Noah Van Sciver is an unusual case in indy comics. This is someone whose sole ambition is to become an alt-cartoonist. There’s something almost endearing in his open desire for greatness, for success, and for recognition. Fortunately for him, his desire to be great has turned him into a relentless worker. He’s someone who’s working out that desire in public in any number of ways. He’s done cartoon interviews for The Comics Journal. He does a weekly strip for a local Denver newspaper. He appears in any number of anthologies, from the humblest minicomic anthology to premier publications like Mome. On the side, he’s working on a long-form comic about Abraham Lincoln and is soon due to release a novella from 2D Cloud.
There’s a sense in which he’s trying every approach he can think of in an effort to see what sticks. As such, he’s certainly proved that he’s not afraid to fail if an idea really strikes his fancy. That tends to play out in Blammo, his old-fashioned one-man anthology modeled after series like Eightball or Dork!, complete with letters pages, ads, plugs, and other ephemera. Van Sciver is clearly drawn to every alternative era of comics, going back as far as MAD up through underground artists like Robert Crumb, the alt-comics stars of the ’80s like Daniel Clowes & Peter Bagge, and ’90s figures like John Porcellino. There’s an ugliness to Van Sciver’s work that’s ameliorated by his sense of comic timing. Of course, that humor often shows up in unexpected and sometimes jarring ways as he moves from story to story.
Van Sciver begins the issue with a comics introduction in the form of a news story detailing how much typical comics fans hate his work, with quotes like “Why is everybody sweating in here?” Self-deprecation is not exactly a new technique for an alt-cartoonist, but Van Sciver’s commitment to that shtick gives these sort of gags an extra burst of energy through sheer relentless viciousness. Van Sciver than goes in a completely different direction with “Who Are You, Jesus?”, the best story in the book. Van Sciver has a knack for crafting slice-of-life stories about losers who nonetheless have a redeeming quality or two. This one is about a guy who finds a wallet belonging to a cute woman. He initially thinks to take the money, but his own words spoken at a job interview (“I’m a good person”) come back to haunt him, and he returns the wallet. Initially, things really seem to be working out well when they get drunk and hook up at his apartment, until he not only realizes that he’s been played, but that he was in worse shape than before he started. It’s a grim but fitting ending that has an almost E.C. Comics moral sensibility, albeit one with a great deal of heart, as we actually feel for the protagonist.
Speaking of E.C. Comics and horror, Van Sciver indulges this kind of storytelling with a trio of shock-ending horror/suspense stories. These are the weak links in the issue, as the stories are trite & predictable and the horror is cheap, like something out of an urban legend. The horror feels like Van Sciver just trying a different approach to see how it functions. They do seem to be genuinely earnest attempts at horror rather than ironic take, but they don’t really work at either level. The best attempt is the longish story involving a man handed an envelope for delivery by a supposedly blind man; the story works in part because Van Sciver spends time with the everyman character in an effort to deflect reader expectation. It doesn’t quite pay off and the ending is ridiculously over-the-top, but it does seem to be a progression from his other two attempts in this issue.
I suppose the horror stories are a way of providing a counter-point to the more emotional or silly content of the other strips. “Because I Have To”, for example, is a sentimental story about a young man whose younger brother dies in a car crash. On Halloween, he happens upon a young girl who’s lost and helps her trick-or-treat while they look for her brother. In its own way, the outcome of this story is as predictable as the horror stories in the issue, but Van Sciver’s commitment to character and the rhythms of his dialogue make the story effective. It’s not so much verisimilitude as it is Van Sciver’s unusual voice underlying everything he does. When the protagonist of the story is asked by the little girl if he has a girlfriend, he replies, “Who are you? Terry Gross? No, girls don’t like me. It’s the desperation vibe I give off. Forget about it. You’ll understand when you get older.” There’s a certain flat simplicity to his dialogue that works well with the bluntness of his imagery.
One thing that sets Van Sciver apart is the particular weirdness of his obsessions. His chicken characters are sort of a little kid’s interpretation of S. Clay Wilson: furious imagery, lots of violence, and lots of shock imagery, but drawn with an odd innocence and light touch (not entirely unlike Rory Hayes, come to think of it). The story of Bill the Chicken being tortured in hell is a funny one ending on a blasphemous note, which segues nicely into an entirely straightforward history of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. In many ways, this is the most autobiographical and personal of the stories in this issue, given that it touches on the faith he was raised in but later rejected. It’s drawn in Van Sciver’s trademark grimy, sweaty style, adding a certain amount of grounding to the wacky origin story of Mormonism. Apart from the less than idealized visuals, there’s no other critique inherent to be found in Van Sciver’s version of the narrative. It feels like a revisiting of old ideas, as though he was trying on an old sweater that didn’t quite fit anymore.
Though his approach is scattershot and he doesn’t always land solid hits, I appreciate Van Sciver’s willingness to try anything in Blammo. There’s no question that he’s developed a recognizable style as an artist, but he’s bold enough to try new approaches. This issue saw him use greyscale in his first story, dense hatching and cross-hatching in “Because I Said So” & in his chicken strip, and a more open layout in his strip about Joseph Smith. Van Sciver is neither an exceptional writer nor a remarkable draftsman, but he seems to have a strong understanding of how to use both skills to play to his strengths and hide his weaknesses. In other words, he’s becoming a very good cartoonist.