There are a few familiar joys in reviewing comics, but two stand out above all others: the discovery of a new and original work by an unfamiliar, exciting talent, and the collection of familiar but beloved works by an established artist. The former reminds you of the infinite potential the medium will always have, and the latter is the foundation on which all that potential is built. The new stuff is what you excitedly tell your friends about, and the collections are the ones that get pride of place on your bookshelf. Such a collection is The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski.
A handsome anthology of three previous books of Noah Van Sciver’s memorable creation/alter ego, along with lots of bonus material, extras, previously uncollected stuff, and text pieces, Complete Works is one of the most handsome softbacks Fantagraphics has put out this young year. It’s all killer and no filler – not a page is wasted, and despite the premium price tag, you get nearly 500 pages of material, none of which is anything but essential. It will take some serious effort to displace this one from my top ten list for the year, and it’s a must-own for anyone who’s serious about comics right now.
Why the book, and the delightfully ludicrous figure it celebrates and mocks, is so endlessly appealing takes a little thought. Fante Bukowski – who isn’t real, but is presented in the volume as if he is, in a metafictional goof that’s equal parts Pale Fire and Garth Marenghi – is what Noah Van Sciver might have become if he hadn’t become Noah Van Sciver: a half-baked, marginally talented, and simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-pitying writer who wanders through the world, both full of scorn for those around him and desperate for their validation. He’s both a parody and a portrait, a type as recognizable as a commedia dell’arte’s Il Capitano.
In this Year of Our Lord 2022, we’ve seen this type a million times already. Van Sciver doesn’t even bother to blur his origins; he’s a point on a straight line drawn right back to his namesakes, self-loathing struggling writer Charles Bukowksi and his own greatest inspiration, self-loathing struggling writer John Fante. Another middle-class layabout white guy, doomed by his own pretentions, work-shy and hapless: nothing new under the sun here. So, what’s the appeal? How has an archetype – for that matter, a stereotype – this familiar managed to work his way into one of the best books of the year?
I could tell you that it’s because I see so much of myself in Fante, but that wouldn’t really tell you anything. So does Noah Van Sciver (even when he ups the ante by putting himself in the book alongside his other doppelganger). What really sells it is the deftness, skill, craft, and cheerily desperate resonance with which his creator imbues the work, creating an unmistakable labor of love out of a character so fundamentally unlovable. Fante Bukowski isn’t worth following through all his encounters with friends and rivals, family and foes, fleeting success and constant failure, because he’s unique; it’s just the opposite. He’s omnipresent.
Even if we’ve never been a Fante Bukowski, we’ve seen a Fante Bukowski: living in the apartment next door, where he complains meekly when we throw a party and later burns the place down; working some crummy low-wage job to get by and taking his frustrations out on us; creating some fleetingly appealing story that we regret liking after we meet the man who wrote it. Like the best artistic self-reflections, Bukowski is designed to be unlovable, but can never be unlikable. He’s too much that guy, a creation so resonant that we remember him from whatever artistic or social milieu we operate in.
It helps that Van Sciver places him in such gorgeously realized circumstances. The art style doesn’t vary that much, never wandering too far away from the simple, appealing linework and lived-in funkiness that characterizes all of his work. But he decorates it with so many lovely little details, so many faces that immediately imprint themselves in our minds, that it seems so much more complicated than it is. The book pulls off the remarkable trick, common to a lot of great art, of seeming inevitable: every scene is both familiar and strange, predictable and unexpected. We know that Fante is going to be a dick and tell his parents that it’s their fault he can’t pay his rent, but when he finally does, it's realized in a way we couldn’t have foreseen.
These are the small, unobtrusive flourishes that make Complete Works such a compelling read, and that leave you wishing it was even longer than its massive length after you plow through it much quicker than you thought you would. Whether it’s one of the longer narrative pieces or a simple throwback gag strip, it’s always got something to it that draws you back and makes you see how completely thoughtful and planned it all is despite seeming almost tossed-off. Even the choice (drawn, again, from Van Sciver’s real life) of having Bukowski relocate to Columbus, Ohio – America’s most generic city – is a perfect one. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that so many of these panels are just quietly, crazily funny.
Simply everything works here, even the ‘fan art’ that makes up the book’s endpapers – a conceit I usually find to be little but filler, but which appears here as a delightful treat. Like most such affected, self-important scribblers, Fante Bukowski is in the habit of dotting his work with quotes from the genuinely great authors and thinkers he imagines himself in the company of, so I’ll return the serve with another, from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts. They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” That’s Fante Bukowski all over: all the worst neurotic nonsense we try to sweep out of our minds, returned to us dressed in a desperate, embarrassed glory. He’s our worst missteps and fuckups, come back and settled down to remind us that no one can escape themselves.