This past year, as everything from Broadway theaters to suburban cineplexes closed for the pandemic, streaming TV became storytelling’s biggest stage. Yet the most memorable characters to stride onto this platform included many who originated in one of the most minimalistic storytelling forms ever devised: stapled, folded, black-and-white, low-cost minicomics.
Specifically, the characters originated with writer and cartoonist Charles Forsman, whose works The End of the Fucking World (frequently written as The End of the F***ing World) and I Am Not Okay With This were adapted by Jonathan Entwhistle and picked up by Netflix. Yet Forsman continues to operate in indie fashion. Other comics are either published by Fantagraphics Books or by himself — including a manga-style serialization on Instagram that he has been funding through Patreon — as well as a new collaborative project with Benjamin Marra for NeoText.
On any platform, Forsman is a remarkable, deceptively simple and emotionally nuanced storyteller who comes from a unique storytelling family. His brother, Zak Forsman, is a movie producer and director whose 2013 thriller Down and Dangerous was inspired by their father’s international exploits — the same exploits that their father told to author Robert Sabbag, who published the tales in [Snow Blind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade])(https://www.amazon.com/Snowblind-Brief-Career-Cocaine-Trade-ebook/dp/B003OYIKV0/). In a wide-ranging Monday afternoon conversation, Charles Forsman touched on his father’s death and how his own childhood reactions to that tragedy helped set the course of his later works — highly imaginary yet emotionally frank tales of pain, betrayal and searching, in stories that range from slice-of-life realism to extraordinary fantasies set on the porous boundary between superhero comics and horror.
Along the way, Forsman has shown how genre comics can be a highly personal art, and sponged up diverse influences ranging from E.C Segar to The Terminator into highly charged works of a singular vision.
Forsman spoke from his home in western Massachusetts, where he and his partner, the cartoonist Melissa Mendes, recently purchased a house, just in time to hunker down for COVID. “That was probably good timing,” Forsman said with a laugh — a loud and boisterous laugh that animates even Forsman’s most serious moments.
MICHAEL TISSERAND: Up to this phone call, what’s your pandemic Monday been like so far today?
CHARLES FORSMAN: I stay up very late, so I'm just sort of getting started. Sleep is always a challenge. I swear I have sleep apnea or something, but I've been tested, and they tell me it’s all normal. But I'm always a late starter.
TISSERAND: Are you making comics during those late nights?
FORSMAN: I haven't done the late-night working thing since school, since I don't think that speaks to my constitution very well as far as burning out. I usually work from the afternoon till the evening. Then at night, I usually watch movies or something like that.
TISSERAND: But the movies clearly find their way into your comics, so it’s all work. And you’re doing a horror-movie podcast as well?
FORSMAN: I do this podcast with my friend Dale, it’s called Bat & Spider — mostly horror movies, or I like to say, garbage movies. It’s usually low-budget stuff, usually when there's one person who has a strong vision. Maybe they don't have all the resources in the world, but it comes through that their passion is very strong.
We started it when quarantine kind of started about six months ago. It’s kind of been therapeutic for both of us, just to have that once a week. And it's good because it gives us an excuse to watch movies that we probably wouldn't find time otherwise.
TISSERAND: I listened to a wonderful conversation you had about the 1955 Ernest Borgnine movie Marty. That was actually the last movie I saw on a big screen, at a classic movie series here in New Orleans. What was it about those characters that spoke to you?
FORSMAN: James Sturm at The Center for Cartoon Studies showed it to our class, when I was up there at school. What shocked me was seeing Marty’s character, that type of character being on screen, and that group of people and his life in Brooklyn. How they spoke to each other. It was probably marketed for a broad audience but it felt very distinct to a certain region of New York. And to have a bunch of sad-sack characters on the screen in a movie from that age. I was just totally enthralled with it. It's still a very favorite movie that I always go back to.
A DATE WITH HIS DAD
TISSERAND: Growing up, what are the first stories that you remember really hitting you?
