Over the last decade, no single cartoonist has produced as much diverse and prolific work as Noah Van Sciver. From historical fiction to surreal, ribald comedy, serious meditations on depression, heartbreaking memoir, and so much more, Van Sciver’s work runs the emotional gamut. The early months of 2020 see the release of two of Noah’s projects: First, the release of the Complete Work of Fante Bukowski (Fantagraphics), Van Sciver’s satiric literary dilettante who wouldn’t know a stanza from Tony Danza. The other is Grateful Dead: Origins (Z2), a collaborative book about the early years of history’s most influential jam band that will be released in June. These two books couldn’t be any more different, yet they both perfectly encapsulate Noah’s straightforward, yet sophisticated cartooning aesthetic.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to chat with Noah once more about his recent books, some major projects that are coming out in the near future, and of course, how he spends his days with coronavirus wreaking havoc on hearth and home.
AJ FROST: Hi Noah! Thank you so much for chatting with me today. I wanted to start off by asking about the craziness that is the COVID-19 Pandemic. How are you doing right now? Is the virus affecting your daily schedule at all?
NOAH VAN SCIVER: So far, so good. I live indoors for the most part so, aside from a few inconveniences, I’m doing what I’d otherwise be doing. Actually my productivity is a little slowed down because it’s hard to concentrate fully.
FROST: I hear that. It feels like everyone wants to be productive but the news simply gets in the way. On the other hand, have you felt that you can work more intently simply because there’s not much to do otherwise?
VAN SCIVER: What I’ve found is that I still have the drive to draw, but not the concentration it takes to work on what I should be working on. So, I’ve been drawing in sketchbooks instead, just to get that energy out.
FROST: You have so much to work on too. Maybe we can get to that in a moment, because I wanted to chat about the recently-released “Complete Fante Bukowski” volume from Fantagraphics. For those that don’t know, how did the character of Fante come about?
VAN SCIVER: I was just messing around in a sketchbook and making fun of the Bukowski bro-writer types who I’d see at zine festivals and who would wander into the bookstore I worked at in Denver. It started off as a page a day/ gag a day exercise using this character and I’d post them on Facebook or Tumblr. Through the gags, a story started to emerge and people on the internet began to follow it and became interested in the character. I finished up the sketchbook I’d been drawing the story in but quickly realized I had a lot more to write for Fante Bukowski. It just blossomed into a big story. Magically.
FROST: And that was the first book of Fante Bukowski? How long did it take to complete the first book?
VAN SCIVER: Yes, that was the first book. I drew that book fast and loose in only about 3 months if I recall.
FROST: Did you immediately know that Fante’s story would take place over multiple books, or did you think, at the time, that this was a one-time outing for the character?
VAN SCIVER: I thought it would be a one-time book. But the ideas kept coming and I wanted to attempt a love story with the second book.
FROST: How do you think you grew as a cartoonist while writing the trilogy? Because you had projects in between each Fante book, correct?
VAN SCIVER: Yeah, I did have a few things in between. Well, it was really an exercise in storytelling. I’d never written a trilogy before for one. But I’d also had to learn how to find multiple jokes based on limited character traits. I wanted the reader to initially hate Fante but as they continued to read they’d start to like him more and more. You’d learn why he was the person he was by the end of the book, maybe the reader would accept him. And my art went from sloppy to loose by the end. I think there’s a difference.
FROST: I totally understand. Fante is set up to be a caricature, but then you give him real pathos. It’s an odd thing to feel sympathy for someone who, on the surface, is so vain and unlikeable. What was the most significant “a-ha” storytelling moment for you during the writing process?
VAN SCIVER: Probably his tribal tattoo reveal. That hinted that this is a person who has tried on many personas in his life thus far.
FROST: How have foreign markets reacted to Fante? I feel his story is so quintessentially American.
VAN SCIVER: Everyone loves Fante Bukowski. Strangely, it’s already been translated into seven different languages and I hear from people all over the world about the books! I don’t know why!
FROST: That must be a great feeling! Whose idea was it to compile the three separate volumes into one massive book?
