Smash Pages Q&A | Noah Van Sciver

The critically acclaimed cartoonist discusses his two latest projects, ‘Joseph Smith and the Mormons’ and ‘As a Cartoonist.’

Noah Van Sciver has always been a prolific cartoonist. This summer he released two new books, which represent the best work he’s done so far in his career.

Joseph Smith and the Mormons, which is out now from Abrams, is a project Van Sciver has been working on for more than a decade. To say that it’s Van Sciver’s best book, which I believe, is to sell it short, because the book is also the most ambitious project that Van Sciver has attempted. The book looks at the life of Smith and, without captions or word balloons, manages to convey so much information as it charts the early years of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s an incredible work of cartooning and of history.

His other book is As a Cartoonist, a collection of short comics published by Fantagraphics, which were made in the same period, and share a number of concerns and approaches. Both books are deeply personal in different ways. I’ve talked with Van Sciver a few times over the years, and I was thrilled to be able to talk with him about these two books.

Noah, you wrote a little in the afterword about growing up LDS. You’ve talked to me about making this book a couple times over the years. When did you first have the idea of making this book?

I always wanted to tackle it, but I didn’t have the chops for it. I had done some goofy Joseph Smith comics earlier on when I was first getting into doing comics seriously, but the first real attempt was a Joseph Smith story in Blammo #7. I thought, “Maybe I’ll serialize it in Blammo,” but I just rushed into it. When I did that I hadn’t done enough reading to tackle something like that and also I hadn’t worked out visually how I wanted it to look. It was just way too early. I was so gung ho on the idea that I just charged into and then I realized what a mistake I had made. I started legitimately 12 years ago.

So a long time.

A long time, yeah. That’s the short answer. A long time!

I know a few people who grew up LDS and left the church or people who grew up out West and knew LDS members. But there’s a way in which leaving the religion is more than just a loss of faith. It’s almost a loss of culture.

Yeah, that’s very true. It’s not like you’re Christian and you lose faith and just stop going to church. It’s really a community. I think a big part of it is that once you leave the church, you’re shut out. It’s a big deal to leave the church. It definitely leaves you wondering what you missed the rest of your life. That’s why people can’t leave it alone. A lot of ex-LDS members can never just wipe their hands and be done with it. It becomes a big subject of their life.

That’s something that one of my brothers always says, that we’re ethnically Mormon. He says that because our family goes really far back in the church. Another thing is that I’m alive on this Earth because of the events that I wrote about in this book. I am the eighth of nine children because the faith encourages a lot of children. I feel like I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Joseph Smith. [laughs]

As you pointed out, your family has been in the church for many generations.

I have ancestors who were part of that trip out west to Utah.

Talk a little about how you figured out how to approach the book. Because you have descriptions of Smith’s visions, but the book is about conversations and how these people would have learned about and understood Joseph Smith. This isn’t a book of revelation, it’s a book of conversation and conversion.

I like that. I think that’s true. I wanted to put the reader and the audience in the story. Instead of having things happening to the characters, have them be there in the room when the person is telling you that these things happened. That way it’s up to the reader to decide if those things really happened to not. The same way as any person who becomes a member of the church has to make up their own mind about that. I keep saying, I broke that rule one time with the angel appearing to the witnesses and showing them the plates. I had drawn that originally in that way with the blue line artwork as something that was being told, but when I looked at the book, I wanted it to have some visual excitement. So maybe it confuses you a little more about whether what they’re saying happened happened. I don’t know if that was the right choice artistically, but that’s the one that I made three years ago or whenever I drew it.

One of the witnesses says later that he saw it with his spiritual eye. And the other person goes, “What does that mean?

There you go! I wrote that so if you as a reader think this is a bunch of bullcrap, you can be like, “That’s what was going on. They were seeing it with their spiritual eyes.” 

You never say, in part because you have no narration, that this happened or he’s making this up or he had a revelation. You say, “There is no proof, so how do you interpret all this?

That’s right. It’s up to you, the reader, to figure it out.

This goes back to the opening scene of Joseph Smith treasure hunting while looking into a hat and guiding someone who’s unable to find anything, but he gets paid anyway.

A lot of active members have a problem with that. Although there’s documentation. That’s how the family made their living. They weren’t good farmers, so you had to be clever about survival. He was a con man. That’s what people labelled Joseph Smith. So if you show examples that him and his family were con men, it throws into doubt all the other stuff that he says. But you have to include that. It was a part of his life.

You have to start there, but I can see plenty of people reading that opening chapter and saying, “Forget it, I’m done.

I think a lot of older church members have done that when they’ve looked at this book. I’ve gotten early response from younger church members who loved this book. And it just came out! I’m thrilled with that. I didn’t write it with anyone in mind. I wasn’t writing the book for people in the  church or for people who are anti-church. It’s for people who are curious about this. I wrote it for them. If people in the church hate the book, I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say about that.

