The Oily Way: A Publishing Process Interview With Chuck Forsman

It seems like you still do all of this by hand. Do you have any assistants/interns who do the labor of mailing and/or photocopying/collating/cutting the comics? Are you paying anyone to help you?

I do still do all of it by hand. Melissa is a big help when she can, and I had a student come down from CCS for a weekend in October to help me print and bind. That is something that I will do again. It certainly cuts down on the number of days that I have to dedicate to production work. I’m not paying anyone else to help.

When you decided to expand the number of artists for Oily, what economic impact did this have on you? Did you have to invest any money in supplies, or set more money aside for postage?

Luckily, these comics are very cheap to make and to ship. The increasing number of books, to me, seemed gradual enough that I didn’t freak out about the money at the time. When I started Oily, [I] was was living off of some freelance work that I had done earlier in the year, so I had a bit of a cushion and could afford to ramp things up. Currently, I am surprised each month how much I spend on shipping. At first it scares me, but the money is there. People and shops are buying them.

By my count, you're up to 21 shops.. Did you approach them, or did shop owners make inquiries of you? Did Tony Shenton make the inquiries for you? How many do you sell, on average to each shop per month?

I’ve been using Tony Shenton for wholesale since 2008. I owe the majority of my reach into comic shops to him. That is a hard thing to track. I can’t say for sure how every shop found out about me, but I imagine Tony has a pretty big list of shops that he talks to. John Porcellino’s Spit and a Half distro has also been a big supporter of Oily. I know less about where John places my comics because he just orders the comics in bulk from me, so I don’t get to see individual orders. I do know that he has gotten them into a shop or two in England, which surprised me.

The shops have really responded well to Oily and especially the monthly titles like Moose, Lou and TEOTFW. I remember early on, Brian Hibbs of Comix Experience found out about TEOTFW, through Shenton I imagine, and was really enthusiastic. I think he liked that I was putting it out so regularly. Anyway, they quickly set up a standing order every month. Which is nice. I talked briefly with one of the shop managers there and he mentioned how much he liked the comic, and he was pushing it on his customers. That was a really flattering thing to hear. To have a shop hand-selling a tiny mini comic felt like a big victory.

I wish I had something set up to track the numbers better. I very quickly looked at my orders for November and I’d say I sell about 400-500 books per month to shops. That can go up and down, and let me say that printing a Michael DeForge comic really helps that number.

There was a brief window where you took subscriptions. How does the model work? How long does the subscription last? Was it a flat fee, or do they pay monthly? How many comics does this get them (all of them for a month?). Did you stop subscriptions as a way of controlling how much work you have to do? Do you plan to open them back up again?

So for a while, I had people requesting subscriptions to series. And every time I imagined wrangling subscriptions for each series on an open enrollment basis, my brain would shut off. I was not interested in keeping track of a mess like that. It's just me running this ship, and I have very rudimentary excel skills. But I think somehow I got the spark to have limited subscriptions to all of the titles I release. That way, I didn’t have to track subscriptions for each title. I think Warren Craghead saw me talking about this on Twitter and pointed me to a temporary tattoo company that offered a similar subscription. And they only offered it for a limited time. That part I liked. If all the subscribers were on the same schedule then it felt a lot more doable to me. So somehow I worked out the numbers and I offered 2 subscription choices. A 3-month or 6-month subscription for $30 or $50, respectively. I honestly didn’t expect to sell a lot of these things. I put up the first offer for about 30 days, and I sold a bunch of these. Well enough to shock me and enough to give me a bunch of confidence to keep Oily going. Three months after that, I offered another 3-month subscription taking me until the end of December 2012. I think when I started the subscriptions, I had December as a sort of death-date for it. If it proved to be impossible to work, then I was planning to cut back on the whole thing and go get a job or something.

How much do you make, in both of terms gross and net, from Oily during a month from subscriptions and/or online purchases alone? How much do you make per show? How much of this gets back to the artists? In general terms, do you make enough money from Oily to partly support yourself, or does the money simply get channeled back into publishing to keep it afloat?

So I can give some very rough numbers. I think my gross is probably somewhere between $1200-$1500 per month. Take out about $500 for printing, shipping, and royalties, and I think I am left with 700 to 1000 dollars. This seems high to me as I say this. And to be honest I am a little embarrassed. It just seems weird to be making any money off of mini comics. But I have to remind myself of how much work I am putting in. If I wasn’t doing this I would be working a job making the same amount of money and Oily wouldn’t exist. This money basically helps me eat and put gas in the car. Oh, and go to the movies. Melissa and I are young and live as cheaply as we can. I feel really blessed at my current status and I do my best never to take it for granted.

