If you’re not reading Charles Forsman’s Revenger, you’re missing out on one of the grittiest, most intense and most fun comics available these days. This is a special story full of action and violence with a 1980s vibe, combined with piercing psychological insight and incredibly dark pain. Revenger is both a thrilling revenge fantasy and wonderful psychological drama with a bit of Forsman’s psyche coming through.
With the release of the first Revenger collection from Bergen Street Press (the same publisher who produces collections of Michel Fiffe’s Copra) and a new series of Revenger stories available on Comixology, this seemed like a great time to catch up with an artist whose work I love and get some insight into this fascinating project.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Charles when we spoke in early October. Though I’d met him in 2015 at a small press fest in Seattle, we only spoke briefly. I didn’t expect him to be as insightful, effusive and plain fun to converse with.
Before he started on Revenger, Forsman made a bit of a name for himself in the indie comics community. Prestige publisher Fantagraphics released his first full graphic novel, The End of the Fucking World (TEOTFW). That book ended up on many Top 10 lists, but he found himself becoming freer creatively by embracing some of his childhood favorites. As Forsman reported, “I was getting back into the stuff that I liked as a kid. As I grew up, I thought I was cool and started watching arty movies. Then I was like, ‘This is garbage.’ But now I’m reexamining it and getting back into it and finding things to love and learn about them. It was sort of rediscovering that and letting myself be open to that side of comics that I had rejected.
“And it was also a sort of boredom. I feel like I’ve never settled on a style or look like a lot of cartoonists do. You might say, ‘Oh, look, that’s by that guy or girl.’ And I feel like I’m perpetually stuck where like I’m always shifting gears, especially, depending on the project. I’ve learned to embrace that now. Now I’m totally okay with it. So, like with Revenger, I was like ‘I’m just gonna’ – it slowly started, but eschewing all the other influence.
“It keeps things fun for me. I think I get bored drawing the same way. I really like to change it up and set new parameters for every series I do. That’s like every issue, though. I hear cartoonists say that a lot: with every issue, it feels like you’re starting over. It’s almost like you’ve never drawn anything before. It’s a pretty common feeling. I just heard my friend Michel Fiffe say that when we were at SPX. I had never heard him say that before, but that’s something I share.”
Remarkably, as Forsman reported, “– it feels stupid now saying it, but I was really scared to do this book. I probably worked on that first issue [of the first Revenger comic] for probably about a year.
“I was just so unsure about it, and I was scared of the reaction. This was so different from everything I had done. You know – ‘Am I just flushing any small fan base that I have down the toilet?’ I was just like, ‘What am I doing? Why am I starting over?’ That’s what it felt like.
“I just spent a year writing the story of what was going to be the first year. And I actually drew the whole first issue, colored it, and everything. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s it. I’m done with the first issue.’ And then, that night, I watched The Guest directed by Adam Wingard. It came out like 2 or 3 years ago. It’s a really great small movie, but it’s sort of a take on the super soldier with some Terminator 2 themes in there. And it’s just one of my favorite movies over the past few years. And it hit me over the head, and I was like ‘Oh, This comic that I just finished is not what I want.’ It just wasn’t good enough.
“So I threw it all out, and I wrote a new series that became the series that was collected by Bergen [Street Press]. And I spent the next week furiously redoing it – everything – redrawing it and changing so much. I’m glad I did that – I’ve shown some people that first thing. Fiffe keeps telling me to show it to people because I’m sure people would find it interesting. To me, it’s just unfinished, aborted stuff.”
Thankfully the second version of the issue felt better to him: “I’m still pretty happy. I really like that first issue. I don’t often say that about my own stuff. I hope that it was because it was that year of torture that led me to that. I was redrawing the pages over and over and over again. Even though the thing that I was obsessing over for most of it was the interruption of [Revenger], which I never even used. It was just her stopping at a grocery store – like a convenience store out in the desert. There was some messed up situation going on there, and she went in to get gas or whatever. She ended up saving somebody and killing this evil convenience store manager.
“I drew this thing over and over again, but I think it was more about doing that work and figuring out the character. It was sort of like that old saying – A lot of movies you can throw out the first reel, and the movie will be much better for it. I think doing all that stuff that never got used can be very important to a comic.”
The core of Revenger comes from the lead character, a very broken woman who we witness in different eras of her life. Forsman says the inspiration for Revenger came from former model Grace Jones: “Originally, she came out – I think I was probably doodling. I think I was drawing Grace Jones. I wasn’t like, consciously, ‘I’m going to draw a picture of Grace Jones.’ I think I had her in my head. I was just trying to draw a likeness of her, and I had probably seen her as a kid in that one James Bond movie where she played one of the villains, A View to a Kill.
