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.

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