Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Nate Beaty's Don't Cry Wolfman Chicago

Nate Beaty has been doing witty, expressive and self-deprecating mini-comics for quite some time. One gets a sense of that experience, both for good and ill, in reading his collection Don't Cry Wolfman Chicago. He's reached an age (late thirties) and a stage in his career, where it's no longer effortless to stay up all night and draw comics. There's also a clear sense of a constant reevaluation of his life and life choices, to the point where he mocks that tendency. The entire book is defined by a sense of push-and-pull, of wanting to make or have made different choices but knowing that he wouldn't be satisfied no matter what. There are, of course, the prerequisite strips about cats, none of which especially stand out. The better strips are those where Beaty has an understanding of his age and how similar he his to other cartoonists in his age cohort, as the hilarious strip "Cartoonist Gaggle" points out: three dudes with beards, flannel shirts and jeans all order whiskey and then perform various attention-getting acts in a sort of parody of a mating ritual. Beaty has a knack for self-deprecating humor that doesn't lapse into mere self-loathing. Part of that is his self-awareness as a cartoonist and person, and part of that is his bedrock need to relate narratives with punchlines. He's always going after the punchline, no matter what.

There are also the expected strips about the questionable career path of being a cartoonist, but these are generally pretty funny. My favorite was "Midlife Nofuckingidea", where Beaty asks himself if he should spend a bundle of cash on Transcendental Meditation, go on a road trip with cats, become a boxer or be a full-time cartoonists...and he concludes that the last choice sounds craziest. One thing that helps him sell his gags is his scribbly, often densely-hatched and highly expressive line. His self-caricature, with the beard and/or mustache, receding hairline and glasses is funny in and of itself. His need to create gags gives the book a cheery tone even when it tackles things that are unpleasant, like depression, loneliness and the sense that he's broken in some fundamental way. It's not just his line that's fun to look at, but also the way he uses a frenetic sense of exaggeration to bolster his gags. The final panel below is a good example of this, as his mouth is gaping open and he's shedding tears like a sprinkler. Even better is the strip below that, a frenzied, scribbly mass of lines that nonetheless hilariously anticipate and then deliver the punchline. Keeping a steady four or six panel grid anchors his comics and helps him create the rhythm needed to set up his punchlines.

That sense of Beaty being broken is best expressed in his strips about loneliness. It's not that he can't find romantic partners; indeed, they come and go in the nearly three and a half years the book covers. That's actually one of the book's strengths as a work of humor; by not forcing the daily diary formula on the reader, Beaty is able to pick and choose certain experiences for maximum impact. In some strips, he seems content and happy to have a girlfriend. In others, he hints at chafing at being that directly involved in someone else's sphere of existence. It's not so much the individual that's bothering him, but rather the very concept of being non-autonomous and codependent on others in any way. At the same time, he acknowledges that desperate need for human companionship, and there are not pat answers provided inbetween gags. There's only an acknowledgement that he's unable to be present in a given situation and not think about how its opposite might be more appealing to him. He portrays himself as being haunted by that sense of the good being the enemy of the perfect, only there's no way to have a perfect life given the contradictions he's plagued by. That said, the only way out for Beaty is cartooning, as he keeps creating, keeps thinking and keeps laughing:at himself, at the life he's created for himself and at the world around him.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Minis: Sophia Wiedeman

Sophia Wiedeman's comics continue to be elegant, restrained and scratchy in a way that adds a visceral layer to the reading experience. Looking at her 2015 mini, Semisolid, one can see how her line has become more confident, with no extraneous rendering. That said, when she requires a greater degree of naturalistic density, her hatching and stippling skills are more than up to the task. Her storytelling was always poetic and evocative, but she's truly developed the drawing chops to effectively tackle any subject without distracting the reader with figures or objects that are just a bit wobbly.

Wiedeman's ability to draw faces in a style that straddles the line between naturalism and a more iconic approach is one of her most distinctive visual signatures, especially when the eyes of her characters are the color of burnt-out embers. In this story, we follow a woman (possibly a stand-in for the artist) who is literally trying to draw her way into something. The panels of the page become large sheets of paper that she's drawing on, until finally a door appears on one and she grasps its handle. She emerges into a landscape with a withered tree that begins to fill with sand. After a moment of seeming impassivity, she finally extricates herself from the room and shuts the door. She's now in a complex of rooms and halls and happens upon something decaying, flies buzzing around it. When the flies start to swarm and chase her, she runs to another door and this time sees a huge blob sitting in the sand. Upon closer inspection, it's a giant baby, and she begs for its help after it asks "Is it time?". Its response was to swallow her whole and tell her "You know what happens now". The baby changes shape, turning into a marsh and then a forest where she wakes up. She spies a caterpillar and holds it in her hand, til she turns over and lies on her back--revealing a bulge in her stomach.

