Charles Forsman’s quietly moving new book CELEBRATED SUMMER is essentially plotless. Two teenagers drop acid and drive around. That’s the whole story. There are no revelations along the way — their friendship doesn’t go through any changes, there’s no character arc. They just drive around, from the arcade to the beach to the convenience store, and try to figure out whether they’re having any fun. Then they go home. It’s all rendered in Forsman’s punk-Hergé micron style, where the clear line of Kevin Huizenga meets the scratchy cross-hatching of Chester Brown.
This is Forsman’s second consecutive disaffected-teenage-roadtrip book, following the chilling, Badlands-inflected THE END OF THE FUCKING WORLD. But where TEOTFW was cold and harsh, preserving the mystery of its semi-sociopathic protagonists, CELEBRATED SUMMER is resignedly warm and humane. The former was an intense and frightening reading experience; the latter is a brief and mild one. But it’s also more thoughtful and assured, and in a very quiet way more formally and literarily ambitious than its predecessor, though it was drawn first.
The main character is Wolf (did he give himself that name?), a tubby, sensitive soul trying to pass as a rough outsider, with his fuzzy half-assed excuse for a mohawk and his Sluggo-style scalp stubble. His buddy Mike is a weaselly but good-natured little dork who sees himself as some kind of sleazed-up, street-smart operator.
Mike is clearly the leader of their little partnership, the one wielding the mantle of COOL KID in their little private world where no such thing exists. Mike is the one who drives the car, who announces destinations, who kicks off the book with a plan:
Mike has an older girlfriend, and you can feel him weighing out the wages of dangerous adulthood when he says “I’m feeling less like her boyfriend and more like her dealer.” You get the sense he’s trying and failing to grow a mustache. Mike’s the one who keeps his cool when the cops cruise by, while Wolf curls up into the fetal position. In Mike’s mind this makes him an ice-cold outlaw, a position granted tacit endorsement by Wolf’s passivity.
Because Wolf is lost and scared, hoping to hook into some post-adolescent conduit to carry him away from his fat-kid-at-the-pool past and his post-high-school-nobody hungover present. He’s just graduated, scaling the wall that hems in the world of children, and found nothing on the other side. When Mike asks what it’s like to be done, he says, “I kinda don’t feel anything… it just sort of ended, man.” That’s what the acid trip is about, really — he wants to crack through his empty, trackless reality to find someplace new to go, and someone new to be. But all the drugs do is make things wiggle and shift, and take away his ability to piss.
Forsman’s depiction of the trip violates every acid cliché and leaves you with the LSD experience for what it is: something that lays bare the rawness of the material world, and gently warps your perceptions around its borders, making everything funny and scary. Where most artists would go the day-glo-electric-kool-aid route and give us spirals and abstractions, a world melting into bubbling goop and neon colors, Forsman just subtly bends reality, frays it around the edges, and yet when it’s played off his minimalist clear-line style, the results are more vertiginous and immersive that what you normally get from the hyperactive overstimulatory experimentation of most acid-trip artwork. There is no indulgence. The brief transcendent moments are fleetingly real, like when Mike becomes enraptured by a tiny white flower. Mostly there’s just restlessness, as these kids drive and wander aimlessly, two teenage satellites adrift in a black vacuum, just barely hopeful enough to continue moving through the stars.
The only deviations from Forsman’s fly-on-the-wall matter-of-factness come in brief but effective glimpses into Wolf’s head, when he speaks in monologue. His thoughts are honest and ineloquent, quietly searching and self-pitying.
One panel simply says “I’ve always been big. In elementary school I would always hurt the other kids.” As the story moves we get more of a sense of Wolf and his withdrawal, his absent waywardness a scrim behind which to hide his anxiety and anguish, even from himself. “This was about the time mom started to pull away.” We don’t get any more info on Wolf’s parents that that, but it’s all we need – they’re somehow gone, and he’s left with his fretful grandmother, who he sweetly thinks to call even in the middle of an acid trip.
The comic takes its title from a great Husker Du song that splits the difference between between sneering and nostalgia. “Just when I’m ready to sit inside, it’s summertime.” The big chunky power chords of that song build until they suddenly drop, leaving a twelve-string guitar and a beautiful Bob Mould melody that couldn’t sound more out of place in a hardcore punk song. The glimpses into Wolf’s head serve, jarringly, like that unexpected bridge, offering you a radically different tone, something sadder and kinder bubbling just under a careless surface.
The book’s final moment is its most courageous. Wolf walks through the rain in his dirty sweatshirt the day after the trip, remembering his childhood. “I can never be there again,” he thinks. I cannot be saved.” And then, as he steps through a puddle, we see him as a little boy, snug in his raincoat, with a caption that reads, “I’d give anything to not be scared.”
This is so direct and sincere that it dances dangerously close to maudlin sentimentality. It’s clearly a moment designed to pull your heart into your stomach. But its power is in its irony: Here is Wolf, perched on the verge of a voided adulthood, peering back with longing at a youth that was probably not much happier, just safer. The only difference was that there used to be someone to wrap him in a coat when it rained. But this kid has his grandmother to yell at him for staying out all night while making him a BLT. And someday, after he’s found and lost his bearings a dozen times, he will look back on the simple melancholy of a summer when school was done and he was high and all he had to do was drift. The story ends on Wolf reaching back for a lost youth, with no sense of how much more he’s bound to lose.