When Words Collide: The Secret Origin Of Oily Comics

Mon, July 23rd, 2012 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
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CHARLES FORSMAN: THE MAKING OF A MICROPUBLISHING MAGNATE

"Snake Oil" #5

With two books from Fantagraphics scheduled for release next year, and increasing attention on his comics from the voices of comic book punditry, Charles Forsman is a creator worth paying attention to.

But even though Forsman lives only one town over from me, in Western Massachusetts, I didn't hear about his work until Jeff Lester, all the way over in San Francisco, mentioned one of Forsman's minicomics on a podcast last winter. Such are the perils of minicomics publishing (and reading) where distribution channels are limited, production is sporadic, and you might never see any more work from a minicomics artist you really like unless a big publisher brings out a collected edition of their old stuff. Even if the artist lives only a few miles away.

Forsman aims to alleviate some of the problems with getting minicomics even if the readers live far away from a comic shop savvy enough to stock the latest and best small press offerings, first by creating the online "Muster-List" to put readers directly in contact with folks who can provide them with minicomics, and now with his recent announcement of a subscription service for Oily Comics.

Oily Comics is a micropublisher of not only Forsman's highly-regarded 'The End of the Fucking World" minicomic, and his partner (and Xeric-winner) Melissa Mendes's "Lou" comic, but it has also turned into a place where you can get a handful of new minicomics every month, with some big-name independent comics artists coming in to deliver slim little volumes through the Oily channels.

Last week, I visited Forsman at his home and talked to him about his burgeoning minicomics empire (yes, I called it that, and, yes, he laughed at the word "empire"). I wanted to see what his humble set-up looked like, and I wanted to hear him describe how he started producing his own comics, and why he's taken on the responsibility for printing and cutting and stapling and mailing the work of his comic book peers.

THE SECRET ORIGIN OF A COMIC BOOK ARTIST

Forsman only remembers a couple of comics from his childhood. He recalls an issue of "The Avengers" and something from the "Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-Man" series, but those were the only two comics he owned as a kid, at time which Forsman describes as "the time where you have a couple comics and you pore over them and don't think about going to get more." Forsman didn't discover comic book shops until his brother started buying comics, an interest which spun off from another hobby: "My brother and I were really into baseball cards," says Forsman, "and it seemed like an easy switch to jump over to comics."

It was around the time of Jim Lee's "X-Men" #1, and Forsman recalls that his brother started buying that stuff, along with the McFarlane Spider-Man issues before branching out into the Image Comics line. Forsman followed his brother into this new hobby, because, he says, "I copied whatever he did." And as he and his brother become more interested in the colorful superhero characters, they would draw their own versions. The Forsman boys would try to top each other with their comic book drawings.

Charles Forsman's brother soon lost interest in comics, but teenage Charles stayed fully engaged with the medium. Well, maybe not the medium as a whole, but definitely the X-Men corner of the superhero landscape.

"X-Men was the thing," says Forsman, "the cartoon was on, too. I was in that mentality where I had to get every X-Men issue…I was getting Wolverine. And I was interested in the Image stuff."

Forsman in action

Forsman's favorite artist of the time?

"Rob Liefeld. I was totally into him."

Forsman even attended his first convention as his interest in comics was growing, the 1994 Pittsburgh Comic Con, where the special guests would include the gang from Extreme Studios, including Liefeld himself. But Liefeld cancelled his appearance at the show, disappointing the teenage Forsman. However, that didn't stop him from having an amazingly positive experience at his first con.

"I got swindled into buying a lot of crappy comics," Forsman admits. "It was my first experience getting the hard sell…but the highlight was that even though Rob Liefeld wasn't there, everyone else was really nice, and I want to say, I think, Eric Stephenson was there and he was really nice to me. All the guys that were there. They let me sit behind their table. I had my sketchbook and I was showing them stuff I copied from Image comics. It was my first time behind a table, and it was great, it was a little taste."

"I still have my Extreme Studios hat," adds Forsman.

As Forsman grew into his mid-teens, his interest in comics shifted away from bombastic superheroes and toward more realistic, or at least distinctly different, fare. A friend gave him copies of "Eightball" and "Love and Rockets" to check out. And he stumbled on "Hate" on his own. But it took him a bit to adjust to reading comics that were so unusual to someone raised on the spectacle of Marvel and Image: "At first, when you're eyes are used to splashy superhero stuff, that stuff seems like another language. But I got really into that. Especially 'Hate.' It was the closest thing to a television show, it hooked you in."

"And then," says Forsman, "I just fell out of it, when I was 18 or so. I dropped out of high school, and had this girlfriend, and we broke up, and it was this horrible crisis."