FORSMAN: I’ll probably go back to movies a lot in this conversation. I grew up with a brother, Zak, who’s seven years older than me. He was really into movies. When the family got a video camera, he was making movies with me and my other brother starring in them. He had a VHS player. I knew what the Criterion Collection was at a very young age. I was exposed to a lot of movies like Boyz n the Hood. I was probably too young to be exposed to that violence, pretty hefty violence. But I watched Boyz n the Hood a billion times and that was a big watch for me. It broadened the small horizons of the very white suburban life I was living and I maybe learned a little bit about America before everybody else in my age group did.
TISSERAND: You connect to the characters in that movie so deeply.
FORSMAN: When Doughboy is talking about Trey, and he says, “This fool got more comic books than a motherfucker,” that line always stuck with me. Like, “I like comic books. It's just like me. This is great.”
I have a great early memory. My dad died when I was 11, but he had a passion for stories. He was a great storyteller. He could always enthrall a small audience. He was very good at telling stories and maybe embellishing them, as I learned later on. But I have an early memory of him sitting me down — he made it feel like a special date — and he showed me the original Bela Lugosi Dracula. He rented it from the video store and sat me down. It was like the middle of the day, I think, in the summer. And we're gonna watch Dracula. Yeah, just the two of us.
TISSERAND: That does sound like a cherished memory.
FORSMAN: It just felt like this holy occasion. He was gonna show me Dracula.
TISSERAND: Did you start thinking at this time that you would go into movies yourself?
FORSMAN: When I was 21 I moved to Los Angeles to live with my brother, who's still out there. He got me a job at this place called the Ant Farm. All they did was cut movie trailers for all the big studios. I was a runner. A gofer. I got to deliver tapes to all the big movie studios, which was really a thrill. I convinced myself I wanted to make movies but I just couldn't even grasp the concept of how you even do that. And it's probably for the best, because I ended up finding myself in a comic shop in Santa Monica called Hi De Ho comics. I was going back to the Fantagraphics, the Drawn & Quarterly section. I think that’s when I read Love and Rockets for the first time. It was pretty quick that I remembered my love for comics and the hunger for wanting to do it myself sort of crept back, which I hadn't really felt since I was a teenager.
TISSERAND: It’s really not a big leap from Boyz n the Hood to Love and Rockets. Amazing character-driven stories from distinct communities.
FORSMAN: The other thing that really attracted me was dialogue. I remember at a young age being just fascinated by that.
COMMUNITY IN COMICS
TISSERAND: Did you draw as a child?
FORSMAN: I wanted to be a cartoonist so bad. I watched Crumb and that blew my mind. But I just couldn't will my hand to do what I wanted it to. I just could never finish a comic strip. I just had no idea what I was doing.
So I got into music. I had a band and I stopped drawing once I left high school until I was, like, 22-ish. So probably about four years or so I wasn’t drawing. And then I think what attracted me to the types of comics I was looking at, it felt more doable.
What I like about comics is that you don't have to be a great artist. You can use what you have. And it's halfway writing, as opposed to making pretty pictures. I always felt sort of stuck in between there, like not really a writer and not really an artist. It made sense to me once the teachers at The Center for Cartoon Studies kind of kicked me in the ass.
And the solitude. I’ve always been one to want to go away and do things myself, and learn on my own time.
TISSERAND: So after seeing Crumb, you realized you can’t do what Crumb does on the page, and that turned you away from comics?
FORSMAN: I was probably 13 or 14 when I saw it. Just the film of him drawing sketchbook and these images just pouring out. It just seemed too magical and I wanted to do that so badly. But, you know, it doesn't just happen. It takes a lot of work. I just got frustrated with that aspect.
I learned later, I'm not a sketchbook cartoonist. I have friends, they’re constantly doodling. Half their time is in their sketchbook. I used to drive myself crazy with that, forcing myself to use a sketchbook. But I don't have the personality for that. It's really hard for me to focus if I'm not working on a story. If I’m just like drawing in the sketchbook just for the sake of doing it, I get so bored, and I feel like there's no purpose to it, and I just give up. It feels like a waste.
TISSERAND: It reminds me of Sydney in I Am Not Okay With This when a counselor hands her this blank journal and tells her to pour her heart out in there.
FORSMAN: Yeah. Yeah.
TISSERAND: What effect did The Center for Cartoon Studies have on your process, and on you personally?