Clearly, this is not only a comic about becoming pregnant, but it's also one about the process of transformation as a whole. The rotting pile of decay perhaps represents the decision to abort a previous child, with the flies' insistent aggressiveness being a manifestation of lingering or unprocessed guilt. This is a journey that took her a great deal of effort to make, and while it may not have been time (there so rarely is a perfect time to have a child, though some are obviously much worse than others), it was clear that there was a need to sweep out the detritus in her brain and move on. That caterpillar, on its journey to transformation, was a clear metaphor for her own journey that was about to begin Wiedeman hints that while giving birth is certainly transformational in its own way, the real barrier here is the woman's attitude toward giving birth and the ability to discard and reshape her feelings. It's a beautiful, fascinating comic that offers the readers a number of clues but never spells things out.

Overripe is a collection with a couple of stories in it. The first is about a beloved dog rendered with an appealing gray wash. Wiedeman does a great job drawing the dog, which is the type which is essentially a four-legged carpet. The scribbles, squiggles and loops that made up the dog oddly gave it a sense of realness that a more naturalistic drawing might not have captured, because the squiggles made it easier to depict the dog's emotions and body language. The second long story, "Night Stand", is about Wiedeman's childhood proclivity for running through her mother's night stand. The feathery gray wash is exquisitely rendered, perfect for a story about memory and identity. In reading, smelling, using or eating everything she found, Wiedeman says she was "consuming her piece by piece". Not in the sense of using her up, but rather loving her so much that she wanted to know her totally, almost in a desire to see the world precisely through her eyes. It gets at the problem of human connection, where no matter how much we might love someone, we can never truly know them, never show true empathy because of how our bodies and minds are separated. Wiedeman suggests that over time (there's a beautifully-rendered sequence where the different shoes she wears indicates how she kept coming back to this practice), she knew her as best as she could--and she was ready to return the favor one day with her own night table. This is a beautiful, moving story that is still told with a sense of restraint, both in terms of the text and the visuals. There are also some interesting short pieces here exploring shapes, including a character falling across a nine-panel grid and another featuring ink drip down from panels in another grid, as well as a funny rendering of a worm speaking Spanish.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Minis: Summer Pierre

I had the pleasure of meeting Summer Pierre at this year's SPX, and she gave me a couple of her minis. I first became aware of her when it was revealed that she was a judge at this year's show, and I wondered how she had escaped my notice considering that her kind of work is right up my alley and I know a lot of people in her circle. Her Paper Pencil Life #4 is a reflective, easy-going account of being an artist, a mother and a person with an inquisitive and open mind. It's difficult sometimes for me to put my finger on what makes a diary comic successful or interesting, but reading Pierre's comics started to make that clear: it's the quality of writing. There is always artifice in doing diary comics, as it is only "true" as far is it describes a certain event at a certain time from one person's perspective. The key is in that artifice to take some risks, to spill some ink and open up a space of vulnerability.

From the very first strip, the clarity of her writing and point of view shines through on the very topic of writing itself. Working from photo reference, she draws a number of female writers at work through the years, imagining herself in the same position. The irony of the strip is that its conclusion talks about how she gave up writing, knowing it would never happen, only to find her voice as a cartoonist. Pierre's usual working style is a Frank Santoro-style 3x3 grid, with elegant flourishes here and there and a penchant for filling up her panels with detail but also giving them just enough breathing room. In a strip where she used a lot of cross-hatching, the narrative captions are in white in order to easy the burden on the reader's eye. In another strip that had more negative white space, she used black captions with white print. Her line is simple, malleable and expressive, reminiscent of Jessica Abel's work. It's also clear that she's looked at John Porcellino's work, as she has a penchant for trying to be in the moment and write & draw about that. Pierre never gets to Porcellino's level of stillness, but it's obviously something she thinks about while her brain is whirring.

