An Interview with Noah Van Sciver

Noah Van Sciver’s Fante Bukowski Two (Fantagraphics Books) is an extensive follow-up to the Eisner-nominated first installment of Fante Bukowski, published in 2015. In the sequel, Fante’s epic search for praise and promise continues, landing him in Columbus, Ohio – conveniently at the same time that the author relocated. Due to our busy and exciting lives in this shared bustling metropolis, Noah and I caught up over email to talk about the new book, his experience so far in Ohio, and more. Readers can anticipate more of the love-hate experience that comes with cringing along at Fante’s exploits once again as he stumbles through a new town, discovers zines, alienates his peers, burns down a motel, and somehow still manages to capture a sympathetic piece of Audrey’s heart. Van Sciver’s gifts of well-crafted humor and comedic timing shine stronger than ever in Fante Two, while still incorporating some of the wistfulness for which much of his other work is known.

Hey Noah. Congratulations on your recent Eisner nomination (Best Single Issue) for Blammo no. 9, and on the DINKY award for Best Work from a Small Press! You’ve been kinda killin’ it lately, and now Fante Bukowski Two is officially out there. How are you feeling about this point in your career?

Thanks! I feel good. I’m just glad that anyone reads my comics.

One of the highlights of Blammo no. 9 is the White River Junction, Vermont story. Having lived there myself for a year, I got a special kick out of that one. Can you tell me a little about your experience out there?

I’m glad that I did it, and I learned a lot while over there, mainly by hanging out in Stephen Bissette’s class. It was my first time doing work around so many other people who were also working their asses off. It’s kind of a boot camp for cartoonists. I watched how hard the students had to push themselves and I kept thinking, “man, I don’t think I could graduate from here!”

I took advantage of being out east, and did all of the comics shows that I have always wanted to do. So, I was out of town frequently and when I was back I hid and drew my comics. Truthfully, I don’t feel like I interacted with the school as much as I should have, and I have some guilt about that.

Stephen Bissette told me you were one of the hardest working people he’s seen up there. How do you feel about the CCS program, if you’re willing to share that? I know they have more and more competition these days, with comics programs popping up all over the country.

It can be a good, helpful experience for people. If you’re serious about being a cartoonist and learning as much as you can, you’ll get a lot out of it. But you’ll also see people who get caught up in the drama that’s created in such a small community. That’s what you have to avoid.  Artists arrive to find that they’re no longer the best in their town, and others become more excited about being around other weirdos that working on their comics takes a back seat to hanging out and having parties. 

In Fante Bukowski Two, our man lands in Columbus. This conveniently coincides with your relocation to, as Fante says, "the artistic GALAXY that is Columbus Ohio". My question is basically, "why here, why now" for both you and Fante. What brought you to Columbus, how has it been for you this past year, and was bringing Fante here a creative decision out of sheer convenience of familiarity, or something more?  

When I moved to Columbus last summer I came with about 20 finished pages for Fante Bukowski Two, and I didn’t really have a story in mind other than Fante has spent a year traveling around the country and has decided to try his luck in Columbus, OH, as I was about to. It worked well because as I was figuring out the city I could have him do it right along with me. Maybe it was a way of helping me feel more comfortable. My past year here has had it’s ups and downs, but a lot of that comes with trying to create a life in a new city alone and the anxieties that come with that.

Has it lived up to your expectations? What have you been doing with your time here? 

Yeah, it’s been good. I mostly keep my head down and work on my comics during the day and then go hang out with my neighbor Bryan Moss, visiting all the Half-Priced Books stores and drinking at night. Our tastes in comics are just different enough that we aren’t searching for the same comics and we can turn each other on to different artists.

What is it about Columbus that makes it an ideal setting for Fante?

Having the setting be in Columbus was an inside joke because I realized that nobody knows anything about this city, and so I could claim it as a hive of literary greatness, where every writer you love lives. Hopefully somebody far away will passively accept it as a fact. Nobody has a mental reference or familiarity with Columbus the way they do for Cleveland or Cincinnati and so I felt free to create my own for the reader.