FORSMAN: One of the big things I always hungered for was a sense of community. With that school, you move up to Vermont, in the smallest town possible, and all of a sudden you're with about 18 other people that want to do the same thing you're doing.
This was very new to me. Rooming with people and spending the majority of your time learning and studying. And I was very hungry for it. I dropped out of high school when I was 17, and I was so over school as a teenager. I saw no point being there. Thankfully, as my brain matured, I got very hungry and was willing to learn. I could let my defenses down about telling myself I could do all this myself. So for me it was the perfect time.
I got in by the skin of my teeth and it really changed my life, living in a house with five other people and living and breathing comic books. There are bonds with people I went to school with that are still really strong. And all the faculty. Someone like Steve Bissette, he was there teaching the history of comics. And that just blew my mind.
I don't think I would have finished a comic book on my own if I hadn’t gone there, basically.
TISSERAND: So many people go to school hoping to find a community like that, but they don’t.
FORSMAN: Maybe because The Center for Cartoon Studies is such a niche. There's so few of us that we had no choice, we either become friends or bitter enemies. We started going to conventions, and then the family started growing and I started to meet other people at small-press shows. It’s something I'm very thankful for because I'm not an outgoing person.
And it sort of made me rethink, at that age, my opinion on education and getting to dedicate that much time to try things, to experiment. It’s a really good thing.
SAME STORY, OVER AND OVER
TISSERAND: Your work, as much as any work I can think of, is read and appreciated by both adults and teenagers. And that’s not because you’re giving little Easter eggs to each group of readers, but because the stories deeply and emotionally and intellectually connect to people who just happen to be decades apart in ages and experiences. When you write, do you imagine your reader is any certain age, whether 17 or 57?
FORSMAN: I think my best work is done when I'm not considering that at all. Whenever I get it in my brain that I'm writing for someone, whether it be an age bracket or even an editor, I get stuck and I can't finish anything or move forward. I'm just overwhelmed by trying to decide what other people want or what they think. So I do my very best to trick myself into not thinking about that at all. And when I'm able to successfully do that is when I think I do my best work.
The other side of that equation is my tendency to be obsessive about things. I'll get obsessed about something for a few weeks, and then I get sick of it. So it's a real challenge to be able to zero in on one story and keep it going.
TISSERAND: What’s your most recent few-weeks obsession?
FORSMAN: Well, last month it was Lord of the Rings, which I never saw coming. But right now it's John Hughes movies. So I'm re-watching all of them, and I'm just deep in it. I re-watched The Breakfast Club last night, and it's just one of those movies where you know everyone has seen it a million times. You take it for granted. It’s like a classic rock song on the radio. It’s just always there, and it doesn't feel special anymore. But when you actually sit down and give it attention, it strikes me as an amazing work.
You look at John Hughes, he was like a schlubby middle-aged white guy, but he was somehow able to zero in and relate to teenagers and treat them with respect. And I think people of all ages react to those movies. They recognize that.
In my work, I'm trying to not consciously do that, but for me, it's just trying desperately — especially with the teenage work — get those feelings I had onto paper.
TISSERAND: Why do teenage protagonists appeal to you? They figure prominently in your works, all the way up to the most recent Automa. Why do you think you're drawn to those characters?
FORSMAN: It just comes down to my experience as a teenager. When I was that age, half of me was desperate to grow up. I wanted nothing to do with school and all the people that I felt forced to be with for eight hours a day.
And part of it was probably learning about death and loss when I was 11 years old and having my dad die. It really changed me. I was in a depression for most of my teenage years. And I think it just set my brain on the path that all of this was a scam. I couldn't just put aside the lessons I had learned about life and death and just tune that out and just be a teenager and realize that this could be a fun time in somebody's life. I just wanted nothing to do with it. So over it.
TISSERAND: You said you viewed it as a scam.
FORSMAN: You know, why am I doing algebra, this is ridiculous. I felt very strongly about it at that age.
TISSERAND: Driving your jalopy down to the malt shop was not the teenage life that you were feeling.
