Review: Noah Van Sciver’s ‘As a Cartoonist’

Noah Van Sciver’s new book from Fantagraphics, As a Cartoonist, is a miscellany of short pieces chronicling Van Sciver’s personal life and his attempts to be a cartoonist in the tradition of those he admires. Those who love Van Sciver’s Fante Bukowski will find much to laugh over here, and in a similar vein. Lena Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath in HBO’s Girls muses: “I think I may be the voice of my generation, or at least a voice of a generation.” Is NVS the best alternative cartoonist voice of his generation as some believe? Or is he caught between being emblematic of his generation and aspiring to join the ranks of the cartoonists whom he admires? Some fifty-nine thumbnails of influences are lovingly sketched in as a kind of visual appendix and endnote.

The creative love child of R. Crumb and Joe Matt, Van Sciver’s sharp, browbeaten satire chronicles his time as a fellow at Vermont’s Center for Cartoon Studies, when he got in trouble for snapping at a student. Though Van Sciver espouses millennial anxieties around employment, recognition, and social relationships, he does not seem to identify with the political correctness and the soft-bellied woke-ness he critiques in his peers. Van Sciver takes aim at pretty much everyone he crosses; his capacity for stinging judgement and vitriol seems limitless. NVS does not spare himself either, chronicling scathing versions of himself that are at once both scabrous and pained.

Besides the adventures of young Noah as a struggling cartoonist, we get dollops of child Noah’s bitter angst as he deals with playground bullies, and adult Noah as he attempts to visit his family for a few days. My favourite story in the collection is easily “Jonah”, Noah’s attempt to abide his brother, a self styled lothario and egocentric who tries to pretend he wants to bond with Noah while constantly using the cartoonist’s visit and time for his own self-serving ends. Van Sciver doesn’t pull any punches. His family bickers like the siblings in The Godfather, except that they’re all Fredos. Even infamous brother Ethan gets a satirical nod through a telephone call where, in an earlier time, he gloats over being named Wizard’s artist of the year.

Rounding out this miscellany of autobiographical pieces are jabs at a trumped up 19th century arrogant cartoonist, random drawings, and fleeting moments of contemplation and earnest longing for some kind of spiritual affirmation. Similar to the content, Van Sciver’s drawing style is a self taught nervous scribble, a shaky rendering issuing straight from the neuroses and pulsing neurons in his brain. Yet Van Sciver’s nervous expressionism is tempered and treated by a kind of digital processing through computer applications that belie all the shaky raw insecurity and angst he professes. Is NVS (visually branding himself as an indie cartoon figure, weedy and balding, replete with old man’s sweater, eyes continually alarmed and suspicious, sporting a moustache that can only be seen as a half-hearted attempt at hipsterism) simply a calculated creation of the author, no different than Fante Bukowski, a pained distillation of all that is cartooning instead of writing? Does bearing his intention too openly on his sleeve take away some of the magic and subtlety he should be cultivating?

Answers will be elusive for even as this book slips by, Van Sciver’s massive tome on Joseph Smith is getting all kinds of attention and press. With a number of books under his belt and a highly driven work ethic, NVS might not need to be the voice of his generation or even a voice of a generation; he might simply be the hardest working cartoonist in comics today. And that itself is a kind of earnestness that cannot be faked or made up. And funny. Don’t forget funny. Definitely one of the funniest cartoonists, even if it’s hard to remember that as the funny gets washed down with bitterness. Van Sciver’s satire definitely appeals to a more Juvenalian palate. And for these two things alone, if nothing else, NVS deserves our readership – for at least a little while longer.

Noah Van Sciver’s new book from Fantagraphics, As a Cartoonist, is a miscellany of short pieces chronicling Van Sciver’s personalCOMICONRead More

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