Charles Forsman On Minicomics & Being Compared To Charles Schulz For His Work On ‘TEOTFW’ [Interview]
Charles Forsman’s recently concluded 16-part miniseries The End of the F**king World (or TEOTFW in Fantagraphics’s upcoming bookstore-friendly collection) is a rare bird, especially in today’s near-completely Balkanized comic book market; a genuine crowd pleaser. I’ve worked in comic book shops since before I started high school, and what pains me the most consistently about the otherwise delightful years I’ve put in is how little comics communicates with itself. The way so many comic book readers retrace their footsteps every Wednesday to the same superhero comics they bought last week, or the same mini comics they bought last week, or the same “indie” comics, or whatever is most familiar. As a fan of comics the medium more than any one set of stylistic gestures, I always just wish that everyone would reach across the aisles and try a little bit of everything. Of course, the reading public is hardly to blame for walking around in the blinders clapped on by an industry more comfortable with rehashing the stories that played five years ago or cannibalizing the signifiers of so-called “nerd culture” than creating books that honestly appeal to a wide group of people.
For the past year and change, though, TEOTFW did exactly what I wish every comic had the ability to do: grabbed anyone who took a look and forced them into a deeply compelling story much easier to stay inside of than leave. Forsman managed to do what even the most talented cartoonists often have difficulty with, fusing the honesty of presentation and uninflected realism native to classic alternative comics with the white-knuckle pace and jaw-clenching cliffhangers of the best action storytelling. The format didn’t hurt, either: at a dollar per eight-page issue it kept stringing readers along toward its conclusion without wearing out its welcome or its audience’s wallets, and the things were even the right size to fit in your shirt pocket. And yet all that’s just sideshow, because TEOTFW is one of the best pure narratives that comics has produced in years, a powerful story about James and Alyssa, kids in love and on the run that grabs the heartstrings with crudity one moment and grace the next. It’s everything I think comics should be, and it’s also drawn by one of the nicest, most fun to talk to guys I know. I was super happy to talk to Charles about a book I can’t recommend enough, and hopefully you’ll like reading what he had to say.
MATT SENECA: Tell me about your first ideas for this series. What originally spurred you to create TEOTFW — did the format come first, or the story?
CHARLES FORSMAN: This comic was very much a format-driven thing when I began it. In the summer of 2011 my friend Max de Radigués gave me a copy of his comic Moose #1. He had drawn it while in Montreal, very fast and loose. I liked it a lot for something he seemed to dash off rather quickly. A few months later I found myself moving to the country and finishing up Celebrated Summer — a comic with dense, big pages with up to 12 panels on 4 tiers. The drawings were very crosshatch heavy and detailed. Doing that book took a lot of focus and I think I wanted to do something almost opposite to that. I wanted to make sure I had fun and not worry so much about each page. Max has been a big influence on me in this department. His whole thing is to push forward knowing that the mistakes will come but you only learn as you make them and the next page will always be a little better. I’m the kind of person who can paralyze myself very easily by over-thinking decisions. TEOTFW began as a way to let myself be free from that crap. Free of expectations that I tend to put on myself. If I start to think about other people reading this thing, or if a publisher is going to want to print it or anything like that, I freeze up and the work stops. It is basically a never-ending battle. With every new project, I have to think of a way to trick myself into not thinking about all that stuff. So out of that and looking at that copy of Moose #1 came TEOTFW. I honestly have a hard time remembering how the first issue came out of me. I remember the first drawing I did of James in my sketchbook, which I included on the inside front cover of the first comic and in the Fantagraphics collection. It is a drawing of James doing an ollie on his skateboard. Another thing I remember was drawing the cover to the first issue. It was the view from the studio where I was drawing at the time. There was this rotting wooden shack/chicken coop building and I put it on the front cover with a silhouette of James walking in the grass. The story that I put down for the first issue came very fast. I think I did it in about a week. Looking at it now, I can see that I was essentially setting up a world and defining James’ character and putting down the rules that I would have to navigate with in order to keep going.
MATT: How did you arrive at the format you ended up using? What, as you see them, are the advantages of delivering comics in that kind of minimalist vehicle?