FORSMAN: Exactly. I tended to hang out with kids that were a year or two older than me, and that were into smoking pot and playing guitars and driving our cars up mountains and just sort of screwing off.
The one shining spot in school was art class. And English class. I had some really good teachers, especially middle school. I think they saw something in in me that I certainly didn't. I could just feel their attention on me, and it sort of gave me a spark.
TISSERAND One through line in your work is this sense that betrayal is almost foundational in relationships, including between parents and children. That goes back to Shakespeare, the Greeks, and probably the first cave drawings — but you really give this kind of family betrayal new names and faces and storylines.
FORSMAN: I always go back to my father. One day, I was a pretty happy suburban kid watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and then all of a sudden, my dad's sick and there are hospice nurses at the house. And then he's gone. And I'm watching my brothers cry and it's just like: “Oh, this is very different from everything I knew.”
I think I'm constantly trying to sift through all those feelings I had and maybe selfishly relive it a little bit. Or maybe give my characters a chance to say things that I wanted to say. Just play it out. It’s funny that I keep coming back to Crumb because I’m not a huge Crumb fan, but I think someone asked him about feeling like you’re telling the same story over and over again. And he’s like, “Yeah, that’s what I do. That's basically what you're doing as a storyteller is telling the same thing over and over again.” And that sort of gave me permission to feel that way and be okay with that.
Because I will give myself a lot of shit for feeling like I’m treading over the same old ground. Which is why you'll see some of my other work is very different. That's usually when I'm in that type of mood and I feel like I need to prove that I can do other stuff.
TISSERAND: One of the most emotionally raw scenes I’ve seen in your work — or really in any work — is in the short story “Francis” you wrote for the Fantagraphics anthology Mome. We see a person whose mother is dying. We think perhaps this person has gone in and is having an encounter with her. But actually, that’s in his imagination. And we see how the person backs away from this encounter.
FORSMAN: It’s like I'm in therapy right now. I haven't thought about that story in a long time. But that sounds like something from my psyche.
TISSERAND: One thing you do in that story, which is something I often find unsettling when I read your work, has to do with point of view. The reader is led to believe that something is being witnessed. Then it becomes clear the narrator is referring to something in the past, or even something in the future. Or perhaps it’s not at all directly connected to what’s happening. You task the reader with putting together what’s being said and what’s being looked at. And then in the end it all comes together differently than the reader was expecting.
FORSMAN: A lot of this stuff is very instinctual. I know that I’m very attracted to putting things together that maybe don’t seem related. But somewhere in my mind, it makes sense.
TISSERAND: I’m thinking of the assault in I’m Not Okay With This, and how the pages from the diary are being read at that time. Those two elements really come together in an emotionally combustible way. It’s an unexpected yet incredibly moving and powerful moment.
FORSMAN: It’s a scene you don't want to draw. Can I still hit that emotional point without showing it? And also putting on the other layer of her friendship with Syd.
IMPROV AND THE ROAD
TISSERAND: The road seems to have a big place in your work, too. Of course, The End of the Fucking World is basically a road adventure, a crime spree like Bonnie and Clyde or, you’ve said, Badlands. Your collaboration Hobo Mom is also about the road. The road might be where to go to answer a question, like Alyssa seeking her father, or just to escape — even if you don’t exactly find out why — as in Hobo Mom.
FORSMAN: That probably goes back to as I got older as a teenager. I grew up in central Pennsylvania, I was there my whole life, and that was always in the forefront of my mind, being able to escape. So I think that's probably why some of that comes into my work. But also, it makes for a great vehicle. Like The End of the Fucking World, I didn’t really know where I was going with it. But setting my characters on an unknown trip, it’s great fodder for being able to come up with obstacles and things along the way, or having a destination whether they get there or not.
It’s also a fun game to play when you're writing a story. One thing I like to do in my work is leave things open and be improvisational. So it can still surprise me when I get there. And the characters usually change the direction of the story into places that I never anticipated, no matter how much planning I think I do.
I always let half my brain be experimental in the moment. That includes every part of the process of the page. Comics is a lot of writing down paragraphs of ideas, then doing page layouts, pencils, ink. There are so many processes of doing the same idea over and over again that there's a lot of chance for boredom. It’s catnip for my mind to keep making changes. What if I do this instead? Or with the characters, they turn into things that I hadn't anticipated, and sometimes take the story in a different place.
