Noah Van Sciver is one of our great cartoonists. He’s been at his drawing table for as long as he can remember–and that has resulted in some very impressive work. It takes a lot to gain any traction in the world of comics and illustration. Van Sciver is one of the brave and persistent souls.
It is my pleasure to share this interview with Noah Van Sciver. We chat about his two new books, Joseph Smith and the Mormons (see Comics Grinder review here) and As a Cartoonist (see Comics Grinder review here). I think some applause and cheers are in order every chance we can get. Along the way, we end up talking about a great deal of Van Sciver’s career as a cartoonist. A lot of dots get connected. So, I hope you’ll tune in and feel free to leave a comment or like over at ye ole YouTubes.
As a Cartoonist. Noah Van Sciver. Fantagraphics. 2022. 104 pp. $19.99
One thing you need to get straight is that a bona fide cartoonist, in the truest sense of the word, is someone with a certain way of moving about in the world. I’m a cartoonist, so I should know. Just about every word I write is somehow connected to the fact that I’m one of those people. Word choice is everything. Well, maybe it’s more like every line of thought but it can get right down to the granular level. It’s absolutely a way of life, and that’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It is what it is–and those among us who are part of this tribe, made up of so many groups and subgroups, understand that this unique ability to write and draw comes at a price. No one is born with this ability, although some people are definitely more predisposed to creating comics than others. Sorry, but it’s a skill that demands a number of factors to fall into place if you intend to reach a certain level of excellence. You don’t see a short person agonizing over the fact that they will never be an all-star basketball player. And, yes, I know about Spud Webb, but he’s the exception to the rule. Anyway, most people don’t give a hoot about whether or not they will ever create comics of any form, let alone win awards and accolades for their effort. This is the story about someone who really cares about all those things having to do with becoming a masterful cartoonist. We’re talking about Noah Van Sciver. And he’d be the first to tell you that being a cartoonist is no walk in the park–and yet, there isn’t anything he’d rather be more.
This book is about all the peculiar things about being a cartoonist. That’s really what it all boils down to. Being a cartoonist is peculiar. That, in and of itself, is a burden and yet it is also alluring. Essentially, it’s something special that envelopes the person seeking to master it. Just like any other creative endeavor, like starting up a band. Noah Van Sciver’s story is one of struggle, persistence, and ultimate accomplishment. This book, a collection of short works in comics, adds up to a portrait of the artist, perhaps his best set of portrait pieces to date. This is, you could say, an anthology all by one creator. In the world of indie comics, cartoonists are always scrambling to jump on board and join the latest collective effort, a way to promote each other and get one’s work out into the world. It’s all about getting people to read your work. A lot of Van Sciver’s auto-bio comics are about this ongoing pursuit of readers: courting them, wanting them, wondering where they are. For all the anti-social behavior that a cartoonist may engage in, at the end of the day, it’s all about the readers. Maybe the cartoonist isn’t exactly looking to spend too much time with any particular reader, but it’s nice to know that they’re still around.
Van Sciver wins over his readers without playing up to them. Far from it. In fact, he’s more than happy to speak the unvarnished truth byway of his social satire. He has a way of evoking authenticity. A real cartoonist, especially someone like Van Sciver who uses his own life for material, is always striving to be real and avoid any false notes. So, Van Sciver’s best work comes across as totally unfiltered. Of course, it’s a balance of artifice and reality. But a reader still ends up getting caught up in the moment as when Van Sciver is juggling an interview with a prominent reporter and his uncouth brother who has just crashed upon the scene. In this specific moment, a big event at an art museum featuring Van Sciver’s work, the hierarchy is easily hijacked. No sooner has Van Sciver begun to talk to the reporter than he’s put off by her obvious remarks. He even sympathizes with his train wreck of a sibling, if only for a moment.