Yeah, that lack of identity that Columbus has is one of the things it seems to be most insecure about. This is definitely a city that has attempted (and failed) at branding itself in different ways over the years. And it has demolished a lot of its own history, which doesn’t help. That has always kinda bothered me, but what’s funny is that your reinvention of it as a city where every “great” writer lives would probably bother me a thousand times more. I guess at least the way that it currently is makes it a best-kept secret. I’ve started to take a sick pleasure in outsider’s assumptions that Ohio is a totally boring, cultureless wasteland. I hope it keeps them away from ever finding out it’s cool and ruining it.

Yeah, and driving up the rents! Good, stay away everyone!

What do you find you like about it here, and what do you dislike?

I live in a historic part of the city, which is right up my alley, taste-wise. I love walking around my neighborhood. Columbus isn’t very far from a lot of cities so going to shows in Chicago or New York is easy. Living in Denver, it felt like going anywhere required a 5-hour flight. It felt very remote out there and that was annoying and isolating. Columbus is also a comics hub, with the Billy Ireland comics collection and museum and the frequent events and all that. I appreciate those. I don’t like Midwestern sweaty summers and all the insects. That’s my complaint. Ha ha.

There are some real places in Columbus that I recognize in the book, like Forno, Bob's Bar, the Leveque tower, and Tommy's Diner - are there many others? There are certainly some beautiful city street scenes in there. I don't think we have a White Pride Tavern, but nothing surprises me anymore.

No, it’s a very fictionalized version of the city. Kilgore books, for example, is a Denver bookstore, but I couldn’t help myself including it in Fante’s Columbus since it’s an establishment so dear to my heart.

A bookstore like Kilgore is one thing that Columbus is sorely missing. I wish we had something similar.

God, me too. It was my clubhouse.

Considering the timing of both of your moves, how much of a comparison should people draw between you and Fante? You've also drawn "yourself" into this book, though Noah Van Sciver the character is almost as unlikable Fante - which seems intentional. Are they both the worst of you, or not you at all? What experiences of Fante's OR "Noah Van Sciver's" do you relate to? Like, oh, living in a hotel... (I'm thinking of when you were up at CCS). 

A lot of Fante Bukowski’s experiences are based off of my own. I was a “struggling, unappreciated” cartoonist in my early 20s and did and thought a lot of things that I’m deeply ashamed of now. I did actually go to a Dave Eggers reading once just to introduce myself and give him my mini comics, hoping he would publish me in Mcsweeney’s and I did walk around Denver with a backpack full of my latest mini comics trying to sell them. I drank shitty wine and drew all night. In those early years I thought I was going to be a great cartoonist one day and everyone would be sorry for how they were dismissing me. I couldn’t see that actually I was just a bad cartoonist. I’m older and more self-possessed these days, which helps me examine my 20s objectively and skewer the delusions I labored under in those embarrassing days.

I’ve never thought it was necessary to write main characters that were likable people, and in humor the more unlikable the better I think.

If you and Fante share a lot of the same experience, can you talk a little about your decision to include yourself as a character in the book?

That was just for a joke. I wanted Audrey to be involved with somebody awful and I felt that awful person should be a fictionalized version of me.

How has Fante Bukowski been received by your readers?

They must like him enough, although I do occasionally get an email from somebody unsure of whether or not I like him personally.

Is he a sympathetic character to you?

To me he is, yes. I really like him.

What was and is your actual relationship with Charles Bukowski and John Fante's work? In your 2015 interview with PASTE you mention having gone through a phase of it, which is certainly common - especially for American men, it seems. Can you talk more about that though? What does their work represent to you, and how do you feel about it now? 

Oh yeah, well, I love Bukowski and John Fante very much. They’re easy to read, passionate books about being a struggling, sensitive (but still masculine) outsider and I think there’s a romanticism to that that a lot of men get into and are protective over. I’ve read almost every Charles Bukowski book and most of John Fante’s output as well. I’m not making fun of either of those authors. I’m making fun of the 20 something writer who’s more into being the cliché of the unappreciated genius, than actually learning how to write well.

This book is so genuinely funny - there are sequences on almost every page that had me actually laughing out loud. You’ve gotten very good at comedic timing. While I've found humor in all of your work in one way or another, most of your other long-form books have been much more directly reflective or downright sad. Do you feel like one tone is calling you more than the other these days, and why?

I’m conscious of learning to be a proficient comedy and drama storyteller. I don’t want to be a single note cartoonist. If I learn to blend it all together then I’ll draw comics that readers can’t just passively read. I want people to feel satisfied after reading my stories if it’s possible.