VAN SCIVER: I don’t remember whose idea it was but it became the plan after the third book was published. Fantagraphics just had a blast designing the series and had great ideas for a complete edition.
FROST: The covers and graphic design for all the Fante books have been on point. The Library of America riff on the complete collected volume is inspired. Who is to thank for that?
VAN SCIVER: Keeli McCarthy. She’s a genius.
FROST: Before I move on to the next topic, one last question about Fante. I think I’ve read that, for now, you are done with him, but do you feel that you may revisit his literary antics down the road?
VAN SCIVER: I think about it sometimes. Maybe. In one form or another, he’ll be back.
FROST: Okay, moving on. You have two massive projects in the works right now. There is the Grateful Dead: Origins graphic novel with Chris Miskiewicz that is coming out this June from Z2 Comics. And then there is the Joseph Smith biography that is coming out next year from Abrams. Let’s start with the Grateful Dead. How did you get involved with that project?
VAN SCIVER: I bumped into Josh Frankel from Z2 at San Diego Comic Con and we hadn’t seen each other in a few years. He was working with Chris on doing a career spanning graphic novel series for The Grateful Dead and he asked me if I wanted to draw it. They were looking for somebody who kinda had an underground comix style. I was interested in that story so I took it on. I’m thankful I did. It’s a pretty fascinating history!
FROST: Is it one book or several?
VAN SCIVER: It could only be just this book, but we’d like to do a series that takes you all the way into the present and covers everything about the band. It’s been a great experiment in comics-making.
FROST: How is the Joseph Smith book coming along? I remember the last time we chatted, you were deep into the work on it.
VAN SCIVER: I’m still deep into it. It’s been the most immersive experience I’ve gone through. I’ve spent the last year flying out and visiting all of the historic sites and researching as much as I can. The difficult thing about creating a graphic novel based on real history is carving out a narrative that’s easy to follow from the onslaught of historic details that you learn. Sticking to what’s important for my book and what’s just chicken fat has been the challenge.
FROST: Is the book still on track for release this year or next? Or has the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything in terms of a release date?
VAN SCIVER: As far as I know! I haven’t heard anything different but who can tell what the future will look like?
FROST: I know that you’ve been so busy with these big books, but I wanted to know if you’ve taken any time to work on something smaller and more personal for you. The latest issue (the tenth) of Blammo came out in 2018. Is that still a book you’d want to work on in the future?
VAN SCIVER: I do want to draw another issue. At this point, I assume I will. I also have a few mini-comics that I have been drawing that I should just self-publish.
FROST: Has there been any talk or consideration of publishing all the Blammos into one edition? A lot of the early issues are extremely rare and hard to find.
VAN SCIVER: I am asked all the time for that. But I don’t think I wanna do it. The first five issues are too embarrassing and the best stories from six through eight are in a book called Youth is Wasted from Adhouse books.
FROST: And even that book is hard to find!
VAN SCIVER: [LAUGHS] Oh, I didn’t know that!
FROST: One thing I’ve noticed over the last few months is your ramping up of sketches and finished pieces on social media. Have you found that engaging people over Instagram and Facebook has brought more attention to your work?
VAN SCIVER: It’s the only way to get my comics and drawings seen these days.
FROST: Have there been any particular posts where the response surprised you?
VAN SCIVER: [LAUGHS] Actually yes. Just the other day, I posted a dumb drawing of my character leaping onto crazy abstract buildings. People seemed to like that.
FROST: Since you’ve been cooped up, what have you been reading for inspiration?
VAN SCIVER: I jump all over the place. I’ve been reading the latest Walt and Skeezix volume from Drawn and Quarterly and also revisiting Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier, which I love so much.
FROST: I think I’ve taken up enough of your precious time. Any final thoughts on anything?
VAN SCIVER: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I hope everyone is doing okay during this crisis. Wash your hands and keep other people away from you.
FROST: And read a lot of comics?
VAN SCIVER: Yes, read the complete Eightball [by Dan Clowes] and listen to Bob Marley.
The Collected Works of Fante Bukowski is available now from Fantagraphics. Grateful Dead: Origins will be available on June 23, 2020. Learn more about Noah Van Sciver and his work on his website and Instagram.