TISSERAND: Your stories certainly have plot and action and pacing, but if I would describe what drives your work, I would say characters and characterization. And that’s what drives your process as well?
FORSMAN: The biggest example is The End of the Fucking World. I didn't know what shape it was going to take when I started it. My friend Max de Radigués that I did Hobo Mom with, he had visited me in America and brought this minicomic — like a ten-page minicomic, black and white, quarter-sized. I was just finishing up Celebrated Summer, which were these big, super crosshatchy pages. And I wanted a very different feeling than laboring over giant pieces of Bristol. And Max gave me this comic called Moose that he had drawn in probably a day or two. It was very messy. But it was great. And I was like, “Okay, this is what I want to do.”
I think what attracted me to it was just the removal of any worry about it being precious or having beautiful drawings, and the fact that it was printed on cheap paper and you're selling it for a dollar. It just removed any sort of value or preciousness. It cut to the core. I’m just focusing on telling the story. I don't care if my characters look thin or if they’re drawn beautifully. No one's gonna wanna hang this stuff on the wall. It just felt more like writing. Just going and not having the process get in the way of it all. You’re just able to put it out.
And improv — that first issue sets up who James is and who Elyssa is, and it was sort of like a game. I set up the rules and I was able to play within those rules, both story-wise and also format-wise. A lot of the times I'm trying to remove mental barriers. And that was probably my most successful version of that.
CARTOON FACES AND EMOTIONAL MAGIC
TISSERAND: I might be unduly influenced from my readings of old daily comics, but there are moments in these extreme close-ups in The End of the Fucking World in which I’m looking at a close-up of a little c-nose and two dots of inks, and it’s like I’m looking right at a Charlie Brown face. Then you pull out, and I’m in a completely different place. Was that a conscious choice on your part?
FORSMAN: For sure. I always feel like with every book I'm putting on a different cartoon costume. The End was very much in a mode of daily strips and getting out thoughts with a limited space. I wanted to draw it simply. So I took a lot of inspiration from daily strips.
With Schulz, everything is distilled, and he’s able to pack a lot of emotion and depth into these simply drawn characters. And for me, that's one of the most magical parts of comics. Just having such simply drawn characters with so much emotion behind them.
TISSERAND: It reminds me of a scene in Peanuts in which Lucy is saying, “Don't my eyes look beautiful?” And Charlie Brown says, “Yes, they look just like two round dots of India ink.”
FORSMAN: That’s for the cartoonists out there!
TISSERAND: Then in I Am Not OK With This, I see a lot of E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theater. Just the way Sydney and Stan are standing and giving side eyes to each other. There’s a lot of Segar in those looks.
FORSMAN: Totally. I love Segar. When the book starts, you can tell I was really looking at Segar. And like usually what happens, is I stopped looking at that for reference less and less, and then it sort of morphs into a little bit of in between me and Segar. But definitely when I started I wanted a Segar feel.
That was like my X-Men story. I watched Scanners for the first time, and I was like, “Oh, this is like a great X-Men movie. What would be my version of a teenager with powers that manifest within them? What would that be?” That’s sort of where that came from. But again, I wanted to be able to work quickly, with short chapters. And I was reading Popeye at the time and was really drawn to those characters.
TISSERAND: What is it that you love about Segar?
FORSMAN: Some of it is just the visceral line. The lines he makes on paper, it’s just that indescribable thing. Even though I talk a big game about comics being like writing, I find myself buying comics just to look at them and not necessarily read them. For Segar, I’ve read some of the strips for real, but there’s also just something about the line quality and the way the characters are formed that make me glow inside, like I just feel alive.
It’s probably how people feel when they enter Disney World. It's just one of those magical things. And it's like that for Peanuts, too. I think I heard Ivan Brunetti talk about just being obsessed with the size of the characters' heads in Peanuts in relation to the panels and just how pleasing that was for him to look at. It’s just things like that.