CHUCK: I stole the format from Max’s Moose comic. I mean, I know that it’s not the first mini-comic to use that format. It is pretty much the closest thing to a standard as far as mini comics go. I don’t know. It just seemed perfect. I like setting up guidelines for myself. Eight pages, quick and small. It really helped me open up and get everything down fast. I also think that keeping the pages simple and small seems to make it very readable. I like a challenging comic as much as the next guy but I feel like I am pretty conservative when it comes to laying out my comics. I like the panels to be clear and keep any ambiguity to the story or actual reading. I like the pieces to be clear by themselves but leave it up to the reader to put it all together. (This sounds pretty pretentious.) This is good practice for me though. I feel like interviews are the only time I actually analyze my own work. So yeah, advantages. I think it makes for a readable comic. People get drawn to it. And especially when I decided to do it every month I saw the flower of serialization for the first time. I really enjoyed making these episodes and I kept gaining more readers as it went on. I’m really surprised that I didn’t completely blow it and I managed to finish the thing.
MATT: Were there any specific influences that you wanted to address with the plot of the comic? I see things like Dennis Cooper books, movies like River’s Edge or The Doom Generation, and it also has a real pre-grunge ’80s alt rock feel to it… but that’s just what I get out of it, I dunno.
CHUCK: Yeah, probably the biggest thing that a lot of people see is the Badlands influence. If you don’t know it, Badlands is a film by Terrence Malick from 1973. It starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek and was influenced by a real life murder spree in 1958 by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. I wasn’t really thinking about Badlands when I started the comic but it is one of my all-time favorite films. So I think the main thread of a young couple on the run definitely had an influence on me. I saw River’s Edge for the first time like 2 years ago. It was one of those where I smacked myself for not seeing years ago. It’s perfect. I remember seeing parts of Doom Generation but I was probably too young to have been watching it. This happened a lot to me. I grew up with 2 older brothers, the oldest of which was big into film. Hanging around him got me seeing so much good stuff at an early age. Maybe a 10-year-old should not be watching Boyz N the Hood like 10 times in a row? I don’t know. But it probably shaped me in some way.
Also, you are right on the money with the 80’s feel. I was too young to be a teen in the 80’s but I watched my brothers go through it and I just have this fascination and nostalgia for that time that I can’t shake. It is a very specific feeling to me and I like to try and put it into my comics. I never explicitly make the time period known in TEOTFW just because I don’t want to make it an 80s thing. People have their own expectations when you reference the year and I like to try and keep that out of it, at least for this story. It is very much about being f**ked-up when you are a teen and that should be a timeless idea. We all go through that. I guess the 80s thing is something that I use as an atmospheric reference for myself.
MATT: Then of course I think the influence that most people notice above all others is Charles Schulz — in the drawing, for sure, but for me it’s very much there in the story too. I have a theory that TEOTFW is basically what happens when depressed, weirdo kids like Charlie Brown & co. grow up into teenagers. Can you talk a little about how Schulz’s work has impacted your own art?
CHUCK: Schulz, yes. It is funny, I’m always a little surprised when I hear the comparison. I mean I am nowhere near Peanuts. Not by a mile, but I’ll take it. It is pretty much the highest compliment I can think of. Peanuts was probably the first comic strip that I became attached to as a little kid. I always read Peanuts, Blondie, and Garfield. And when Fantagraphics began publishing Peanuts I fell in love with it as an adult, along with all these other glorious newspaper strips that are getting the hardcover treatment. I think I gravitated towards the old strips like Peanuts and Popeye because of the flat-out clear, minimal storytelling. I loved the staging too. Sometimes those old strips feel like theatre, or a sidescrolling video game. There is something really perfect about that kind story presentation. I love that you can create complex ideas and painful feelings using a small amount of line and detail and simple staging. The Schulz influence was probably magnified because I had just done this Peanuts/Jaws print before I started TEOTFW. So I was really studying Schulz for a while trying to mimic him. That probably has a lot to do how TEOTFW looks. The noses and the round cheeks became habit.
MATT: As much as it’s easy to identify Schulz and classic mini comics in TEOTFW, the thing I saw the biggest number of people responding to (at least at the shop where I work) was how much it has to do with straightforward genre comics — it’s kind of a crime novel, kind of a long chase sequence, even kind of a classic Archie-ish “teen” comic. Were you trying to do something that fell in line with genre, or did it just happen that way?
CHUCK: Wow, I think that is a really cool observation. I’m not sure I’ve really heard it put that way. I do think about genre quite a bit. Again, I think it is something that just ends up in my stuff. I feel like whenever I consciously try to make a story that is like… like if I had started TEOTFW with the idea that I wanted to do a crime/road-trip comic, I probably wouldn’t have gotten very far. I think I tend to fall in love with crime movies and such that I watch that if I seek out to recreate, for example, the feeling that watching Badlands gives me, that I would fail. I think because it is sort of an impossible goal. And it is kind of a pointless goal. I recently tried to do this superhero comic and it just crashed and burned in my head. I think because I kept calling it a f**king superhero book. I need to learn how to trick myself into doing a superhero story.