There's one interesting strip where she abandoned her naturalistic and expressive style for an Ivan Brunetti-style geometric approach, and it was a fascinating departure because it worked remarkably well. That style was a bit colder than her usual approach, however, and that warmth is key to her overall storytelling aims. Pierre isn't talking at the reader nor keeping them at arm's length; instead, one feels warmly welcomed, as though Pierre was a long-time friend who was catching us up on her life. Even that level of intimacy involves a certain performative aspect, as Pierre often couches her observations in funny stories like being constantly mistaken for Tina Fey. The same is true for "Kiss (Extended)", which is a meditation on the way friendships continue in gifts given--especially the gift of music, because it's a way of quickly accessing old memories. "How I Came To Comics" is another funny story, this time about Pierre's relationship with various arts in the form of anthropomorphic versions of comics, poetry, painting, music and fiction. This is Pierre at her best, her wit showing both in terms of the slightly ratty line and the funny conceptual nature of the strip.

While those are strong strips, I enjoy her quieter, more quotidian strips as well. Pierre's strips about improving her health and fitness, her obsession with coffee (a tired subject to be sure, but one that Pierre acquits herself well on), time spent with her friends, and musing on the town's energy after a big storm. While her son and husband show up quite a bit, they are very much secondary characters, as she prefers to think about her own reactions and feelings rather than delve too much into what they might be thinking. That said, family is something she thinks about a lot, usually in the context of a photo or other object that jogs a memory loose. That really gets at the heart of this comic, which finds Pierre either exploring a memory or desperately trying to stay present enough to hold onto that memory. The final strip more thoroughly explores that idea, as a long drive made mostly in silence finds her thinking about other trips and small kindnesses, as well as how different and better her life is now.

Memory is another key factor in her travel diary Souvenirs, as she points out that that word is French for "memories". Pierre discusses her struggle between trying to stay in the moment and connect with the various friends she was with on her trips to The Hague, Amsterdam and Paris and then later trying to record these memories. That struggle is evident on the page, as her drawing is understandably more rushed and far less confident than her other strips, especially as the book goes on. Her writing feels more scattered and there are fewer clever through-lines, and she finds few hooks in exploring the cities she's in as anything but a tourist (which is something she's trying to avoid). Pierre had trouble finding ways to distill the essence of each place she visited on the page in a meaningful way. What did come across loud and clear, especially in the Paris section, was just how much her friends meant to her. Especially as someone in her forties who doesn't have the benefit of being around old, close friends as much as they would like, that sense of living in a bubble of fun when hanging around them now was both giddy while she was in it and heartbreaking when she had to leave. She and her friend Mindy in Paris bonded mostly over food and simply being in each other's presence, and that got at something a cab driver said later in the book. He and others said that no Parisian is ever happy living there, that it's only a good place to visit. Pierre reflected on that without necessarily drawing any conclusions, but as someone who grew up in a place that depended a great deal on its tourist trade, tourist-oriented activities are almost always invisible to natives. It's impossible to stay present and focus on the beauty of a city like that when the city makes money off its beauty. Pierre asks, "It's still a kind of love, isn't it?" for a tourist to love a city, and it is. But it's not a lasting love; rather, it's a souvenir.

Even in an effort handicapped by illness, jetlag, fatigue and activity, Pierre's intelligence and inquisitive mind is on display. She's not afraid to to ask questions for which there are no immediate answers. There's a remarkable comfort in her drawing style, which mixes solid chops and excellent storytelling. In the ideal Pierre comic, everything moves at its own, languid pace, giving her the time and space to reflect both on the moment and the memories it triggers. Pierre certainly puts the lie to the notion that not having a traumatic life can make autobio boring, because she's making observations that anyone can relate to, even if their lives are nowhere near as comfortable as hers. Pierre's ability to write multipage stories does lead me to wonder if she's got the itch to do a longer narrative focusing on some key memories in her life; given her way of weaving themes in and out of her stories, I imagine it could be quite successful.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: Blammo #9

Blammo #9, by Noah Van Sciver. It was interesting re-reading Van Sciver's recent comics in writing reviews of them, because while they are quite good, his work in Blammo #9 is noticeably better. This dense, 40+ page collection of recent works is as satisfying a comic as I've ever read. Van Sciver's dark sense of humor is on full display here, but it's his willingness not so much to be self-deprecating but to doubt himself and everything around him that makes this such a compelling read. For Van Sciver, serious character work and gags can go hand-in-hand. He applies movie parodies to his own life and yet manages to make powerful and honest revelations about himself in the process. He uses long-form improv techniques in the form of unexpected callbacks. In the midst of critiquing his own lack of craft, he unleashes a series of images that are as profoundly beautiful as anything I've ever seen in a comic book. Above all else, there's a sense of a mind that's constantly searching, questioning and seeking. He's a cynic who wants to be believe, but has yet to find anything to believe in.

