Thursday, April 9, 2015

Catching Up With Noah Van Sciver

Noah Van Sciver is one of the more prolific cartoonists working today. Let's take a look at some of his recent work.

Deep In The Woods (with Nic Breutzman, published by 2D Cloud). Van Sciver's contribution here is titled "The Cow's Head" as he and Breutzman both tried their hand at creepy mythmaking. While this has been Breutzman's specialty, this kind of setting is a relatively new challenge for Van Sciver. The broadsheet format fits the densely drawn and atmospheric story perfectly. It's about a girl who runs away from home after she thinks her father wants to get rid of her. In the wintry forest, she happens upon an abandoned cabin that has a bit of food in it. A floating, decapitated cow's head asks for food and shelter (hilariously, when asked "who's there", it replied "I am Cow's Head. May I come in?"). The story winds up following a familiar formula: the just and righteous wind up being rewarded for sacrificing all they have because it's the right thing to do. Van Sciver successfully blends elements of horror, fairly tales and humor Van Sciver lays on the hatching and blacks throughout the story but is careful to emphasize facial expressions as well. This is crucial because the audience must be able to sympathize with the lead character, and there's a nice simplicity in the way the characters are designed that contrasts starkly with the dark denseness of the backgrounds.

Slow Graffiti. This is a self-published mini that debuted at last year's SPX, consisting of three short stories and other fragments culled from his sketchbook. I especially liked the first story, which was about a young woman visiting her mom's house for Christmas. She's a classic Van Sciver character: a malcontent, a searcher, someone drifting through life who's waiting for something to anchor herself to. What's interesting is that the character of her brother, a loser still living at home who pisses out the window of his bedroom when he's too drunk to stumble toward the bathroom, is the sort who would have been the main character in a lot of stories of this nature. There's also a transcription of part of a Jim Woodring interview where he details his childhood hallucination, as well as Van Sciver's take on the old Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough At Last". In that last story, Van Sciver has to deal with a surly Bob Dylan stuck in a hole after the apocalypse as well as finding a treasure trove of comics he can't read. There's also a bonus mini sewn into the larger comic about a screenwriter's awful werewolf movie that has the feel of a Dan Clowes story.

"I Don't Hate Your Guts" (published by 2D Cloud). This is one of Van Sciver's periodic daily diary comics. A few things distinguish this from other diary comics: it's in full color, it deals frankly with issues of depression and it also honestly engages the feelings around a blind date that blossoms into a relationship. There's something else interesting about it: it's frequently hilarious. That's especially true with the scenes depicting his job at Panera, where he's surly with his boss and enjoys annoying his coworkers. Whether this is true or exaggerated is beside the point, because reading about Van Sciver telling his coworker about a wave of fire sweeping across the country, burning everything in its way was fantastic. This is also a journal of a working cartoonist, as he describes how difficult it can be to draw after a long day at work. The new romance, with an air of both optimism and nervousness ("This is very important: do you like Bob Dylan?") is wonderfully sweet and a dramatic tonic for Van Sciver's loneliness. There's a relentlessness to Van Sciver's work ethic (as evidenced by his remarkable comics output) that extends to all parts of his life; even when he's depressed and lonely, he keeps going. That's certainly true of this daily comic, which he works hard at coloring to give each page a certain liveliness. He mostly abandons his dense, hatching-heavy style in favor of a more spontaneous style, with his figurework looking more-or-less the same as in his other comics.


The Lizard Laughed (Oily Comics). This fictional story highlights one of the things that Van Sciver is best at: depicting dysfunctional relationships. The kicker here is that it's the story of a non-relationship, as an estranged son calls up his father to tell him he's visiting. There's an almost dull tension in the book as the son arrives, with the father freaking out a bit about it beforehand. Their initial exchanges are almost politely banal, as the father takes the son on a hike. Like some of his other recent comics, there's an interesting contrast between backgrounds and characters; the comic takes place in the insane natural beauty of New Mexico, and Van Sciver does the rock formations justice with his dense but clear renderings--especially since the comic is in black and white. There's what turns out to be a false climax when the son confronts the father about leaving him and his mother so many years ago, an outburst that's rejected by the father. That leads to the real climax, which was certainly a shock in the moment while reading it. Here, the threat and then shrinking from violence is actually more powerful and emotionally devastating than actual violence. It's a restrained and mature storytelling decision that gets at the heart of a lifetime of disappointment.

Weekend For Two. The sequel to his full-color sketchbook collection Weekend Alone, this Tinto Press publication has more short stories, more cover recreations, more sketchbook drawings and more weirdness. In the weirdness category, there's a drawing of the monster Gorgo and a page entitled "Who Loves Ya, Baby?" that depicts a simply-drawn sequence of masturbation. This is another page that feels like an old Dan Clowes bit from Eightball. Then there's "Johnny Cash In A Cave", which is based on a true story about Cash feeling despondent, only it adds in some hilarious commentary from God guiding Cash out of the cave where he intended to die. Body language hasn't always been Van Sciver's strong suit, but he really captures the slumped shoulders and sad overall posture of Cash. "A New Love For An Old" is based on a true story about a man trying to find a lost love in Paris, only to see what looks to be a painting of her in a museum. Turns out this was the daughter of that woman (not his), and they wound up getting married! Van Sciver goes all-out with both cross-hatching and colored pencils in this piece, and it's one of his most visually dazzling. There's a grimly funny story based on a Dave Eggers story, an excellent bit about a stand-up comic getting shorted on his pay and then getting accosted by a belligerent guy at a diner, and a fascinating diary comic about visiting Detroit for a talk. This was interesting because Van Sciver stayed with someone he didn't know, he drove around looking at (and drawing) some of the devastated buildings of Detroit, and because he gave us some insight into his process as a speaker (like getting drunk). Printed on slick enough paper to really absorb his blacks, this is simply a great looking package overall and an interesting document of a young artist's creative process.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for putting these together. some stuff i missed!

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