Matthew Forsythe, animal lover: an interview with The Province

“The comic book adventures of nature nerd Matthew Forsythe” / The Province / Tracey Lindeman / February 14, 2012

MONTREAL - Illustrator Matthew Forsythe has always been a nature nerd. As a kid, he drew a comic aptly named Comical Wildlife in which he’d make “really bad jokes” about animals’ features and characteristics.

“It was kind of like Animal Crackers, but more obscure,” the Montrealer says. He recalls drawing muskoxen – known to herd into outward-facing circles when threatened – literally turning into circles.

Now an adult, sipping tea in a Mile End café, he recounts the joke with a shy smile, shaking his head. He had forgotten about those comics; he’s embarrassed by them. Though he may have learned something about subtlety since childhood, it’s clear Forsythe’s love for animals still informs much of his illustration work.

Jinchalo, his second comic for local publisher Drawn and Quarterly, begins with a mysterious bird. Decked out in a hat, backpack and collared robe, the bird fends off a pack of vicious wolves with a walking stick-turned-snake and returns to its equally mysterious egg, nestled safely in a tree – only to accidentally lose it to Voguchi, the comic’s flawed protagonist, when they get tangled up at the market.

Voguchi is a gluttonous and short-tempered little Korean girl whose Jack and the Beanstalk-inspired adventure begins when the egg hatches and a shape-shifting bird named Jinchalo emerges.

With an imagination so clearly in overdrive, it’s hard to believe Forsythe ever suffered from a lack of inspiration, but before embarking on a journey to South Korea to teach English in 2003, he said he had lost interest in conventional cartooning. “I stopped illustrating before I went to Korea,” he says.

The creative drought was quenched shortly after landing in Seoul. He began drawing Ojingogo, a web comic featuring Voguchi and a squid, in response to both the culture shock and the long hours spent in the classroom.

“The teaching work was really hard work, so I had to do something I loved,” he says.

Ojingogo’s nominations for Eisner and Expozine awards in 2005 and 2006 grabbed Drawn and Quarterly’s attention; they published it as a graphic novel in 2008.

“I loved Matt’s first book, Ojingogo, so it was a real pleasure to publish his follow-up, Jinchalo,” says D+Q publisher Chris Oliveros. “One of the things that struck me about Jinchalo is just how far Matt has come as an artist and, overall, as a cartoonist.”

Both books pay homage to Korean comics – the pages are without panels, the stories are steeped in Korean folk tales and, save for a few bursts of Korean onomatopoeia, the books are basically wordless.

But as good as it’s been drawing Voguchi comics, Forsythe is moving on to children’s books.

Last year, he illustrated My Name Is Elizabeth!, which earned the distinction of being named a New York Times notable children’s book. Based on its warm reception, American publisher Simon & Schuster sought Forsythe out and signed him to a two-book deal. The first will involve illustrations for a book about monkeys written by someone else, but the second will be all his own.

It was perhaps serendipitous, then, that on the first day of a recent trip to India, after signing the book deal, he found himself in the middle of a monkey migration along the Ganges. Later, at Kukkarahalli Lake in South India, a chance encounter with two ornithologists and their children led to an afternoon spent birdwatching. An admitted “big fan of birds,” Forsythe couldn’t believe his luck. He came home with an entire book filled with sketches and notes.

He may have refined his illustration skills since his Comical Wildlife days, but he’s still an animal-loving nerd at heart.

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