through the serial publication of Teen Creeps, from his own Oily Comics, which brings brilliant new work by a range of cartoonists in a cheap format to a wide audience. In TEOTFW, Forsman's art is deceptively simple: his characters are all shaky lines, moving kinetically through Midwest purgatory towards a heartbreaking conclusion. Without spoiling it too much: things go really bad—surreally bad, in fact. Celebrated Summer, meanwhile, is a subdued story about two young outcasts enduring a psychedelic wander that is darkly funny until the ending, which comes like a sack of wet cement. When I finished both books, I read them again. Then I wished they existed when I was 14. Forsman writes and draws teenagers brilliantly—they are at once characters and caricatures. They're lost, but relatable. At that age, we're just fumbling, trying to find people or art that makes us feel less alone.

Possibly my favorite moment in all of Forsman's work comes in the offbeat Snake Oil #8. In a series of one-page vignettes, Forsman chronicles the life of Daniel Strong, an actor that played a robot called 2-TO in a movie called Star Force. The role is Daniel's only accomplishment, and he's bitter about it. Taken as a whole, it's a look at the life of a very sad, petty man. He gets married, has a kid, gets divorced and eventually dies. He is deeply unlikeable. Daniel's death scene plays out across six large panels. His eyes are tiny scared dots, his neck a mess of scribbly wrinkles. He eats cereal, looks around wildly, and says, "That's it?" before dying alone, disappointed by his own life and death. But rather than end on a down note, Forsman travels back in time in the final page. Daniel is signing autographs. A pimply kid approaches him, saying, "Hi…um…sometimes I…really think I know how hard it is to be a robot…you know?" Then Forsman zooms in on his face: "It can be frustrating to look so human but feel so alien." The final three panels are silent. Daniel gets up and hugs the kid. He's not redeemed in the final page, but he is, at least, understood.

I spoke to Forsman about his work both as an artist and as a publisher. He's currently offering a new, limited subscription service to Oily Comics.

Can you tell me about how and why you started your publishing company Oily Comics? Oily—last spring it sort of started. It's very tied into The End of the Fucking World. My friend Max de Radigués who is a Belgian cartoonist who I became really good friends with a few years ago, he did a mini comic called Moose that I reprinted. He was on a trip to America and he did the first issue really quick and handed it to me. It didn't immediately occur to me but I kept reading it—I've been into mini comics for awhile—but I was really struck at how much he fit into eight pages in this really small format, really cheap. It felt powerful and I liked the idea of doing something small and quick and sort of getting rid of all the shitty expectations you put on yourself.

I was working on that book Celebrated Summer; it was supposed to be my first book for Fantagraphics. There's a lot of cross hatching and they're bigger pages—it was very laborious even though it's not a super long book. Getting close to finishing that, I wanted to do the complete opposite of that. I looked at the format of Moose and was like, Oh I'm gonna rip this off and just try and have fun, draw really quickly and not overthink it, not go back and rewrite, I just wanted to keep moving forward. I used to really think too much about my comics—it's all self-doubt crap—but Max is all about [the idea that] the next page will be better and you shouldn't look back too much. Doing TEOTFW was about moving forward and building something incrementally. I enjoyed it so much and people really responded to it.

So the disposable format freed you up? That's a huge reason for it. All those expectations often stifle me, and this was about just tricking myself into not thinking about it. This is a cheap comic throwaway. I'm only gonna sell it for a dollar. I made the stakes a lot lower. I also think comics work really well in short formats. I like long ones too, but I like short stories and I think comics are more fun when you sit down to read one and its quick and really satisfying.

Let's talk about your own work. Both The End of the Fucking World and Celebrated Summer are about losing innocence. I've realized that I will probably write about teenagers and that time in people's lives—I'll probably come back to it a lot. I think the big thing for me was that I lost my dad when I was 11. He died of cancer. Part of me grew up a little too fast. I learned about death at a young age and losing something…It put me into a depression for a pretty long time. My teenage years were pretty—I have regrets about those years. Obviously everyone knows that as a teenager it's really confusing and your feelings are so raw. For me, I don't know if I am trying to answer questions about my own life by exploring those things, but it's like I just keep reliving and examining it. I'm not necessarily searching for an answer, but it's just something I'm attracted to.

It seems like, in searching for those answers, you're writing a new kind of coming-of-age story, which approaches teenage life with larger themes examined through small stories. The way I build stuff in my mind, it's sort of like a puzzle for me. I always talk about it like, when I'm writing a scene there's a certain feeling I'm trying to create. I'll have my list of scenes and it's more like feelings, these notes I want to hit. It's not moving the plot along or creating some big action scene, it's more about creating this specific for me feeling I had as a kid. It's a lot about…TEOTFW is almost a love story for me. Someone was telling me it's their favorite romantic book. That was definitely there, it's really tied into my own experience as a kid, falling in love for the first time. I'm a lot less concerned with moving the plot forward and more about building feelings with little scenes.

