Thursday, May 11, 2023

Time for more Van Scivering!

As a teacher and editor, Noah Van Sciver is one of my favorite examples to bring up of a cartoonist who had to work hard to find his voice, hone his craft, and relentlessly face rejections until his talent simply became too undeniable. He simply set his mind to being a cartoonist and never stopped, studying countless other artists in order to help develop his own style. As a result, Van Sciver has now entered a groove in his career that sees him releasing monster tomes like his Joseph Smith And The Mormons while still working on multiple side projects and collections. 

Van Sciver's always had a restless curiosity to his work, never settling on any one style of storytelling. He's worked on a number of illustration jobs, he's written biographies, he's done slice-of-life fiction, he's done plenty of gag work, and also a great deal of autobiographical work that often dips into metafiction. Cartooning about cartooning can easily become dull and played-out, but Van Sciver constantly finds new ways to examine the art and profession of cartooning from fresh angles. In fact, his 2022 collection from Fantagraphics, As A Cartoonist, is all about Van Sciver dipping into his weird childhood and revisiting it here as a cartoonist who is constantly examining his own status as a creative professional. 

Van Sciver has become a master at creating a rhythm in his anthology work, and there's a sense in which this book is kind of an extended version of his anthology series Blammo! Indeed, it collects a few stories from the comic that fit snugly in here, as well as stories from the Fantagraphics anthology NOW and other stuff. There's also a great deal of previously unpublished work that forms a through-line for the other stories. This book is about cartooning, cartoonists, and what led Van Sciver down this path. It opens with several portraits of cartoonists like Jackie Ormes and Bill Mauldin and ends with Van Sciver delineating a number of comics and cartoonists that meant a lot to him (along with small doodles of those books). However, Van Sciver is a master of transitioning between sincere expressions of appreciation and setting up gags, as his "19th Century Cartoonist" character follows that initial lineup of cartoonists as he once again reveals his own general awfulness. This character is Van Sciver taking the piss out of the frequent overpraising of older cartoonists like this who were pretty much just hacks, but it's also of course a cautionary tale for himself and how he sees himself as a cartoonist now and how others will see his work in the future. 

The through-line for the book is "Mellow Mutt," a dinosaur toy that young Van Sciver is given that becomes a sort of personal totem. Van Sciver's strips about living in a ramshackle house in New Jersey made up his memoir One Dirty Tree, and they are the backbone of his new series with Uncivilized, Maple Terrace. Van Sciver has really struck gold with these depictions of life with a checked-out dad and multiple siblings who are all too happy to let him know his place in the pecking order as the second-youngest kid. They are funny and terrible all at once, and while young Noah is certainly put-upon, he's also presented as kind of a self-tormenting asshole as well. The "Mellow Mutt" stories in As A Cartoonist offer a brief window into Van Sciver's young life, as most of the book's stories focus more on his career as a cartoonist as an adult. 

For example, "White River Junction" is a perfect example of a modern-day Noah unable to relate to virtually anyone, in part because he's not sure what he believes in. He inadvertently manages to offend a number of students at the Center for Cartoon Studies when he tells them he used to be a Mormon, and Van Sciver really plays the awkwardness of those scenes for laughs in an exquisite manner. He's an accidental tormenter (which is rare for Van Sciver in a strip), but also the tormented. The way the strip resolves in nature is the beginning of a growing sense of peace for his character that slowly develops as the book proceeds. 

Van Sciver bookends a single-page strip titled "Fante Bukowski" (his poet character who is sort of like an obnoxious alter ego of his) where he asks Jules Feiffer for advice at a signing with "Comics Festival 2016," a highly self-conscious homage to Woody Allen's film Stardust Memories. Van Sciver is a successful cartoonist going to a show in Europe, but he has celebrity-level fame and is constantly being asked for sketches and favors. A callback to an earlier strip finds aliens saying they prefer his "earlier, funnier" comics and the story ends with a gag about not being able to provide good endings for his stories. There's something else at work here, though: an appearance from his father. In a later strip where Noah visits him, it's revealed that his dad abandoned the family at a time when Noah was in desperate need of guidance as a child. While much of As A Cartoonist is about Van Sciver coming to terms with cartooning as a profession, it's also about finding ways to grow up and come to terms with his past. 