In this comic, Van Sciver has at last managed to achieve what he set out to do as a cartoonist: tell stories packed with detail like Will Elder and Julie Doucet, overwhelming the reader with the intensity of his work while still retaining narrative clarity. Van Sciver's use of autobio in this issue is fascinating, as he writes about himself in the present day, flashes back to his childhood and later writes a fictionalized version of himself that is nonetheless no less authentic. The time Van Sciver spent in White River Junction at the Center for Cartoon Studies was time he used wisely, as his drawing schools noticeably improved. It's important to understand that Van Sciver didn't want to improve his draftsmanship simply for the sake of creating a flashier style; instead, Van Sciver wanted more control over what he was able to draw in order to draw out certain reactions from his readers through the power of his images. Van Sciver was going after creating a powerful aesthetic reaction in the context of his cartooning, a reaction that's mystical as much as anything else, and he got at that in the first story of the book.

Van Sciver really takes advantage of the periodical nature of his comic by including features like letters pages (including one from Robert Crumb!) and a funny, annotated catalog in the back, including a bonus strip where he looks at a bizarre, "hot" comic that Van Sciver describes as "a thesis project from an art student who wants to fuck New York." The opening and closing pieces answer the question, "Mommy, where do Blammo comics come from?" Van Sciver takes a poke at self-mythologizing in an absurd story about a head without a body that twice winds up setting up variations on the same dopey gag. It's Van Sciver deflating himself by showing that he's still very much a humorist at heart, even as he's greatly expanded his storytelling range.

The first full story is "White River Junction, Vermont". It's based on his experiences as as a fellow at CCS and the ways in which he felt uncomfortable with the students. While Van Sciver isn't afraid to torch some bridges here, this isn't really a bitch session about CCS or the people he met there. Rather, it's a meditation on belief, and the ways in which even the most progressive of people can stereotype others. When he reveals to a group of students at a barbecue that he's an ex-Mormon because they were spreading misinformation about church practices, they aren't exactly convinced by his explanations. That leads to the first of many flashbacks, where Van Sciver is stuck inside the house to study scriptures, but all he wanted was to play outside. Then he saw a strange UFO.

That leads to a hilarious page where he helps a student move, only to have the student say "I consider myself to be all-inclusive and everything, but someone told me that you're Mormon or something?" A frustrated Van Sciver snaps at the person, who then treats Van Sciver as though he were victimized, leading Van Sciver to utter the line "You're just a 30 year old with a wacky top hat who loves teen girl manga. I don't know you..." which leads to the student flinching and replying "You're assaulting me with your microaggressions!" Van Sciver here is frustrated precisely because the supposedly all-inclusive CCS environment is playing "Telephone" with his story and making precisely the kind of assumptions that are harmful. If this had been an early Dan Clowes story, the nastiness of that exchange would have stood as the story's climax. Instead, it leads to soul-searching on Van Sciver's part, as he realizes that he overreacted and thinks back to when his mother told him there was no hell, and how hard it was for him to shake that concept.

Van Sciver is called in by a school official, who received a complaint that Van Sciver was intolerant and had "negativity toward manga and expressive clothing". Once again, Van Sciver's inherent  introverted character worked against him, and the students there ran with misconceptions. Van Sciver goes back and forth to the past and back to the present, ruminating on the other artifacts being a Mormon left on his life, like a desire to wait til marriage to lose his virginity. He also considers his techniques as an artist, honing in on the ways his level of craft improved over the years and the internal debate between continuing to work on sharpening his detail or to simplify. That leads him out to the forest (after yet more difficulties with White River Junction), where he chides himself for drawing terrible trees ("sticks in the ground"), and he starts praying for god to appear to him. It's a beautiful, transcendent moment that adroitly answers his own question regarding the use of detail, as the lush, silent beauty of the forest is expertly rendered by Van Sciver. The final, silent panel represents his mind being stilled at last, if only just for a moment.