“I remember being a kid, and I just remember seeing her as a kid and never seeing a human who looked like that before. I remember, as a kid, being terrified but also attracted. She’s almost alien but still so beautiful. I just always was attracted to her look, and I thought – I was like ‘All right, I’ll base this character and see where this takes me.’ So that’s how her look came out. I was really into [artist Klaus] Janson again, and I was reading Punisher comics. I was watching all the John Carpenter movies and movies like Ms .45. I was being influenced by my friends Michel Fiffe and Benjamin Larner. And I just really wanted to do something in that action vein with lots of violence.”
The first Revenger collection, available via Bergen Street Press, shows us our heroine as a jaded adult, ready to exact vicious revenge. There is also a Revenger one-shot, Revenger is Trapped, which shows her even older as she faces incredible evil in a dark cave. But the current Revenger & the Fog switches things up and shows the Grace Jones-influenced heroine much younger.
Forsman explained what he aimed to do with that story: “My idea with this was – okay, she probably wasn’t always a lone wolf. And maybe I could tell a story where she was running with a gang of young people – sort of doing what she’s doing now, but less focused and more drug-fueled. Having sex and more of a young person’s type mentality about being an outlaw of sorts. So, I was like – Oh, I could tell a story about when she decided that she was going to work alone – maybe the last person she let herself fall in love with – that sort of thing. That’s where this idea came from. I was like ‘I’ll give her a team and set it when she was younger and then take away everything from her.’”
I observed to Chuck that our heroine has got a sweetness that’s almost painful in the first issue. You know she’s gonna get her teeth kicked in, but for a moment, she seems happy. It’s kind of tragic. That caused him to get a bit philosophic.
“That sounds exactly like the theme – the type of thing that I will always explore – that the rug will be pulled out from under you. A lot of it comes from – I feel like I talk about this a lot, but when I was 11, my dad died from cancer.
“It was a huge page turner. I was a kid. I was happy-go-lucky. I was living in the suburbs, very white suburbs. I had nothing to want for. Then, all of a sudden, one of the closest people in your life is gone, and everything looks very different the next day. Everything seems a lot less. School seemed really – I didn’t finish high school because I just got depressed. And I just felt, ‘What’s the point of all this?’ I closed up. I just closed a lot of people off and just had a few friends.
“So I think those teen years are going to be examined. I think I’m going to examine them again and again – what exactly happened there. I think that’s what I’m doing with Revenger in this new series. It’s just something that I think is always going to be there. It really informs a person and how I see the world.
“I think that’s a lot of actually why people get involved in the arts – as a way to express what they’re dealing with. That’s what your tropes are that you continually come back to. And it’s often very interesting to see how it comes back in a more shadowed way. I’m not sure what the word is for it. A symbolic way. And that then becomes fascinating as a reader. Where it’s in some ways the pain that creates – that can help create the greatness of a work.
“The whole reason I did Revenger was I felt like I was doing the same thing over and over again: examining teenage feelings and the alienation thing. But it’s probably the theme that I’ll be mulling over until I’m 70 – in my work.”
The pain certainly gives Revenger much of its power, but so does Forsman’s beguilingly simple artwork, which has some surprisingly traditional influences: “A lot of that influence came from early newspaper strips. Like Thimble Theatre with Popeye was a big thing for me. And Peanuts – which a lot of people say they see a lot of in my stuff. I was sort of playing with that stuff for years. It was sort of a reaction to the stuff that I was reading.
“Some of it is just like real craft stuff. Like with the Revenger one-shot, I picked up the brush. Before that, I had only used dip pens. I played around with brushes, but I was always sort of terrified of them because it requires a greater control of your hand and a lighter touch. And I’ve always been – I have a pretty heavy hand. It was always a challenge for me with the brush. But I was determined. I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to do something crazy.’
“For the Revenger one-shot, I was like ‘I’m just going to do it. I’m going to go brush.’ And it’s sort of important because a lot of it takes place underground, and I wanted it to be a really darker book. So I didn’t want to be afraid of putting ink on the page. I’m usually a lot more shy about putting down lines. So, it was a good way for me to just let it go and attack the pages.
“I’ve been a lot more cartoony in most of my work. So, I’ve been slowly sort of adding a little bit more realism without it looking like a photo-tracing drawing. I like comics that look like comics. Like you brought up the flat colors – that’s sort of where that comes in. I love the way Klaus Janson drew a lot of my favorite Daredevil issues – he would color himself, and I just love – you can see it in the first Revenger books. I was doing a lot more texture in the colors, and it wasn’t complete flat. I think because I was afraid. You know when you’re starting something out, you’re a little self-conscious. You sort of overwork things, like ‘It’s too flat – I need to add some dimensions.’
