For the past decade, cartoonist Noah Van Sciver has been publishing his one-man anthology series, BLAMMO. Kilgore Books has recently released the latest in the series and we here at Comics Bulletin were so impressed with it that we knew we had to devote some time and energy into unpacking our reactions.
Each of the following writers were tasked with choosing a single page or panel from Blammo #9 and use it as a platform for talking about the book as a whole. None of the writers read what the other was working on during this process (Ed. Note: Except for Elkin — he sees everything). As testament to the thematic unity of Blammo #9, the writers all ended up talking about the same ideas of spirituality, artistic integrity, and the human desire to connect.
Here it is, folks. The Noah Van Sciver ethos summed up in just one panel. Page 1, Panel 3 of Blammo #9 answers the question a child asks in the previous sequence: “Mommy, where do Blammo comics come from?”
The first Noah Van Sciver comic I ever reviewed was Complaints back in 2010. It also earned a coveted spot on my Best of 2010 list. I point this out to say that as far back as 6 years ago, I was saying that NVS was the “R. Crumb” of his generation and “the future of the indie comics scene.” While I still think the Crumb comparison holds true given his ability to produce the emblematic quotidian aesthetic of his generation, I’m going to go even further and compare him to Charles Schulz.
I’ve read The Complete Peanuts thanks to Fantagraphics. While you could write an entire book analyzing it, particularly post-war subrogation of adulthood, the take-away that always sticks with me is the constant effort to reconcile the way the world is vs. the way the world should be. There’s no other fancy turn of phrase; it’s crushingly simple. It’s why we root so hard for poor ol’ Charlie Brown as the perpetual underdog. It’s why the strip is such an endearing and enduring phenomenon. We’ve all had the figurative football pulled away from us at full sprint, whether it’s failed romance, corporate layoffs, or loss of a loved one.
Unpacking this tidy Noah Van Sciver panel from the latest Blammo and juxtaposing it with a creator like Schulz, we can detect that same attempt to reconcile our sense of self-purpose with the reality of the world presented to us. The preceding panel begins to reveal the origin of Blammo comics as the mom answers the kid: “There is a secret mountain, way out in a secret location…”
“And deep inside that mountain…” Read: hidden far away from the world. Noah Van Sciver has isolated himself from society in the pursuit of artistic expression. He’s chosen the relatively solitary existence of comics writer/artist, where it’s possible to sit alone inside a room all day long in a profession that allows you only the rarest interaction with others as a matter of course.
“…lives a crooked old man…” Read: a man who hasn’t chosen the straight path, who’s chosen an atypical path, a difficult path that’s not the shortest route from point A to point B, but the crooked path. Noah’s reached the age where he questions what he’s done with his life by making this choice. (It’s something I empathize with. When it takes a comic book publisher 9 months to respond to email queries regarding pitches they asked for, it suggests a basic lack of professionalism in what is certainly not a typical industry.)
“…with no shirt…” Read: he’s a penniless artist who, despite critical acclaim, ever-increasing readership, prestigious publishers, and even an artist-in-residency at White River Junction, has probably never “hit it big” in terms of monetary gain or financial stability. (Again, I understand. After 9 months of sporadic drip-drip-drip correspondence, only to receive a rejection notice, don’t ask me how you pay a mortgage in this industry. Fortune may favor the bold, but it also favors those with a day job.)
“…that everybody hates.” Read: Noah is full of that brand of insidious self-effacing doubt, which sets off a cascade of causality that look something like this: the value of his work = the value of his career = the value of himself. Keep in mind, if I have the timeline right, this strip was probably done prior to Noah winning a long-overdue Ignatz Award, which I hope has buoyed his spirits.
“Meh. Meh. Meh.” Read: despite all the trepidation, he moves forward doggedly, he trudges on, and on, and on. Making comics is his life’s work, it’s what he wants to do, needs to do, it’s what he feels he must do. Thus, his calling has him trapped between an inner desire and the sometimes harsh reality of what that means when faced with the lifestyle on a day-to-day basis.
I say all of this not to denigrate the work of Noah Van Sciver. As a critic who’s produced 500+ small press reviews over the years, I’ll tell you that Noah Van Sciver is in my pantheon, one of my top 3 indie creators, along with Julia Gfrorer and Tom Neely. I believe strongly in Noah’s work. Shit, I don’t even review comics anymore, but here’s the type of creative output that pulls you out of retirement for one final ride with your friends.
This panel is particularly effective because it uses an overt cipher. The old man is obviously Noah, represented as an aspect of psyche, playful and foreboding. We learn in the panels that follow, the old man is the “writer,” and his “friend,” a bodiless head by the way, must draw what the writer says. So, we have the writer within Noah represented as his inner voice, paired with some kind of dismembered automaton, a head that literally can’t escape his fate of drawing comics.
It’s a crime that Noah’s worldview allows moments of feeling alone, lost, or undervalued. It’s the way the world is, not the way it should be. If I had a magic wand I could wave like Prospero on his little island, there would be 10 Noah Van Sciver offerings for every Written-By-Committee Larfleeze The Orange Lantern Schlockfest from Marvel or DC.
