Noah Van Sciver has reached the stage of his career where a collection of his short stories is appropriate and even overdue. Culled from his series Blammo! as well as several anthologies and a stand-alone comic, the collection Youth Is Wasted is an amusingly titled account of precisely what Van Sciver did in his youth: work his ass off at the drawing board in a quest to get better in public. It’s an ideal introduction to his comics, focusing on Van Sciver’s tales of desperate losers, urban decay, the often fruitless search for meaning and connection, and maintaining hope in the worst of situations. The stories all feature an abiding sympathy for these characters; these are his people. There are also a few stories that feature Van Sciver’s more whimsical and just plain weird tendencies. Like Dan Clowes, Van Sciver is a gag man at heart. It’s just that his punchlines tend to be on the darker side.
As such, “The Easy Life” is a sort of invocation for the book, as a one-pager that features Van Sciver’s amusing and somewhat pushy narrative caption voice, urging a worker to quit his job, live under a bridge, kill his boss, etc., promising great rewards. Navigating the line between drudge work and being an artist is a constant sub-theme in Van Sciver’s comics, with the fantasy of getting off that treadmill a pervasive one. “Abby’s Road” was an early breakthrough for Van Sciver, as he notes in the artist’s commentary at the back of the book. It’s about a loser Juggalo recounting his brief relationship with a girl in high school and how his jealousy drove her away in spectacular fashion. While the protagonist is kind of scummy, Van Sciver’s achievement in this story is getting the reader to feel sorry for him.
Throughout the book, Van Sciver sprinkles in one to three page stories and fairy tale adaptations to act as a sort of palate cleanser for the reader. The best of these are “It Can Only Get Better” and “I Could Be Dreaming”, along with “The Wolf and the Fox”. The first story is about a 19th century cartoonist and not only his prominence in society, but the hilarious amount of fantasy latitude he has with society as a whole: he can pretty much kill or fuck anyone he wants, at will. The second story plays on Van Sciver’s love of E.C. horror, as the narrator takes us through waking up to find a repulsive creature rubbing all of the things you love most on its disgusting penis—up until a “twist” ending. The fairy tales give Van Sciver a chance to show off his greatly improved chops, as they’re chock full of dense cross-hatching, beautiful decorative borders and excellent drawing in general. “The Wolf and the Fox” is not just a fairy tale, but also an account of an abusive relationship and how the Fox manages to escape it through his cleverness.
“Who Are You, Jesus?” was another early breakthrough. Van Sciver has a knack for crafting slice-of-life stories about losers who nonetheless have a redeeming quality or two. This one is about a guy who finds a wallet belonging to a cute woman. He initially thinks to take the money, but his own words spoken at a job interview (“I’m a good person”) come back to haunt him, and he returns the wallet. Initially, things really seem to be working out well when they get drunk and hook up at his apartment, until he not only realizes that he’s been played, but that he was now in worse shape than before he started. It’s a grim but fitting ending that has an almost E.C. Comics moral sensibility, albeit one with a great deal of heart, as we actually feel for the protagonist.
“Because I Have To” is a more sentimental story about a young man whose younger brother dies in a car crash. On Halloween, he happens upon a young girl who’s lost and helps her trick-or-treat while they look for her brother. Van Sciver’s commitment to character and the rhythms of his dialogue make the story effective. It’s not so much verisimilitude as it is Van Sciver’s unusual voice underlying everything he does. When the protagonist of the story is asked by the little girl if he has a girlfriend, he replies, “Who are you? Terry Gross? No, girls don’t like me. It’s the desperation vibe I give off. Forget about it. You’ll understand when you get older.” There’s a certain flat simplicity to his dialogue that works well with the bluntness of his imagery.
“1999” is my favorite of Van Sciver’s short stories. It’s the most clever and complex of his comics, filled with a grim sense of doom and ambiguity that’s tied to the Y2K panic. His lead character, Mark, is a college dropout who works at a sandwich shop and falls in love with Nora, a fellow shift worker who claims to have an open marriage right before they engage in daily sex on the job. Things naturally go awry. The ending of the comic, beautifully set up with a clever bit of foreshadowing, turns the drama entirely on its head after pulling the reader along through sequences that seem to make no sense, all against the backdrop of a doomsday event that never happened. That Mark will have to keep on living the same miserable life is not explicitly stated, but it seems the obvious outcome. Van Sciver’s line and layout skills have become refined without losing any of the raw, nervous energy that’s always been a key element in his comics. He varies his layouts from page to page, slowly adding more panels per page as the comic proceeds and things get more suffocating for Mark. Zip-a-tone style effects are added during both sex scenes and larger images of emotional turmoil, equating the two as a kind of vertigo. He’s great at drawing plain-to-ugly characters wearing drab clothing who slouch a lot. This is a funny comic about sad people, which is starting to become a specialty of Van Sciver’s.
"Expectations" is yet another excellent relationship comic by Van Sciver, who seems to hit on new emotional angles every time he tackles a new story like this. This one is about a guy who fell apart when his longtime girlfriend suggested "a break" and who completely disappeared from her life and the lives of their friends. The storytelling device of the park that was a pauper's cemetery is incredibly clever, since the whole story is about the past, and in particular, the ways in which we poorly handle our pasts and the people in them., He has a real knack for getting across the awkwardness but also the potential for magical connections that can be found at a party.
Published by AdHouse, the book unsurprisingly looks attractive in a modest and minimalist way. It's a softcover book with French flaps, underneath which are yet more gags. It's well-edited and sequenced, subtly showing Van Sciver's growth in a chronological fashion with regard to the longer stories but also pacing those stories with lighter fare. As such, there's a pleasing rhythm created in the book, giving the reader plenty of rest stops along the way. Youth Is Wasted is a substantial collection, one that provides both an introduction to and an insight regarding the evolution of Van Sciver as an artist.