Graphic Novelist Charles Forsman

Wednesday, May 9, 2018 - 7:51am

The End of the Fucking World

The End of the Fucking World Buy this photo
Courtesy of the Artist

“The End of the Fucking World,” the latest in Netflix’s British programming, was a commercial success and critical darling. The show follows two teenagers — James (Alex Lawther, “The Imitation Game”) and Alyssa (Jessica Barden, “Hanna”) — as they embark on a turbulent, crime-filled adventure. Outsiders at home, they find a sense of belonging in one another’s company.

The show is an adaptation of Charles Forsman’s graphic novel of the same name. Its darkly humorous tone and deftly placed curse words, which add so much personality to these characters, translate to a very enjoyable show. The author joked in a phone interview, “My mom hates all the curse words. She tells me, ‘Write something nice.’” Recently, Forsman spoke with The Daily about the book behind the television series.

The Michigan Daily: How did the television adaptation come about and what was your involvement?

Charles Forsman: I was originally making the book as mini-comics chapter by chapter, selling them for a dollar a piece starting in 2011. Sometime in 2012, Jonathan Entwistle, the show creator, picked up some of the zines in a shop in London and emailed me saying how much he liked them and wanted to make something out of them. I didn’t really take him seriously at first, but I looked at his short films and thought he was really talented. We kept in touch and it took him a long time, but he persevered and didn’t stop trying to get it made. It went through a lot of ups and downs. People said, “Yeah we’ll make it.” Then, “No we won’t.” It’s like winning the lottery because a lot of books get optioned, but it’s rare that amounts to anything. It’s even rarer that they’re any good. I’m super elated with what the cast and crew put together. I wasn’t involved and early on didn’t want to be because I was worried about it taking over my life. I wanted to focus on my comic books. All through the production, though, Jonathan and I were very close so I served as an unofficial voice in his ear, bouncing ideas.

TMD: As you were saying, “The End of the Fucking World” was originally a serialized mini-comic. Did this episodic nature transition well to television?

CF: When I first watched the episodes, I was a little worried because I saw the running times were around 25 minutes. I thought, “Oh, these are really short.” Because usually dramas are 45 minutes to an hour. But I soon realized how well doing it in short episodes translated that aspect of the book. It has that same pace where it’s quick chapters and a lot happens, but there’s a lot of feeling involved and emotion that gets across. You fall for these characters pretty quickly even though it’s a fast-moving train. That was a pleasant surprise — how the pacing matched the experience of reading the book.

TMD: There’s so much content on Netflix, what about this story makes it stand out?

CF: It was the kids watching. I keep hearing from relatives and friends about their kids in middle school — it’s the show they’re talking about. It never occurred to me that this might be popular with teenagers. I never planned to write for a certain audience. That was hugely gratifying and I realized, “Oh! Of course kids are going to like that show.” The show especially really captures what a strange time it is to be a teenager and how powerful all your feelings are: Falling in love for the first time, being frustrated at the world around you and wanting to get away. It packages up the swirling madness of having a teenage mind. A lot of people, including adults, relate to that.

TMD: How did you arrive at the darker tone of the story?

CF: Boy, I don’t know. I’ve been writing dark stories for a long time. I think it’s just something I’m fascinated by. A big influence of the book was the movie “Badlands,” by Terrence Malick, which is loosely based on a real life story. In the early ’60s, this guy Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend went on a murder rampage through the Midwest. I wasn’t consciously thinking of “Badlands,” but I soon realized halfway through the book that I was telling that kind of story. It’s like a kid joking about running away and joining the circus. Once you run away, you’re on the outs of the law. It pushes you even further down this path that you weren’t planning or, usually, you didn’t even have a plan. It was also exploring James’s sociology and his urges. I think now with the obsession with true crime and serial killers, it’s becoming more accepted that people are interested in these topics and it doesn’t make you a bad person to be curious. It’s part of being human.

TMD: Your other graphic novels have detailed panels, but this one is more minimalist. Why did you decide on this style?

