Celebrated Summer | Charles Forsman
"I think we should drop two each," the first line reads. Mike and Wolf, the stars of this teenage dystopia, hash out their coming acid afternoon in this instance, and that bit of dialogue lands laced with the coming high and inevitable drop from a ball-breaking burst of reality. "Cue us up," it should say, rather. Because this story unfolds only one way.
Celebrated Summer, the latest comic book from cartoonist Charles Forsman, throws its nod to Husker Du early. Etched into the background of its first page, sagging right below a poster stuck to a bedroom wall, the band name exists as this crusty ink stamp made in ether. It’s like a wink of the author’s eye, and we’re shown who or what is resonate in this crafted reality soon to be read. Which matters. Because for Forsman the band is key to setting a mood. “I sort of did that with myself when drawing it,” he says. “I’d just blast their records and chug through it. It put me at this point that I wanted to be at when making the book.”
This “point” is a mental state where drudging up teenage angst and the fear of age is easy, but apart from bare tone or title there’s a case to be made for Celebrated Summer's aesthetic relation to its namesake song, which is an appropriate connection. Because the book shouldn't be confused for some sort of adaptation or homage nor strive to be such a thing. That'd be cheap - a way to crutch one's self on top of something else. But we're not looking at such a thing. It's very much a singular item made by an artist with his own intentions, but like any piece of good work it draws upon proceeding examples, pursuing discourse with an elder.
The End of the Fucking World, Forsman’s previous book, established his ability to display two things at once. The purposeful Charles Schultz influence in those drawings lent an inherent innocence while subject matter like satanic cults, abuse and oblivion converted such bliss into a sinister inevitability. For both the amusement and disturbance of the reader, those stray elements were allowed to flirt visibly on the page for result of unsettling juxtaposition and hints of inward trauma.
That technique is on display, too, in Celebrated Summer - though toned down a notch. It’s a test run for what eventually will become TEOTFW (though released after, Celebrated Summer was produced before Forsman’s major debut, The End of the Fucking World), but past general practice or some reoccurring tic committed by an author the thing manifests a, maybe distant but still apparent, connection to the song in question. A song where opposing forces and thoughts are at odds, trying to make sense of something beyond themselves.
By this, I mean that hectic shift, so transparent in the track, from blistering power chords to acoustic plucks right when the bridge arrives. AJ Ramirez writes in a PopMatters piece that it features a “definite tempo lag” and forces the band to ”regain its momentum,” and while PopMatters usually sits sucked into its own importance for no clear reason, he’s right. Or at least, sort of. The lag is present, but it’s not without a seamless sense of disarray supporting the moment. That fucking flick of a storm in those seconds reveals what the song is after, and Bob Mould’s penchant for adventure in the face of concrete fact lay before us in a question. Was this your celebrated summer? Though it wouldn’t ring so sharply without the vocalized clash fixed behind it, hanging high like some set of unmatched colors.
Forsman’s Celebrated Summer captures this audacity with the instances placed on the page, but it doesn’t take full shape without the reader’s judgement. When Mike and Wolf hit the beach midway way through the book, no matter what grand illusion the acid may cause them to see, there’s little wonder or magic, from our perspective, in what would typically be a momentous moment - the arrival of a road trip destination. Wolf insists that “shit, this is so awesome.” And Mike responds with a complimentary “yeah,” but it’s hard to ignore the storm-like conditions harboring the background. Forsman cross-hatches the sky closed with a pound or two of black smudge. It’s not a beach scene set with sun, and we’re never shown the horizon wafting out past the shoreline. Instead, Mike and Wolf’s plain, pretending reactions conquer the panels, and the focus aims inward on these characters rather than externalize in some hyper-active set of images.
In fact, most of the drawings feel retracted, never really capitalizing on their potential majesty. Towards the comic’s end, as Wolf spaces out into full-on hallucination, the fractal images on the page, black and white as they are, read muted. Whatever Wolf is seeing extends only so far, chained, instead, to a non-existent color palette.. The lyric “then the sun disintegrates between a wall of clouds” fits here. It’s a similar image of limitation and rivalry where fluid line work and funky shapes lay covered in a lack of color.
Like with most popular music, there’s lyrics and sound, and typically we ignore one for the other. Comic books work like this, too. Pictures and words come together for this advanced reading experience, but a reader usually tunes into only one half of the equation. You need both to see Celebrated Summer as the conflicted piece it is. Forsman’s drawings are the instrumentation bouncing against the lyrical content of Mike and Wolf’s plot, and each end offers a different tone. Take the plot as an outline, and it becomes a traditional Dazed and Confused outing, glazed in wasted time and greasy hair. But enter the dismal grey of the illustrations, and it’s clear this acid trip isn’t all it seems. Like the structure of the song, where before the bridge all seems wondrous, loud and anticipatory, Forsman comes through with his own sullen, downtrodden acoustic lick to unsettle everything and beg his reader to question.
Of course, when I ask Forsman about this he admits to not pursuing any of these elements “in great detail.” The particulars I’ve written about - the nods I see to the song - weren’t conscious concerns on part of the cartoonist. He chased a general mood yet nothing else. But clearly I see them there, and I wonder whether or not it was a matter of Forsman’s subconscious directing Celebrated Summer in this direction, or if this goes beyond artistic choice. Maybe it has little to do with a purposeful discourse between two works, but rather two works tapping the same idea and coming at it in separately tied ways.
What ever it be, both the song and comic book want us to part ways with those classic textile images of summer fun and look inward where snowflakes may be caking in high piles. It’s a matter of playing hope against doubt, undercutting romance for some idea of what’s really occurring and mashing two mindsets into one. Mould said it best with the line “I summer where I winter at, and no one is allowed there.” Forsman drew an afternoon on acid and made it small.
Originally published at City Pages.