With the graphic novella Fante Bukowski, Noah Van Sciver’s penned the funniest thing I’ve read all year. The book—out now via Fantagraphics, and one of our favorite comics of 2015 —follows That Guy.
You already know him. Fante Bukowski’s the disheveled artist-type who focuses more on the perks—think women, booze, tweed jackets—than the craft itself. He’s internalized the works of Charles Bukowski, John Fante and any other booze-chugging romantic writer. Hell, the guy legally changed his name to show it—which is a lot easier than sitting down at a typewriter and grinding out prose. At its deepest, Fante Bukowski stands as a commentary on hordes of recognition-hungry artists with nothing to say, but as a straight parody, Fante Bukowski is hilarious enough to summon tears.
The book comes in the midst of a boom for cartoonist Noah Van Sciver, who kicked off 2015 by quitting his day job. His hyper-focus on cartoons delivered last March’s Saint Cole, an emotionally strenuous look at minimum wage (“It almost reads like misery porn,” Paste reviewer Hillary Brown said), and in the following months, Van Sciver’s returned something completely different: this cynical gem as well as the autobiographical My Hot Date.
Next month, Van Sciver is set to relocate from Denver, Colorado to White River Junction, Vermont for a fellowship at The Center for Cartoon studies. In the midst of his move, Van Sciver took some time to talk about his own experiences that influenced Fante Bukowski, as well as what the future holds.
Fante Bukowski makes fun of John Fante and Charles Bukowski’s imitators pretty relentlessly, but what’s your relationship with the Bukowski and Fante books?
Van Sciver: I went through that phase like everyone else, I feel like. Most people go through that phase, right? Where you’re in college, or your early 20s, where you discover John Fante and Charles Bukowski. You read that stuff and you romanticize it. I’m definitely guilty of it, but you move out of it and you see that a lot of people do that. A lot of young writers who romanticize that, I think it’s really funny. It seemed like a good thing to skewer, you know?
Paste: Your output is pretty consistent right now, so what’s it like to remember yourself at that period?
Van Sciver: It’s just funny, you know. Hopefully you can look at your earlier life and laugh about it, so I just laugh about it now. I was such a dumb kid, you know. Right now, I think I’m in that prime creative mode. I feel like I’m at this peak right now where I have so many ideas and I just want to get them done.
Paste: Do you feel like anything’s triggering that?
Van Sciver: Freedom, I guess. I’m in a part of my life where I’m not working a day job anymore. I’m living off the comics and stuff, and I have the freedom to do what I want.
Saint Cole had a heavier, more realistic approach than we see on Fante Bukowski. What made you want to go with a more comedic, straight parody approach?
Van Sciver: If you go with something as dark as Saint Cole, it’s nice to just lighten up a little bit. That was the whole thing, just to show that I could do that as well. I didn’t want to be the kind of cartoonist that just does one thing. I like to try to work in the entire spectrum of feelings.
Paste: In both stories, you see characters who are pretty locked into their situations in life. What draws you to those kinds of characters or stories??
Van Sciver: With Saint Cole, those feelings of hopelessness come from having to work a job like Panera Bread [Van Sciver supported himself at a Panera before working full-time in comics]. You’re working, not getting that much money and you’re trying to progress in your life. It’s a hopeless feeling. In that book, I tried to distill all of that: I have no skill sets or anything, and I think there are a lot of people in the world who are in the same position. They can’t get an office job, so they’re going to be a waiter or a bartender. Anything that happens in their life, they’re going to have to take care of it with their job. And with Fante Bukowski, I’m just making fun of that idea of being a writer, a drunk writer, but not actually working on your craft of writing.
Paste: Does that concept apply more to a specific generation? With Twitter, blogging, self-publishing, are we more guilty of that?
Van Sciver: Yeah, but the character of Fante Bukowski is kind of timeless. There’s always been a dude like that who wants to be a beatnik. There are dudes now who want to be McSweeny’s writers, they model their life after that or something.
Paste: If he gets one thing right though, it’s the American writer look.
Van Sciver: [Laughs]. Oh man, because you see so many guys like that. They all have the beard, they all have the tweed coat, the elbow patches, disheveled hair. Anything that screams he’s an artist.
Paste: The first time I read his first piece of writing, I think I cried laughing.
Van Sciver: The Tragedy of Success? Yeah, I just did a reading in Ohio and the audience just loved it.
Paste: I feel like I’ve read it a thousand times before. How did you develop Fante Bukowski’s voice as a writer? Were there drafts?
Van Sciver: [Laughs]. I feel like maybe I’ve spent too much time with people like that. I’ve internalized all the details about them, and I wrote it straight out. With everything in that book, I knew what I’d do with the story. Then every morning I woke up, drew a page and posted it online. That story, I just wrote it immediately from his voice. Just one draft. He wouldn’t have gone through any drafts either, honestly. Everything that Fante writes, he would think is amazing. If you didn’t like it, he’d think you were the oppressor or an idiot.
Paste: Last week, you posted your last strip for Westword, which you’ve been working at for some time now. Can you speak to how that changed you as an artist?
Van Sciver: That was a really big deal to me. Denver’s a small town, and Westword is the paper everyone reads. When they gave me that space early on, the comics were really lousy. But just having that deadline every Wednesday night was really helpful to me. It pushed me into being a professional newspaper cartoonist. I look at the first comic for them, then compare it to the later ones, it’s pretty amazing. I’m really thankful. I wish I could have stuck around there, but it’s a local newspaper. I might as well have given a local cartoonist [the space].
Paste: You spoke with a lot of bands for that strip, and you made a comment in the final one that musicians are assholes. What was the experience like working with them?
Van Sciver: It’s not like one experience, it’s just the attitude. It’s funny, I’d be talking to a lot of bands. I was more famous than them, but they’d treat me like a nobody, like I was talking to the next Jim Morrison or some shit. It was just all these egos constantly. I’d draw a comic of their band, and they’d be insulted how I drew them. It’s just tiring after a while. Nobody knows who you are, you’re just one of a million bands in Denver, Colorado, and how many millions are in every city? There’s no humility. That’s not all of them, that’s just some of them. I just got sick of it.
Paste: And then you just go to Vermont.
Van Sciver: Yeah, fuck you guys! [Laughs]
Paste: What can we expect from you in the next year?
Van Sciver: I am trying to put together a book for Fantagraphics of short stories and mini-comics. Then I have a biography of Johnny Appleseed in the spring. Paul Buhle had written a review of The Hypo [Van Sciver’s autobiography of young Abraham Lincoln] and he really liked it, and he wrote me an email afterward telling me he really liked the book. I was a big fan of his, and he works his ass off. He does so many great books. I wrote to him and said I’d love to work with him, and he said he’d been working on a Jonny Appleseed biography for the last couple of years, and I just jumped on it. It was a really fascinating experience, I learned a lot from it. Like, I didn’t know anything about apples, either. Apples weren’t really edible until humans started messing with them.
Paste: I didn’t know that either.
Van Sciver: Yeah, they were just used for alcohol, applejack.