Forsman ended up leaving has parents in Pennsylvania and moving in with a brother in California for a year. He recalls having a few friends at the time, but he spent a lot of time alone, and he missed comics: "I was really into music, but I thought, 'Comics are great, I should get back into that.'" In a small shop in Santa Monica, he reconnected with his former passion, and picked up new favorites like Adrian Tomine's "Optic Nerve" and Charles Burns's "Black Hole."

"I was drawn to stories about real people," says Forsman.

After the year in California, working 60 hour weeks making pizzas, Forsman headed back home to Pennsylvania, and decided that maybe he could benefit from learning a few more things from others, so he attended the local community college and then, not really expecting to get accepted, he sent in an application to the Center for Cartoon Studies.

In talking to me, Forsman emphasized how little he thought of his chances to get into CCS at the time. "I hadn't really done many comics. I'd never finished a comic before I did my application," Forsman said. "I have about 20 sketchbooks from my childhood filled with drawings, but I'd only have a page here or there where I was trying to figure out how to do comics."

But he sent in his application. He had always wanted to be a cartoonist when he was younger, even if music and the girlfriend situation and the move to California and the 60 hours a week making and delivering pizzas derailed him for a bit.

CCS sent him an acceptance letter. He was in.

THE REAL SCHOOLING BEGINS

The Oily Inventory

"When the school accepted me, that was the biggest affirmation," says Forsman. He felt like he could make comics after all, even if he never actually made any before.

While at CCS, Forsman struggled at first, trying to develop something he could call his style. "In school, the first year was all experimentation for me," says Forsman. "I got some good advice from Ivan Brunetti not to worry about style…it just comes. 'If it's going to come it will come,' he told me." He completed the first year successfully, but the second and final year at CCS is the "Thesis Year," and Forsman couldn't think of what he wanted to do. He scrapped several ideas and was stuck trying to develop something worth writing and drawing as a substantial project.

Then Lynda Barry came to White River Junction.

Barry's visit to CCS supercharged Forsman with creative energy.

"I don't know if you've heard about her workshop. It's this big -- it's like going to a religious revival," says Forsman. "There's a spirit she brings into the room." He describes the entire faculty (and their spouses) and the students at CCS filled with enthusiasm during Barry's workshop, and goes on to say, "she does these exercises that, especially for a struggling writer, that just gets work out of you, without any pretension. That's the important part, the lack of pretense. That kickstarted something in me, and that's what became 'Snake Oil' -- the first two issues of 'Snake Oil.'"

In 2008, those first two issues of "Snake Oil" would win Forsman an Ignatz award.

"That was nuts," says Forsman, commenting on the almost-immediate acclaim his CCS project brought him. "But then it was another struggle. Because I didn't have school…I was the boss then." Forsman stayed in the White River Junction area, taking advantage of alumni benefits to CCS, like seeing the guest speakers and paying lab fees to use the printing equipment. It was difficult, without the structure and deadlines of school, for Forsman to produce the same kind of quality of work. He admits that he's not completely happy with "Snake Oil" #3 and 4.

The Ignatz didn't justify his dedication to comics -- he says that he would have continued making them without any awards -- but the Ignatz gave him "a confidence [he] wouldn't have had." Really, though it was his experiences at CCS that pointed him in the right direction: "I came out of that school, and it sounds cheesy, but I found who I was. I found my path, and this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."

It was "Snake Oil" #5, and an ennui-addled story called "Wolf," that Forsman feels is the breakthrough moment for his mature style as a creator. "That felt like a really huge step for me. I felt like I'd done something more personal. Before that it was like…weird stuff happens just to be weird…issue #5 was different. I got a different kind of response from that."

And that response carried over into "Snake Oil" #6, which garnered him foreign attention at a MoCCA Festival, where he was approached by a French publisher who invited Forsman to submit something longer-form for the European market.

Soon, Forsman had the idea for the story that would become "Celebrated Summer" an original graphic novel due out next year from Fantagraphics. But how did a book originally conceived in response to a French submission invite become a soon-to-be Fantagraphics book? Simple. Forsman sent it to Eric Reynolds.

PUBLISH OR PERISH

TEOTFW

Since the first issues of "Snake Oil," Forsman had been sending all of his work to Eric Reynolds, and after he had assembled his pitch packet for "Celebrated Summer," he figured that it might be worth a shot sending it to Reynolds too. But like his application to CCS, Forsman didn't expect anything to come of it: "I think a lot of us in independent comics -- the cartoonists -- think publishers are going to scoop us up and say 'we will publish you now' when they see our minicomics come in the mail. But it's always a good idea to ask them. So I sent Fantagraphics the proposal, and it…seemed like a New York publisher thing…to send a proposal. It didn't seem like something Fantagraphics dealt with or something. I had that weird idea at the time," he says.

