Smash Pages Q&A: Noah Van Sciver

The creator of ‘Blammo’ and Fante Bukowski discusses his latest projects, ‘One Dirty Tree’ and ‘A Perfect Failure.’

Noah Van Sciver has had an incredibly successful and productive year. The cartoonist released a new issue of his comic Blammo, and three books of his are out from two publishers this fall. Uncivilized Press just released One Dirty Tree, a comics memoir about his childhood and the end of a relationship just as he was about to turn thirty. Fantagraphics is publishing A Perfect Failure: Fante Bukowski Three, which completes a trilogy of books about the annoying and hilarious talentless writer who named himself Fante Bukowski, and a sketchbook by Van Sciver, Constant Companion.

One Dirty Tree and A Perfect Failure are possibly Van Sciver’s best books, and he took some time out after recovering from con crud to discuss the books and his current project.

How do you describe Fante Bukowski?

He’s a man with a lot of ambition but no talent. Like Ed Wood or one of those classic characters.

This is the third book with him that you’ve made. When started did think this was a character you could spend a lot of time with and make multiple books about?

No. I was just messing around at first. It was just a joke I was posting on Facebook, a page every day. That got collected into a book. It just went over so well because people at least hated the character. It became a challenge, how can I turn this hated character into someone people are charmed by? The second book was the beginning of that. It was Box Brown who said after the first book, this is cool, you should do a series of these. I started thinking,I have a couple more stories I could tell with this character.

In the second and third books, I don’t want to say you make him likable, because I don’t think that’s true.

[laughs]

But you do get into his backstory and give a different, fuller sense of him.

In the first book it’s, here’s a character that you hate and by the end of the series, here’s everything who this person is. Everybody, even your worst enemy, has a backstory that maybe will help you understand why they are the way they are.

One character who makes that happen is Norma, who we like initially but by the end she’s homicidal and crazy, but you still like her.

[laughs] She’s insane. It was a funny or interesting idea where here’s a character who’s hinting that she’s a little bit crazy throughout the entire thing and by the end of it you’re like, oh, she is actually really scary.

You have fun with the city of Columbus, the zine festival, having glitter in zines.

I have to lambaste that whole scene. And I throw myself in there.

I love the design of the whole series. This one in particular plays with the layout, has a fake author photo and bio. How much of that was you?

None of that was me. That was all Keeli McCarthy’s genius. She’s the designer at Fantagraphics that I work with. Basically I just finish the story and send them the files. She had this whole conceptual idea for the series. She said I’m going to goof on these generations of self-important male writers in the designs. The first book was a very small paperback like the early beatnik novels. The second book jumped ahead twenty years and looked like something from Black Sparrow Press. The third one jumps ahead another twenty years and playing off the nineties male writers, books like Infinite Jest and those. I think she did a really good job of that. A lot of people didn’t pick up on it, but I hope they will.

Are you thinking about a fourth Fante Bukowski?

No, I think I’m done with Fante Bukowski. I don’t have any other stories in mind. Those were the ones I had.

We learned his backstory, he found someone else who’s crazy in a different way.

He finds love at the end. I like to leave it on that positive note.

The book is set in Columbus, Ohio, where you used to live. How did you find the city?

For cartoonists it’s one of the most perfect cities because it’s really cheap and it’s a very supportive place. They have a lot of arts grants. They have OSU and the Billy Ireland art museum. All these resources. I really loved it there. I met my partner Amy when I was living there and I wound up moving away because she got a job in South Carolina. That was just about inserting some of my own life into the book and making fun of the city. Or at least making the city seem like it wasn’t what everybody thinks of it as. I decided if I was going to use it as a the setting for Fante Bukowski, I’ll make it a place where all the writers live in Columbus, Ohio which just seemed like a funny gag.

Fantagraphics is also putting out Constant Companion. Is this a reproduction of one sketchbook or various pages from various sketchbooks over the years?

