Late last year Joe read and thoroughly enjoyed Charles Forsman’s The End of the Fucking World. Out on Fantagraphics, TEOTFW is a collection of minicomics following the story of James and Alyssa, two teenage runaways escaping their pasts on a journey across America. As well as putting out his own stuff, Charles publishes minicomics by several exciting and up and comic indie comics creators on his imprint Oily Comics. We were lucky enough to spend a few months asking him questions about writing, publishing, and studying at the Centre for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.
Congratulations on the Best MiniComic Ignatz for TEOTFW, can you tell us a bit about the process of bringing it out, and when did you start formulating the story?
I started TEOTFW in September, 2011. The whole conceit to this project was to do a comic that I would produce quickly and cheaply. And I would only sell each issue for a dollar. There were a couple of reasons why I made these guidelines. One was that I was wrapping up another book that has large pages with lots of detail and an unhealthy amount of crosshatching. So I wanted to do something that would be opposite of that kind of laborious process. Second, I wanted to eschew some of the expectations that I tend to put on myself when starting a new project. By making it very cheap and disposable, it took some of that pressure off to make a beautiful object. And finally, my friend Max de Radigués had started his mini comic Moose a few months prior and his pacing and drawing had a lot of influence on me. I just loved how engaging he was able to make an 8 page comic in such a small and cheap format.
I know it is annoying to say but the first issue just sort of came out of me. I did it in sort of an improvisational way. I do free writing sometimes when I want to start a new comic and all I really had at the beginning was the title and one drawing of James, the main character doing an ollie on his skateboard.
Do you ever find you start a project like that only to have the wheels fall off or that your overall idea has run out of steam after getting your initial thoughts drawn out? One of the problems with comics is they can't be created instantly, like "BAM! With a click of my fingers there's that great idea done and on the page". So, where did you go once that first issue was done? Had everything started to take some semblance of shape once the improvisational part was done?
Yeah, That risk is always there. It would always fall apart. But the more projects I do the better I get at the follow through. A few issues deep I roughly knew where things were going. It is kind of funny because this is probably the most plot-driven story I have ever done but that was sort of an accident. I really had a specific feeling that I was trying to create with this comic. I don't think too much about structure and how to build a story, just because I kind of hate that stuff. It takes the fun out of it for me. And real life is never as neat as a nicely structured story. I'm more concerned with getting a feeling across than telling a tight yarn. It's not right or wrong. It's just how I figured out how to tell stories.
TEOTFW has a true crime kind of feel to it, the story isn't outrageously unbelievable and you delve quite deeply into the lead characters pasts and personal lives. Can you talk a little about the process of creating James and Alyssa? Where did they come from?
Well, I came up with James first. He started as just a sort of symbol of this 1980s skater-kid nostalgia thing I had in my head. And I guess, I just thought that writing a sociopathic character would either be enjoyable or challenging. And Alyssa sort of shoved her way in. When I wrote her in the first chapter I didn't really plan to have her be such a strong presence in the book. But I am glad she was because I think it was a nice balance to James sort of unfamiliar nature. I think readers can enter the story through Alyssa a bit easier because she is more upfront with her feelings. Well, she actually has feelings! It is hard to answer these kinds of questions for me because I tend to be very forgetful on details. But I will say I tend to do a lot of world building and character sketching in my head. Sometimes I'll give hints of something in a character's past, like James' mother's unfortunate fate. I think the characters just tend to be more real and distinct if I can give them a history, even if I don't share it with the reader. I think people still pick up on it.
Your prints on the Oily Comics website seem to honour your artistic influences, the Segar Indiana Jones, the Schultz' Jaws, and your art style in TEOTFW certainly has elements of the Popeye strips, can you talk a little about classic comics and where they sit as a part of your influences?
Growing up, Schulz was a big deal to me. I would read the strip in the newspaper. But I kind of lost interest in that side of cartooning until I went to The Centre for Cartoon Studies in 2006. There I would introduced to the history of comics and fell in love with some of the early strips like Thimble Theatre and Gasoline Alley. Segar, especially, holds a special place in my brain. I get such joy looking at his cartooning. I think these old comics have had a big influence on this most recent generation of cartoonists. Sammy Harkham who is also an influence on me works in this sort of classic cartooning mode. To me, it is true cartooning. It is just fucking magic the way someone like Segar distils real life into simplified shapes on the page.
How long were you at the centre for cartoon studies? In Australia and where I'm from in England we hear about these schools like the Kubert School and the CFCS and they sound like amazing yet impossible places. What form does a education from a cartooning specific school take?
