Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #21: Chuck Forsman

Chuck Forsman's Revenger series is in many ways a departure for the cartoonist, given his focus on teen relationships in books like The End Of The Fucking World and Celebrated Summer. At the same time, genre interests and exploring violence in particular have always been a part of Forsman's work, especially if you go back to his Snake Oil series. And to be sure, TEOTFW had an incredible amount of violence in it, along with a book's worth of weird cultists, torture, etc. That said, Revenger is in a whole other sphere of influences, as Forsman explores some of the same ground that folks like Ben Marra and Keenan Marshall Keller are staking out in their comics. The artists are taking cultural detritus like bad 1980s comics and hyper-violent and stupid action movies of the era as both inspiration and areas ripe for satire. Marra and Keller both have a genuine affection for garbage culture, but their comics are very much satirical. That affection shines through in how difficult it is at times to differentiate between satire and pure homage, but with Forsman, he's interested in other issues.

The conceit of these comics is simple: a woman nicknamed "Revenger" travels the country, looking to help the poor and downtrodden against those forces who would seek to subjugate and exploit. She doesn't just see herself as a kind of soldier who maintains no mercy toward her enemies, she clearly takes genuine pleasure in dispatching her foes. Forsman seems interested in just how extreme he can get while maintaining her as the series' hero; in many respects, she's a lot like the Marvel character The Punisher. In the one-shot Revenger #6: Trapped!!!, Revenger winds up being captured and imprisoned underground by a "family" of incestuous murderers. The comic reminds me a lot of an old Frank Miller Daredevil story where Daredevil found a society of freaks living in the sewers, and he had defeat the leader. Forsman uses a lot of the same light and dark effects as Miller, and even the character design was reminiscent of that issue. Needless to say, even separated from her weapons, Revenger is more than a match for the hateful weirdos who inhabit this village, as Forsman devises a number of novel ways for her to dispatch her opponents.

Forsman is very careful to note that her enemies frequently beg for mercy, something she's not interested in in the least. There's one sequence where she has a huge fork in her hands, and she stabs the eyes out of a pleading bad guy. The explicit nature of that scene goes far beyond the standard for "injury to the eye"motif established by Jack Cole in "Murder, Morphine and Me" and instead goes into Le Chien Andalusia territory. Forsman wants the reader to know that Revenger shows no mercy as a way of examining their relationship with the character. The fact that an African-American, lesbian woman is such a relentless but just killer is just part of the tension of the series. If Revenger was a man, that would totally alter the series' dynamic and make it much more of a typical 80s action thriller.

The flashback series Revenger and The Fog is an origin series of sorts for Revenger, as it depicts her with her group of avenging marauders. That includes Jenny, her girlfriend, who is the daughter of a famous and unhinged movie producer and who wants her back in his life. The series reminds me a little of the structure of the David Lynch film Wild At Heart in that the book does a reverse Wizard of Oz. Instead of gaining new members on their way to fulfilling a quest, each issue sees the team lose another member as Jenny's dad starts to exert his will. The incest angle with Jenny and her dad was exploitative and sleazy, but Forsman plays it down as much as possible. Still, this was the weak point in a series that otherwise does a good job avoiding that kind of scenario, although I imagine Revenger will make everyone involved pay in the final issue. There's some clever storytelling here as once again I can see Miller's hand on some pages, Forsman's own unique and slightly ratty line and possibly the influence of those violent and weird 80s comics that Forsman talks about in the text pieces after each issue. Even the coloring in this book looks faded and slightly garish, like a Marvel New Universe book from the 1980s.

The first issue of Forsman's Patreon-only series, i am not okay with this, sees Forsman back in high school once again, with a significant twist. The initial conceit of the book is that troubled young teen Sydney gets a diary from her school counselor, and so her narration in the book is presumably the text of her diary entries. The character design is again more like Forsman's more familiar stuff, only it veers away a bit from that slightly ratty naturalism and instead adheres a bit closer to classic comic strip work, with Elzie Segar being the most prominent influence. Regardless, the character design is witty and inventive, especially the black-booted, skinny protagonist Sydney. When she alludes to having anger issues early in the issue, Forsman takes an interesting turn when she reveals that when she's angry, she can make other people feel debilitating pain in their heads. It adds a shade of Carrie to the story but also blurs the line between Sydney as victim and bully.

Forsman didn't want to return to high school stories until he came up with something new, which is one reason why he abandoned his short-lived Teen Creeps series; it was probably just a bit too close to his first two books in tone and subject matter. It's obvious that the visceral qualities of these comics is something he's drawn to as an artist. He's far from numb with regard to portraying violence; it's grim and sickening, not fun and ridiculous the way a Keller or Marra comic is. At the same time, his pacing is fantastic, as he whips the reader around the page and each issue at a breakneck speed. As always in a Forsman comic, there' a lot of thematic push and pull, both for the reader and the artist himself.

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