It’s a reproduction of a couple of sketchbooks from when I was living in Denver and then moved to Vermont for a fellowship at the Center for Cartoon Studies and then moved to Columbus after that. It just seemed like a weird transitional period in my life. I got the idea when I visited Angouleme for the first time and I saw all these artists had their own sketchbooks that they had published. That if you cared about an artist or were a fan of their work you could buy this thing that gave you some kind of insight into their life and see the private work they have. It’s like a fans only thing. It’s part of the Fantagraphics Underground line, so it’s a very small print run.

Is this representative of your sketchbooks? You draw some random short comics, sketches of people and places.

Yeah, that’s just what I do in sketchbooks. I work out a lot of ideas in sketchbooks that I may use at some point. Fante Bukowski was in a sketchbook originally. It’s kind of a diary and I’ll make random sketches of different things that are in my immediate surroundings. Things like that.

What’s your habit as far as keeping a sketchbook?

It depends on how much work I have to do. If I have a hectic deadline I don’t use my sketchbook very often. Most of the time if I’m winding down at night I’ll mess around in there. Or if I’m on vacation or visiting someplace interesting I’ll jot down a quick sketch. I’m not as religious with it as I used to be.

Does what we read in Blammo come out of your sketchbooks?

No, that’s not sketchbook stuff. That’s mostly scripted out stories I put a lot of thought into.

The other book that just came out is One Dirty Tree. How do you describe the book?

It’s probably one of the most difficult books for me to talk about because for one thing it’s incredibly embarrassing. I haven’t read any reviews of it or anything online, so I don’t know what people are saying. Basically it’s my upbringing in this poor Mormon family in this dilapidated house and what effects it could have had on me as an adult twenty years later when I was in this doomed relationship. These were two periods of my life that I was thinking a lot about a couple years ago. When I moved to Vermont I got into this introspective mood and I started really evaluating myself and who I am as a person. That relationship was something that didn’t feel right to me and bothered me and I wanted to work it out. I wanted to work out my childhood, too. I started doing that in Blammo and I’m still going through that now, working out Mormon history and what that was all about and what effect it had on me. Right now I’m working on a graphic novel about Joseph Smith. I’ve gone back to the beginning of this religion to find out what it’s all about. All I knew was what I learned in Sunday school and I wanted to know what actually happened. I wasn’t going to publish One Dirty Tree. It was something that I was doing on my patreon and then a couple years later I let this Italian publisher publish it. Then my friend Tom Kaczynski asked if I would do something with Uncivilized and I already had that book ready so I let Tom do it. I don’t feel good about it. I’m kind of nervous about it, but it’s too late now.

I can understand that, but it’s one of my favorite works of yours.

I really appreciate that. Thank you. Like I said, I can’t bear to read it. I was just at CXC and I was sitting behind the Uncivilized table and I couldn’t even look at the book. [laughs] I didn’t want to open it.

I can understand that. Childhood is often weird to re-examine and you’re looking at it in terms of this doomed relationship and turning thirty and it’s all very fraught.

I think what it was with that relationship – and I didn’t really get into it too much in the book – but I had this family complex. I grew up in a big family and it fell apart and now they’re all scattered. I had this complex where I was constantly trying build my own little family around me and it just failed all the time. That relationship was the last time where I tried to do that. I moved in with this young woman and we had all these plans together and then we realized, we’re not a good fit at all. I had had such high hopes for it and at the end of the book I felt at that time that I had come so close. I was turning thirty and it felt like this is what I need to do with my life. I tried to force it. That was a big moment for me when I realized that you can’t force this kind of thing. You just have to live your life and hope that things work out somehow. I needed to stop doing that. I needed to check my complex.

Can you look back on these events and say, yes, I am looking at my life and work differently having gone through this?

Things are definitely different now. As a human being I’ve evolved a lot in the past four years. I’m definitely more conscious about who I am as a human being and what kind of a man I want to be in my life and getting myself to be the best man I possibly can. Which wasn’t even a concern of mine when I was in my twenties, but it’s something I think about every day now. I work on that. That’s something I work on a lot. Is it part of growing up? I don’t know. Maybe it is. I just do the best I can.