In another more complex scene, Van Sciver is a visiting artist on campus and must find a way to tolerate those less fortunate but still quite annoying. A relatively young man, actually thirty and not so young, who loves to wear a top hat and read teen girl manga, is prime fodder for Van Sciver’s wrath. The guy in the top hat, it turns out, is easily triggered by what he sees as Van Sciver’s micro-agressions. Nevermind that Top Hat has a lot of arrested development to deal with. Now, Top Hat’s focus is to get Van Sciver into trouble by reporting him to a school administrator. There’s no winning for Van Sciver when he’s called in to explain himself. Later, he tries to turn the other cheek and be positive. But, ultimately, Van Sciver is right back to being underwhelmed by life on campus.
A wonderful companion piece to this collection is the 2018 graphic memoir, One Dirty Tree, looking back on a childhood with eight other siblings in a less than ideal situation. This is a closer look at a ramshackle upbringing: living in squalor, an abusive and irresponsible father who is a Mormon zealot, and a young man with a very uncertain future–a young life miraculously held together by dreams of some day becoming a famous cartoonist! By force of will and determination, Noah Van Sciver turned his dreams into a reality beginning with his series of collected comics, Blammo. That would lead to his early masterpiece, his first graphic novel, 2012’s The Hypo. And, most recently, 2022’s Joseph Smith and the Mormons. This new book, As a Cartoonist, comes full circle with a collection of short works that feature comics from Blammo, among other sources.
In 1980, Woody Allen made Stardust Memories. He had already made two of his masterworks, Annie Hall and Manhattan, and he seemed to be at a crossroads: keep making funny movies or make more serious films. Perhaps there was a bit of a struggle. Just see Interiors. Anyway, a certain Woody Allen universe had been created and he was pretty much set and would go on to create a wonderful body of work. Van Sciver pays homage to that creative turning point in a moment in the book where he recreates Allen asking space aliens for advice. It’s a perfect opportunity for Van Sciver to insert himself and provide another take on the absurdity of it all.
Van Sciver is now at a point where he can look back and see significant milestones, including Fante Bukowski, which alone would thrill any cartoonist to call their own, and which Van Sciver can say confidently he brought into this world. Having recently become a father, Van Sciver honors his son, Remy, with a dedication and the final comic in the book. I think it’s safe to say that Noah Van Sciver is on the right path.
This monumental work has a considerable backstory. Artist Noah van Sciver, the eighth of nine children, was born and raised in a Mormon home in New Jersey until his parents divorced when he was 12 and his mother brought him along a different path. This disjuncture, followed by others more typical of teens in the last third of the twentieth century, may have stirred his artistic impulse. No doubt he looked to the example of an older brother who went successfully into the Superhero comics big time. Experience, separation and a sort of rejoining the earlier world thorugh art: these are large themes in artists’ and writers’ lives for centuries. That Van Sciver has taken on Mormon founder Joseph Smith is no accident.
Van Sciver has a penchant for US history, especially the history of the nineteenth century, rife with religious and social contradictions, idealists, cranks, Protestant revivalists and utopians. Joseph Smith, unlike nearly all the others, was a successful institution-builder (Mary Baker Eddy with her Christian Science denomination might be another example).
The spectacular, world-wide growth of the LDS or Latter Day Saints, its weighty and deeply conservative political influence in Utah and beyond, is remarkable given the improbable origins of the Church. The extended and heavily institutional story of prophet Joseph Smith, considered by most non-Mormons a dubious self-creation, is offered here in splendid detail in remarkable color.
Van Sciver could have examined the saga from a psychological distance, and even chosen to play the iconoclast. His earlier books on U.S. history, from Lincoln to Johnny Appleseed and Eugene V. Debs, show something else: a penetrating treatment of personality within a vanished era. That he documents his study with careful explanations at the end of the book, and that he donated the original art for the book to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is a measure of his seriousness.
Joseph Smith’s story is bizarre, a story about a discovery (he insisted) of golden tablets buried in the ground in upstate New York in the 1830s; a story about a church with outlandish views including (after a while) polygamy; a story that would not be the same in any other artist’s hands. Smith and his flock moved Westward with the great population shift of the mid-nineteenth century, and—this is crucial—they moved through natural and wondrous landscapes, which are drawn with stunning beauty and a certain strangeness by Van Sciver.