There are a number of excellent short pieces that act as palate-cleansers, including true tales from his dad's time hitchhiking out in the desert and pulling a horrible prank on his brother, the decline and fall of his hilarious "19th Century Cartoonist" character, and an adaptation of Aesop's "City Mouse and Country Mouse" fable. The 19th Century Cartoonists represents his broadest use of humor in this issue, even as the feature gets at certain truths about the status of cartoonists in society and how that's changed over time along with the self-delusion of hacks. All of these features are full-formed and thought-provoking and are far from throwaways or space-fillers; as I noted, they serve not just as a quick diversion between the main features, but they work to fully reset the reader's attention each time.

"Little Bomber's Summer Period" may be Van Sciver's single best work of fiction to date. He really steps out of his comfort zone in depicting the lives of "Bomber" and Jenny. Bomber is a security guard at an art museum who's just been left by his girlfriend after he bought a house. He's in therapy in an effort to deal with these issues, which is a smart way for Van Sciver to quickly catch the reader up on the character's problems and challenges. Essentially, his inability to express emotion and his need to put up protective walls leads his therapist to suggest a material way of tearing down those walls, by leaving his front door unlocked at night. Jenny is a graphic designer at the museum who's constantly being dumped on by her boss and ignored by her husband. The two of them are friends who commiserate regarding feeling stuck and helpless.

The story is about that sense of desperation and finding ways out of it. Bomber is inspired to start painting thanks to the story of a fictional artist named James Markinson, an abstract expressionist type who retreated to a cabin in order to clear his head. This was a case of someone badly wanting a myth to be true in order to set up a foundational change for themselves. Jenny winds up quitting her job and leaving her husband, asking Bomber for a place to stay while she figured things out. There's a sweetness to their friendship that never quite turns into romance, but they found ways to bring out the best in each other as friends. Bomber was comfortable enough to open up to her in ways he never did with his ex, while Jenny found an affirming, positive presence in Bomber, something she didn't get elsewhere. They are certainly co-protagonists in this story, with each of their narratives running into each other. The outrageous and funny end of the story is very cleverly presaged by all sorts of incidental clues in the narrative (Van Sciver never wastes a line of dialogue), adding a touch of comedy that's more in the realm of EC Comics than anything else. The final panel actually touches on the first story in the book, as despite everything else that happens, Bomber is clearly starting to see the world in a different way. He's starting to see the world as an artist, in all its beauty and terror, just as Noah in the first story stops and stares at the first, with his understanding forever altered.

The final story, "Comics Festival 2016", is a sequel to the first story in the book and also a very clear homage to the Woody Allen film Stardust Memories. A now-famous Van Sciver is the star of a comics festival, complete with a limo ride from the airport and constant demands on his time from his fans. At the same time, that attention is bittersweet, as his fans tell him they prefer his "earlier, funnier comics" (a bit straight from the film) even as he feels slightly adrift in his career. The UFO from the earlier story comes back and the aliens tell him, when he asks for the meaning of life and if he should become a missionary: "You're not the missionary type. You're a cartoonist. You wanna do mankind a service: write better comics." That's also from the movie, yet Van Sciver cleverly planted this callback earlier in the comic in a seemingly unrelated way. The book-long quest for meaning and that sense of wandering fits neatly into the structure of the parody, giving the story an authentic and emotional spine beyond the simple beats of the gags. The real achievement of this issue of Blammo is the way Van Sciver has managed to blend humor and pathos in equal measure in the same stories, each one supporting the other in unexpected and clever ways. Even the most mean-spirited of jokes is leavened by moments of true empathy, and even the least sympathetic of characters is given a fair shake. It's Van Sciver's clear confidence as a draftsman, cartoonist and storyteller that makes his explorations of self-doubt, faith and belief all the more convincing.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: Disquiet

Disquiet, by Noah Van Sciver. This is an elegant collection of short stories culled from his own Blammo! series, various anthologies, short one-shots, illustrations and features made just for this book. Designer Keeli McCarthy outdid herself working with Van Sciver, as every aspect of this book is simply beautiful. The quality of the work itself varies, as it's a mix of his better and more recent stories as well as some sillier but still interesting material. That said, Van Sciver does a great job, working with editor Eric Reynolds, of sequencing the stories and interspersing them with interesting interstitial material. The most striking of this sort of material was a series of silhouette head shots of Van Sciver, each one a more fantastic rendering of what's really going on inside of his head: a lush forest, a series of lightning bolts, a rugged farm, a desolate and wind-swept cityscape, a mountain fortress filled with soldiers, and a strange contraption. In many respects, these illustrations and others are a sort of career mile-marker for Van Sciver, demonstrating the ways in which his drawing skills have improved.