I really learned to love genre the last few years. I think for a while I wanted to make great art or whatever. Tell serious poetic stories… which I think I still do to an extent, but there is always this violence and a little humor that seems to work its way into my stories. And it is probably because I really love John Carpenter and Michael Mann movies.
MATT: Can you talk a little about the setting you chose? The only concrete location you reference (I think) is Tulsa, but the whole comic has a very convincing heartland feel to it… is that just a Charley Starkweather/Badlands thing, or is there anything else you were trying to get at?
CHUCK: Yeah, in my mind the book starts somewhere closer to the Appalachians where I grew up. Farms, suburbs, flat but still mountains. Lots of green. And once I got the characters moving I thought it would be cool to just go out west and eventually Texas. I have been lucky enough to drive across the country a few times in my life and so I have all these memories of the scenery, especially the Midwest. It is a really great place to get lost in and think. It is pretty humbling to just exist on really flat terrain. It is also really freeing. There are no obstructions in your line of site. You can just pick a direction. I’m not sure these thoughts really made it into the book but it is something in my head for sure.
MATT: Let’s talk a little bit about your process. How much writing did you do before you started drawing each issue? How far in advance was each issue written?
CHUCK: The way I wrote this out evolved as I went. It was a new experience for me. Having to put out an issue every few weeks. When I started up through the third or fourth issue was pretty improvised. I think I was going by the seat of my pants. I probably had a very, very rough idea of where they would end up but I really enjoy that part of the process. When you get some characters going that sort of lead the way, that is always a joyous thing. Makes my job easier. Then, I would say around issues 5 and 6 I got more serious about what I wanted to do with this thing. Did I want this to go on forever? Did I want to find an ending? Should I just abandon the whole thing? I’m sort of kidding about the abandonment. I think it is good thought to be willing to let go of something. It is sort of like carrying around your resignation letter in your back pocket while you work some soul-sucking job. Your ticket out is just in your pocket. It frees you up. Reminds you that you are in control. Not an editor or reader. You are.
So where was I? So at around issue 6, I probably had the whole story roughed out. Just little paragraphs of what would happen in each issue. Then when it came time to do a chapter, I would look at that little description and break that down into scenes or moments that I would need to move the characters or to express a feeling or mood or whatever I need to do. Then I draw eight little rectangles and start thumb-nailing out the pages. I work very small in a small sketchbook for all of this stuff. The rectangles are like an inch high, probably. Once I have my panels mapped out I write the dialogue or monologue next to each little page. I don’t always write the words last, sometimes it’s at the same time as the pictures. Once I have the whole issue mapped out including the covers and other pages, I cut out my paper and rule the borders and do the hard part. I’ve come to love all the steps there are to making comics, just because I am an impatient man. And I find it hard to really reread what I have written. I can only really read my stuff if I have to translate it to another form. From words to thumb-nails, thumb-nails to pencils, pencils to inks. There is a lot of re-writing and editing that happens through all of that.
As for how far in advance I wrote each issue, I guess not very far. At some point I had a two issue lead from publication but mostly it was month to month. If I worked too far ahead, I would get lazy and procrastinate.
MATT: Did the monthly deadline you imposed on yourself change anything about your approach to making comics?
CHUCK: I probably did answer this in some way already, but yes. Sometimes I cringe when I look at TEOTFW because I know I am a better artist. But speed and simplicity were the rules I set down when I started it. I know it is true for me that the more I labor on a drawing the deader it looks. My favorite drawings in the book are the ones that I did right the first time. I also think the regular deadline can really build one’s confidence. It was gratifying to take one copy of each issue and put it in my little binder that I keep for reference. Knowing that I managed to put out 8 pages a month for a year and a half was a really big deal for me. I know they aren’t Bernie Wrightson pages but they were mine.
MATT: I always notice how there seems to be a similar type of line that you and a few other Center for Cartoon Studies guys (Joe Lambert, Sean Ford) all make — not crazy weighted, but not quite dead either, and with a kinda tremor to it — is there a specific effect you rely on your lines for, or want them to achieve?
CHUCK: Yeah, the fake tremor. I love the tremor. When I was in school with those guys, I was really obsessed with Sammy Harkham’s comics. And he has this great little tremor in his line that I just loved. It’s this weird thing that makes me smile when I see it. I love seeing circles or word balloons that Harkham has drawn because the line will be smooth and fine but then he gets to that tremor point and the line gets all wiggly. It is just perfect to me. Not sure why I like it… so yeah, I pretty much started doing it because I was ripping him off. But recently, I was thinking about the comics I first read when I was a kid. And Peanuts is one of those as I mentioned before. I was reading Peanuts in the papers in the late 80s and early 90s. And Schulz had that perfect and not actually fake tremor to his line. Maybe that is where I picked it up, or at least my attraction to a wiggly line.
