‘I can’t ever just leave it alone!': Chatting with Noah Van Sciver
“Is Noah Van Sciver the finest cartoonist of his generation?”
That’s the question I posed a few months ago on this very blog. Anyone who’s been following his work, whether via his one-man, self-published anthology Blammo, various minicomics like The Death of Elijah Lovejoy or his critically acclaimed graphic novel about Abraham Lincoln The Hypo would likely be asking something similar. While there is plenty of competition among Van Sciver’s peers for the “finest cartoonist” title, over the past few years he’s consistently made a case for wearing that crown by methodically building a body of work that was engaging, funny, featured sharply detailed characters and encompassed a variety of genres.
Now AdHouse has published Youth Is Wasted, a collection of short stories taken from Blammo, and various other anthologies. It’s a good introduction to Van Sciver’s world for newcomers, as well as a reminder to Hypo readers that he’s not some one-hit wonder.
In honor of the book’s release, I recently chatted with Van Sciver about the new book, as well as his new mini from Oily Comics, The Lizard Laughed.
Chris Mautner: How did you go about selecting material for this volume? What made you decide to select some stories over others and did it prove to be a difficult process for you at all?
Noah Van Sciver: There are different reasons for each comic. For example, 1999 was a comic I did for Retrofit a couple of years ago and isn’t available in stores any longer. So, this book was an opportunity to give that particular story a longer life. Then there are stories like “Abby’s Road” and “Because I Have To” that were important benchmarks in my comics writing. I had to include them. And other comics I chose because they were scattered in different anthologies and I was interested in bringing them all together. I don’t think there were any difficulties. I had a pretty clear idea of which comics I wanted from the beginning.
There are three adaptations of folk tales in Youth Is Wasted, and I know you’ve done more. What draws you to these type of stories?
I had an idea after finishing up The Hypo that it would be nice to just illustrate a bunch of Grimm Fairy tales and Aesop Fables for a book. And I did a bunch before noticing that a lot of other cartoonists seemed to have had the same idea. So I just lost interest. I had done a lot of writing and structuring while doing The Hypo, and I just wanted something that seemed like an easier project. And I love drawing those borders on the pages.
In the book flaps you have a short piece about how you got started as a cartoonist. Was there an “a-ha” moment for you when you realized you wanted to make comics on some sort of professional level?
The film Crumb was my “a-ha” moment. That was my big revelation that comics really could be anything you wanted them to be. It’s ridiculous that it took me so long to realize that. But the moment I discovered Robert Crumb my life changed.
What was it about that film, and Crumb’s work, in general that you responded to so strongly? Does he remain a large influence on your work?
I had just never seen anything like that before. First of all, obviously his cartooning is incredible, but also, the way that he used comics to tell stories that were so personal and embarrassing was something I had never seen. For a few years I was obsessed with Crumb. I’ll always love his work, but I’ve branched out a lot. He was my entrance into indie comics.
Most of the stories in Youth Is Wasted center on aimless, early to mid-twentysomethings struggling to find love and acceptance in their lives. Why do you think you’re so drawn to these characters?
I’ve thought about this a lot recently. The answer is that my comics always reflect my own life. And since the comics in this book were all drawn as an aimless, angry, twentysomething, that’s what they’re about. I’m not talented, or skilled, enough to write a feeling that I haven’t felt before yet. And now I’m turning 30 and I’m on the verge of settling down with somebody. I expect that my stories will reflect a different kind of struggle or even the contentment that I feel now.
In the story “1999” you do a couple of interesting, experimental changes to your style, where you add zip tone, or photo overlays, and in one dream sequence you diverge from your “typical” style completely, to create a rather striking image of Armageddon. What made you decide to adopt this visual strategy and what did you learn from doing so? I ask because I don’t think you consciously attempt this sort of thing anywhere else.
For “1999” I was just trying to make it look like a comic from the 1990s. I bought a bunch of zip tone and razored it onto the artwork. The style changes and collage stuff was just add a little touch of surrealism to the story where I felt it was necessary.
I think I was first introduced to your work in those interviews you used to do in The Comics Journal. Are you ever going to collect those?
Ha-ha! No. Probably not. They’re excruciating for me to look at now!
What’s your usual working method? How much pre-planning do you do on a story? Do you write out the script or make thumbnails? What’s your process?
I have a notebook that I write story ideas or details and bits of dialogue in. Sometimes I sort through it and piece together a comic from things in there and other times I’ll just wake up in the middle of the night with a story and write it down quickly. Then I’ll make a thumbnail comic based on the writing.
Tell me about The Lizard Laughed, another new comic of yours that’s now out from Oily Comics? How did you come up with the idea for this story? How did you hook up with Oily publisher Chuck Forsman?
I’ve been friends with Chuck for a little while now. When he first began Oily comics we did a “conversations zine” together in which we talked a lot about our families and our fathers. I had written that comic in a notebook but never had the time to finish it. It’s me dealing with the frustrations I feel towards my dad and my upbringing. It was pretty therapeutic to write. A couple of years ago Chuck asked me if I’d be interested in doing an Oily comic, and when I finally got around to it, that was the story I wanted to draw. I’m proud of it. He did a great job putting it together.
Lizard is a 28-page minicomic, and you’ve had work published in a couple different formats at this point: minis, anthologies, webcomics and original graphic novels. Do you have a preference? Is there something about the mini format that still appeals to you?
It’s all about the particular project. I love writing short stories and some can stand on their own but others feel better in an issue of Blammo. I like the immediacy of minicomics but I hate storing them, and I’m forever trying to track one down in my apartment so that I can reread it. But that’s my own problem. With graphic novels I have to really be interested in the story because they take so damn long to do. And the story has to be big. I don’t really have a preference. I guess graphic novels are more impressive to look at so I’ll go with those.
One of the things I like about your art work is the amount of detail you put in your panels, especially when it comes to crosshatching. I get the feeling you’re not someone who’s comfortable with using a lot of white space, am I right? Where does that insistence on shading and detail come from?
Ha-ha, yes. I know! I can’t ever just leave it alone! I think it comes from insecurity over my drawing ability. Before I crosshatch the drawing looks embarrassing and naked to me.
Your brother Ethan Van Sciver wrote the introduction to this book. To what extent, even though he works in superhero comics, is his work an influence on yours?
I can’t say his work is an influence on me, because it’s a very different animal, but he did always encourage me to draw comics growing up. And he brought me to my first comic conventions and gave me good criticism on my early comics. Maybe I’ve been influenced by his work ethic, because he works incredibly hard and that’s what I want to do.
What are you working on now?
There are always too many things I’m trying to do at the same time. I recently finished my second graphic novel Saint Cole, and I’m figuring out a cover for it. I’m writing a graphic novel about two sons, from different mothers, driving together to visit their dying father, and drawing a daily comic on my Tumblr about a struggling writer called Fante Bukowski.