Matthew Forsythe had a great autumn. In 2009, Drawn and Quarterly published Forsythe’s debut graphic novel “Ojingogo,” but last fall saw the release of two very different projects from the Montreal-based artist. The first was “My Name is Elizabeth,” a picture book illustrated by Forsythe which was named a notable book by the New York Times Book Review and led to Forsythe being signed to a two book deal by Simon and Schuster. The second was “Comics Class,” published in the fall by Koyama Press, a not entirely autobiographical tale of Forsythe’s personal experiences as a teacher.
Forsythe’s latest book, his second full-length graphic novel, is “Jinchalo.” Inspired by Korean folk tales, the wordless volume is strange and playful, a truly dream-like book that moves from the monstrous to the confusing to the hilarious. The book has just been released and Forsythe will be appearing in Montreal tonight (February 16,) and in Toronto on Sunday (February 19) to promote the book. CBR News spoke with the rising cartoonist to talk about his books and the transition to being a full-time artist.
CBR News: Let’s start with a simple question: What does the word “Jinchalo” mean?
Matthew Forsythe: Jinchalo is Korean for “really?” As in “seriously?” When I lived in Korea, I used to say it all the time to pretend I understood the conversation I was in. The book features a trickster magpie, and that’s his name.Â
How do you come up with the story for something like “Jinchalo?” On the one hand, there’s a simple way to describe the plot, but that doesn’t really get at what the story is.
It’s true. I don’t really know what it is either, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The story — which has elements of Korean folk tales, “Super Mario Brothers 2” and Jack and the Beanstalk — really followed the drawings and not the other way around, which makes it difficult for people (including me) to get their head around.Â I think the book suffers a little for this — and I hope it might also be considered interesting for the same reason.
“Jinchalo” features the same lead character as your previous book, “Ojingogo.” Why did you bring her back?
When I finished “Ojingogo,” I just kept drawing this character in various situations. Eventually, a narrative seemed to develop. The process was a lot like I imagine sculpting to be. At the end I just stood back and was probably as bemused as anyone else.Â
Why did you tell the story without words and what are the challenges specific to telling wordless stories in comics?
In wordless comics, it’s difficult to convey situations that are more than physical comedy or slapstick on the surface — which is fun and fine on its own, but some of my favorite artists, like Blutch or Sempe or Moebius, can take physical situations and make them strike at something more profound. The height of this sort of thing comes across in Chaplin’s films. A film like “The Kid” is full of physical comedy on the surface, but is so moving and has a lot of heart. It’s what I’m trying to do, sometimes, but I’m not sure it ever works.
I was wondering if you could talk a little about “Comics Class” and how you got involved with Koyama Press.
“Comics Class” was a kind of fun little catharsis from the anxiety of actually teaching a comics class — which I really had no business doing. It was very much inspired by Jillian Tamaki’s amazing online strip, “Mutant Magic Academy,” and Kate Beaton’s looser Twitter comics. I wanted to do strips in one sitting that were fun and super-quick on my Wacom tablet. The strip was so much fun to do. I posted the strips online and Annie generously asked if I was interested in putting it out as a mini-comic.
Last year, you illustrated the picture book “My Name is Elizabeth,” which is something a lot of comics readers may not be aware of. What did you find interesting about the book and what was it like collaborating with a writer.
I posted a strip called “Dogwalk” about my girlfriend and our dog and an editor called me and asked if I was interested in using the character for a script she had.Â I’ve always wanted to do picture books — at the time I was working full time as a manager at the National Film Board of Canada — and didn’t have time to write one, so I thought illustrating one would be a fun compromise.
The script was fun but I was naive about how much time a kids’ book would really take and the number of restrictions there are in working in that medium.Â There was no collaboration with the writer — I just received the script and got to work. There was a lot of back and forth-ing with the editor, who I am learning are really the conductors in the kids’ book orchestra.
To what degree do you think that there’s a shared, for lack of a better word, grammar, between picture books and comics?
I’m really still learning this sort of thing, but I think it’s important that the illustrations don’t directly repeat what the text is saying, but instead build on it or oppose it in a way that creates a sort of friction or juxtaposition. That space in-between is an exciting place for the reader to hang out — and I think it’s what makes my favorite kids’ books or comics re-readable.
You recently quit your job in order to become a full-time artist, which is a big decision. I wondered if you could just talk about what that’s meant personally and professionally.
Where do I start?
It’s great. I was worried money was going to be the main challenge with going freelance. It was for the first year, but I’m pleased to report that it’s not anymore. It’s always a concern, but time is still my greatest concern.
The other thing is that now I have no excuses for when my work doesn’t meet my standards. There’s no day job I can blame, so it’s a character-building exercise. But it’s always fun because I’m always learning and trying to get a little better. No more watching the sun set on a parking lot. No more sitting in four-hour meetings whileÂ my life passes me by.Â My morning commute is now a walk through a park to a really great studio filled with artists I admire.Â