I went to CCS for 2 years but stayed around the cool for a total of 4 years. They do seem like impossible places. I definitely felt that before it became a reality for me. Kind of like Hicksville. So CCS focuses on a few areas. History of the medium, design/production, writing/storytelling, and of course drawing. The great thing about CCS is that there is no "house style." You are free to follow your own path but with lots of support and critique. The first year is like a boot-camp in a sense and the second year is more independent. You are tasked with creating a thesis of sorts in order to graduate. So it is really up to you to push yourself that second year. I honestly don't think I would have done a fragment of the comics I have done without going there. It gave me confidence, direction, and community, which I sorely needed.
While you were at the school did you want to make your living from comics or were you more focused on becoming a better/more learned artist? Would you suggest that all young comic artists with an interest in tertiary study go for something comic based when choosing their college/uni course?
I would say both. I knew going into it that there is not a lot of money. But I really believe that if you stick it out and do a good job then you can make some money off of this thing. And yeah, I wanted to become better. I think the money thing was not really in my mind when I was in school. I was much more focused on just being able to tell a story. It was the best thing for me at that time in my life. I don't think comic book school is right for everyone. For me, I knew what I wanted but I wasn't sure how to get there. I needed some guidance and an environment to safely fail and move forward in. There is a danger of getting too entrenched in comics, though. It is important to get educated in other things besides comics. I haven't always followed that advice but it is a good thing to keep in my head.
Do you remember when you first started to get a grip on storytelling? Who or what helped you get your head around it?
I think the biggest leap I made was as a result of a workshop that I went through when Lynda Barry visited my school during my second year. She led us in incredible 2 day intensive designed to get you writing. It is all about ritual and memory. It helped me just start writing without worry which I think a lot of writers have a hard time with. Just to get your pen moving and put ideas down on paper. It will not always lead to something good but it keeps you moving and you can learn about how you work as a writer that way. Directly from that workshop, I made Snake Oil 1 and 2 which were the first comics I was proud of, at least, at that time. It is important to let go of expectations and just do the work. I know some people write for their readers but that just paralyzes me. I have to write for myself or nothing.
But let's say you had to write specifically for the "mainstream" comic audience, what would you feel that you would have to incorporate that usually you wouldn't feel comfortable or natural to your style?
Oh boy. I actually have been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately. Not so much thinking about the audience but telling different types of stories that are not in my natural rhythms. And the answer is that I find it very difficult to do. I have ideas for stories that are outside my usual realm. I think the key is that I have to find a person "in" into the story. Which just boils down to a character that I can really get into. I've been struggling with this sci-fi story I've been working on lately. I have it pretty much written. It is just a matter of making that leap to the drawing it on the page. That is often the toughest part. There are so many decisions to be made when beginning a project, that I often get a bit paralyzed and start to doubt if I can do it. And maybe I can't? Maybe I should get someone else to draw it.
But back to your question. I think maybe the situation would be different in what you are asking. Everything I have done so far have been my own stories. So say a mainstream publisher asked me to write something for them, I'm not sure how I would react given that task. Well, deadlines and money is definitely a motivator. I don't think it is something I would turn down. I think the experience sounds challenging and I would be interested in to see how I react to that.
The other side of this question that I think you are getting at, is writing for an audience in mind. I honestly don't think I can work that way. And maybe that means I can only work on my own stories. I know I am definitely not alone in this thinking. I know people get offended by it because it sounds selfish. And that is fine. I don't necessarily disagree with them. It is just how my brain works. If I try to sculpt something that is intended to please a mass of unknown readers. It feels like just a big guessing game. And that sort of thing can paralyze me. I have a hard enough time writing for myself. Ugh. I must say, with all that said, I am still relatively young. I've only been doing comics seriously for about 5-6 years and I have a lot to learn. Currently I feel the need to "level-up" in a sense. Like this sci-fi story, I’ve taken a break from it recently to clear my head but I still want to crack it. I have a desire to do stories like that but I just haven't found my way in. It is kind of like, I spent 5 years climbing a mountain. I got to the top and Fantagraphics was there and they published my work. People seem to like it and I'm feeling pretty good about it. But then I look up and I see that I am not at the top. There seems to be another mountain to climb. I feel like I am back at the beginning in some ways.
You mentioned not being "at the top" what do you see as the top? Where is your career pinnacle?
There is no top. Well, I hope not. Then I would have to find something else to do. I don't think there is a pinnacle, per say. I'm pretty happy where i am. Well, the days that I am able to work are peaceful days. that is when I am most satisfied.
Finally, what can we expect to see from you in 2014?
I'm releasing the first of a bundle of comics and prints through Oily Comics in March. It'll have comics by Dan Zettwoch, Melissa Mendes, Noah Van Sciver, Olive Booger, Jeff Lok, and others. I'll have something in there too. You'll just have to wait and see
All images belong to Charles Forsman.