That’s the thing about history. Despite what some people seem to think, it’s not there to make you feel better.

Certain not. And especially not in this country. [laughs] 

You seem to have an interest in the 19th Century. Between this and The Hypo and the Johnny Appleseed book, which I know you didn’t write. What is it about this era?

It’s that it’s almost within your grasp if you live in certain parts of this country. There are pieces of it still around. It could be this mythical time. So much of it seems lost, but it’s not. I lived in Victorian houses in Denver, Colorado and it would be, “Look at this grate on the floor. This was made before the Titanic sank and it just happens to be here on my floor.” Just like nothing. It became an escapist thing for me where I could escape into the past and imagine it and fantasize about it and it seemed really interesting to me just how different things were.

I have this book that I look at all the time called The Good Old Days, They Were Terrible. I love this book because its all about how you fantasize about the good old days, but this book shows you the reality of how horrible life actually was. It’s full of all these details like how terrible crossing the street was. Things you don’t think about. It’s a nice way to escape for me in the same way that people who are really into superheroes or Dungeons and Dragons, that becomes your escape. I like to think about, “What was this street like when it first built?” And then when they had to install plumbing – because this house pre-dates plumbing. I just spiral out thinking about these things. The short answer is, I’m not really sure why that era fascinates me, but it just does. A lot of cartoonists are the same way. They love the past and are fascinated by it. The craftsmanship of things and how much time was spent in graphic design.

In this book — and it unites the books — you have these gorgeous splash pages which are scenes of the landscape.

That’s God. I had to put God into the story somehow. I thought, “Let me do that by showing the wilderness and nature.” I’ll do a lot of overhead shots of things and this could be God’s point of view. I needed some kind of presence in there for a book like this.

That’s interesting. You have these scenes of conflict and violence, and then you pull back where none of those people and towns are visible, and it’s just this landscape from far away that looks idyllic. But just over that hill everything is going on.

I did the same thing in As a Cartoonist. During that White River Junction story, I had myself sitting in the woods and then the next pages are landscape pages because it’s the same idea. There’s a lot of themes in As a Cartoonist that work with Joseph Smith and the Mormons. They’re complimentary books. The theme of Mormonism is in As a Cartoonist as well. 

Reading them at the same time, they definitely overlap. Did you have a hand in the design of the book?

When Abrams and I decided to do the book together, we had the concept to make it look like a holy text. That was like five years ago when we decided that, and Charlie  kept his word. He stuck by it, and it’s just great. The best feeling ever when you’re an author is when you get the first copy of the book sent to you. It’s always so exciting.

Taking this on, they knew what it is and what it means.

I had to convince them that I was the artist to do it. “Here’s why I need to do this book.” They agreed, and they didn’t interfere. They let me go for years for work on this book, and they trusted I was working on it. I would come back periodically to ask for more pages because it just kept getting longer and longer. They just said, “Keep working, and whatever your page count is, that’s what it is.” They were a perfect publisher to work with on this book. They took it very seriously.

In the back you said the original plan was for the book to be 250 pages and it turned out to be–

464. [laughs] 

What was it that took longer than you initially thought? Did the research lead you in different directions? Did scenes just take longer to play out?

Both of these things. I set out on this project, I’m not going to use captions or thought balloons. I’m going to convey everything through dialogue. The problem with that is it sets a certain pace and you can’t sum events up, they need to play out. I described it as storytelling boot camp, because I needed to figure out how to show a particular scene but I can’t go on for 20 pages. I stayed up in bed a lot just problem solving how to best write this book. It really did make me a better cartoonist working on it. 

There are no captions and no introductions where you set the scene or explain details. And yet you manage to convey a huge amount of information through dialogue and context.

It’s very dense. 

It is very dense, but it’s also very readable in a way that’s hard to do.

Thank you. I really appreciate that. The scariest thing about doing this book was working on it and literally nobody had read it. Not even my editors. They just let me do it. My wife hadn’t read it. It was this private thing I was working on. Which is great until you realize that it has to go out into the world and then suddenly you’re very scared. I remember sending the PDF off to Abrams for the first time. I mean, are they going to tear this apart? You can’t tell if it’s good or bad. You’re too close to it. And my wife read it, but I can’t trust her. She’s going to be really supportive no matter what. So it was nerve wracking.

So you sold them with a proposal, and you didn’t have to send them thumbnails or chapters?

I sent a drawing that I had done of Joseph Smith to show what my style was like. I had a list of events in his life to show here’s what’s going to be in this book. And that was it.

I know you were talking to them throughout, but I’m just picturing how years later they get this massive file. 

