"Love and Rockets" Meets "American Pie" in FCHS

Go Back to High School in FCHS

Do you remember high school?

For some of you, you might still be in it, or perhaps looking forward to it (or dreading it). Either way, for those that have went to high school it evokes memories of good times and bad. The ups and downs of teenagers have been played out countless times in novels, movies, television, poetry and here in comics.

In the upcoming graphic novel FCHS, a group of friends are living out their last year – their senior year – at Forest City High School. Hector, Kennedy, Jules and a host of other teenagers going through the struggles of their last year’s of high school with raging hormones, curiosity and aspirations all coming to bear.

This graphic novel is set to be released in October, but readers got an advance look at the book both when it initially appeared as a webcomic at ChemSetComics.com and as a preview that was released as AdHouse’s Free Comic Book Day book in 2009. In the preview, writer Vito Delsante and artist Rachel Friere showed a mix of light-hearted comedy with the real-life drama that we all know from our years in high school.

We talked with Delsante to talk more about the book and how his own high school years might have inspired these tales.

Newsarama: AdHouse Books has described this book as “Archie meets 90210” – as the book’s creator and writer, would you say that’s apt?

Vito Delsante: Yeah, totally.  The Archie description is mainly for the art, while the 90210 is for the content.  What that's supposed to evoke in the minds of the reader, well, it's up for grabs, but I know that when we came up with that...I think I've described it as Love & Rockets meets American Pie, as well...it's supposed to just tell readers, "Hey, this is going to be a fun ride."  This might be familiar and uncomfortable, but the important thing is that in the end, it's about a group of friends, not unlike your own.

Nrama: FCHS follows the senior year of a group of friends. How did your own senior year at high school affect what you wrote here?

Delsante: Greatly, and that's putting it mildly.  Other than renaming names and boiling everyone I went to school with down to essential archetypes (nerd, jock, etc), I tried my best to remember real stories that some of these characters real-life dopplegangers actually experienced.  The problem with that is remembering exactly every last detail of events that occurred nearly 20 years ago.  Then I realized that the characters, once you get past a certain part of plotting, begin to write themselves.  So what you get is a lot of real-life situations that actually happened and then a lot of situations that came out of watching these fictional kids live their lives.  I keep telling everyone that the only true stories that happen in FCHS happened to me, but even then, it's nice to fictionalize where the stories go from there.

Nrama: Tell us about the main characters of FCHS.

Delsante: Hector (Smith) is the one closest to me.  I describe him as, "me, if I was cooler."  He's the idealized version of me (while Kyle, who you meet in the book, is closer to the real me).  He...he means well.  That's the best I can say about him without revealing too much.  He tries really hard, and sometimes too hard.

Hector's two best friends, (Matt) Reilly and Dane (Foreman) are based on all of my best guy friends.  Reilly is the wild kind, the kind that skips class or smokes at lunch, while Dane, being a teacher's son, is more about doing the right thing.  At some point in the series (Books 2 and 3) those roles reverse and the most interesting thing about them is how their personalities shape and form Hector in different ways.

Alisha (Jones) is Hector's best girl friend, not girlfriend.  She's the platonic friend that gives him advice on girls, but she doesn't exist in the story to just impact Hector.  As much as she's a supporting character, she has an arc that has nothing to do with him.

Kennedy (Sanders) and Jules (Faraday) are the Betty and Veronica of the piece, the two girls that are competing for Hector's heart.  But as with everything in high school, it's not always so obvious.  There's a love...not triangle, but more of a quadrangle.  Hector is into Kennedy, but Kennedy has a boyfriend.  Jules is into Hector, but Hector thinks of her as a sister-type.  Dane is into Jules, but she only has eyes for Hector.  When you get right to it, the four of them, on paper, are perfect for each other...if they'd only act according to stereotypes. 

Those six are the main players, and there are TONS of supporting players; parents, teachers, students, ex's.  I think that one of the criticisms of the print version versus the webcomic (from The Chemistry Set) is that the cast has expanded, but to me, that's what high school is...sometimes you can go to school with someone for 8 years, but never notice them until the ninth.  

Nrama: What prompted you to create FCHS?

Delsante: I reread all of Jaime Hernandez's Locas.  It wasn't that the content prompted me, but the format.  When I looked at the reprints, I noticed that they were more or less nine-panel grids, and if you read just the top tier, it stood on it's own, like an old newspaper strip.  That's what really brought it out for me...the idea of doing a newspaper strip on the web (which I realize is nothing new, but that's when I came up with the idea).  I had to teach myself how to do the dialogue so that while it stood on it's own, it would combine with the next two tiers to make a full page or a full story.  I don't know if Jaime planned it that way, or if I was reading more into it than I should have, but once I saw that format, I just thought that the best thing that would fit within it was Rachel's artwork.  And from there, I decided to go with a high school dramedy.

Nrama: You mentioned the artist, Rachel -- looking at her pages it seems so perfect for your concept. How’d you find her, and what’s the collaboration like between you too?

