HANCOCK -- Local mini-comics publisher Oily Comics is making the kind of splash that's unusual for makers of homemade books.
With titles like Melissa Mendes' "Lou" and James Hindle's "Close Your Eyes When You Let Go," and even more experimental books, like Jessica Campbell's "My Sincerest Apologies," Oily has been grabbing plenty of attention.
Publisher Charles Forsman's own book, "The End of the F
g World," made the MTV 2012 Top 10 list, and the entire line is popping up on best of lists everywhere.
It was on a cross-country journey in his early 20s that Forsman visited a comic book store in Los Angeles -- his first in years -- and had an unexpected epiphany about his path in life.
"That's when I fell back in love with alternative comics," he said. "I was like, ‘Oh, I should get back into drawing and I should do this for real.' It finally seemed clear to me that this was what I wanted."
Forsman returned home to attend college, and then was accepted to the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. For his second-year project, he created two issues of the self-published comic, "Snake Oil," complete with hand-made, silk-screened covers.
He won two Ignatz Awards for the effort, an unexpected prestige within the small press world. Forsman said that kept him going and energized and ready to pursue comics -- and then he hit the real world.
"It was hard once I was out of the school to stay focused," he said. "I'd say, probably, two years after graduation were the toughest creatively. I was very motivated, but I was frustrated and still figuring out who I was and what I wanted to do."
Forsman attempted his first long-form graphic novel, but upon completing a first draft was disinterested in pursuing it further and opted to continue "Snake Oil" instead. At the same time, he and girlfriend Mendes were moving around, figuring out where they wanted to be, holding down day jobs.
"I kept doing ‘Snake Oil' issues, to not the same acclaim that I had for the first two," Forsman said. "One big lesson that I learned is that even when you're slamming your head against the wall, it's all worth it in the end. You're going to learn something from everything."
While living in Providence, R.I., Forsman began working on a graphic novel for acclaimed indie publisher Fantagraphics -- "Celebrated Summer," to be released fall of 2013.
He eventually moved to Hancock, Mendes' home town, and that was where things really fell into place, ignited by a mini-comic sent to him by his friend -- the first issue of Max de Radigues' "Moose."
"I had been of the mind that mini-comics should be these beautiful silk-screened objects, really labored over things," said Forsman, "but there was something really powerful with this simple, eight pages, small black-and-white format. I thought, ‘Oh, man, I'm going to do this.' "
That blossomed into "The End of the F
g World," which will eventually be collected for release from Fantagraphics, due out this spring. It is Forsman's dysfunctional tale of a teen boy and girl in trouble, and for him, it was the antidote to his previous graphic novel work.
"When I started, I didn't have a real plan for it," Forsman said. "I just wanted it to be fun. After laboring over the other book, I wanted to have fun again, because when you're working on something for awhile, you can get bogged down in the details. The pages I was doing for ‘Celebrated Summer,' they're big and very detailed, and I was spending days on one page."
"Once I got rolling, by the third or fourth issue, I had it all planned out where I was going to go, but even then the nature of the project is that I still don't know what's going to happen. That's what keeps it interesting for me. I know what's going to be in each issue, but things change and new things pop up."
The experience of creating that book gave Forsman a creative jolt that was fueled by the spontaneity.
"It gave me a little more freedom," he said. "I was a lot less worried about style or how it was going to look. I had this very simple way of drawing these characters in a limited page layout. I gave myself these parameters that were very simple. Every issue I would draw really fast. That's another thing, it's been easier to keep my interest in it. I do it once a month and I draw it really fast."
It was after five successful issues of his own title that Forsman began to consider bringing others into the fold. He struck a deal with de Radigues to publish "Moose" in America, and then Mendes signed on with an autobiographical mini-comic about a childhood in the Berkshires.
"I got real excited about publishing other people," said Forsman. "I had wanted to do it for awhile, but I was really scared of it taking over my life and I wouldn't have time to work on my own stuff, but now that it's become my job, it's really great. It's great because it's something else to do besides worry about my comics. I don't have any time to sit around and worry about my comics anymore. I have to print other people's stuff."
Forsman has branched out with more titles since, and begun to offer select downloadable digital editions for sale.
"I just thought that would be an interesting idea," he said. "It's an experiment to see if people would buy them. It's not selling a ton, but I've sold some. I know there are people who have only read it that way. When tablets came out, like the iPad, and I started to read comics on it, it started to really make sense to me that this is one way that it could work. I'm really open to it and excited about it."
The books are available in stores across the country, as well as through mail order online. Forsman's and Mendes' reputations as up-and-coming cartoonists to watch have certainly helped get them attention in the effort. Oily Comics also took a big leap forward in distribution when Forsman began to offer subscriptions for the entire line.
"The other idea behind Oily was that I started this thing that people were watching and I felt like it was a cool way to expose other people to artists that I knew about that maybe didn't have much exposure," Forsman said. "Also, I could get other artists bigger than me. Somehow, I managed to get people who are idols of mine to do books, like Sammy Harkham."
The subscription deal helped Forsman organize and schedule better. It meant Oily had to produce five comics a month, which gave him a consistent workload and brought him to the point where the comics are paying for themselves and getting plenty of attention. Things are looking up and Forsman didn't necessarily expect that outcome.
"When I started the subscriptions is when I really jumped into it," he said. "I limited it to December 2012, the end of the year, and told myself that I'll see if I want to keep doing this. I've resigned myself to doing it because it's been pretty successful and I really enjoy doing it. I've gotten a lot of good feedback, and besides, a lot of artists have started series, so now I have to print them all. So, who knows when it's going to end. I feel like it's taken a life of it's own."
His plan for Oily is to continue with five titles a month, while he explores options for bigger projects and collections. He's added red to his printing options, so two-color comics are in the future.
"It's really satisfying for the other artists I print. I tell them that 200 people are reading their books when they come out and some of them are like, wow, I never even printed that many mini comics before. Two hundred isn't a lot, but in mini comics, it is. And there are more that are going to stores. There are people who are only reading them by going to their local comics shop, which is nutty to me."