In the span of about five years, Chuck Forsman has become not just a promising young cartoonist but also an intriguing mover and shaker in the world of micropublishing with Oily Comics. He made his first splash as a co-editor of the most prominent anthology from the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), Sundays. Debuting at MOCCA in 2007, its ambition in scope and design made it one of the hits of the show. From there, Forsman self-published his own comic, Snake Oil, which won two Ignatz Awards in 2008. In his own work, Forsman seems to focus on the lives of teenagers, the ways in which horrible and fantastic things affect their daily lives, and what happens when they are separated from their loved ones. Forsman's comics are contemplative to be sure, but there's always a streak of dark whimsy that serves both to lighten up his stories and sometimes shock the reader.
At CCS, Forsman met a Belgian cartoonist named Max de Radigues, who was at the school as a fellow. He and de Radigues worked on a beautiful broadsheet anthology comic called Caboose that served as a love letter to the Vermont school's town of White River Junction. De Radigues, like Forsman, liked writing about teenagers and the ways in which they engaged life's dramas, using his loose, scratchy line to do short minicomics series like L'Age Dur and Moose. That eight-page format influenced Forsman to do something similar with his own series, The End Of The Fucking World (TEOTFW). Soon, Forsman offered to distribute Moose in the US through the shop on his web page, along with a similarly-formatted series, Melissa Mendes' Lou.
Lou is another series about children, this time chronicling quotidian moments from a family of five. As the series progressed, violence enters into the story in an unexpected way, giving this series a very different feel from Mendes' past work. From there, Forsman decided to approach others about publishing in this format. The titles he's published fall roughly into three categories. The first are comics by fellow CCS alums, which include Dumpling King (a promisingly sprawling murder-mystery with psychosexual undertones by Alex Kim), Gagger (a Dane Martin comic that shows off his singular, scratchy line and dark, almost desperate sense of humor), and Word & Voice (a mostly mute comic by Aaron Cockle that deals with the aftermath of some kind of apocalyptic event). The second category includes established artists who wanted to do something in the Oily format, like Elizabeth of Canada (a new Michael DeForge series that seems to be historical fiction) and Flayed Corpse (a brisk but typically unsettling comic by Josh Simmons. Finally, Oily is acting as an incubator for new and emerging talent in comics like My Sincerest Apologies (a gag-filled zine with drawings by former Drawn & Quarterly employee Jessica Campbell), Real Rap (a hilarious comic about a loser who imagines himself a rapper by Benjamin Urkowitz), Close Your Eyes When You Let Go (James Hindle's story about a father dealing with fears surrounding his child), and Background (a story by Andy Burkholder that employs jagged lines and oblique storytelling techniques surrounding a judgment).
In this interview, I wanted to focus on the day-to-day work of running a micropublishing company, the financial realities therein and his own impressions of the comics he's publishing. Forsman was kind enough to share a lot of details regarding the financial details of Oily Comics in an open and forthright manner, for which I thank him.
Rob Clough: What year were you born, and where did you grow up? Was this a rural, urban or suburban area?
Chuck Forsman: I was born in 1982 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The youngest of three boys, I lived in and around a small town west of Harrisburg called Mechanicsburg. We lived in an old Victorian house in town until I was 6. Then we moved out into the suburbs, surrounded by farms and growing developments.
Did you grow up reading comics? What sort of comics did you read?
I did. Up until around age 9, I think, it was the newspaper comics. My favorites were Peanuts and Blondie. I did read Garfield, but in my small brain that was my older brother’s comic strip. Does that makes sense? Garfield was his thing. I think it’s interesting that I read Blondie. But I remember it always being the very first comic on the top of the Sunday page. Maybe because it was first, I considered it to be important information. I had a few comics books that my mother probably bought me, but somewhere around 1991 is when that same older brother started getting into Marvel comics and the early Image stuff. Well, I latched onto that. He quickly lost interest, but I basically inherited his collection and kept it going. I guess my main comic was X-Men. I remember very early on that I learned the artists and how they drew. I could tell them apart. A few years later, Sam Kieth’s The Maxx came out and I just loved that thing. It never really made sense, but I loved how strangely Kieth drew, especially next to everything else on the shelf. That is probably the book that veered me away from superheroes, and I eventually found Hate and a friend let me borrow some Eightball issues.
Did you grow up drawing? Were you encouraged in this pursuit? Did you draw with friends or family members?
Yeah, my mom wasn’t a working artist, but she could draw, so she was quite encouraging. And again, my older brother was a good artist and was drawing his own superhero characters and Spider-Man. I soon got sucked into that. We had a copy of [How To] Draw Comics the Marvel Way in the house that I would just read over and over again. I drew with my brother at times, but it was more on a competitive vein than for fun. I just wanted to draw better than he did. I had one friend my age that liked to draw super heroes, but again I feel like we rarely drew in the same room. Unless it was at school in art class. That is definitely something that I pretty recently learned about myself. I really don’t like drawing around other people. I mean, it happens on occasion but I just don’t enjoy it.
What led you to CCS, and what was the experience like for you overall?
