Noah Van Sciver first came to comic readers’ attention with his critically acclaimed comic book series Blammo, which has earned him 3 Ignatz award nominations. His work has appeared in Spongebob comics, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mad magazine, Best American Comics 2011, and The Stranger, as well as countless graphic anthologies. He currently is the fellow at the Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT. Van Sciver has four graphic novels: The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln, Youth Is Wasted, Saint Cole and Fante Bukowski: Struggling Writer.
Hello Noah and thank you for giving us the chance to talk to you. I would like to start by asking you a very simple question: at what point in your life you understood you wanted to tell your stories with comics?
I was 20 years old and had dropped out of college. I didn’t know what to do with myself at the time. I worked in a bagel shop and would spend my nights drawing in sketchbooks. Then one day my older brother, Ethan, suggested that I try to draw comics since he was having some success drawing a comic book called Green Lantern for DC comics. I played around a little bit with the idea, and then one night I rented a documentary called “Crumb” and it opened up my mind about what comics could be. It switched something on inside of me and I suddenly wanted to tell my own stories. And so I’ve been learning how to write a great story since then.
As you said, your brother had a big part in the start of your carrer. How is your relationship? Do you talk about each other works, with criticisms and advices, or do you leave the work outside the door?
Our relationship is fine but we don’t talk about comics very often, we usually keep work outside our conversations.
I write about whatever inspires me. My first graphic novel here in America is an illustrated account of Abraham Lincoln’s 20s and his battle with depression (The Hypo). He was America’s greatest president, of course, but I wasn’t interested in politics and I wasn’t interested in drawing him freeing the slaves. I only illustrated his emotional life and didn’t talk about him as a politician because a person’s internal struggle with who they are or their own emotions is what fascinates me. It is the connecting thread of all of my work. I might continue on with that theme in the future.
How many of your stories come from your personal life?
Many. All of the good ones.
More often than not you picture a broken and frustrated humanity that is not willing to change. Your last two works (FanteBukowki and Saint Cole) are strongly linked. Where did you get the inspiration for works like these, where you deeply analize the feeling and the human kinks? Did you have any particular meetings, even by chance, that helped developing your characters?
Saint Cole is based on a lot of things from my own life and from the people I knew working in restaurants and riding the bus around. It is a picture of what life is when you get stuck. The main character has a child and no real skills and so he must work very hard for a small amount of money to take care of his new family that he is not equipped to take care of. It’s a real nightmare. And then how does that kind of person find relief from that daily grind? A lot of times with alcohol. I am very proud of that book. While I was waiting for it to be published I drew Fante Bukowski to lighten up my mood and take a playful jab at the young romantic writer. I drew it in 3 months! Very quickly.
Even though the progression of the two tales is different, they are based on common themes. Both the two endings, for instance, are marked by fate and never by the choices of the protagonists. Do you believe that haphazardness plays a bigger role in life than choosing on your own? Do we really have the ability to choose our own path?
You have the ability to choose on your own up to a point. I think I have in my own life but sometimes it feels like I’m in a boat and I’m watching as current after current carries me further out and it’s not in my control. I don’t have any paddles, but I did buy the boat and I did get into the water on my own.
You started your career creating self-published series and then you worked on some graphic novels. How do you change your approach based on whether you are working on a series or on a single issue?
I think that my comic book Blammo is its own artform different from a graphic novel. In an issue of Blammo I tell short stories that all work together and report to the reader my development as a cartoonist at the time of the issue’s creation. I take it very seriously. A graphic novel is like writing and directing my own movie.
You have such a recognizable style and you have the ability to use it in such different stories, always with your bitter and sharp irony like in FanteBukowski, or while picturing discomfort and desperation like in Saint Cole. What did inspire this style and how did you work on it?
It all started with Robert Crumb. He was my main influence in the beginning. After Crumb I discovered Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, David Collier and many others from the 1990s. I just want my style to fit in with my favorites. As I go on in my development I pick up little tricks or ideas here and there and things evolve.
Which independent artists do you like or follow with interest right now?
I really love reading Joann Sfar lately. Simon Hanselmann, John Porcellino, Kevin Huizenga, Leslie Stein and on and on… My number one contemporary in comics is Joseph Remnant. He is the cartoonist I get a chill of jealousy from every time I see a new drawing from him. His work pushes me forward to do my best.
You are north-american, so you are deeply immersed in the serial mainstream world dominated by very few publishing houses. Have you ever been attracted by that kind of narration? Have you ever thought about writing a story for the big publishers?
Well, my brother works in mainstream comics but I don’t have any interest in drawing superheroes or writing them. I don’t care about those comics.
Nowadays there are many publishing houses, of average or big influence, that choose to base their production on the creator owned, generating therefore a huge variety of styles and themes. Do you think that there could be a joining link between this world and the underground realm?
I’m not really sure. Maybe.
Your Tumblr blog is quite active: you post a lot of stories and, as a matter of fact, Fante Bukowski is a character mainly linked to the internet about whom you often post things on your Facebook page and Twitter. What is your relationship with social networks?
I think it’s important for me to be a part of social media as an artist. I really enjoy interacting with people and serializing my work for them to read when I can. It’s very special that I can know who is reading my comics and having a relationship with them. It encourages me to keep working.
The things you publish on Tumblr are very classic, made on paper and the transferred to a computer. Have you ever thought about exploring the endless opportunities of the webcomics or you are too bound to the analogical tools and aspects of the job?
For me it’s a matter of taste. I like the way real ink and paper look. I like real art. I won’t say that I’ll never use a digital tablet to create my comics, but for now I just love doing things the way my heroes do.
Some days ago you announced that you will serialize Fante Bukowski 2 and your diary on your freshly-opened Patreon profile. Which are the reasons behind your choice of Patreon as platform to publish your panels?
Patreon was suggested to me by my friend John Porcellino. I needed a place that I could serialize my comics easily and so far it’s working out great. I post a new diary comic and page from Fante Bukowski 2 daily. It’s my private club.
Interview made via mail on the 27 april 2016, question translated by Elisabetta Gatti