So much of the narrative has always seemed to critical observers as a magnificent case of American charlatanism, these days likely to be seen as pre-Trumpism. And yet Smith and his followers, staggering through bankruptcies, persecutions and the fatal defenestration of Smith himself, seen by Van Sciver, the observer-artist, looks like a revelatory detail of American history that seems in turn. . . a lot like the rest of American history.
The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski. By Noah Van Sciver. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2020. 452 pp. $39.99.
Noah Van Sciver is an interesting cartoonist. He’s long graduated from being one of “those to watch” to an artist with a substanital track record. As a cartoonist myself, I admire and appreciate what he’s doing. He is best known for his lovable loudmouth character, Fante Bukowski, a confused mashup of Charles Bukowski and John Fante. The ongoing joke here is that Fante Bukowski is a perpetually aspiring writer, both artless and clueless. If you haven’t jumped on the Fante Bukowski bandwagon yet, now is the time with the release of The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, which collects every mishap and stumble all the way on a crazed quest for fame and fortune.
Fante dreams big.
I think that Fante is a very successful character. Van Sciver has developed something that people can easily relate to. Despite the fact that Fante is associated with the literary crowd, there’s nothing highbrow about him. If nothing else, Fante is accessible. You can think of him as the Homer Simpson of lost souls. In a higher sense, Fante is a perfect vehicle for Van Sciver to skewer any lofty notions about art. But even suggesting this may only make Van Sciver laugh. For something really serious and dark, he’d direct you to his graphic novella, Saint Cole. There’s definitely loads of irony and irreverence attached to Fante. On a more basic level, you can replace any literary stuff in here (replace it with general office culture, academia or even indie comics culture) and enjoy this as a story about a guy who is not much more than a professional wedding crasher, a latter day Groucho Marx out to expose hypocrisy and pretentiousness in all its many forms even if he’s not aware of it. The character is funny, gets into silly situations, and will make you laugh. But there’s more.
Fante Bukowski demands to be taken seriously as a writer. Van Sciver presents us with the journey of a misguided young man who really has no great talent, skill or genuine passion. Fante simply feels entitled to be a success. Fante will make some effort, just the bare minimum, towards his dreams, and expect instant results. His bare minimum efforts are garbage but he refuses to take no for an answer. All in all, this is very funny stuff. Imagine Steve Martin, in his prime, in the role of Fante. Or Ricky Gervais. However, given all the work it took to set up the premise of Fante, it would have been interesting if the satirical aim was a bit more precise if that were possible. As it is, Fante does indeed have hilarious moments like when he’s courting favor with a “literary journal” he’d like to have his work in, the Firewarter Journal, with such a perfectly pompous name and a circulation of a dozen to match. These are the sort of pleasant jabs that you might expect from the comic strip, Doonesbury, but more generic. Ultimately, Van Sciver succeeds by keeping his humor broad.
A romantic but stupid idea of being a writer.
Van Sciver seems to root for irreverence more than anything as a way to move things along. He doesn’t want anything to be taken too seriously, including his own work. He’s not trying to be Dash Shaw. And he doesn’t seem to aspire to write a true comedy of manners like cartoonist Posy Simmonds although he does a fine job with the social commentary he does end up doing. More importantly, he has definitely invested quite a lot in the idea that Fante Bukowski is a clueless young loudmouth who is completely absorbed with entitlement. That alone is key. A lot of other tidbits up for satire can be lightly played with. The big takeaway is that Fante Bukowski is a young empty suit. He feels he is owed something with apparently nothing to show for his outrageous demands. If, in spite of this fact, Fante did find his fame and fortune, then the joke would truly be on us.
While much care has been taken, Van Sciver has also made sure to leave a certain amount of a raw quality to what he does–and there is a long-standing tradition for that in indie comics and in art in general. You want to avoid getting too polished, too slick. You want to look the opposite of “corporate.” So, you’ll see the artwork is only refined up to a certain point. Some cartoonists, for example, will deliberately misuse digital coloring to subvert the idea of making things look too pretty. Van Sciver, for example, could have easily chosen a way to seamlessly clean up any mistakes in his text but he wants you to be aware of them. He has pasted over by hand every correction to his text and made it so that you clearly notice it. Whatever the reason, it reads as a style choice.