Van Sciver has always favored a detail-rich approach to his comics, which made his early comics feel cluttered and messy. Usually, most cartoonists learning on the job figure out they need to simplify and stop over-drawing. Being a cartoonist doesn't mean you need to make every image a representational triumph; instead, what's important is the clarity of the storytelling. Counterintuitively, Van Sciver took the harder road: improving his skill as a draftsman through patience and practice, and then applying what he learned to his storytelling. The story, "The Death Of Elijah Lovejoy" (originally published by 2dcloud), is an example of that kind of learning lab. His first book, The Hypo, saw Van Sciver make a big jump with regard to both storytelling and techniques like his hatching and crosshatching. This story, a sort of companion piece to The Hypo, was essentially a series of drawing problems that Van Sciver tried to solve on every page, as a lynch mob that had killed a black man was now setting their sights on an abolitionist newspaper and its printing press. The story is the greatly outnumbered writers trying to defend themselves at sunset. So Van Sciver balances the colors in the sky against a densely-rendered house, horrific acts of violence on nearly every page, and the grotesquely-rendered participants. He uses a dizzying array of page design techniques, carving up panels at weird angles in order to keep the reader off-balance and fully inserted into the chaos of the event.

Most of the stories in the book combine Van Sciver's expertise in depicting the lives of the abjected, the desperate, the doomed and the delusional with his fascination with twists in the vein of E.C. Comics or The Twilight Zone. "The Lizard Laughed", for example (based in part on Van Sciver's father), is about a man whose son contacts him years after he walked out on his family. Here, Van Sciver uses a false climax (the son confronting the father, only to be brushed off) to set up a darker one (where the son weighs the decision of whether or not to kill his father in his sleep with a gun he had brought with him for just that purpose). The story works because of Van Sciver's unerring ability to balance the mundane aspects of his characters' lives with the unusual thing that happens in each story. "The Cow's Head" is a grimy fairy tale that's true to the unsanitized tradition of violence and punishment inherent in such stories but that's also given a level of absurdity true to Van Sciver's sense of humor. "Down In A Hole" is about a suicidal clown who's been fired from his TV show who falls into a deep hole while exploring a cave, finding a tyrannical society of mole men living below. The final twist, after what appeared to be a heroic escape, makes perfect sense as he realizes he has to accept his punishment. That urge to escape, a thirst for justice or a desire to go back to a simpler time is present in every story in the collection, and Van Sciver rarely grants his characters what they want.

"Punks V. Lizards" represents a merger of Van Sciver's older interests as a cartoonist with his new understanding of how to emotionally modulate a story. Indeed, it's a perfect example of a character wanting to go back to a simpler time when they were happier with other people. "Night Shift" and "Untitled" find Van Sciver experimenting with making women the protagonists of his stories, often in roles that are compelling but also juxtaposed against more colorful characters with far greater problems. Overall, the material in this book is a step above his first collection, Youth Is Wasted. Everything is sharper, smarter, better drawn, more complex and more interesting. Before Van Sciver won his Ignatz, I told him and anyone else who would listen that Van Sciver has had a good an eighteen months as any cartoonist in the world, based on this collection, My Hot Date, Fanta Bukowski and other work. What is obvious, and is evident by my review of tomorrow's entry, is that Van Sciver hasn't come close to peaking yet.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: My Hot Date

My Hot Date, by Noah Van Sciver. If Fante Bukowski was a funny lark for Van Sciver, then My Hot Date is a highly focused, excoriating and awkwardly hilarious autobio story. As I noted in my review of Fante Bukowski, Van Sciver understands that punching yourself (done correctly) is an inherently humorous thing to do, and Van Sciver is merciless in mocking his fourteen-year-old self. At the same time, this comic is also a savage critique of the narcissism of youth culture, the emptiness of consumer culture and the desperate trauma that poverty can inflict. While Van Sciver has written plenty of funny stuff before, this comic had me howling in laughter at many of its pages. While the humor certainly takes advantage of young Noah's awkwardness, I found that there's a material difference between this and other kinds of "squirm humor". Squirm humor is drier and usually devoid of empathy; there's a cruelty to it where even if the target is deserving, it can sometimes be almost unbearable to watch or read. This comic, published by Kilgore Books, is at once broader in its sense of humor and also more sympathetic towards its characters--and that includes Noah himself. Sure, he plays his humiliating first date for laughs, but the effect is less "look at that asshole" and more like "look at that poor, naive child." Van Sciver quite deservingly won his first Ignatz Award for this comic.