I pay the artists in copies of the comics that they can sell for themselves and a 10% royalty on every copy I sell of their book. When I started I was paying a quarter to the artists, but I quickly figured out that wouldn’t work in the long run. Ten percent is pretty comparable to what most publishers pay their authors in royalties. It’s pretty funny that even at such a small scale I found that number to work. I wish I could pay them more. What publisher doesn’t want that, though? I think most of them are pretty surprised that I am paying them anything. It’s not a ton of money, but it is something. I hope to figure out a way to pay them more in the future.

I put a lot of time into Oily, and I am thankful that it does help me pay the bills. I’d say it is close to a crappy part-time job. I have other freelance design work that I do apart from Oily that is also a chunk of my income. the rest goes into supplies like paper, ink, toner, envelopes, postage, and things like stickers, pins, or patches that I make for the subscribers. And of course, going to conventions is another expense.

From an administrative standpoint, how much work do you do for Oily on a given day? What sort of tasks does this include?

I would say that I do something Oily-related everyday. The middle of the month is when I am busiest. I shoot to have all the comics print-ready by the 10th of each month, and then it’s about a week of pretty full-time printing, binding, and shipping. Once the new books are out then I have a small wave of online sales to fill and then a third wave of store orders. Most days when I am not in that crunch I am filling online orders, going to the post office, posting on Tumblr and Twitter, tweaking the web store and website.

Do you plan to keep expanding your roster? Do you do this by feel, or have you mapped out when certain series will end and have replacements ready? I'm just curious as to whether it's intuitive or if you have a formula in place.

The formula I have settles on is 5 books per month. Three of those are the regular ongoing monthly titles (TEOTFW, Moose, and Lou) and the two others are either self-contained comics or installments of a serial not beholden to the monthly schedule. For the first few months, it was almost a surprise as to what I was going to publish. Comics would show up in my inbox around the 10th of the month, and I would print them. Now, I have a small cushion of completed comics in the can ready to go, so it’s not much of a mystery at the moment. I have a lot of great cartoonists working on stuff, and I am going to keep things going. My goal for 2013 is to start incorporating some color Oily comics into the line. We’ll see how that goes.

Does the publishing end of things hinder your productivity as an artist, or does it give a different side of your brain something to work on?

I think that is why I really enjoy doing Oily. I was worried when I jumped into it that I would end up more of a publisher and less a cartoonist. Because I love the cartooning most of all. But I also love production and mailing. The whole process is something that satisfies the worker-bee in me. Sometimes I think of Oily as the best part-time job I have ever had. It does worry me at times, but if I look back at 2012, I managed to complete two issues of Snake Oil and twelve issues of The End of the Fucking World. If anything, the monthly schedule of Oily keeps me working.

What are the biggest selling Oily comics?

TEOTFW and Elizabeth of Canada by Michael DeForge are the best sellers. Almost everything else is in second place.

Does economics enter into your publishing decisions at all, like if you think a particular artist might be a tough sell--or rather, whether an artist might draw in new readers (like DeForge)?

No, I never really think economics when inviting artists. I really base that on what I like. I do think about how it benefits everyone if I publish a Michael DeForge book. Especially if I get a subscriber who came on board for a certain artist. I hope that they might be introduced to the four artists that they might have never heard of when they open their monthly shipment.

How long do you intend to keep doing this? Do you see this as something you could do for years, like John Porcellino, or is it something that you'll need to reevaluate every year? What impact does having two books coming out from Fanta have on this? (I know one is a TEOTFW collection, but I imagine you'll want some design input there).

Yes, I think it'll be a year-by-year thing. If it ever becomes not fun or just too much for me to handle, I might re-think Oily. That doesn't necessarily mean shutting it down but maybe lowering the output or moving into different formats. I honestly didn't intend to continue Oily past December, but I am having fun and people are responding to the books more and more. I'd like to do it as long as people want me to. That said, cartooning is my passion, first and foremost.

I don't see the Fanta books having much of an impact. I've proven that I can do Oily and still work on my comics [too]. Both of those books are pretty much done, so there isn't much left for me to do. And yes, I will be designing them. I'm sure I'll ask for input from the talented designers over there, but I know what I want TEOTFW to look like.