One can see that in strips about moving to Columbus and his initial loneliness, and later strips about meeting his wife Amy and the birth of their son Remy. The story "Jonah" is also about finding ways to accept his siblings (especially his buffoonish and outlandish younger brother) as they are, warts and all. The climax of this story is at an art opening featuring Van Sciver's work, and his brother (not invited to the event) makes a ridiculous spectacle of himself, hitting on random women. What's funny is how Van Sciver lampoons himself and his own pretensions, as the story imagines him talking to art world wheeler-dealers and a writer from the New York Times. "Saint Cole" is a much more down-to-earth account of a foreign tour, where a stop in Paris yields just one fan at a signing but also the realization that cartooning has taken him to a lot of places. For Van Sciver, the disease of more gave way to an understanding of what he had made for himself and his family, as well as the grace to not only forgive his father but to make his stories part of his source material. 

This was also the period of time when Van Sciver went from good to great in terms of his cartooning and draftsmanship. The White River Junction story is so effective when he calls out for good in the forest because he had moved beyond his limitations as a draftsman and put in the work to give his work a decorative sense of beauty it had never before possessed. That's especially true of his nuanced and restrained use of color; even on the brightest pages, there's a naturalism at work that never overwhelms his linework. However, at heart, Van Sciver has always been and will always be a gag man, and his cartooning reflects a style that mixes the ridiculous and the sublime. Van Sciver's mustache is practically a character of its own, adding an arsenal's worth of expression to the face of his self-caricature. Van Sciver namechecks David Collier as an influence, and you can see it in the increasingly-gentle way he's gone about describing his world. Van Sciver, like Collier, is an observer, but he has drifted away from his put-upon schlub persona that so many cartoonists influenced by Robert Crumb seem to adopt. That keen eye, combined with his wit, has allowed Van Sciver to make a deeper dive into older ideas with renewed gusto.

That takes us to Maple Terrace #1, published by Uncivilized Books. Uncivilized is one of the few publishers releasing well-designed comics in something akin to the mini-comics format. They've already done a few series like this, with comics by the likes of Gabrielle Bell, Craig Thompson, and Tom Kaczynski himself. Van Sciver's Maple Terrace is in this vein, giving Van Sciver another low-pressure format akin to Blammo!, but with a much tighter focus. Each issue will have a single story dating back to Van Sciver's childhood at around age eight. (I wouldn't mind seeing him revisit his skater boi persona as a teen featured in My Hot Date, however.) There's a funny throughline in this comic: virtually every male character depicted reads comics. This being the early 90s and the rise of the speculator's market surrounding early Image comics, there was a mix of people reading because comics were a wise investment opportunity and people reading these dumb, quasi-literate masterpieces done by the likes of Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee because of the cool factor. The "value" of the comics, as well as Van Sciver wanting to read something scary in Spawn, provides the key to the plot. 

Mostly, this comic is about Noah trying to negotiate life with his family, being regarded as worthless by the parents of his friends, and the terror of his father and older brother Ethan. There's one amazing scene that I hope is based entirely on real life when Noah's father tells him, "Todd McFarlane is for boys, son. Barry Windsor-Smith is for men." Pious young Noah wants to avoid the wrath of his older brother when he accidentally rips the cover of his Spawn comic, and things happen to work out for the best when a bully gets his just desserts and Noah benefits. The essence of the comic is that creeping sense that children have when they sort of have to accept their surroundings and get used to, for example, sleeping on the floor like Noah does because there aren't enough beds to go around. 

However, they also get the sense that while this is what they're used to, it's not normal, like when the kids see the moldy, leaking roof and cockroaches run across Noah's face every night. It's a sort of recurring form of PTSD that has to be ignored for the sake of survival. In Van Sciver's case, he's reworking it into a kind of cringe-inducing gag strip, where his bushy head of hair and spindly limbs are all part of the visual humor of the series. The bigfoot humor and slice-of-life looks at poverty is somewhere between Don Martin and Dave Berg on the MAD scale, and Van Sciver makes it work. Above all else, this is a funny comic, even if it's frequently heartbreaking. Van Sciver spent a lot of time as an artist making his drawings like tight with tons of cross-hatching and other techniques; with Maple Terrace, he's learned to loosen up again, resulting in some of the liveliest drawing of his career.

1 comment:

  1. Just read this today. Excellent! And I loved the paper (nice choice, Tom!)