I look at TEOTFW and I see characters that are making ridiculously bad decisions, and it makes so much sense because, at that age, there's a purity to your choices, where it doesn't even matter if they're right or wrong. There's just unyielding conviction. When you're a kid, even though you're confused part of the time, you're still so passionate, even if you're making the worst decision in the world. In this moment, this is the most important thing to me. You don't have any real experience, so your decisions are ridiculous.

Where did you grow up? I grew up in Pennsylvania. The house I was in for the longest was in the suburbs. As a teenager, all we wanted to do was go into the old town of Mechanicsburg. It was the closest thing to a city in our small world. I spent a lot of time there. It's your classic American—it's an old dead small town and sprawling huge houses on former farmland. Every time I go back it's built up more and more, and it's terrifying. I think that place plays a huge part in all my work.

What about it? It's where I was a teenager. All my feelings are tied to that place. In Celebrated Summer, I went to Mechanicsburg and took pictures of houses and used those in the background. Place and time is important to me, but I rarely point it out to the reader. For me, it helps me get in the right mode to write it. It's a big part of it. The feeling that towns like that give you as a teenager. You think there's nothing to do, and often times there is never anything to do. I live in a very rural place right now, which took some getting used to.

TEOTFW appeared serially before it was collected. Did you write and draw as you went, or was it outlined beforehand? When I first started, I didn't have much planned out, probably up to issue four or five. Then I sat down and figured out where it was gonna go. When I first started making comics I did that a lot, I improvised stories. It was more of an exercise just to get me going and start something, because it's always the hardest part. I hate when people say this, but it just sort of came out of me. These two characters just came out of my sketchbooks and the title…I just kept writing those words over and over in my sketchbook.

In the most recent issue of your Snake Oil comic you profiled an outsider character that wasn't a teenager, but a full-grown man. Before the book ends you know the ending. I like giving the reader a little bit of work to build in their head and place things in order. I love genre stuff. I think I just re-watched the Star Wars movies and the idea came from some documentary. [In it] they're putting the C-3PO outfit on Anthony Daniels, and if he would jerk his arm it would take a finger off while they're putting the thing on. That was the first thing that clicked in my head. I was like, What if this guy is sort of an asshole and what happens to these people? You never see his face in the movie but he's sort of a big star and gets all this attention, it's the one thing he has. What if he's just not good at life?

It also felt like a commentary on fan culture, and how the reality of all these things we loved as kids is a little darker than we could have imagined. I still like going to those, but it's a strange set of people. You've got those old bitter guys that can't get work anymore, but they do those conventions, and then there's the people that just draw pinups but they've never been published and make a ton of money drawing character sketches. It's a weird world and it's kind of gross, but it's part of the world I exist in and i decided to be in. These people spend their lives in one thing, and they're just used up at a certain point. Whatever they do isn't popular anymore, and then what have they got?

Do you draw every day? No. Do you know James Sturm, the cartoonist? He started the Center for Cartoon Studies, where I went. In his class he revealed that he doesn't consider himself a naturally talented artist and he has to really work at it. That idea to me was eye opening. I feel the same way. I always drew as a kid, but it's not—I don't take great pleasure in just drawing for drawing's sake. I always wanted to do prints, but there's something empty there. I just prefer telling a story. Drawing has been, for me, about telling a story. I guess that sounds kinda weird, but I know I'm not the only one like that. I have friends, like Joe Lambert, who I went to school with, and he draws every second that he can. I admire that. I wish I had that disease of constantly needing to be drawing. I'm sure I'd be a much better artist.

I know that when TEOTFW came out people were comparing the facial expressions of your work to Peanuts characters. In the last few years I got really big into [Charles] Schulz and Gasoline Alley and all that. I think of it as pure cartooning, where there's not a lot of rendering. It's just about getting across the right expression. When you can do that with a simple face, it can be even more powerful than a photorealistic drawing of a human. I prefer art that serves a story, rather than the other way around.

Do you ever just write stories without art? Yeah. When I'm coming up with ideas I'll take notes. But I never write out like, PANEL 1 this happened. It's more just scene ideas. I keep it pretty open because I feel like every step of the way allows for edits in my head. Going from a sketchbook to little thumbnails to pencils to inks, things are always being adjusted. I prefer to work fast.

How do you know when you're done with these projects? I don't know when I'm done. It's tough. I had a really hard time ending Celebrated Summer, and I'm still not sure if it did okay. It's just about—I never really enjoyed wrapping things up neatly, but I tend to write dark stories. I used to always end on a joke, which I think bugs some people. I don't know what it is. I think some people think, when they read my joke endings, they think I'm not confident in myself, where I need to make people laugh. I love humor, and I think sadness and depression and tragedy just goes hand in hand with humor. I find myself laughing at really bad situations.

Interview: Indie Cartoonist Charles Forsman Gets the Best of Teen Angst