Monday, January 27, 2014

The Process: Weekend Alone

Noah van Sciver is one of those lifer cartoonists who simply can't stop drawing. In addition to working on graphic novels, minicomics, webcomics due to become graphic novels, strips for a local newspaper and his own comic book, he also frequently posts sketchbook-style comics on his own website. He's advanced as a cartoonist such that even his sketchbook comics and illustrations are well worth examining. The new micropublisher (and distributor) Tinto Press is publishing Van Sciver's sketchbooks in full color in a digest-sized format. The first volume, Weekend Alone, painstakingly gets every detail right. It's a beautiful little book to look at, and it's just the right length. Sketchbooks can wear out their welcome if they're too long or lack variety, and Van Sciver certainly doesn't skimp on the latter. There are single-page strips, long narratives, cover recreations, illustrations, life drawings, diary comics and bits of random weirdness. Van Sciver's Blammo! comic has shown that he has no interest in settling on a single style or genre for storytelling purposes, and the sketchbook reads like warm-ups or outtakes for Blammo !in some ways, or stories that didn't quite fit for one reason or another.

The best known story in the book is the hilarious "King of Comic Books". That's the one where Noah goes back into time to visit Fantagraphics in 1992, hoping to get them to publish Blammo! This one was widely circulated on the internet, and for good reason--Van Sciver's deadpan and hilarious caricatures of Gary Groth and Kim Thompson were particularly memorable, as was his over-the-top depiction of "slacker" life in early 1990s Seattle. As always, the biggest target in a Van Sciver comic is Van Sciver himself, as he's forced to sleep by a dumpster and get yelled at by everyone he meets. The punchline is a bit predictable but no less funny for a strip that may be a little "inside baseball" with regard to comics but still has plenty of other jokes to offer.

The one page strips are the best thing in the book, however. "How I Lost My Virginity", "How I Became A Cartoonist", "How You Know You've Had Too Much To Drink" and "How To Recover From A Brutal Break-Up" are all loosely autobiographical and veer off into dark and absurd places. I've often thought that the nearest artistic cousin to Van Sciver's output is Evan Dorkin. Dorkin is more of a pure humorist suffused in a childhood of horror, superhero and sci-fi obsessions, but there's that similar sense of brutally bitter humor in his autobio and even straight humor pieces. Even when Van Sciver is working through negative feelings and engaging in autobiographical self-flagellation, he can't help but make it funny. He also has the added bonus of being fascinated by his surroundings and other people, especially other cartoonists. His adaptation of a Comics Journal interview with Spain reveals that fascination with history and lives lived outrageously.

Another highlight of the book is the anthropomorphic story "What Troubles A Bunny Has". Starring a bunny who may or may not be a Van Sciver stand-in, this is a devastating story that uses its funny animals as a way of slightly distancing narrator and reader while at the same time revealing painful, intimate thoughts and details of his life. By contrast, Van Sciver's own diary comics are more on the reserved side, even when he's revealing details like not having any money; the sense of passion that drives his fictional work seems deliberately muted. Of course, there's also plenty of random images (a naked woman with the caption "Let's Wrestle!", a man walking, drawings of flowers) and half-formed but funny ideas (like the "Dog On Wheels"). Van Sciver warms the reader up with single-page images of various figures and ends the book with a poignant and absurd adaptation of a poem about death featuring a giant rabbit as death's agent. While this may not be the place to start for reading Van Sciver, it's pretty much a must for fans.

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