A week later Reynolds responded via an email that said, in Forsman's words: "yeah, I want to do this. I have to run it by Gary [Groth] and Kim [Thompson], but I want to publish this."

Forsman wasn't expecting anything close to that kind of response: "I sent it to him thinking…whatever, who knows. That was great."

While at Forsman's studio, I saw the finished pages for "Celebrated Summer" and it's such a fully-realized work, it's no surprise Reynolds was so quick to jump on it, even after seeing only a few pages.

But the work on that Fantagraphics book was grueling at times. Forsman worked so hard to make "Celebrated Summer" look good that he needed to do something completely different for his next big project. Though he didn't even think of it as another big project when he started it. He thought of it was something to do for fun. And because of the way it was produced, his next major work after completing "Celebrated Summer" would reach readers well before Fantagraphics even officially solictited Forsman's first original graphic novel. I'm talking about "The End of the Fucking World," or "TEOTFW," Forsman's 12-page minicomic that's been released monthly since last winter.

"TEOTFW," though written and drawn in the woods of Hancock, Massachusetts, was, like most of Forsman's work thus far, inspired by a CCS connection. Max de Radigues, Belgian cartoonist, had been a fellow at CCS, and de Radigues's minicomic "Moose," which Forsman saw last summer, showed him a new way of doing things: "Max gave me the first issue, and I was like, 'this is really great.' I could tell he wasn't laboring over the artwork and he was having fun. I wanted to have fun again."

So he began "TEOTFW," first as an exercise in quick, disposable comic book making, but Forsman soon decided to make it a monthly serialized minicomic. 12 pages a month. Drawn at a smaller-than-usual size and printed the size of one quarter of a sheet of copy paper. Readers responded to it almost immediately.

"It's always the work that's most fun," says Forsman, "that people respond to. I was doing it for myself, and people always say that, but it's true. People really respond to that."

Forsman had so much fun making the first few issues of "TEOTFW" that he convinced his partner Melissa Mendes to create something for the format, and she started her "Lou" series. Then Forsman asked Max de Radigues if he could publish "Moose" for American audiences under the "Oily Comics" banner.

A new micropublisher was born, but Forsman didn't stop there. Oily Comics has expanded to over a half-dozen titles, with more on the way.

FOOC Membership Cards

"I was in love with the format, and I thought I could get other people to do it. So I just started asking people," says Forsman. "And it's great. I'm paying them a teeny-tiny bit of money. I'm giving them royalties, like a real publisher." Thanks to distribution from "John P" from Spit and a Half and minicomics distributor extraordinaire Tony Shenton, Forsman's comics were reaching forward-thinking shops across the country. And Forsman recently offered a subscription offer where readers could sign up to get the whole line of Oily Comics at a reasonable price.

"A lot of people would ask me for subscriptions [for "TEOTFW"]," says Forsman, "and I was doing my comic, and doing some other things, and I just didn't want to keep track of all these subscriptions, especially since they're dollar comics. I'm sure it was easy to miss the issues when they came out but then I threw out the idea of batch subscriptions on Twitter and people seemed interested." One of his friends, in response to Forsman's Tweet, sent him a link to a temporary tattoo startup called Tattly, which offered subscriptions for a monthly batch of tattoos designed by cool young artists. Forsman's idea was reinforced by the apparent success of this tattoo company, and he thought the idea would apply to the small comics he was printing out of his studio.

Forsman admits that he was reluctant to become a full-fledged publisher, but now he really likes how things are shaping up for Oily Comics: "I felt like it would take over my life, but I'm getting some work out of people that I really like. And I hope I'm exposing them to more readers. Because I think they deserve it."

With that in mind, Forsman is stacking the Oily Comics deck with a mix of established alt comics artists and new artists who Forsman thinks deserve wider audiences. He's bringing in Michael DeForge and Warren Craghead, along with Marian Runk and Zach Worton and "probably" Dan Zettwoch along with a host of other creative talents.

"I'm excited for it," says Forsman, with genuine enthusiasm in his voice. "If it can help pay the bills a little bit and pay the artists and I can keep working on my comics -- I would be very happy just doing that as long as I could."

Individual issue from the Oily Comics line are available at their online "boutique" and you can sign up to become a F.O.O.C (Friend of Oily Comics) until the end of the month and get a monthly dose of Oily sent right to your mailbox. Check them out. They're good.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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