[laughs] Who is this guy sending us this e-mail? Google that name!

It’s an immense book. Do you feel like you’re done with exploring the LDS church? Or do you want to make a sequel about the life of Brigham Young?

I would do one. I think it would be nice to do one. I’d be interested in doing it. I don’t know if it’s the best decision. Ever since I finished this book, I’ve been doing basically nothing. I’ve been raising my son. I’ve been drawing a few short stories. But I don’t have a book idea or a big project. I haven’t really been doing anything, but I need to think about what I want to do next.

Brigham Young would be interesting to do because it’s a crazy story. But I don’t know if I should go back to that well. I don’t know. I’m waiting for some subject to appear in my life. To go, “That’s it.” But I just haven’t had that yet. It’s weird because you’ve known me for for a long time and I’ve always had several things and now for the first time, I don’t know what I’m going to do now. It’s an unusual moment. Also, how do I follow this book? I can’t just do another Fante Bukowski. I don’t know.

You could make another issue of Blammo?

If I could do that, that would be great. The problem is that those make me zero dollars. And now I’m a dad. So I have to start thinking about that. It definitely comes with a whole new set of concerns.

How old is he now?

He’s 10 months. So when he was first born, I was finishing up this graphic novel. Very sleep deprived and trying to write the notes for the back of the book. I’ll tell him all about it someday.

So you’ve had some time in his first year to spend with him and get small projects done. If you can, that’s a good way to spend the time.

Yeah, don’t you think? That might be one of the best things about being a cartoonist for a living. You get to be present for your son’s life more than other people who have to leave the house and go to work in the lumber mill. [laughs] Fortunately, dad’s a bum and drawing pictures.

I can see the crib behind you. Which is nice. You put him down, draw as quickly as possible until he wakes up and starts screaming.

That’s exactly what it’s like! Of course you can’t concentrate on a new project because you’re only 50% present at the drawing board. It’s frustrating, especially if you’re somebody who’s as prolific as I was. I like to get a lot of work done. It makes me feel really good to be working on a lot of stuff. And I just haven’t had that kind of year.

Also you finished a huge project, and how do you follow it up?

It comes with a lot of postpartum depression. I’ve talked to other cartoonists about this. When you are so committed to something like this and then when it’s done and out of your life, you have this emptiness and feel really depressed about it for a while. I have a lot of that, too. I liked having something to work on where I just go draw and today I’m going to tackle this. This is what I’m working on today. Or today I just sit down and color. You know what you’re doing all day, and I miss that.

I did also want to mention your other new book, As a Cartoonist, which has a number of stories which are related to One Dirty Tree.

I think you can read One Dirty Tree, Joseph Smith and the Mormons, and As a Cartoonist, and they all make sense together. That stuff in As a Cartoonist between me and father is all true. The book is all about fathers and sons because at the end of it, I become a father myself. It unfolded that way. That theme is running through a lot of my work. When I was a younger person I was very angry. My parents had gotten divorced and I lost a relationship with my father largely because of the church, honestly. I stopped going to church. Us coming back together at the end, that’s what happened that night. That conversation was real. All those things fit together really well and made a solid circular book. It’s magic when that kind of stuff happens. 

You also have a great one pager talking about this memory you think you have of going fishing with your dad and then the way the book ends with the short comic of you and your son after his birth tie things together beautifully.

Thank you. Maybe I could do a book about my father, but I don’t think I should do that. That stuff will seep into my work. A lot of stories about raising a son.

In As a Cartoonist, you have this thing you do where it starts out seeming like it’s “you” and presented in a matter of fact way, but it’s fiction.

[laughs] That’s true.

Sometimes you signal to the reader that this is all made up and other times you don’t. It’s always a lot of fun.

Thanks. And that’s true. A lot of the stories in that book are not true. [laughs] It does give it a different dimension when you make it seem like it’s about you but it’s really just fiction. That’s what mustache Noah was all about. This is “me” and I felt like I had enough distance form my actual life that I could just tell fake stories or fantasies.

I don’t want to wreck it for everybody who assumes that it’s all true. [laughs]

As the saying goes, all stories are true. But those stories didn’t actually happen.

It’s true but it’s not factual.

Yes, as opposed to Joseph Smith, which is factual. Though some would argue the truth of it.

Yeah they do! All over the internet. When somebody shares a link to my book I always read the comments and there’s always somebody very upset that it’s a cult and a bunch of lies. Why do you feel the need to say that? People are very passionate about the history of this church. 

You make the point that this is a very American faith. It’s a Christianity formed from the American landscape and people.

Definitely. It’s an American Christianity. We Americanized Christianity and made it about us and our landscape. The Garden of Eden is in Missouri. It’s very American.

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