There's a lot going on underneath the surface of this comic. While it's ostensibly about this particular, humiliating experience, the comic is very much about the dynamics of a family steeped in extreme poverty. Van Sciver sets the stage right away when he notes that his father was long gone and that his mother was trying to raise six kids in a two-bedroom apartment. The second thing that is clear is that Noah had initially been raised Mormon until his mother took him out of the church, which left Noah with little spiritual or cultural guidance other than what was popular or present at the time. That's how he became a skater kid who listened to rap and bands like Korn. Van Sciver is painstakingly honest as to how he talked when he was fourteen: he said things like, "Hold up, dawg" and "Word up, yo." The embarrassing attempts to act tough, like a friend carrying around a butterfly knife, rang oh-so painfully true. The "anatomy of Noah Van Sciver, 1998" page is self-eviscerating to be sure, but the fact that he had to wear his sister's old sneakers and that he had a single pair of sagging pants points once again to the way that any attempt at adolescent self-esteem was simply doomed from the start. The page where he stares into the bathroom mirror and imagines he's Conan the Barbarian is one of the funniest I've ever seen; it's a testament to the self-delusion of the male ego.

Getting back to family dynamics, a friend of Noah has regular, profanity-laced screaming matches with his mother. When it's revealed that Noah's been chatting with a girl on AOL, there's a labyrinth of family issues he has to navigate in order to talk to her, including competing for computer time with his sister Abby and competing for the room with the computer with her sister Amanda (and her boyfriend). That led to Van Sciver describing the sleeping arrangements in the house: the six kids all shared one room. Noah slept on top of a ratty bunk bed that rained down planks on his younger brother, and they both tortured Abby by trying to scare her ("We would keep this up until she cried.") Van Sciver doesn't cry poverty or bemoan his upbringing; rather, the family was simply a part of his narrative's plot mechanics. For example, when he somehow managed to convince the girl he was talking to go on a date, he asked Abby to cut his hair. She agreed, but "only if you smell my breath for 2 minutes", which is exactly the kind of weird thing a sibling would do to another sibling who wanted a favor. When told that using lemon juice would lighten his hair, he did so only to find that he attracted a swarm of bees--another laugh out loud moment in the book. His older brother literally beat him up to the point of tears while he was on the phone with his prospective date.

Naturally, the date quickly went south once the girl he had talked to realized that Noah was younger and scrawnier than she had thought. Of course, the fact that she brought one of her friends along (and she was vicious) didn't make it any less awkward. Van Sciver noted that the date failed "because of who I was. I had somehow sold myself as a higher quality product than I could actually deliver", which was a brutal and telling quote. Not only was that a devastating blow to his self-esteem, he cleverly phrased it in terms of economics; he was a product that he couldn't sell in a culture that he didn't have the resources to buy into.

Visually speaking, Van Sciver has always excelled at drawing compelling and sympathetic grotesques. He truly went to town in this regard in how he drew his family, his friends and especially himself. From distorted faces to overbites to scraggly beards, Van Sciver's characters are simply fun to look at. His fourteen-year-old self, with freckles, ultra-curly hair, glasses and bad teeth, is an absolute triumph from a character design standpoint. Van Sciver's self-caricature dominates every panel he's in because of his eccentricities. What really stands out in this book is the expressive use of color. There are pages where Van Sciver scribbles colors in using colored pencils, and those scribbles (as well as taping down lettering corrections) give the reader a sense of just how handmade this story is. There are pages with incredibly dense cross-hatching that still employ that color scribble that serves almost as a kind of embellishment after taking a closer look. They add depth but also grit, as though the entire world seen through Van Sciver's eyes was hopelessly grim and muddy. The color is entirely in service to the line, though, until right after Noah's date and he's getting a ride home. In a despondent state, Van Sciver draws himself fading out, leaving more abstracted color then line. It's one of many small details that reveals just how much thought Van Sciver puts into every page of his work.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: Fante Bukowski

