Noah Van Sciver’s third volume of the Fante Bukowski series is up for the Eisner Award for humour at this year’s San Diego Comic Con and could very well bag the prize. Unlike his titular protagonist, Van Sciver has created a work that is compellingly funny, addictive in its readability, and quite easy on the eyes to boot. Bukowski is a self-named ex-wannabe Emo band front man who’s reinvented himself as a poet and burgeoning literary star to get back at his conservative lawyer father who doesn’t give him the approbation that Bukowski feels he deserves. In his early to mid twenties, looking as if Zach Galifinakis was born to play him in a movie, Bukowski stumbles through life, living in seedy motels, raging at the literati who will neither accept him nor his ‘work’, hammering out the worst and least self-aware ‘writing’ possible, and getting drunk as often as he can.
Volume One is a slight compendium of vignettes about Bukowski, presenting slices of his life, a satirical take on what it’s like to be young and wanting to be recognized. Bukowski is trying to be known as a literary writer but you get the feeling that it could just as easily apply to any art scene and perhaps the alternative comics scene in particular. Along the way, he meets the editor of the Firewater Journal (circulation: two dozen copies), obnoxious star-maker and agent Ralph Bigsburgh, and frustrated writer Audrey Catron. As funny and pathetic as Bukowski is, Van Sciver’s material lands best when he has Bukowski rub up against other personalities. Bukowski does a whole lot of rubbing up against Catron because although she’s a published (though derided) writer, she’s bitter, has shaved her head in the widening confusion following negative reactions to her book, doesn’t know how to produce another work, and falls into a pattern of commiserating and sleeping with Bukowski.
I should point out once again that Bukowski isn’t his real name – he’s simply reinvented himself as part of his expectations of imminent success. Volume Two is perhaps my favourite of the series. Bukowski has left Catron and the volume looks at their parallel journeys. Catron has now produced a second book which is very successful. She follows the circuit that success and adulation brings her. Nevertheless, she finds it unreal, often observing the events of her life with a detached and annoyed air, and agonizes that she will not be able to replicate her success. Bukowski has left her, moved from Denver, Colorado to Columbus, Ohio to live in the craziest motel you could ever imagine, and his life falls into further degradation and humility as he struggles to achieve his impossible dreams without really working on them or developing a realistic path of how to get there. Once again, a female character is introduced that enriches the story: a very cynical sex-worker called ‘Lady’ who is very connected to the literary world – many of its denizens are her clients. After a brief customer-oriented encounter with Bukowski, she feels pity for him and uses her influence to push his career here and there.
The Third volume is the most gorgeous, visually speaking. Van Sciver’s loose and flowing drawings are immensely aided by his gift for colour sense. The colours are very warm and the storytelling is extremely smooth as Bukowski struggles to get his work out to the masses by producing his own zines, attending fairs and readings, and continuing to roll along under the helpful influence of Lady. Audrey Catron is not around in this volume except by inference, Lady is seen a little; the main female character is Norma Lee, a diminutive and odd performance art enthusiast who is an earnest friend of Bukowski’s. Norma goes through her own ups and downs as she navigates the local performance art scene, reckons with the fact that no one comes to her shows, and deals with super-performer ‘Jacq’ who steals the grant money, attention, and fame all for herself.
In the third volume, though it’s been alluded to in the past, we actually see flashbacks of Bukowski’s time as a youngster, living with and working for his lawyer father and trying to break out of that life. Now, his father has suffered a stroke and Bukowski must fly back home to see him and try to make some amends. Somewhere in there, Van Sciver manages to stick in a cameo of himself as a frustrated and insensitive graphic novelist and Bukowski’s new landlord, a sadistic clown (when we finally meet him, we realize that he’s actually a costumed clown and therein lies the joke).
The highest praise I can give for Van Sciver’s humour is that you’re just compelled to keep reading and laughing. Many alternative artists introduce humour into the proceedings but there seems to be a real dearth of artists who practice humour as their primary mode of expression. Dan Clowes sort of started out that way, although not completely, and his current work has moved away from that sensibility. Nick Maandag (whose current book ‘The Follies of Richard Wadworth’ I wrote about recently) does that but who else primarily works as a humourist? Joe Matt used to but he hasn’t produced any sustained comics in a really long time. It goes to show you that although the term ‘comics’ is rooted in its beginning as something that came out of the ‘funnies’, it has really strayed and evolved into something else. This serious sensibility, or literary pretension as Van Sciver might call it, produces a ripe subject for skewering.
Besides the humour which is the main mode, there is also a minor current of pathos and tenderness, the sweet sadness and self-awareness that balances out the absurd humour. Though the tone is that of lampoon and satire, there is a world of hopes and dreams that are just beyond reach, broken relationships, and the frustrations of artistic practice that we can all relate to. As foolish as Bukowski proves himself to be again and again, there are elements I can see in myself or thoughts that aren’t that far from things we’ve all thought in certain situations that certainly don’t cast ourselves in the most favourable light. Van Sciver doesn’t only produce humour but compared to his more serious short stories or the self-deprecating and precious autobiographical material, the Fante Bukowski stuff is by far my favourite. There’s something almost legendary in his inability to achieve the legendary status he craves. After all, it requires a bit of self-delusion and bull-headedness to wish success for oneself in any artistic endeavour, does it not? I’m sure that writer Charles Bukowski might have agreed.