Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #13: Charles Forsman

Chuck Forsman came to CCS hoping to find a new direction in life, and there's no question that his imagination and relentless work ethic have truly paid off. Starting with a darkly humorous and absurd point of view, he quickly wrote a number of memorable comics in his Snake Oil series. When he decided to control the means of production when he started his publishing concern Oily Comics, he helped spark a micropublisher revolution and gained an enormous amount of attention for his own minicomics series, The End Of The Fucking World. That wound up being successful as a book for Fantagraphics, and now it's been adapted as a series for BBC (soon to appear on Netflix). After another teen-angst centered book in Celebrated Summer, Forsman switched gears with the ultra-violent Revenger comic, using low-fi 70s & 80s action tropes and revenge storylines. Forsman went to some deep grindhouse places, ultra-violent exploitation films with a subtle modern twist.

I reviewed the first three issues of the Revenger prequel series, Revenger & The Fog, last year. The collection, which also included the stand-alone Revenger #6, is published by Bergen Street Comics. The only thing I'll add to that review is a look at the final chapter, which made the stakes sky-high and then went even further over the top. Reggie, aka Revenger, wakes up with a bomb sewn inside of her, and has to go to extreme measures to get it out while trusting a teammate who betrayed her. Forsman's use of a full-but-flat color style echoing 80s comics, combined with flourishes like a two-page spread with half of Reggie and Slim's heads on each page and a four panel column on the other side is exactly the kind of thing a Frank Miller or perhaps Howard Chaykin (the puffiness of his character design reminds me a bit of Chaykin or his style predecessor Mike Vosburg) might do. The issue ends in tragedy, with Reggie's girlfriend literally lobotomized. These comics feel like Forsman both exploring something in the comics zeitgeist (ultra-violent, slightly ironic exploitation comics by the likes of Ben Marra, Keenan Marshall Keller/Tom Neely, etc.) and stretching himself as much as possible in a new direction. He took the subtext of his older comics, smashed that text in the reader's face and then drove in a few nails for good measure with a sledgehammer. I found the over-the-top nature of the violence interesting, but ultimately a little hollow. It's a sincerely intentioned genre exercise and doesn't really go much further, other than gender and race flipping its main character away from typical genre fare.

On the other hand, the first two issues of Slasher go to some genuinely weird places. They also feel like 80s comics, but more like indy comics that Steve Gerber might have written in one of his more extreme moods. The art retains some of that genre quality but also shifts back to Forsman's more familiar hand, as the people are frequently grotesque, beady-eyed, disfigured or diseased. The main characters are Christina and Joshua, both of whom are attracted to the prospect of violence as a sexual fetish. She falls for him because of his knife-play porn videos, but he's dealing with a vague disease (it's suggested that he's not really sick at all and is suffering from Munchausen's-By-Proxy thanks to his fundamentalist mother) and is at times kept locked up by his mom. She's dealing with a handsy boss, demeaning comments from everyone around her, and the sudden death of her father.

When Joshua's mom catches him wearing a leather mask, she takes away his phone and computer, isolating him from Christina. She takes this opportunity, after months of talking about killing the horrible, horrible people in their lives, to actually do something about it. She ties up a frat boy she picks up at a bar and carves him up. She slits the throat of an asshole in a parking lot who had been heaping abuse on his girlfriend and her daughter. She accepts her boss' invitation to help him cheat on his wife, only to wear a full leather suit and carve him to pieces. It's incredibly lurid but also remarkably authentic feeling, in the way that certain kinds of exploitation films do truly awful things to their protagonists, who themselves respond in even more horrible ways against a nihilistic world. What separates this series from Revenger is the way Forsman truly crawls into the heads of his protagonists, going even further than The End Of The Fucking World in some ways. While Slasher is a much more interesting series than Revenger, it's obvious that he couldn't have made the former without doing the latter first.

Doing Slasher seems to have led Forsman to doing another teen series again in I Am Not Okay With This. I've read virtually every comic that Forsman's published, and this may well be his best. It's certainly his most unflinching work, and that's saying something. Drawn in this hybrid Elsie Segar/Charles Schulz style, the structure of the book is a diary written by Sydney, a depressed and confused high school student who has trouble fitting in. She's an Olive Oyl archetype: skinny and all arms and legs. At the end of the first chapter, we also learn that she's special (or "not basic") in one way; she has the power to use her mind to cause pain in others. The rest of the book is Syd trying to come to terms with that power and what it means in her life.

Each chapter introduces a new element, like revealing to the reader that her father, a Viet Nam vet, also has the power and has been completely traumatized by it. What's more, he knows she has it too and shows her how to use it to put him out of his misery. That's a harrowing discovery, a trauma that only makes things worse. Forsman does something very clever in the book in that he makes it clear that Syd is an untrustworthy narrator. For example, she talks about her mom being a bitch, angrily going off on her, etc. The reality is that the most her mother ever does is calmly ask her where she had been and what's going on. Syd had driven herself into an alienated state so completely that she was having trouble distinguishing a narrative of self-hatred from a reality of hostility/abuse from a parent.

Syd learns that getting high lessens the effect, has sex with her friend Stan (who gets her pot), and goes home with a Peppermint Patty-looking convenience store clerk who goes down on her. In the midst of that pleasure, Syd's seething, latent pain and self-hatred frighteningly manifests as a shadowy monster that she barely controls in time before it kills her lover. With Forsman using the ultra-cartoony, bigfoot style in this book, seeing this scratchy shadow monster silently coalesce over the span of four panels was a genuinely frightening moment. She's terrified of crossing a line, especially by accident.

She crosses a line intentionally later on when she hunts down the guy who got her former best friend Dina pregnant (and threw her out of his car in the middle of the street) and murders him with her powers. The denouement of the book is triggered when Syd goes to his funeral (!) and realizes Dina is still in love with him. She has no idea what Syd did, and that's when Syd realizes that she's a killer, not an avenging hero. Despite it all, there are moments of hope and opportunities lost before the inevitable occurs--and when it does, it's not romantic or majestic or altruistic or unselfish, or any other lies that the pathology of suicidal ideation leads one to believe. It's just swift, shocking and pointless. It's a jolt, one that makes sense in the context of this book being Syd's narrative, and that when other narratives were introduced, cognitive dissonance was also introduced.

Forsman's comics have always been about the veil between civilization and total chaos on a micro level. In an early issue of Snake Oil, there's a scene where demons kidnap a man and tell him, "Yes, this is really happening". It's important to them that he knows that reality and certainty are gossamer-thin constructions that can be torn to shreds at any minute. Celebrated Summer explores that theme through an acid trip that ties into think about the teens' futures. That punk idea of No Future is at the heart of every Forsman story. The End Of The Fucking World forestalls its psychopath protagonist by giving him one thing to care about--at least for a little while. Revenger in many ways is a method of striking back against that uncertain, cruel universe--stabbing it in the eyes to briefly keep it at bay. Slasher similarly is a way of striking back at not just the capricious nature of consensus reality, but also reclaiming one's sexual desires in the face of opposition. I Am Not Okay With This, on a certain level, seems to understand those latter two series as pure fantasy. Even with a deadly superpower, Syd felt helpless and alienated. There were brief respites from her pain that didn't last, and there was no one she could talk to about this. The tragedy of this book is not just that the world is a brutal, unforgiving and stupid place, but that Syd thought she was actively making the world a worse place.

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