At the end of One Dirty Tree you mentioned that Leslie Stein read the first draft and hated it.

Oh yes. [laughs]

What did she hate and was it helpful?

It was very helpful. Leslie is one of my best friends in comics. When I was working on that the book as I mentioned earlier it was just stuff that I was posting on my patreon. It wasn’t even structured like a story it was just, here’s another story about my childhood, here’s another story from this relationship, and I was just posting them. I was struggling with figuring out how to format it so it would be more of a narrative. I would send these different versions of the book to Leslie and a lot of the relationship stuff got a little too selfish, I guess. I can’t remember what her comments were but she had a lot of criticisms about it that at first hurt my feelings, but that’s what happens with honest criticism. I thought about it and I listened to her and I tried to restructure it. I think I fixed it. Also Dan Stafford was another person who I showed it to who had some negative things to say about it that helped. That’s what true friends will do for you.

What do you want to do going forward. I’m guessing it’s probably not, three books and one comic a year.

I’m working on one graphic novel right now, the Joseph Smith book, and that’s it. I’m not working on a new issue of Blammo, I’m not working on any minicomics, and I don’t have any side projects. I just have one book that I’m focusing on. It’s going to be the biggest graphic novel I’ve ever done. This is going to be a bigger book. It’s taken a lot of research. I’d like to just do that. Put out one thing every year, if I can. That would make me happy.

Do you want to continue to make Blammo and do short projects like that in between larger books?

I would like to do another issue, but I’m contractually obligated to do this book within a certain time and with Blammo I could always take my time with it and that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t have any stories for the new issue yet. With #10 I knew everything I wanted to do and I don’t have anything planned right now.

Can you say anything about the Joseph Smith book? You were raised Mormon and what led you to spend this much time and energy on Smith?

It’s really selfish in a way. Who was that guy in the paintings in my house? Michael Allred did The Golden Plates where he was trying to illustrate the Book of Mormon, but what about the guy who’s responsible for the Book of Mormon? It seemed like something I had to do and I feel really lucky that nobody had tried to do it yet. It’s a really fascinating story. It’s really a story about early America and people coming to this land and not knowing what connection it had with their religion, with their god, and someone linked this new country to the faith. It gets really fascinating to me. My girlfriend tells me I’ve been going down this mormon rabbit hole because everything I’ve watched on the internet, everything I’m reading is all about Mormons. I’m not getting suckered into the religion again, I’m just interested in the history of it because it’s such a weird piece of americana.

You’re approaching this book as not a believer, but not a debunker, just exploring this character.

I’m not doing a book that missionaries would hand out. I’m just telling a straight story. I’m approaching it in a similar way that I did in The Hypo where there’s not a lot of narration. It’s played out as if you were watching them happen. A little like Chester Brown’s Louis Riel.

Do you enjoy working in that way? Because a book like One Dirty Tree is very much about the authorial voice.

It has its challenges. I guess you work in whatever way feels it would be the best way to tell the story. I don’t want to create a Joseph Smith book that’s a text book. I want to tell a story within these real life events.

Are you covering Smith’s whole life or just one time period?

I drop in. I start when he’s a teenager around the time that they were treasure hunting in Palmyra New York and then go from there through the history of him building this religion through his stories of being visited by an angel.

Honestly, I think he was a storytelling young man. He was one of these guys who’d say that hill has a cave and there’s a treasure inside and it’s guarded by a ghost. People would go, wow. I feel like it was one of these stories that he made up that got bigger than he intended and before you know it, he started believing his own grandiosity. If you have enough people around you saying you are something, then eventually you’re going to believe it.

True, but just to end where we started, everyone thinks Fante Bukowski is a talentless fool, but he doesn’t believe them.

[laughs] That’s true.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.