You’re doing a great job at it. When you say learning, I assume you mean by way of studying other works. Who are you reading and what are you watching that you learn the most from?  

For a long time I was buying and reading alternative comics from the 90s and early 2000s. Drawn & Quarterly magazines and issues of Zero Zero, stuff like that. There are a bunch of artists from that era that I get inspired by that you don’t hear about much these days. Someone like Pentti Otsamo, for example, did a little book called The Fall Of Homunculus that I really love. Just straight storytelling. I don’t dig very deep with film, but I pay attention to story structure and look up to the Coen Brothers who are perfect at weaving humor into an otherwise dramatic story.

A page from One Dirty Tree.

It seems like you are always working on multiple projects at a time, and from talking to you I assume your memoir One Dirty Tree your the main focus at the moment. Is there one style of storytelling that you enjoy more than another?  

I do bounce around from story to story. That’s just how I work, and I chock it up to artistic A.D.D. Lately I’ve been getting so tired of drawing that memoir book, but it’s getting close to the finish line. Or at least it’s in sight so I have to keep going. I don’t have a preference for styles. It just depends on how I’m feeling at them moment. 

A page from All Time Comics by Noah Van Sciver.

Speaking of the different notes and tones, are there any new styles you’ve wanted to experiment with - like horror or science fiction? I remember feeling suspicious when I heard that Dan Clowes was going to be experimenting with sci-fi stuff (The Death-Ray, Patience) but in the end it worked really well.  

The closest I ever came to something like that was the issue of All Time Comics I drew for Josh Bayer last year, and it was really challenging for me because I haven’t read enough superhero comics to internalize that style. But I wound up enjoying it because it was new for me. My regret is that the learning curve is very evident in the comic…

Had there always been plans for a sequel to Fante Bukowski? Is this the end of the line for Fante?

The first book was the easiest and quickest comic I ever drew. I just had so much fun working on it and drawing everyone, that by the time the book was published I knew I wasn’t finished with the character yet. As I worked on this book I felt like it was the middle story of a trilogy where everything has to go wrong. I do have a plot I’m proud of worked out for a third book that will end the story. I’ll get to it eventually, and that will be the final Fante Bukowski comic. 

I would love for you to put out a book of poetry by Fante Bukowski. Just saying. I'd buy it.

 Ha ha! My buddy Bruce Simon said I should do that too.

Audrey's book gets optioned for a film directed by Michael Bay, and we're seeing lots of your contemporaries get their comics and graphic novels optioned these days. Have you had any offers? If you could choose, which of your books would you want to see as a movie the most? If it were Fante Bukowski, who would play him? Audrey? Who would direct?

No, I’ve had no offers ever. I always wanted The Hypo to be a stage play, Saint Cole to be a Focus features film and Fante Bukowski to be a Netflix series. The easiest casting for Fante is Zach Galifianakis, though he’d have to pretend to be 24. And Audrey would be Nora Zehetner. Fante’s dad would be Jeffrey Tambor in my mind.

Sounds like you’ve put some thought into this. I hope some rich film person reading this takes a hint. How do you feel about some of the recent or upcoming film adaptations of graphic novels and comics? It seems like people find film to be the terminal degree for any art form, but a lot of times when I see a film adaptation of a book or comic, it replaces the original thing in my mind, and not in a good way. 

Yeah it’s risky. It can go either way I guess. I don’t think the Ghost World movie hurt the graphic novel sales though. It depends on the comic you’re going to option and how close they are to you. I read that the Simpsons as characters came about because Matt Groening didn’t want to give away his Life In Hell bunnies.

How much input did you have on the book design? It's phenomenal. And I'm embarrassed to admit that it took me a long time to realize that the penciled "1st Ed. RARE" on the inside cover wasn't real, heh.

I am a terrible designer and I have no problem turning over the files to Fantagraphics to put together. Luckily I’ve worked mostly with Keeli McCarthy (who was one of the inspirations for Audrey) and she hasn’t failed me yet. I get really excited to see what she’ll come up with. It’s my favorite part.

She does an incredible job. What about the pin-ups? Your idea? Are there any you hope to get for Fante 3? 

I just took the pin-up section idea from Ed Piskor and Hip Hop Family Tree. I have a list of some artists I’d love to get a drawing from. Like Nick Drnaso for example. I’m a big fan of his.