MATT: Did you have a general idea of where the comic was going to end up when you started it? How did the story evolve as you worked?
CHUCK: I honestly don’t remember if I had an ending started. There were times I thought it could just go on forever. But I think I tend to prefer endings for things. It is scary to try and keep something open and ongoing like that. Maybe someday I can tackle something like that. I’m just not sure I am built like that. I think I would lose interest too quickly. But I think my next project may sort of be an in-between of those ideas.
MATT: You mentioned on the Oily Comics tumblr around the time the last issues were coming out how attached to the characters you’d become while working on the series. What was it about them that made them special to you?
CHUCK: Boy, I think it is just as simple as that they were teenagers in love. And to be a teenager in love is the most blissful and painful kind of love. And I guess because I wrote these characters. It kind of made me sad to end it, especially to end it with them being pulled apart forever. I honestly remember tearing up as I thumb-nailed the pages where they see each other for the last time. It kind of surprised me. I can be a pretty emotional guy. All it takes is one night of not sleeping to wreck my emotional balance. But I think I was just caught off-guard. I mean, I knew what I was going to draw but something about putting it down on paper was a very powerful moment. It felt final. Like I couldn’t take it back. Like jumping off a cliff. I couldn’t change my mind. It was done. Well, I guess I could have just picked up the eraser but you know what I mean.
MATT: In the end notes to the final issue, you say that working on TEOTFW taught you lessons about deadlines and serialization — care to spell them out real quick?
CHUCK: Yeah, I think I sort of covered this earlier. But when I started making comics, the focus in my generation seemed to be that we should strive to do a big graphic novel. You know, toil away for 5 years and then emerge with a masterpiece. Well, that isn’t so easy to do. Especially when you haven’t even done a 24-page comic yet. So anyway, I just think there had been this focus on doing a long story because that is what readers and publishers want. It is what sells or whatever. So I never really considered serialization because of that. I had done some continuing stories like the first 4 issues of Snake Oil. But that was me really figuring some stuff out. I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of releasing them on a schedule with a certain number of pages. With TEOTFW I kind of just started it by accident. And I found that I really seemed to take to it. I loved having the box of 8 pages per issue to tell whatever I needed to tell. And I also loved doing a little bit of cliffhanger stuff. I’ve watched enough TV and read enough comics that that kind of storytelling found its way onto my pages. And having a deadline, especially one that I was serious about, was a big motivator. And once I started releasing five comics per month under Oily Comics and I had a few hundred subscribers who were expecting a new issue — that can really light a fire under your ass. And I need some fire from time to time.
MATT: I know it’s always tough to judge your own work, but maybe enough time has gone by for you to have some kind of opinion about your work on TEOTFW. What do you like about it? Is there anything you wish was different or better?
CHUCK: Boy, I feel like I really wouldn’t be able to answer this question honestly for at least a few years. I find it really hard to read my own work. And I can only really do it once I have almost completely forgotten all the details. I still feel really close to it. It still feels like I am working on it. I just finished lettering the French edition of the book so I was once again living with each page.
There is also tons of stuff that I might’ve wanted to redraw but I didn’t want to mess with it too much. I like the idea of the book capturing as much as the same feeling that I created in the comics. I can see the drawing change a lot when I look at it, but I also know that what I am seeing is a much more magnified version of what a first-time reader is seeing. I know where all the mistakes are and the lazy panels. So it can be painful to look at. But before I bash myself anymore, I must say that I am extremely happy with the book. I’m really proud that I followed through with it and I got to the end in one piece. When I was a teenager, I felt like I couldn’t finish anything. So it is kind of a really personal victory to finish a project like this and not flame out. And to have Fantagraphics on the spine is some mighty fine frosting. Teenaged Chuck would be s**tting his pants if he knew that they would be printing my comics.
MATT: Finally, you’ve mentioned wanting to do another series in the TEOTFW/Oily format… care to tease anything for us?
CHUCK: Uh, yeah. It will be called Teen Creeps. I am thinking that it would sort of be my Love and Rockets, in that I want to try telling short stories but in a shared universe. For example, the first 6 issues would be a story about one group of characters and then issue 7 would start a new story, maybe with someone we saw in the background… or they go to the same school, or whatever. I think it is a way to keep a comic ongoing but without having to stick with the same story or characters. I don’t know. We’ll see how it evolves. I might change my mind and throw it all in the garbage. We’ll just have to wait and see. First issue should be out in July.