Celebrated Summer by Charles Forsman
Charles Forsman understands the bad kids. He understands that any of us, at any point of our life, had the potential to be a bad kid. He understands that some of us flirted with being one, even though we couldn’t quite achieve it. He understands that some of us were thought to be bad kids, even though we weren’t.
Most of all, he understands that the bad kids are people, too, and he’s made it central to his work to not offer apologies for them, but definitely empathy. He wants us all to understand the bad kids, maybe even see ourselves in them.
His new book, “Celebrated Summer,” from Fantagraphics Books, tackles the topic with a uncomplicated set-up that points to something much deeper.
The plot is simple: Mike a nd Wolf have decided to take off on a short road trip one summer after dropping acid. Rather than finding any adventure, the two inhabit the same old landscape, with only the distortions of psychedelic drugs to pepper the experience. But the psychedelic experience comes from inside, providing visual candy for impaired eyes. The drug doesn’t change reality, just the way your brain perceives it. It doesn’t change who you are inside.
That’s the problem for Wolf, a big guy with a mohawk, dumpy and shy. He doesn’t connect very well, he’s quite awkward around people, and his inner dialogue reveals a troubled childhood that has careened into young adult alienation. His friend Mike doesn’t add much to Wolf’s life other than being a warm body next to him, filling up an empty void that might otherwise be taken up by a blast of loneliness. And, yet, isn’t that enough of an accomplishment for a friend? Is there anything wrong with just being a placeholder, keeping despair at bay for your friend?
The duo like to think that others are looking at them suspiciously, but not only is their bark worse than their bite, their bark is barely a squeak that only they can hear. These two guys wandering around incapacitated could be any of us on an isolated night in our teen years. For all their bad attitude, there’s very little horrible behavior to match it. Mike and Wolf don’t do anything that awful. They just cruise from the woods to the beach to nowhere in particular looking for something, perhaps fun, perhaps escape. Do they ever find it? Hard to say.
Forsman specializes in character pairs. In his previous graphic novel, “TEOTFW,” it’s the dispassionate couple James and Alyssa trying to escape their lives and bungling toward one of crime. In his current comics series, “Teen Creeps,” Hilary and Dawn, two high school bad girls fumble with their sexuality and butt their heads against authority.
Mike and Wolf aren’t as intimate as the other couples in Forsman’s stories, nor as dangerous. They’re just two young guys who obsess vulgarly about girls. To show closeness, understanding or affection is to break out of the roles they are supposed to play. Mike might be a warm body occupying space next to Wolf, but that warmth is never going to be transmitted openly.
As with other Forsman comics, this is all handled in the least depressing manner possible, with a deadpan humor that can make your head shake and your heart quiver. Forsman’s unpretentious black and white lines create an honesty in the storytelling. His work demands something of his readers — to meet his characters emotionally halfway to create a bond of empathy. That’s part of Forsman’s neo-realist superpower, making this slice of Mike and Wolf’s lives something that cuts the reader deeper than expected.
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