TISSERAND: One of my favorite pages in your work is the scene in End of the Fucking World where Elyssa is dancing to “Frankie and Johnny.” Seeing that song in there reminded me of MTV Unplugged in the 1990s when Kurt Kobain sang “In the Pines.” It takes this mythic folk and blues song, a song that seems to come up from the earth, and brings it to life in a totally new setting. The song choice connects your characters to the characters of "Frankie and Johnny” and all the generations that came between. How did you decide on that song?
FORSMAN: It’s funny. It's a good and bad thing, because that came out of a need to replace the original from the minicomic version, which had “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.”
TISSERAND: The Hank Williams song?
FORSMAN: It was the one that was in the TV show. That was the original song I had in the minicomic but Fantagraphics was nervous about having to ask for the rights and probably being turned down. So I looked around and found “Frankie and Johnny.” It’s public domain now. And I was like, “This is too perfect. It's almost too perfect.” But because it's such an old song, it didn’t feel like I was nudging the audience too much. It came out of a necessity.
TISSERAND: Well, when that scene came on the series, I thought they made a big mistake. The Hank Williams song is about destructive passion but “Frankie and Johnny” is about interlocked fates, and I just thought they blew it. I didn’t realize I should be mad at you!
FORSMAN: Yeah, that's funny. I only learned about it when I saw some of the early cuts and heard that song.
YOUNG WOMEN AND OLD FIGHTERS
TISSERAND: Both I Am Not OK With This and Revenger have women at the center who harbor incredible powers. You seem very comfortable writing across gender and race and species and robots and humans.
FORSMAN: When I was at The Center for Cartoon Studies, I was terrified to write as anything other than a white male. I think The End of the Fucking World is probably the first time where I was like, “Okay, I'm gonna try and honestly write a female character.” I had to give myself permission and just write them. What I do with most characters is I just pretend that I'm them. It’s almost like acting. I put myself in their shoes and try and think like they think and write their dialogue or their thoughts out, as if I’m inside their skins. Obviously I don't know personally what it's like, but as humans, we learn from each other.
I mean, it's tricky, because obviously, I'm not a woman. But I grew up with women around me. I was raised by my mom, for the most part. I think that that probably had a huge impact on why I tend to lean towards female characters, especially as I go on. I just identify with them a lot more. And I think it's just more interesting.
TISSERAND: The cinematic influences in your work are very clear. In Revenger, exploitation films and genre films feel like they’re rising up through the pages. Automa is clearly a Terminator-influenced story.
FORSMAN: For sure.
TISSERAND: But it also wonderfully folds in old-fighter movies like Raging Bull, or Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler. Tommy’s Uncle Lee is a terrific character.
FORSMAN: I’m conflicted about Automa. When I set out to make it, all those influences you said are correct. I've always been a huge lover of Terminator. And boxers, they’re always just great characters. I also wanted it to read like manga. I don't know if I was successful, but I wanted it to be open pages that hopefully the reader was turning quickly. I wanted that sort of action comic, quick-read feeling.
TISSERAND: The pacing is incredible. I had to really stop myself from blazing through it too fast. I wanted to savor the moments but it felt like some kind of rubber-band gun was shooting you through the narrative.
FORSMAN: The last few years, I've been interested in manga more. I wanted that feeling. It's a bigger project than I think I want it to be and it's taking me longer than I expected. I'm looking forward to finishing the pages and then putting it away for a year and then looking at it again, and editing it. Which is not usually the tack I take with my comics. I'm sort of viewing this as a sculpture. But there's still a lot of the usual things that I like as far as serialization and improvisation. It’s definitely not where I had planned it to go in later chapters.
TISSERAND: When you’re improvising in a serial like this, you have some time between creating chapters during which a new direction can start to announce itself. Do you have the time to catch up with it?
FORSMAN: That’s always the challenge with me. Comics is more work than my brain is set up for. I probably should have just been a writer, to be honest. I go through the spurts of energy, and I'm in the mode, but once I get out of that and I take a break and then I come back, things have shifted. But I also think that’s kind of the fun and interest in it, and maybe that makes the work more compelling because I’m looking at it from different perspectives as time wears on.