Unlucky in love.
Following this subversive impulse, Van Sciver does the same for the actual story. Nothing is supposed to be taken too seriously–and that does make sense when you’re poking fun at all those “highbrows” who take themselves too seriously, right? That notion is where you might find some subtext. Van Sciver peppers his comics with all sorts of quotes from various famous writers and artists and, within this loopy context, even the best lines from Hemingway or Fitzgerald all sound like sayings from fortune cookies. For a book that seems to be in it just for laughs, taking a blowtorch to the old masters has some bite to it. But no one really wants to topple truly great writers, do they? Maybe so but going down that rabbit hole is a pretty tall order. In the end, it seems that we’re supposed to turn our gaze back to Fante Bukowski and maybe pity the poor fool.
Noah Van Sciver is an Ignatz award-winning cartoonist who first came to comic readers’ attention with his critically acclaimed comic book series Blammo. His work has appeared in the Best American Comics and the Fantagraphics anthology series NOW. Van Sciver is a regular contributor to Mad magazine and has created many graphic novels including The Hypo and Saint Cole. His latest, The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, collects all three volumes of the Fante Bukowski series in an expanded hardcover edition with extra features and special material. His follow up, Please Don’t Step on My JNCO Jeans, will be published in December.
I’d been meaning to read Noah Van Sciver’s latest graphic novel, “Fante Bukowski,” and I guess I was waiting for a good time to do it. I thought I had it figured out: a silly little satire about a ne’er-do-well. It is that, in a nutshell. But, after reading it, I wasn’t totally sure of what to say about it. Well, actually, I had some idea. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Steve Martin in his film debut, 1979’s “The Jerk.” It is both subversively offbeat and totally hilarious.
“Fante Bukowski,” is worthy of your attention in all its irreverent splendor. Part of the humor is that it is quite obvious that Van Sciver has no real axe to grind within the literary community and yet he seems to manage to provide some quite effective biting satire. The bite is not aimed at anyone in particular. It’s more like the Marx Brothers poking fun at the absurdity of life in general. And, it’s safe to say that the pomposity and pretentiousness that Groucho ridiculed a century ago has not changed much for Millennials.
And lest you think this book has anything meaningful to say about Charles Bukowski, think again! Our main character decided to have his name legally changed from Kelly Perkins to Fante Bukowski to honor his childhood idol. It’s, by far, the saddest thing, Audrey, another unpromising writer, has ever heard! Fante meets, or stumbles upon, Audrey during a reading Fante gives of an incredibly brief and ill-conceived bit of his so-called poetry. It is Fante’s dumb luck that Audrey finds him attractive and decides to spend the night with him. To her dismay, she discovers that Fante slaves away on an actual typewriter.
While Van Sciver seems to favor light humor, it also seems that he doesn’t suffer fools lightly either. The following scene can’t help but sound familiar to many an aspiring writer: there is much chit chat over a certain literary magazine at a party and it results in Fante pleading with the editor for the chance to submit some work. After some back and forth, the editor accepts Fante’s half-baked drivel. After more small talk, Fante asks how big the magazine’s circulation is. The editor, without a hint of irony, says it’s a dozen. Brilliant. That, and the fact that Fante is obsessed with using a typewriter does seem to say something about a new generation allowing itself to walk into walls it could have easily avoided.
Van Sciver’s latest subject, and what he does with it, is a prime example of a cartoonist who understands why he keeps going back to his drawing board to toil away. He has made certain choices like keeping the artwork within reasonable limits and cranking the humor just right. This is all in the service of telling the tale of a terribly delusional young man. It’s an absurd story. When it’s all said and done, it is a silly satire about a ne’er-do-well. But it’s an impressive silly little satire too.
“Fante Bukowski” is an 80-page trade paperback published by Fantagraphics Books. For more details, visit our friends at Fantagraphics right here.