I stopped drawing regularly after high school and didn’t really take it seriously for probably 5 or 6 years later. I was just moving around, working a bunch of different jobs, playing music, not really figuring anything out. I was living in Los Angeles with my brother around 2004. I didn’t have a lot of friends at the time, and I was in this giant city. Eventually, I wandered into a comic shop and fell back in love with it pretty quickly. I then decided that I needed to go to school. I had dropped out of high school for a few reasons, but I had reached a place where I wanted to learn and I was open to being taught ... something that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. So I moved back home to Pennsylvania and enrolled in Harrisburg Area Community College. And to my surprise, I loved it. I was really eager to learn at the time. Around this time I learned about CCS starting up, probably from Scott McCloud’s blog. I loved the idea behind it, and it seemed like a good fit for me. I eventually applied and was accepted into the second class at the school. It was pretty shocking to me that I got in. My application comic for CCS was the first comic I think I had ever completed. I was not the most experienced cartoonist to enter this school. I had a long road in front of me. But that is what CCS can do well. I was able to fit in a ton of work and experience into two years there that would have taken me a long time to do on my own. I had a really great time there. It felt almost like a slingshot for me. For years I was doing nothing, but once I got into that school I felt like someone had given me permission to take comics seriously.
Did the job of librarian at the Schulz Library have an impact on you as a cartoonist?
I think working at the library certainly helped broaden my scope of comics. That place is a treasure and is filled with a little bit of everything. I think the two areas that I remember diving into the most were the old newspaper strips section and the zine garden started by Robyn Chapman. Oh, and all the Comics Journals they had there. I still wish I lived near there just so I could read more of those. I think just being at that school as a whole had a big impact on my cartooning.
What effect did winning two Ignatz awards early in your career have on you? Did it give you more confidence?
I am very grateful to have won those awards, but it certainly was a double-edged sword. Winning an award after only making comics for two years was very validating. I’m sure it did give me confidence for a bit. But I am also naturally imbued with a healthy amount of self-doubt. I definitely felt like I did not deserve them, and it sort of became this thing I had to live up to. I had some weird periods after that summer where it wasn’t so easy to make comics, because I was thinking so much about made-up expectations.
The Business Model
Let's talk about your earliest encounters with comics and finance. I know that at CCS, you are always encouraged to publish your work as much as possible, even if it means self-publishing. The earliest active merchandise page I know of from CCS is the now-defunct I Know Joe Kimpel website, and I recall a few of your comics being on there. Was that already in place when you arrived at CCS?
I don’t think I ever actually had anything on I Know Joe Kimpel, except for the first Sundays anthology. The very first comic I made at CCS as a finished book with a screenprinted cover, I took down to SPX ‘06 and sold exactly one copy and gave a ton away. I wish I could find all of those and burn them now. But yeah, selling one book was a sobering lesson in comics finance. I knew that this was not going to be easy.
You've always seemed to have the publisher/editor itch. You founded Sundays Press with Sean Ford, Joe Lambert and Alex Kim and very quickly became a visible presence at conventions with these well-designed and edited books. What was the experience of that like? How much of your business came from website orders, and how much was dependent on conventions?
Sundays was a pretty special thing to me. Anthologies are great things for young cartoonists, because it’s a bunch of you building this bigger thing that you are maybe not yet capable of building by yourself yet. Sundays started with the guys you mentioned plus Bryan Stone and Jeff Lok, who eventually left after the second issue to start Funny Aminals. Anyway, we were all in the same class and I think it was Sean who got us all together. At first, I think we just wanted to work together outside of class, sort of as an extended critiquing group. I think we came together because we all had a similar drive and taste. Out of that came the first Sundays book, [of] which we made an initial run of 150 if I remember and brought them down to MOCCA Festival in 2007 and sold them all. That was the exact opposite experience from the one I had at SPX just months before. At that time, the majority of our sales came from conventions. I think I may have built a simple webstore online and IKJK was selling them but to my memory conventions were the thing we focused on.
How much did the ultra-simple formula of producing a 12-page mini serve as a reaction to the experience of publishing increasingly complex and formally intense anthologies like Sundays or even the huge roster that a broadsheet comic like Caboose had?
I think you are right on the money with this one. When I started out, I definitely had it in my head that I needed to make these fancy productions to get readers interested. Which certainly does work and I enjoyed doing that, but I think I slowly began to lose interest in that idea. The other thing that spurred it on was when Max de Radigués gave me his first issue of Moose during the summer of 2011. That comic symbolized a freedom from expectation and the labor-intensive pages of a book I was working at the time called Celebrated Summer. I was doing these big pages with lots of cross-hatching and up to 12 panels per page that took a lot of focus. I wanted to do something that was fun and fast, and because I know it would be cheaply printed and sold for a dollar, that took away much of the expectation that I tend to put on myself.
It seems like the genesis of Oily Comics was fairly organic. Did it start off from simply having a place to sell the comics of you and your girlfriend Melissa Mendes?
I had been selling my own comics and Melissa’s work online for a few years. The idea of Oily came about after I started doing TEOTFW. I started doing them on a monthly schedule and I asked Melissa if she wanted to do something in the same format. She started Lou and then I asked Max de Radigues if I could print Moose to sell in North America. Suddenly, I had three comics that were coming out pretty regularly and so Oily just came from that.
At what point did things tip and did you decide to reach out to others to do Oily comics?
I think once there were three books, I realized that I could handle the production and I really loved doing it, and that is when I sort of jumped into [doing more Oily Comics]. It felt like a lot of baby steps and still does. I think the next person I asked was Jessica Campbell. I knew how funny she is and I had had this idea of doing a humor magazine that I wanted her to be a part of. That project never came to fruition but I immediately thought of her when I decided to start expanding Oily.
What considerations did you have in mind when asking the artists? Are there people who have turned you down?
I sort of look at Oily as a whole. Almost like I am editing an ongoing anthology. All of the people I have invited are cartoonists I like. That is the simplest answer I can give you. I can’t think of anyone turning down the invitation. I think I have gotten a lot more maybes and eventuallys than flat out nos.