SPX Spotlight 2015: Noah Van Sciver's Fante Bukowski

It's another entry in Panel Patter's SPX SPOTLIGHT series! We've been highlighting creators, publishers, and comics related to SPX since the site opened in 2008, but 2015 marks our fifth year of extensive coverage that is unlike what you'll find elsewhere! It's a great way to create your own personal guide for the show on September 19th and 20th, 2015, in Bethesda, Maryland. Don't miss it! You can find all our SPXSPOTLIGHT posts here.

Fante Bukowski
Written and Drawn by Noah Van Sciver
Published by Fantagraphics

Fante Bukowski is a beautiful bastard. Let’s unpack the second part of that declaration first.

I can’t imagine knowing Fante Bukowski, let alone being friends or intimate with him. Noah Van Sciver’s character is a boring lout, one of these young “artistic geniuses” who can’t imagine why he hasn’t been discovered, published and celebrated by his 23rd year on this earth. Worse of all is that Bukowski is the worst of anyone who sits down at a keyboard (either computer or typewriter) and bangs out words that they think are worthwhile. “These are my thoughts,” the voice in the back of all of our minds whisper to us, “so why can’t you see my genius?” Reading Van Sciver’s Fante Bukowski is an exercise in not seeing some kind of twisted reflection of Van Sciver himself or really yourself if you’ve ever even thought that maybe you have a book or a novel in you somewhere.

Oh boy, I hope I’m not Bukowski as I bang out these words trying to make some sense of Noah Van Sciver’s latest book.

Reading Fante Bukowski is much better than knowing him or being cornered by him at some party or reception. Daydreaming about how malevolent editors are trying to sabotage his career by keeping the voice of a generation unpublished is the least of Bukowski’s crimes against mankind. Van Sciver’s character is the worst of humanity, a writer who thinks he deserves fame and riches because he knows how to string two sentences together. And they’re probably not even good sentences. The adventures of Bukowski trying to weasel his way into literary magazines whose print run equals two thousand copies or to dazzle a literary agent with his thinly disguised rip off of Milan Kundera aren’t that far separated from reality where fame is just a matter of chance and not talent. And what would Bukowski even do with his desired fame? It’s pretty obvious that he wants the best in life: “Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women.” That’s 21st century fame for you.

Fante Bukowski's Path to Success
Bukowski is beautiful because while he may not have any talent or real drive, at least he’s trying to take some action in his life. It’s easy to look at Bukowski and shrug him off as some entitled millennial who wants everything handed to him. Why doesn’t the world or at least editors recognize his brilliance may even be a valid question but he wears the persona of a writer 24/7 like other people wear business casual Monday through Friday. His name isn’t even Fante Bukowski; it’s Kelly Perkins. “Bukowski” is just a name he wears for the cultural cache in it. Even if he’s a bad writer, he shows these glimpses of kindness and growth here and there. Not much, mind you, but he’s also not totally irredeemable.

The faults of Bukowski are many and deep but Van Sciver brings people into his life, a sorta-girlfriend and a fellow barfly, who start to bring out something resembling growth and empathy in the character. Whenever a writer or a cartoonist writes about another writer, it’s easy to infer that the writer or cartoonist are writing about themselves. And maybe there’s a bit of that in Fante Bukowski as Van Sciver tries to find something noble in his character. Bukowski starts off as completely unbearable but as we spend time with him, we get to see the cracks in his armor. It’s a frightening moment to see his one friend, the aforementioned fellow barfly, collapse on a sidewalk as it faces the self-imagined immortal writer to face his own mortality. And at that point,t the book shifts so that Bukowski feels less like like a lout and becomes possibly sympathetic.

Fante Bukowski and "friend"

All of this probably makes Fante Bukowski sound more navel gazing than it really is. Van Sciver never really let’s Bukowski have any grand epiphanies or moments of clarity that make him a truly better human being than he is. Telling the events of Bukowski’s life in one to two page increments, Van Sciver’s shaky line style always puts you in the nervous position of waiting for everything to fall apart. Bukowski may pridefully carry the air of confidence in himself and his writing but Van Sciver’s artwork always reminds us of just how rickety and unbalanced Bukowski’s life really is. Even characters who come into Bukowski’s life sometimes feel like they’re borrowed from other stories. The agent that Bukowski tries to impress has a Simpson’s-like overbite and an old co-worker looks like a douchey Archie Andrews. They’re from worlds that are different than the one that Bukowski lives in.

At first blush, Fante Bukowski reads like a cruel book, using its title character as a punching back to highlight just how rude and haughtily arrogant a writer could be. Bukowski is that worst person that we all fear becoming so wrapped up in ourselves that nothing and no one else ever measure up to our standards but he's also the people we see everywhere around us as we judge them against our own morals and beliefs. To rephrase Oscar Wilde (somehow I think Bukowski would be ignorantly proud to be associated in anyway with Wilde if he even knows who Wilde is,) Bukowski thinks he’s in the stars when he still has to crawl up just to reach gutter level. Van Sciver knows who Bukowski is but he also knows that in Bukowski, like hopefully in all of us, there is the potential for change and growth. It may be slow and incremental but by the end of the book, you may actually start to think that this Bukowski guy may end up being o.k. in the end.

Unless Bukowski actually gets a book deal. And then he’ll be insufferable for his live long days.

You can find Noah Van Sciver online on Twitter and Tumblr. He will be at SPX2015 at tables I9B & W56-61.