Whit Taylor Interviews Noah Van Sciver

I am quite reticent to embrace terms like "finest cartoonist of their generation." I've heard it here and there in regards to Noah Van Sciver and while I still do not see the utility in this label, I definitely get it. Van Sciver has consistently proven in his work that he possesses the rare ability of being both a skilled writer and artist. There is an honesty in his work, sometimes at cringeworthy levels, as well as a riskiness to what he attempts which I admire as both a reader and a cartoonist. At 30, Van Sciver has numerous publications and projects to date, including Saint Cole, which was just released this month from Fantagraphics. He was kind enough to take some time to chat with me about a bunch of his recent and current projects.

Whit: Saint Cole is a dark, unrelenting, "horror" story in a sense. Your main character, Joe, is almost a concentrated version of what Rob Clough has termed the "desperate loser" character. What were you trying to communicate in this piece?

Noah: I don't know if I set out to communicate anything in particular, but as the story came out of me it seemed clear that one of the big things that I was expressing was the hopeless feeling you get from working in the service industry without any options for a way out of it. That's something I feel all of the time. How could I ever have a family or own a home, like we're all raised to strive for, without a career? 

Whit: Well it's interesting that you say that, because a lot of your work deals with the issue of class. You've been pretty vocal about having grown up, in your own words, "poor", and also struggling as a working cartoonist. Two things: 1) Do you feel that you have readers who grew up similarly to you socioeconomically who have been able to relate to your comics? 2) Why do you think it's so hard to make a living as a cartoonist these days and what do you think that means for the growth of the medium? 

Noah: I'm sure I do have plenty of readers who can relate to my upbringing. And that's great because then we understand each other. As far as why it's hard to make a living from comics: there isn't any money in alternative comics. There hasn't been for a long time if there ever actually was. There just isn't a big audience for it. It's not a mass medium, that's all. Comics in this country are an escapist medium. If you use it to talk about reality then only the skinniest piece of the comics reading pie chart will have any interest in it. That's just how it goes. It's has to be art, because it's not mass entertainment. 

Whit: You originally serialized Fante Bukowski on Tumblr and it seems like Fante Bukowski himself inspired a lot of spirited fain mail and art. What was it about this character that inspired that reaction do you think?

Noah: I 'm not sure, exactly, but I think a lot of people know someone or several people like Fante Bukowski in real life. He's one of my own favorite characters and it was great doing that story. 

Whit: Why is Fante Bukowski one of your favorite characters?

Noah: He's just a funny character to me. He's too real. He's just a "writer" who likes the romance of struggling more than actually learning to be a great writer. 

Whit: I notice that once and a while you'll do a month of journal comics. What's the impetus for you in doing autobiographical comics?

Noah: I used to, but I don't think I'll be doing those anymore. It started as a challenge. Just to see if I could do it. Doing diary comics everyday is very difficult! I did it the first time because it was autumn and that's my favorite season so I wanted to capture that. The second time I did it it was because I was just really sad and lonely and that feeling was inspiring to me. I tried to do another 30 and got about a week into it before it just felt like it was over. I didn't have any urge to do it anymore and didn't want to fake it.

Whit: What makes for a good autobio/journal/memoir comic?

Noah: Same thing that makes a really good story. Drama, humor, and sentimentality together.

Whit: You're currently illustrating a book on Johnny Appleseed with Paul Buhle. How did this collaboration come together and can you tell me a bit about your goals for this book as an illustrator?

Noah: Paul is a very interesting guy. He's a historian which was a big draw for me .He's done a lot of work with comic artists, including several graphic novels and even a book (with Denis Kitchen) about Harvey Kurtzman. He's just a real good, cool person. I'm a big into American history and so I wrote him an email about a year ago asking if he had any projects that he was working on that I could squeeze into. And as a matter of fact he had a Johnny Appleseed book in the works. So he hired me to draw it and it's been really fun! As the artist it's my job to make it the most beautiful book I can. I feel like I'm competing with every other artist he's worked with and I want this book to really stand out. 

Whit: Looking back, how would you summarize the evolution of your one-man anthology Blammo? Do you have goals going forward for this series?

Noah: "Evolution" is a good word to use. The series as a whole could be read as the evolution of an artist. I think the first 5 issues are pretty awful but I can still find different things in each issue that have a little spark of something that I would develop into something good. And my only goal in the future is to just continue creating the very best stories and comics for each issue that I am able to at the time. If I continue doing that then the series will continue to be an evolution. 

Whit: Was there a point where you started to feel confident as an artist/storyteller? Can you articulate what it was that made that happen?

Noah: I'm not that confident, and I'm not sure if I ever will be really. But I do know that one big breakthrough story for me was called "Abby's Road." For some reason that comic was like a revelation for me. 

Whit: Why is it Blammo 8 1/2?

Noah: Because when I draw an issue of Blammo all of the work in the issue is drawn with the intention of being a part of the issue. With 8 1/2 it's work that I really like but that wasn't drawn with any home in mind or was a part of an anthology. With this issue I'm pulling together a lot of extra stuff that I want my readers to see but that was otherwise scattered all over the internet or in other books. 

Whit: How did you develop your coloring process for Fante Bukowski and your newest short story, My Hot Date?

Noah: Somebody taught me about using layers in photoshop, and it was showing a caveman how to make fire. It opened up my world. I just started messing around with it but I didn't like the way that plain old computer coloring looks. It was just so flat! So I just started mixing in colored pencils and ink washes to give a texture to it. It's become a signature style in my color work now. 

Whit: What's the story behind your Rufus Baxter comic strip for Denver Westword? How do you feel working in this format?

Noah: I've been working for Westword since 2008 doing a comic strip called "4 Questions" which was basically just an interview strip with bands. Last year my editor was replaced and the new guy took me out for beers and convinced me to retire the interviews and replace it with a serialized comic strip story. So I came up with Rufus Baxter: The oldest, unknown rock star. It's basically just a commentary on the lack of value we place on getting older. The unsexiness of it all. 

Whit: How has the indie comics scene changed since you started putting out work? Fears or hopes associated with its trajectory?

Noah: I don't know if it has really. I feel so detached from everything that goes on in comics since I'm not a part of any real scene, and I don't live in a big comics city or anything. I'm always the last person to hear about any outrage in the comics industry.  I draw my comics and then take a nap. That's my life. 

Whit: What are you reading now that's exciting you in comics?

Noah: Carl Barks' Donald Duck comics and issues of Weirdo. I have my own group of cartoonists from my generation that I try to keep up with. I'm looking forward to reading Chuck Forsman's new comic and figuring out what it's all about. 

Whit: You seem to be doing multiple projects at once with a pretty high output. What are the most important factors that contribute to your productivity?

Noah: Having several projects at once is the only way I can work. I've found that if I only work on one thing at a time I get so bored and stuck on it. I have to be able to put it down and give it a break. Then I pick up something else and put my energy into that instead. It's great way to work because then you can come back to each project with fresh eyes. 

Whit: Advice for aspiring cartoonists?

Noah: Don't rip off Michael Deforge or Sam Alden. Enough already. Be more original.  Rip off Gary Dumm instead. 

Check out Noah's work here!