Monday, April 5, 2021

Mass Market Noah Van Sciver

Noah Van Sciver has become such an interesting cartoonist because he's so versatile. He can do straight-up illustration jobs like his Johnny Appleseed or Grateful Dead books and bring them to life in interesting ways. He's adept at interesting biographies, like Abraham Lincoln in The Hypo and his upcoming epic about Joseph Smith. He excels at dramas about doomed losers like Saint Cole. He's a funny and self-effacing autobiographical cartoonist. At heart, however, Van Sciver is a gag man. That was true of his earliest comics and it's still true now, as his choices as an artist take him down some unusual detours. Drawing random comics for the newspaper Columbus Alive!, each one on their own ranges from hilarious to mildly amusing.


However, their collective impact is greater than the sum of its parts, especially when fruitfully paired with frequent collaborator and ace designer Keeli McCarthy. Van Sciver's vision of creating something like an old Peanuts paperback filled with random strips is brought to life with every element of the design. Even the absurd title, Please Don't Step On My JNCO Jeans, is evocative of the kind of snappy title that you might see for a random collection of some comic strip. The generic yellow background and the absurd image of an adult Van Sciver (complete with trademark mustache) wearing these faddish jeans from the 90s. The cliched yet entirely accurate copy on the back cover, complete with nonsensical poses of a dancing Van Sciver, also contributes to this aesthetic, which is simultaneously nostalgic and utterly square. Even the size and embossed edges of the pages are all part of the fun.

The actual comics are a glorious hodgepodge. In addition to that, there are a host of funny interstitial drawings of Van Sciver as various monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and others. There are funny (and usually embarrassing) stories from his childhood, along with the occasional triumph like a TastyCake driver randomly throwing him an entire box of baked treats. There are funny moments with his partner, Amy, including a long riff on the tool and phrase "stud finder" that deliberately steers into dad joke territory before a hilarious final swerve. A running gag throughout the book is Van Sciver trying to do something new and finding himself drawing fencing, French-speaking cats. His ability to find different ways to work a gag reflects the relentless nature of his cartooning. In a collection that is essentially just a lark, Van Sciver's serious commitment to a coherent aesthetic package elevates the work in a way that he didn't have to do. However, the design, careful sequencing, and the illustrations all reflect a desire to make sense of seemingly disparate material over a span of time. If the newspaper strips reflected his fancy at that moment in time, the book represented his overall aesthetic understanding of his own work during this period as well as a personal journal of sorts.