It’s weird. I feel like I'm having an argument with myself because I love the immediacy of manga. I love serialization. My preferred method of doing comics is doing it chapter by chapter and getting it out to people. Even though I feel like at the end of all this, I need to sculpt it into something else.
TISSERAND: What manga is really influencing you?
FORSMAN: The first stuff that really struck me was the Yoshihiro Tatsumi collection that Drawn & Quarterly put out. The Push Man — that volume in particular I go back to every few years. I think for a lot of readers that was the first time we saw manga that wasn’t what we usually get translated over here. So that sort of opened my eyes.
TISSERAND: We use the phrase “graphic novel” now but sometimes forget that a lot of what we consider the classic novels were originally serialized, like Dickens and Twain.
FORSMAN: Totally. And that was something I had to learn. Because back in 2007 when I was at The Center for Cartoon Studies, Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics stopped putting out floppy comics and everyone was doing these huge graphic novels. You heard about mythical New York publishers giving huge advances. And all my peers, that’s what everyone was doing. But CCS has a big focus on self-publishing and screen printing and starting off small. So once I started making minicomics, I found myself falling in love with it. You're not holed up in your studio for three years, never showing your work to anyone except maybe people closest to you. I think I thrive on the satisfaction of putting together a chapter of a comic book and mailing it out to readers. It feels like such an important part of the process for me right now.
That led me to making Oily Comics, and I was running that little press for a little bit, publishing other people. But like you said, novels used to be serialized, and I wish there were more outlets for that.
TISSERAND: With your Patreon, in addition to serialization, there’s the opportunity for a lot of interaction with your readers. You’re engaged in multiple conversations with them. It’s way more than a Stan’s Soapbox-style message. Does that much feedback affect your process, either for better or worse?
FORSMAN: Even if it’s just someone saying, “Oh, I love that chapter” or “I can’t wait to see where it goes,” on days where I’m hating everything I do and I just want to throw it all in the garbage, that can really help me. [Laughs] So Patreon’s been good for that. It’s almost like a trusted readership. It's only like 300 people probably reading it — which still blows my mind, to me, that’s still a lot of people — but it's nice to be able to share a small chunk of work with those people.
SHUT OUT THE NOISE AND TELL YOUR STORY
TISSERAND: As we talk, your work is being broadcast over the biggest platform we have right now, especially with movie theaters closed. I know the Netflix adaptations aren’t your work specifically, but they’re based on your work and your characters, and now it’s got this great big screen. And at the same time, you have this really intimate community of readers. It seems to give a lie to the idea that you start small to work your way up to big. You seem good with being on a big stage and then jumping into a small club.
FORSMAN: The TV stuff, it wasn’t something I planned. I was not seeking it out at all. John Entwistle, who created both shows, reached out to me when The End of the Fucking World was a minicomic. I kind of didn’t take it seriously at first. But once I got to know him, we became friends. And he was sort of just starting out like I was. He had done some TV commercials and short films, but he had never done a show or a movie. And it just ended up working really well.
Sometimes people come to me for advice, about getting their stuff adapted. I have no clue. Part of me feels bad because I can't tell them the big secret of how to get a Netflix show. All I can tell you is to do what I did, which was just shut out the noise and try and tell a story that I liked. And for me, that meant doing it on a really small scale on a minicomic, for a dollar. And for me, that worked.
It's definitely changed my life. It's a complicated thing because it's so outside of me, all the Netflix stuff, and things haven't really changed much for me other than I have a little bit more money. There's also a disconnect. I think a lot of people don't even know they are comics when they watch those shows. I'll be set up at a comics convention and someone will walk by and see the books on the table, and they'll be like, “What, you’re ripping off the TV show?” It’s a weird thing.
TISSERAND: Do you get to see those stories as they’re being created?
FORSMAN: I was able to be on set for a week for both shows, which was really cool. Because I was in London on a trip, I was able to go into an editing bay and watch early cuts of most of the episodes of the first series.
TISSERAND: Was your opinion solicited or was it more like, “You created the comic, now trust us, we're going to create the series.”
FORSMAN: I very much compartmentalized it. When this whole thing started, I was really anxious about it, but I decided that to save my mental anguish, I was just like, “I have my comic. No one is going to come in and change those pages. I did that. If this thing turns out good, then fine. If it turns out bad, then fine."
