It's undeniable that Charles Forsman is one of those cartoonists who has made a great impact on the indie comics scene in recent years. A Center for Cartoon Studies graduate and western Massachusetts resident, Forsman is the author of TEOFW (Oily/Fantagraphics), Snake Oil series (various publishers), Celebrated Summer (Fantagraphics), and many other minicomics. He also continues to run Oily Comics, his minicomics publishing outfit, which has successfully provided exposure and support for many young, talented cartoonists. His latest project, Revenger, immediately intrigued me, as it appeared as a departure from Forsman's usual style yet also something clearly his own. Forsman was kind enough to take some time to answer some of my questions about Revenger, his creating process, Oily, and the evolution of the small press comics world.
Whit: What was the inspiration for Revenger? Did you have specific goals you were trying to achieve in terms of storytelling and art?
Charles: I think the inspiration for Revenger is a combination of things. First are the comics that I read when I first started reading them at 10 or 11 years old. This was during X-Men's heyday with Claremont and Jim Lee and the launch of Image Comics. The second are movies. I got back into watching John Carpenter movies like Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct 13. And even new movies like The Guest which came out a few months ago. The Guest actually made me scrap the first completed version of Revenger #1 and I started over almost from scratch. That movie reminded me that what I wanted to do was something much leaner without any fat. My original version of Revenger had a much larger world. I was worrying too much about the made-up world politics and trying to make an interesting mystery with the story. Sometimes after experiencing someone else's work that connects with you it makes what you want much clearer.
As for the art, that was basically a yearlong process. First I had to get used to drawing on larger pages again. Which was not easy. I was trying to work at 10 x 15 but it was a struggle. I'm sure if I stuck it out I would get used to it but I went down to 9 x 12 and it made a big difference. Then the actual art was pretty frustrating. I drew the same 7-8 page sequence probably 4 or 5 times before I felt like I had gotten it to a place that felt right. As you saw it look pretty different from my previous comics. With each new project I find it very difficult to continue working the same way I had before. I always have to change something. Maybe it is about challenging myself but I think it keeps me from getting bored.
Whit: One thing that I've always liked about your comics is how uniquely you render characters, and I think Revenger is a good example of this. What's your character design process look like?
Charles: Well for Revenger, she is inspired by Grace Jones. I can't recall how I came upon using her as a template but I've always been fascinated by her look. She just exudes this confidence and power that made sense to me for this type of character. I wanted to make a really tough character like Snake Plissken from Escape from New York. The last thing I added was the "X" scar on her cheek. It made me laugh when I first drew it. It just seemed so ridiculous. But it definitely adds that humourous and tough-as-nails touch to her. When you see that scar you immediately know that this woman has a rough past and you probably should mess with her. I'm sure the scar is also an ode to a lot of Rob Liefeld character designs. I think Cable has some crazy scar over one of his eyes.
Whit: Why did you decide to do Revenger in color? Can you talk a bit about your approach to doing color?
Charles: I've always wanted to do something in color. It is also something I've been a bit afraid to jump into. The color was another big challenge for me and another reason for even doing it. I tried a bunch of different approaches to coloring Revenger and I think I settled on something that works. It isn't perfect but I hope with each issue I get it closer and closer to what I want it to be. Using color just opens a lot of doors to set mood and give the reader cues. I'm basically just trying to ride a line between representational color and using color as a storytelling tool.
Whit: The back of your comic features great artwork by Ben Marra. You also elaborate a bit on the influence that he's had on your work. Can you speak a bit about your working relationship with him?
Charles: In my mind, Marra has been playing in this sandbox for years. When I first heard about him or maybe I saw his booth at a show it was really striking. He was drawing comics, that to me looked like the weird self-published vigilante/superhero comics that you used to see in the 90's. But everyone around was saying how great it was. And once I read one of his comics, which was probably an issue of Night Business I remember just laughing out load after finishing the book. It was genuinely funny but it was also just a big release. I think I spent a long time rejecting these types of comics that I used to read. I condemned them as stupid mindless junk. But Ben kind of showed me that there is a real art there that makes something inside of me fire. And then Michel Fiffe came along with Copra which was another big inspiration for me. It feels like an almost coming out. I feel like I had rejected and sort of hidden my love for this part of comics and they sort of gave me permission to love it openly.
Whit: What's the longer term plan for Revenger? Have you planned out how many issues there will be or is it a more loosely defined project?
Charles: I'm planning on doing around 5-6 issues and then I'll see how sustainable it is. If I'm still having fun and not losing my shirt, I'll keep going.
Whit: You spoke at length in a piece you did for Medium on your somewhat recent "creative block". This is a universal, yet deeply personal experience for artists. What prompted you to share your own story? What has the response been?