Fante Bukowski, by Noah Van Sciver. I've been reviewing Noah Van Sciver's work for six years, and I can't think of a single cartoonist who has improved more in the course of following their career. Through sheer hard work and a relentless urge to improve as both writer and draftsman, Van Sciver has become one of the best working cartoonists in the world. The themes and interests that have always driven his work, like crippling loneliness; the lives of outsiders, weirdos and grotesques; lives spinning out of control and a grim but frequently bitterly hilarious sense of fatalism continue to be featured. It's just that Van Sciver has matured as a writer, and he's now much more capable of creating fully-formed characters who are often living in absurd or nightmarish situations. Van Sciver is also a devastating satirist who uses himself as his best target, mining genuine laughs out of hubris, the stink of desperation, arrogance and self-delusion.

Van Sciver is a restless creator, usually working on multiple planned projects at once as well as improvising projects in his sketchbook. That's how one of his funniest projects, Fante Bukowski, came to be. Goofing around on the idea of a pretentious, privileged aspiring writer, he created Fante and started posting pages on the internet. While he played the idea of a guy so deluded that he would change his name to reflect his two favorite hipster authors for laughs, Van Sciver essentially paints him as everything he hates: someone who wants fame but isn't willing to work hard. Fante is a blowhard who takes on the trappings of the starving, bohemian writer, proclaiming his own genius even as he calls his mom up for money.

One thing that I've always liked about Van Sciver's work is that he gives a lot of thought to every detail regarding his comics. He's especially interested in production design, and the design of this book is a pure, hilarious delight. It mimics the cover design, font, shape and paper type of a Bantam Books-style sleazy/literary novel from the 1940s. The entire package is a silent gag in and of itself, and that's part of Van Sciver's cleverness: using a visual gag without feeling the need to oversell it. Van Sciver's restraint and trust in his readers' ability to make connections is a big reason why he's able to inject both pathos and humor into his stories. Even at his most satirical, Van Sciver still finds ways to make his characters at least somewhat sympathetic. Fante may be a buffoon and a hypocrite, but even in this story, there's a spark of humanity that's almost admirable. After all, he leaves his job work for his father as a lawyer to become a writer; it's just that the way he goes about trying to be an artist and his motives ("1. A big time book deal. 2. Apple stock. 3. Emma Stone") that are so laughable and sad.

The book starts off with an episodic approach and stays as a series of vignettes, though Van Sciver quickly located the spine of his narrative as well as several key characters. There's a sleazy, starfucking literary agent, the publisher of a tiny but pretentious literary journal, an older guy at a bar that Fante befriends, and a young, slightly unhinged writer that Fante winds up sleeping with. One of the highlights of the book is a Dave Eggers signing that Fante attends, and he winds up insulting Fante while talking to the literary agent. Van Sciver portrays Eggers as kind of a sad sack: "Don't mind me...I'm not sitting right here. ...oh lord...I should have gone to computer college." Fante eventually gets some inspiration but winds up doing a bad rewriter of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness Of Being instead, earning him the wrath of the agent. The book ends with Fante leaving the city in an attempt to find himself in nature which ends as badly as one would expect. To round out this slender little volume, there are Fante pin-ups at the end (in the Mighty Marvel style!) that seem so fitting.

Van Sciver is at a stage in his career where even a lark like this stands out as something that strikes a chord with both the artist and the audience. To be sure, this book is a ridiculous goof, with over-the-top characterization and some ridiculous situations. That said, Van Sciver took it upon himself to use the book to continue to work on his skills as a cartoonist and storyteller, and some of his best and most fluid character design can be found in this book. There's even a character who bears a resemblance to Archie Andrews and is as annoyingly square as one would expect a grown-up Archie to be. Still, the perpetually sunglasses-wearing, goateed literary agent is only slightly less interesting and funny than Fante himself.  If Fante is a version of Van Sciver to some degree (perhaps a worst-case scenario), it makes sense that he would make the repulsive agent such an effectively mean character. Van Sciver has a way of making himself an object of derision in his books in a way that doesn't come across as whiny or self-pitying. He simply understands that when writing satire, punching down is frowned upon and punching up can be pretentious, but punching yourself is always funny.