Review: Charles Forsman's 'Celebrated Summer' works as an excellent examination of what remains unspoken between close friendsA comic review article by: Geoffrey Lapid
Wolf and his friend Mike are about to do Acid for the first time. As the drugs begin to kick in, the two friends go for a drive to the beach, where they smoke pot and play arcade games on the pier. In Celebrated Summer, Charles Forsman once again tackles the subject of disaffected Teens who want something beyond their small town trappings. The actual plot of the story is fairly thin, but much like most drug trips, what it lacks in terms of actual stuff happening in the real world, it makes up for in the the experience of the trip; in this case, the relationship between Wolf and Mike and how they see their respective worlds.
Forsman’s looks into teenage frustrations are a strength for him, and Celebrated Summer is a perfect vehicle for his interests in teenage delinquency. Celebrated Summer is, like Forsman’s other works, not so much about the delinquent behavior, but more about what’s going on in his characters’ lives that make them do what they do. Wolf and Mike are very well developed characters in this regard; best friends, but completely different people. Mike is confident and brash to the point of arrogance, while Wolf is quiet and thoughtful, often lost in his own internal monologues. It’s through these internal monologues that Wolf’s character is really fleshed out. We learn about why he’s so quiet and why he’s lived his whole life scared of himself. These internal monologues inform our inferences about Wolf and his friendship with Mike beyond simply what we see when he’s tripping with Mike or interacting with his out-of-touch grandmother.
A large part of Celebrated Summer’s power comes in the restraint that Forsman shows in his art. It’s a story about two teenagers doing psychedelic drugs, so the expectation is to have the art take on some sort of Brendan McCarthy or Kevin Nowlan-esque hallucinatory effects, but Forsman manages to subvert this expectation by rendering the hallucinatory aspects of a drug trip in his own, more grounded style. The entirety of the book is done in a stark black and white. No grays or gradients, just very skillful crosshatching. Forsman also largely relies on variations on a twelve-panel grid, with small deviations used to really highlight a particular space or moment. It steadies the pacing and it also underscores the idea that this summer drug trip is not the escape that Wolf and Mike are hoping for. Faces and backgrounds may occasionally twist and contort, but the best moments are the ones in which objects aren’t changing shape, but are instead taking on a greater significance to Wolf and Mike. Take this sequence of a plant coming into bloom:
Over the course of these twelve panels, a flower blooms-- and that’s it. There are no crazy colors or distortions in form, just a very clear focus on this one, tiny, almost insignificant thing, and it’s totally clear that the drugs in their bodies are hitting their peak. This moment for Mike acts as a telling counterpoint to a similar moment for Wolf:
Wolf is playing a game at the arcade on the pier when he experiences this moment. Much like with Mike, Wolf sees a greater significance unfold in something small (in this case a videogame sprite getting chipped away by laser pixels), but where Mike’s experience was pleasant, Wolf’s brings out his internalized anxieties. The similar, yet contrasting experiences of the two highlight Wolf’s own fears, on which he elaborates in an internal monologue later in the book.
So much of Wolf’s character is revealed internally. Forsman uses Wolf’s worries to explore the idea that someone’s need to escape is rarely limited to their hometown. Wolf isn’t stuck in his small town existence, not entirely. He’s graduated and he has the ability to move on, but he won’t because he’s still so trapped in his own fears and internalized anxieties, not to mention his perceived obligation to be there for his grandmother. These internal anxieties are further brought out by the Acid, and they manifest themselves in odd ways like Wolf’s inability to pee, or his staring deeply into mirrors, lost in thought.
Mike on the other hand, seems to take everything in stride, the way someone who’s already resigned himself to his fate would do. However, this read on Mike comes largely from how we see him when Wolf is present. The scenes featuring Mike on his own reveal that Mike has his own struggles that he deals with away from Wolf. One scene is particularly revealing about Mike. In the arcade, Mike nervously slinks away from a girl who approaches him and aggressively suggests they make out. Later, after the acid trip, Wolf visits Mike at his food court job in the mall where Mike is shamelessly leering at a girl at the other side of the room. These two scenes with Mike’s two different attitudes to women speak to the idea that Mike’s confidence is just a facade, that Mike is only ever that confident around Wolf because he knows that Wolf, scared and stuck in his own thoughts, will defer to him, an idea illustrated further when the two get into an argument about pulling over so that Mike can call to check in with his grandmother. Wolf’s momentary lashing out at Mike ends before it even really gets a chance to begin because that’s what always happens and what always will happen.
The question of whether the friendship is toxic also should be considered. Despite their occasional bickering, Wolf and Mike seem to enjoy hanging out with each other, but I wonder how much of this friendship is owed to the small town setting and not really having that many people to hang out with anyway. You could also take that further and chalk up their friendship lasting as long as it has as a result of habit more than actually liking each other. I prefer thinking that the two are truly friends, but like most teens they’ve got trouble being upfront about their feelings. There’s a scene on the beach where Mike apologizes to Wolf for their argument in the car. He may be high, but that doesn’t make his apology any less sincere. Mike really is sorry for acting unkind towards his best friend. They care about each other, but because they both haven’t learned enough about how to care for themselves, they have difficulty identifying behaviors that may be putting a strain on their friendship.
I think the friendship and tensions between Wolf and Mike as well as within them is what makes the drug trip featured in Celebrated Summer so different from the drug trip one would expect. Typically a comic book drug trip is about crazy visuals and seeing things that aren’t really there, or they are about some sort of shamanic prophecy of the future. What Wolf and Mike experience in Celebrated Summer is less an escape and more an opportunity for their own internal issues to come to the front of their minds. Wolf and Mike begin the trip hoping that it will make a change in them. Something exciting, something different. But instead they are confronted with slightly trippier versions of the same problems they were hoping they wouldn’t have to face in the first place. Celebrated Summer works as an excellent examination of what remains unspoken between close friends and what it means to feel trapped in your own skin.