“But, now, with The Fog, I’m pretty much just laying flat colors out and also getting – I’m also enjoying be experimental with it. There’s a diner in the third issue, her father has drugged her. And he’s making her act in a movie. So, I just colored her completely red. Because I just wanted it as a symbol of – she’s not herself. And, also, I thought it looked pretty cool. I’m enjoying – The superhero comics are not subtle, so I’m letting myself be completely not subtle.”
This creative experimentation is an important part of Forsman’s journey; as he reports, “Revenger is sort of like my own school that I’m putting myself through. I never really made myself learn a lot of this stuff. It’s like, ‘All right – I’m just going to make myself pick up this brush and so it.’ It’s really hard to teach someone to brush. You just have to make yourself use it every day. It’s just one of those things where you have to learn how it works. You can have someone telling you how it works all you want, but, when it’s in your hand, it’s a little different. So you just have to figure out how it works.”
Forsman also figured out how publishing worked, at least for a little while. He created Oily Comics as a means to publish comics by creators whose work he enjoyed. “Did that pay the rent? It kinda did. When it was more of a going concern, when I was publishing more of a lot of other people, it really took over my life. When I was doing 5 minicomics a month from all these artists. It made money – Most of the money goes back into the printing and paying the artist and stuff. But yeah – It definitely helped me live for about 2 years.
“I haven’t had a job for five or six years, which I’m going to knock on wood now. I had to quit my last day job very quickly. We had to move out of where we were living and move far away. And I just never got another job. So, it’s been – The first three years are very stressful. But comics are what I want to do, so I’m just gonna go for it. You figure out ways to pay the rent – to come up with the money. It can be hard sometimes.”
The life of an up-and-coming cartoonist can be tough, and the stress can be tough: “I’m getting a little better as I age at separating the work and letting myself relax. I don’t usually work too – Some days, I work late into the night, but I usually let myself have late night. I’m a late riser, and I stay up late. So, usually at the end of the night, I let myself relax and watch a movie.
“But it’s tough at first, especially when I quit my last job and doing this full time. It’s like a constant push of I need to make rent – I need to create. You don’t have an office you’re going to. It’s just wherever you are. So, it can be tricky to escape or trick yourself out of thinking about it. But I guess I’d rather be doing that than not.”
In order to help prevent himself from getting burned out, Forsman is taking on some new projects next: “I’m going to take a break from Revenger. Well, there’s a couple things. I started – I run a Patreon, and I started a mini-comic four or five months ago you can only get from there. It’s sort of the way that I did End of the Fucking World; it’s like 10 pages, black and white, small mini-comic, every month. About a teenage girl in high school who is dealing with her sexuality. But she has these sort of telepathic powers. It’s sort of like – maybe less X-Men and more Scanners. It’s more based on real life. It’s not a bunch of people with powers. It’s just – She’s got these powers that she maybe inherited from her father in some way. But it’s more and more focused on her high school life and growing up and relationships. But that’s the playing one where I don’t have it super mapped out, so it takes on a life of its own as I do each chapter. That’s the one called I Am Not Okay with This.
“Also, I’m going to do a mini-series with Floating World Comics in Portland. They approached me and asked me to do something. The exciting thing about that is they are doing – like with Corey Lewis and Sunbakery right now – it’s going to be issue-by-issue through Diamond. I’m excited not to be shipping those comics and letting someone else do the single issues for a while. It’ll be interesting to do that where it’s going to be in the shops with a possibly much wider audience on that ‘New Release’ shelf.
“So that’s – I’m ramping up on that as I finish The Fog. But I don’t want to talk too much what it is right now because it’s in the very early stages. It’s probably more in the crime sort of psychological thriller. No super powers or tough guys. But yeah – but still very American comic book-y, sort of taking the lessons I’ve learned on Revenger and going a little bit more into a crime realism type thing – modern day thing. It’s all being written in my head. It’s in that proto stage.
“And also, Bergen Street is going to do – We’re going to do a second collection of Revenger. It’ll collect The Fog and probably the one shot. That’ll be coming out next year some time. That’ll be awesome, to have two Revenger volumes out. That’s probably like a good solid two years of work there represented. And then, after I do this miniseries with Floating World, we’ll see. I do have more Revenger ideas, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I come back, but we’ll see.”