Charles: Yeah, that thing I wrote was a way of organizing my thoughts about the last 12 months of my life. I felt pretty creatively lost and it was all intertwined with my anxiety/depression stuff that I am susceptible to. It felt so good to just write it out. And once I did I didn't really feel the need to post it. I felt like I got a little peace from just seeing it written down. But I mentioned this on twitter and some folks wanted to read it. And I know when I am feeling in the dumps it feels so good know that I'm not alone. Everyone struggles with this stuff and by putting it out there maybe it'll make someone not feel alone. Which to me, is just the worst feeling. I spent most of last year convincing myself I was alone and just beating myself up about everything. My self-respect just dwindled. And the response has been really great. I got some really nice notes from people thanking me for putting it out there. So I think it connected in the way that I hoped it would.
Whit: What's the next year hold for Oily Comics? What will you be publishing?
Charles: Well, I'm sure most people have noticed that Oily has slowed down recently. I think I burnt myself out a little bit and I really want to focus on my own work again. So my main thing in the coming year will be Revenger. But I do plan on publishing a few things like another issue of Nu by Sacha Goerg and another Bastard by Max de radigués. More Dumpling King from Alex Kim is coming and probably some more Josh Simmons. I'm being less active in looking for stuff to publish but I still enjoy doing it and I think the artists I work with love not having to staple and fold their own comics.
Whit: What are you reading right now that's exciting you in comics?
Charles: I feel like a bad comics reader right now. The past year I've been mostly looking at old comics. A lot of Ditko, Kirby, Severin, Buckler, Tom Sutton, Paul Gulacy. Stuff like that. I think I got a little burned out on mini comics and art comics and alt comics...whatever they are called. I don't know. I think I just need inspiration from somewhere different. I'm probably just getting old and this is my excuse for not having the energy to keep up but maybe thats it. I think i just don't care to keep up like I used to. I'm just going to like what I like. I get the most joy right now just looking through the bins of comics that nobody wants looking for something peculiar or interesting.
I should say that all the folks I publish are people's work that I do follow. I hope whatever little boost Oily gave them leads them to bigger and better things.
Whit: How has the indie comics landscape changed most notably since you started 1) cartooning, and 2) publishing as Oily comics?
Charles: Well, the thing that I've noticed from the conventions this year is that there are a LOT of new people making comics and there are a ton of little pockets of them and I have no idea who they are. I think this is just a generation shift happening though. I think a lot of my peers have sort of dropped out of comics or are just less invested. So maybe that is why I don't recognize as many faces as I used to. But I do think there are a lot of people making comics. Even more so than when I started out. But I will never begrudge anyone for making a go at this. Me and my friends got a lot of indifference and negativity when we started making comics. We got called "those CCS kids" for while and it really bugged me. I hated being lumped in a group. I wanted to be my own thing. I think I succeeded in that. It seems like people talk about the school I went to less nowadays. I'm hoping that stigma for going to school for comics is wearing off. It is just so dumb. Do architects make fun of other architects that went to school for architecture? Maybe they do? Okay, not sure how I got on this subject.
The other thing I love about comics nowadays is how the boundaries are melting away. My making Revenger is part of this. There definitely used to be an "us vs them" thing in alternative comics. But now that is much less prevalent. I think younger readers are much more open to reading all kinds of comics. I like Andrei Tarkovsky AND John Carpenter.
Whit: I'd like to hear a bit more about this "stigma" about going to school for comics. It's funny, because I was never aware of this! Do you think this attitude is changing as the number of cartoonists grow?
Charles: Yeah, I kind of went off on that huh? Yeah, there is this mentality that is fading but it is still there, that one should does not need to go to school to learn to make comics. That it should be, I don't know, self-taught or something. I think that is very romantic and I understand the desire to keep comics in the underworld but comics is so much bigger than that now. And I think there is a perception that anyone who goes to a comics school is a rich kid. I know in my class there was maybe one person that came from a wealthy background. The rest of us just have very kind parents with second mortgages or are in massive debt.
Whit: Looking back on your journey as a cartoonist, what advice or insights can you share with an aspiring one?
Charles: Well, I hope I am still at the beginning. I sure hope so. I would love to be able to do this for a long time. I think the best advice to to try to do it for yourself in the end. That doesn't apply to everyone but if you are like me you can get swept up in imaginary critics. Don't let that influence you or stop you. I think you also have to be stubborn and a little ignorant. Most won't make a lot of money doing this and it is easy to get worn down and just give up. I think a lot of the people who stick around in comics just don't or can't give it up. Maybe that isn't really something you can control?
You can buy Revenger here!