CF: I had just finished another book, “Celebrated Summer.” The pages in that one are a lot bigger, super detailed, lots of cross-hatching. When I started “The End of the Fucking World,” it was like a reaction away from that. I wanted to do something very simple and stripped down that I could draw quickly and get pages done without laboring over them. I was trying to get as close to pure writing as possible, but in comics form, which was tough when you’re in that mode of detailed work to take it all out. But that’s the essence of cartooning, distilling complex emotions and images to the simplest things, while still conveying all the feelings. For me it was an exercise in going as quickly as I could, getting down my thoughts. And sometimes, I’m lazy. But the characters, James and Alyssa, were the focal points. Some people say that I rely on simplicity in the characters too much and stripping out the background, but it’s a powerful thing when they are the only ones in the panel. There’s no distractions.

TMD: Most of your work is part of the independent, underground comic scene. Could you talk about the difference between independent and mainstream comics? What’s the process like?

CF: I went to a school called the Center for Cartoon Studies. They really focus on the whole thing. It’s not about learning one piece of the puzzle. Our assignments would be not just handing in pages, but mini-comics that were folded, stapled and had covers printed in a way that we felt were connected to the book and presented the material best. I came from that thinking and it’s something that I can’t get away from. It’s how I like doing it. I still self-publish. Right now, I’m at home folding and stapling. It also lowers the stakes for me. It doesn’t feel like I have all this pressure with a big book publisher and editor weighing down on me like “You promised to do this and you’re not.” It allows me a lot more freedom to write on the fly and create as I go, make less turns if I feel like it, which is harder to do when you sign a contract and someone is expecting something from you. I’m also impatient. In publishing, there’s a lot of waiting and people in the way: distribution, solicitation. Comics take a long time. Since I do things chapter by chapter, it’s nice to get them out even to just a few hundred people. It makes it more fulfilling rather than being stuck in one room, working on one book for five years and not getting any feedback. That’s a big part of why I enjoy working in this mode. And there’s a lot of self-editing because comics have a lot of steps: initial writing, thumbnailing, penciling, inking, computer stuff. In all those steps, I’m constantly making changes. There’s a human behind these pieces of art. Depending on how they’re feeling that day, the story may take a change.  

TMD: I noticed there were some differences between the show and your novel. How do you feel about the changes? Do you feel they change your original intentions for the characters and story?

CF: There’s a tiny cultural thing with my American book taken through a British lens. Early on, Jonathan wanted to make it in America. But he’s a British director so he had more opportunities there. And I’m a big fan of British TV so I was psyched. They don’t have a history of road trip stories in England because the country’s not that big. In America, you can get in a car and drive for days and days to see new stuff. That’s less of a thing there. It was interesting to see them make that up. And as I watched it, I was struck seeing parts of England that I never saw before on British television shows. My favorite thing was where Leslie lived at the end in the trailer by the sea. I can’t say I’ve ever seen that sort of town represented. It’s like them taking America and finding equivalents in Britain. There’s differences, but I was struck with how close the evolution of the characters and plot were kept in the show. Alyssa is really spot on for me. Jessica Barden is my favorite actor in the world now. For me, James is probably the biggest difference in character from my version. The show made him a lot more sympathetic and approachable. My version was a bit scarier and sociopathic. But I really love the show. The writer, Charlie Covell, did an incredible job. Charlie added the female police detectives, which I told her I was super jealous of; I wish I had thought of those characters. But I told them I didn’t want them to feel beholden to my book because I feel adaptations are more successful when they’re allowed to breath and become their own thing. I was never looking for them to do all of my book exactly the same way.

TMD: What’s next for you?

CF: I’m working on a comic book called “Automa.” It’s the closest I’ll get to science fiction-type story, but it’s still dealing with father-son relationships. There’s some punching and sci-fi elements. The show coming out really distracted me, which is good. I’m thankful everyday I can still sit down and work. That’s my main thing everyday, just trying to draw.