[Noah Van Sciver in front of Fante Bukoswki as drawn by Luke Howard at CCS]
Fante Bukowski began, like many of Noah Van Sciver’s comics, as an idea for a short comic that could have been collected in one of his serialized anthologies such as Blammo, or perhaps a larger collection like Disquiet. As Van Sciver has done for a few years now, he published the first page on social media soon after creating it and proceeded to post the next few. This comic got a very specific reaction—readers and fellow comic creators were delighted and horrified by the depth of the jokes flying, extending right down through the premise of the comic.
Van Sciver explains:
Fante Bukowski was just a goofy character in my sketchbooks that was based on a lot of the male poets and struggling writers I would meet in Denver at readings, or zine fests. It was just me making fun of people who wanted to be Charles Bukowski. Then one day I got a really good sketchbook, with really nice paper, and decided I would fill it up with one story with the character Fante Bukowski. My challenge was to draw a page every day, and post it on social media until the sketchbook was full.
Fante, an aspiring novelist, is the voice and vehicle of the best, worst behavior. He’s as naïve, self-regarding, and obsessive as any young artiste could be. He says everything one should not say, dresses in a thoroughly annoying way, and sidles up, full of presumption, to anyone who could possibly get him a book deal. But for every look, gesture, and line, there’s a recognizable grain of truth. Fante spouts the nonsense you are afraid you might spout, saying exactly the wrong thing around people you want to impress.
In short, Fante follows a path of narcissistic focus that you’ve probably feared in yourself, and seen and condemned in others. Fante Bukowski rapidly became a kind of patron saint of oblivious self-regard in the arts as he appeared online, and later in print. Van Sciver reflects: “The enthusiasm for the character and the story I was serializing was way more than I had expected and getting positive feedback everyday about it really helped me stay motivated”.
But the weirdly saving grace of poor Fante, and that which keeps you reading, is that he just– doesn’t—know that the things he’s saying and doing are inappropriate, and so this is not a story about his redemption through gaining self-awareness. This is a story about a person as remarkable a force of nature. As such, the comic sets up a broad stage for lampooning literary aspirations, the literary scene, the interaction of aspiring writers, and the cold insensibility of the rest of the world to such romantic aspirations. As a chaotic force, Fante moves through his hilarious misadventures, leaving a trail of suggestive carnage in his wake. Maybe this whole literary path is just as ridiculous as Fante himself. Maybe our own world is more absurdist on a daily basis than we are willing to admit.
Was that what Van Sciver had in mind when creating the comic, or is it just one possible interpretation? He says that a degree of narcissism isn’t “necessary but it’s extremely helpful sometimes” to succeed in a creative career. He says: “I will admit to having a lot of self-delusion about my own talent when I first began self-publishing my work and shoving it out into the world”, but that, while creating Fante, he reflected on his own “wrongheaded” attitudes toward self-appraisal and rejection. Though he feels looking back on his youthful ideas can be “embarrassing”, it’s proved a rich mine of humor for Fante Bukowski.
Something that Van Sciver has developed since his youth is a methodical process for composing his cartoons, as he often reveals on his blog with step-by-step commentary. He starts with a notebook filled with very basic notes and ideas, which he uses to “construct a story” as he goes along, he says. But even that process means that by the time he’s gotten to the “end” of a story structure, he has to both “rewrite” and “redraw” it “so that it flows better”. At that time, he moves on to create an actual thumbnail version of the story, which resembles a rough draft of the entire work. Lastly, he moves forward with the final composition stage. These stages, though painstaking, allow room for possibilities to emerge. Van Sciver says: “The really fascinating part to me is having an idea and then executing it only to discover that the finished story is something deeper and more packed with neurosis than I had intended”.
Once Fante Bukowski moved through these stages, and was being posted online page by page by Van Sciver, it soon grew into its full format, containing enough episodic adventures for a novella. This was collected by Fantagraphics and published, appropriately, in a small paperback format, like a prose novel, in Autumn of 2014. But in reality, Van Sciver’s mental wheels had never stopped turning on Fante’s life story. He says: “By the time the first volume was published I was still coming up with a bunch of ideas for the character and I knew I’d have to do a sequel”.
He realized right away that he had far more stories to tell beyond Fante’s escape from his hometown that punctuates the end of the first book. One hundred and eighty more pages of story, to be exact, which have now collected by Fantagraphics in a second volume arriving this Spring called Fante Bukowski Two. Graced with another parody-style cover, this one mimicking the artsiest of poetry and prose from Black Sparrow Press, Fante will soon arrive back on center stage.