The Aesthetics of Publishing

It's interesting to compare your three anchor series. All three of them deal with children and/or teenagers. The central dynamic of each family is crucial in defining each of the characters. Each series has its share of violence. Yet the tone of each is so different. TEOTFW is such a brutally accurate title because the protagonists have thrown away any semblance of a normal life, where concepts like law and morality become frayed for people who are unstable to begin with. Moose is the opposite, where the protagonist is desperately trying to preserve the status quo at the cost of his safety and sanity. And Lou's about exploring the edges of a dangerous world with people that you trust. What has led you to writing about teens and family dynamics?

I recently heard something second-hand that artists tend to write or draw about the time in their life where they experienced the most pain or maybe came of age. I really can’t remember where I heard it, but that idea really made sense to me. I never set out to write about teenagers, but I seem to always end up there. I lost my father when I was 11 years old, and I think that really sort of changed who I was. Eleven is a relatively young age to find out how unfair and shitty life can be. In my teenage years, I was very insular and depressed. I know that is pretty typical as far as teenagers go, but I think that is why I focus on it so much in my strips. It’s a frustrating and magical time. There is a lot of discovery and a lot [of] frustrating bullshit. I think it is the place that I am sort of stuck in. I always felt like I was missing some important piece as a result of losing my father. And a psychologist might tell you that I am trying to figure something out through my work. And maybe I am?

Let's go title by title and get your thoughts on each of them.  TEOTFW: You've always done comics about teens in various states of crisis. This comic almost seems like a warped flip-side of Moose. That comic's about a teen internalizing trauma, and TEOTFW is about a teen externalizing trauma to such an extent that he becomes a psychopath. What drew you to writing this kind of character, and why did you choose to flip the narration between James and Alyssa?

I’m not really sure where James came from. That first issue kind of just came out of me very quickly. It was almost like I was setting up the rules of a game that I am still playing. Sometimes I think I might have been inspired by that show Dexter, with the sociopathic crime scene investigator who also happens to be a serial killer. I liked the idea of a character like that. Someone who is so unsympathetic and has to learn how to function in reverse.

If I remember correctly, I had planned for James to be the narrator through the whole thing but I quickly thought that might get old really fast. And I really liked Alyssa and I wanted to know what she was thinking. I was also inspired by novels that switch characters every chapter. Plus, I wanted to get some narration in there from someone who wasn’t a sociopath. I figured it would be a good break. And I wanted to show that Alyssa wasn’t just angry all the time. I wanted to show that she used anger to keep the world at bay.

Moose: Beside Max's insane work ethic, what else about this comic inspires you? Your work has definitely become looser but at the same time more confident. What do you find most interesting about his storytelling?

All of Max’s work has had a big effect on me. Max’s work ethic and the way he tends to keep moving onto the next page and not dwell over them was a big lesson that he taught me. Max is completely unafraid to cartoon ... he is so good at letting simple lines do a lot of work. That is something I really reach for in my comics. I don’t feel like I am there, but Max is definitely a guiding light for me. And yes, the looseness. I try not let myself get too loose. I want keep from going into 24-hour comic territory.

Max’s composition and staging is also pretty great. I feel it is something you don’t notice because it is so solidly done. that is something that always strikes me about his work. It’s so loose but it is built on an iron-clad skeleton.

Have you compared notes on dialogue for teens?

I don’t think we have ever talked about dialogue, but we are collaborating on a story that may see the light of day if we ever get some time to work on it. Max is the only person I found that I can work [with] on the same page. I think it is because I have a lot of trust in him, and he is not afraid to let me know when I am fucking something up.

Lou: There's an easy, earned charm to Melissa's work. What was it about her comics that drew you in initially, and how do you see Lou compared to her earlier work?

I think I asked her to do it but I believe she saw me working on TEOTFW and I remember her saying that she wanted to do something similar.

When I first met Melissa, her drawing was all pen and ink. Lots of scratchy thin lines that I loved. I’ve watched her grow so much as a storyteller. I feel like we both share an almost anti-narrative way of telling stories. I think we both are more interested in how strange and uneven real life plays out. And Melissa is so good at that.

The other thing that amazes me every time she shows me something new is her knack for displaying children as they are. I never feel like she is trying to teach a lesson or whatever you get with a lot of kids fiction.

The stuff she is doing in Lou is very interesting especially because I get to talk to her about it. She is slowly introducing these scary and adult moments into Lou’s life that is very new territory for Melissa. She has expressed how scary it is for her to write about that stuff. I think the new stuff is much richer for that. She is also getting so adept at fitting a lot into these 8-page chapters. I get such an emotional reaction out of her work. Goosebumps, eyes welling up. I know that partly that is because we are so close in real life, but she is putting that stuff on the page. It’s there. I’m not blind.