But I had a lot in trust in John, that he really understood the material. I kept telling him from the very beginning that I didn't want him to make a facsimile. It’s an adaption and I want him to make the best show that he can make. And of course, Charlie Covell, who wrote The End of the Fucking World, did an amazing job. I wanted them to make their show. And I was super thrilled with what they did. But everyone I encounter on those productions, they're more nervous about what I think than I am.
TISSERAND: The adaptation of I’m Not OK With This really heightened the cinematic influences that are already felt in your work. The movie Carrie, among others, flashed before me as I was watching it. When you wrote the book, was Carrie in your mind, as far as being someone who has powers that she could not control?
FORSMAN: I don't know. I'm a huge Brian De Palma fan, and I’ve always said my book Slasher is my Brian De Palma book, but I can’t actually remember if I had Carrie on my mind for that. That imagery was definitely the folks on the show, they came up with the idea to sort of sample Carrie.
TISSERAND: It was hiding in the back of your work like the Hank Williams song, and then the adaptation brought that out.
FORSMAN: I'm sure it was hidden in my brain. Often times these things they don't come out until after the fact. I step outside of the work, and I'm like, “Oh, yeah, that's what I was pulling from it.” And Brian De Palma’s really up there for me.
TISSERAND: What are you working on now?
FORSMAN: Still working on Automa and for NeoText I am doing a book with Ben Marra, who’s one of my very favorite cartoonists.
TISSERAND: So you are undertaking another collaboration?
FORSMAN: Probably the second time I’ve really done it, I wrote this story called Metal Skull, which is sort of a post-apocalyptic thing that takes place in the Midwest. With a woman who was a soldier and turned into a cyborg, but was dormant for many years. And she is brought back to life by this sort of nomad tinkerer. She’s brought into this new world where everyone's worst fears of what was happening when she was alive happened. So there’s environmental decay, all the rich people went into the bunkers, people are just dying. Maybe it’s our version of a Heavy Metal story. And I don't even like Heavy Metal magazine that much. [Laughs] I think the comics are just too pretty for me, they’re always so overwhelming to look at.
It’s very much going to look like a Ben Marra book I think. We’re collaborating pretty closely. I'm doing the layouts, and Ben is doing the final pencils and inks, and then I'm going to color everything he’s done.
TISSERAND: The story seems very appropriate for our times. When did you conceive it?
FORSMAN: About two years ago. I felt like it was a good candidate for something that I not draw myself. When the notion of working with Ben came up, I jumped at it.
TISSERAND So you set this narrative in motion before we all got into our own little apocalypse this past year?
FORSMAN: Well, I’m still working on it. And the way I work, there's a lot of room for improvising at any moment. So especially with COVID, some elements of that maybe have crept in in recent drafts. But I guess post-apocalyptic stories are around for a reason because we all seem to be very easily able to visualize everything going to shit. That seems like it’s been true for the last — maybe forever, actually. I was going to say the last fifty years, the last hundred — but probably since the very first government was set up, we could start to imagine how things could go very, very wrong.
ONE LAST MOVIE
TISSERAND: One last question: What was your last best late-night garbage movie?
FORSMAN: I just watch Star Time. Have you ever heard of this movie?
TISSERAND: Not at all.
FORSMAN: It’s from 1992 and it’s written and directed by Alexander Cassini. I was expecting more of a slasher but it’s about a guy and the whole conceit is his favorite TV show is canceled, and he's ready to kill himself. It’s sort of a silly start. But this man comes out of the dark and says, “No, you shouldn't do that. You can be a star. I'm going to put you on TV. And you can be an inspiration to millions.”
It's very much one guy's vision. I looked into Alexander Cassini, his dad was Igor Cassini, he was a a gossip columnist for the Hearst papers under the name Chollie Knickerbocker, and he was on TV. His mother committed suicide when his dad was accused of working as a foreign agent for the Dominican Republic. That just became haunting when you see this one character in this movie, talking directly to our main character through the TV screen, and you're like, “My God. This is ripped from this guy's psyche.”
It just makes the movie infinitely more interesting.