Delsante: At this point, everyone knows about my day job (as a manager at Jim Hanley's Universe in New York).  Rachel was hired a few years ago and she was this natural talent that, to my frustration, would draw on every single piece of paper she could find.  Backing boards, signing flyers, post-its...Harry, one of our old employees at the store, has literally 90% of these doodles and they are pure gold.  And you could see that she had all the right influences (Alex Toth, Dan DeCarlo, the Hernandez Brothers) and all she needed was a push to draw an actual comic, instead of doing sketches and pin-ups.  I originally offered her a gig at The Chemistry Set, thinking that someone would love to work with her, but the timing was off.  I finished Stuck (my strip with Tom Williams) and took some time off to finish some other gigs and then realized no one had snatched her up, and started asking her if she wanted to draw a comic.  The rest, as they say...

When we first collaborated (on the newspaper strip-like stuff), I tried to give her as much stuff in advance as possible because I was dedicated to doing a full year of stories on Chem Set and to make sure there was always content on there, so everything was scripted ahead of time.  She would literally do it strip by strip, sometimes going ahead of schedule by a week or two, but this, added with the fact that we saw each other at work all the time, meant that we could do edits on the fly.  When AdHouse stepped in and offered us a book, I had to crank out the script in full-script/traditional comics format.  I tried to give her the script a chapter (30 pages) at a time.  This way I didn't overwhelm her.  What happened was when the story got to the point of the Chem Set strips, I got stuck.  I knew I wanted to adapt that stuff differently (so that long time readers would recognize the story, but new readers would be on the same page), but it just wasn't coming along.  At the same time, you want to challenge your artist, because she knows what's coming, so I just sat down with a notebook and started making a small flow chart...nothing like Paul Levitz would do with Legion, but something just to keep me knowledgeable of what was going on.  I also have this "table of relationships," is what I call it, in front of my desk.  It's basically all the characters, their families, and even some small detail about them that I need to know (their car, what position they play in sports, etc).  I would just add to it as I kept rolling with the story, and that helped me a great deal because with a big cast, you forget names of some really important people, like Hector's mom.  Even if I don't call her by name in the book, I need to know it for Rachel's sake.

Nrama: With your own day job at a comic store, do you plan on doing any in-store signings or convention appearances this season?

Delsante: It probably goes without saying, but when the book comes out, we'll definitely be signing at Hanley's first.  That's our home, and this book doesn't exist without Jim Hanley's Universe, period.  After that, I’m open to going anywhere within driving distance.  I think I’m also planning a visit to the public library in Ford City, where the book is somewhat based.

Nrama: Besides FCHS, what else are you working on currently?

Delsante: Some exciting stuff, actually!  After collaborating on Before They Were Famous: Babe Ruth, Andres Vera Martinez and I are putting together a book that will reinvent the Dracula legend.  No publisher or release date but when folks see it, they're going to lose their minds.  Seriously, it's going to be huge.  Tony Lee is going to be jealous!

I have a story in Popgun 4 with my old Speakeasy Comics bud, Attila Adorjany, called The Golden Mantis of Chinatown.  I just saw the completed artwork today and I'm so glad that we own it because this is another one that I think will lead to readers asking for more.

I'm working on a book called Stray with newcomer, Edi Torres, that will probably be the most mainstream (ie, superheroes) thing I'm working on right now.  We have a publisher, but we can't announce any details just yet.  For those who keep asking me when I'll be doing work for DC again, this is the answer.

I'm also in the process of putting together something I'm calling RetroFix.  I'm taking the public domain characters that are being used again, and putting my own spin on them.  The plan is to do 8-page stories for each, with different artists, and when we're done, put it to a vote to the reading public and continue the one with the most votes.  I hate to be a hype machine, but when you see my versions of The Black Terror, Miss Masque and the Golden Age Blue Beetle, you're going to find it hard to see them any other way.  

Nrama And coming full circle, for those who want FCHS now --  there’s the Free Comic Book Day issue to tide them over. Can they still get that somewhere?

Delsante: Well, that’s actually the cool part.  Comixology and AdHouse have teamed up to re-publish the Free Comic Book Day issue for free.  You need to download their iPhone application (.99 cents in the iTunes store), but from now until November when the book comes out, it wont cost you a thing to download FCHS.  This is something new they’re trying out, and I’m excited to be the guinea pig!  Another thing we’re doing is an exclusive web-strip prequel to the book.  This is also available for free on my site and on Facebook.  All you have to do is befriend either Rachel or I, or, if you’re less inclined to do that, visit www.vitodelsante.com.  

We’re intent on bringing business to the direct market comic stores, and for those that are interested in FCHS, but not sure what it is or what it’s about, we’re making it easy for everyone (retailers, readers) to make an informed decision.  But as they used to say in the 70's, “Don’t ask; just buy it!”  Seriously!  Pre-order a $10 for your Thanksgiving or Holiday break!  What do you have to lose?

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