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.