As Van Sciver admits, “I put my main characters through hell in my stories.”, and the second volume of Fante is no exception. In fact, things escalate at an amazing pace in these new adventures. But what exactly is new for Fante this time around, and what makes this second volume unique? Well, if you’ve had the pleasure of reading the first volume of Fante and compare it to this new work, you’ll see some shifts. There’s a deadpan terseness in the storytelling in the first book that is highly compressed, along with an intentionally messy style in linework and coloring at times that add tension to Fante’s generally manic attitudes. The second book has grown up a little, like Fante, with slightly more uniform and elaborate detail in the storytelling. Locations and characters are more fully spelled out, and seem more fully explored for comedic value at every turn.
There’s room to breathe in this longer work and a greater sense of walking through Fante’s world with him, though at times you may wish you could run away from the orchestrated discomfort of its scenes. Our story also now follows two characters for the most part, a new feature. Though Fante continues to be the focus, we also learn far more about Audrey’s path in life, and follow her burgeoning, but sobering literary career and her lamentable tendency to think back on dating Fante as a strange symbol of something—she’s not sure exactly what—during an even stranger time in her life. This further broadens the scope of the book since we get to explore Fante’s persistent attempts to break into the literary scene—now in Columbus, Ohio—in contrast to Audrey’s more graceful, but not necessarily more inspiring, ascent toward success.
Regarding Van Sciver’s decision to give Audrey more focus in this volume, he says, “I really like her. When I began the second volume I was just doing pages about Fante Bukowski moving to a new city and looking for a bar”. He was “hoping that a story would reveal itself” to him as he moved forward with the story but wasn’t sure where things were going. Then, he stumbled upon a major development, after he “drew a couple of pages about what had happened to Audrey since the last book”, when it hit him “that having that contrast between somebody struggling with success and somebody struggling for success was interesting to me, and how the two characters reconnect with the each other during this became the story I had been looking for”.
The scenes that Van Sciver sets in the second book will keep you in on pins and needles as Fante routinely makes a fool of himself, even when alone, but they will also keep you in genuine fear for Fante’s safety and future as he continues to walk a precarious path. Even more than in the previous volume, other characters are subject to scrutiny—literary agents, local luminaries, and average folks. There are even a handful of name-dropping cameos of real literary figures associated with Columbus, Ohio, that Van Sciver hopes will be taken in good humor. He is “secretly hoping that they will find out somehow about these Fante Bukowski books, like them and me”, he says. He has confided that his Fante-like requests of them would be as follows:
1. They’d ask me to draw a book cover for their next novel/collection of short stories (which I would happily accept).
2. They’d give me a quote or blurb for the back cover of my next book/ eventual collected Fante Bukowski tome.
3. Mention my comics on twitter or in an interview/ episode of Charlie Rose.
So, come on folks, help a fellow out, especially with that Charlie Rose request. And who would turn down a book cover from Noah Van Sciver?
Despite all the goofy commentary, and even goofier incidents in this remarkable book, I can’t help but feel that there is something “to” Fante, something a little more serious than you might expect, and perhaps his story conceals a hidden truth about the paths people take to publication and the peculiar kind of stardom that can erupt around writers seen as rock stars. Van Sciver thinks we’re living in the last generation where such a literary form of stardom will be possible, as the rise of digital stardom and YouTube Influencers sets in. Less and less will small “scenes” develop that sweaty-palmed young writers can hope to crash.
Van Sciver says:
To me this is the best time to set a story in the literary world, because the days of literary success making you a superstar are just about done and over. This isn’t Hemingway’s era. It’s diminishing returns, and so somebody with the delusion that they’ll date Emma Stone by becoming a famous poet today is just funny.
Even if the scene disappears, will Fante really disappear? Will he just be replaced by awkward social media interactions with agents and success stories, unsolicited manuscripts and insistent self-publishing? If you felt that line read as familiar, that’s because it is very Fante. Which to me means, very close, maybe even painfully close to the truth.
Not to be outdone in the torture he inflicts on his poor characters, Noah Van Sciver also took it upon himself to include Noah Van Sciver, the cartoonist, as a character in Fante Bukowski Two. And not only is this exercise very funny, it’s a little soul searching, in my opinion. Van Sciver insists, “I had a good time with it!” when lampooning himself as someone who won’t help his girlfriend with her luggage and someone who asks his more successful girlfriend to plug his work at every turn. In fact, I do not doubt that he enjoyed this process, since humor clearly means so much to him as a storyteller.
Humor seems to be a major factor in what makes Van Sciver tick as a cartoonist in Fante Bukowski Two, and in his other works. Investing comics with humor brings him, “a lot of stress, and occasional joy”, he says. The most telling thing about Noah Van Sciver, and a rather insightful explanation for why Fante Bukowski is the way he is, concerns how the artist knows when a page of one of his comics is done: “I always know I’ve written a good page when I laugh and say ‘goddamn that is so stupid!’”