Noah’s work is self-effacing, but self-aware, full of wry wit, yet stuck in a dichotomy of entertainment and pain. Like Crumb’s potent observations about the human condition done in a style that revels in its own lewd glory, or Schulz’s affable pack of kids stuck in a world without grownups, trying to grok if this is really the way it’s going to be, we experience a swirl of conflicting emotions, and that’s one of the hallmarks of “good” art. Compelling art is the kind you need to spend time with to understand your emotional reaction. In the end, perhaps we laugh, because if we stared at it long enough, we might cry.
— Justin Giampaoli (@ThirteenMinutes)
In the end, all artistic endeavor represents a quest for understanding, for making meaning, for the artist to tap the lizard brain in a spiritual moment of connection to the greater existence.
The creator takes their experience and transforms it into a product which, ultimately, they share with an audience in order to communicate, to connect, to build community. In the absence of a universal religion, art becomes the true holy act — a sacred text of “This is me” and “You are not alone” — it relies on understanding and therefore becomes an act of faith.
In Blammo #9, finally, Noah Van Sciver is sharing his bible.
The first of three long-form comics in Blammo #9 focuses on Van Sciver’s time in 2015 as a fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. The entire story revolves around many of the themes that Van Sciver has been examining in his work up to this point: ideas of identity (in both place and time), communication, connection, spirituality, and the role of the artist. Its “auto-bio” narrative wanders through moments of conflict and self-loathing, self-examination and projection, humor and seriousness, as Van Sciver tries to understand what his role and his place is in this environment. Van Sciver’s Mormon upbringing is central to the story, both in its formative aspect as well as the fallout that resulted from leaving the church.
Throughout this comic, Van Sciver in a way contrasts the spiritual satisfaction he garners from his cartooning with the connections and confusions he felt as part of the LDS — both operate within rather than without, both lead to purpose and meaning and community. For the adult Van Sciver, making comics seems to answer the same questions that Mormonism used to when he was younger, only now he is in control of how that relationship unfolds.
But even in this, Van Sciver is not content.There remains too many mysteries. He is still searching, learning, practicing, trying to expand.
He has come to White River Junction to “work on his book.” He wants to learn “how to draw nature well…” He sees a connection between the spiritual self and the natural world. He enters into the woods to find some sort of truth, and, in that moment of contemplation, he renders the most beautiful panel he’s ever created.
After nine pages of densely packed 12 panel pages, on the tenth page he opens up this constraint and fills the page with a meticulously rendered, fully realized moment of a man among towering trees looking up for answers. It is the transcendental moment, it is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transparent eyeball. It is the artist looking within by looking without. It is thick with expectation, an infinite capacity for hope, a romantic readiness for some sort of satori.
In this one panel, Van Sciver transforms his work from the terrestrial to the cosmic. His framing and layout forces the viewer’s eye to swirl through it in a counterclockwise motion, almost spiraling from the heights of the enormity of the forest top to the small, grounded, negative space of the individual face, scanning, searching, waiting for what is above to come down and make sense. There is an immensity of expectation in the silence of this moment that encapsulates the all too human need to find meaning in a meaningless existence, to find god in the world and purpose in the chaos.
As artist, here, Van Sciver encapsulates and communicates the communal spiritual quest. While it provides no answers, this one panel represents an understanding of almost everything he has been working towards his entire life.
“Culmination” — it’s a word that is easily bandied about by often thick intellectual types who caper about places of higher learning wearing paisley sweaters and corduroy pants. Derived from the late Latin word culminātus (past participle of culmināre, “to come to a peak”), its definition runs along the lines of something like, “to reach the highest point, summit, or highest development … especially as attained after a long time.” I bring this all up for the following reason: cartoonist Noah Van Sciver has been producing his one-man anthology series Blammo for almost over a decade now, and Blammo #9 serves, in many ways, as a culmination of his development as a cartoonist, artist, and man.
This culmination is best evidenced by a single panel there within.
In this, the question then becomes what does Van Sciver do next?
— Daniel Elkin (@DanielElkin)
“What’s wrong with you?? I finally got the balls to leave my doors unlocked and you try to steal from me?!” God, that just gets right at the heart of it, doesn’t it? The heart of trusting oneself and the threat of getting hurt; that vulnerability that prepares you to see the world around you differently.
Blammo #9 is the first work of Noah Van Sciver’s that I’ve read. While familiar with who Van Sciver is and a general sense of the work he’s created, I didn’t entirely know what to expect. I suppose I imagined a self-deprecating collection of shorts that balanced humor and ‘woe is me’ refrains in raw packaging. What I found instead was a brutally honest examination of the artist and artistry as a whole. Most striking, though, is how I read Blammo #9 as a treatise on trust; not just for the world around the artist, but for trust in the artist himself. Awareness isn’t borne from an inward or outward perspective alone, but a homeostasis of the two.
“Little Bomber’s Summer Period” is an undeniable standout in this latest Blammo release. It’s a fictional tale that’s as strong, if not stronger, than any of the more overt autobiographical entries also found within this issue. Focusing on dual protagonists, the titular Bomber and his companion in spurned trust, Jenny, the very linear narrative is poignant, often very funny, and culminates in the break-in scene.
Bomber as a character is a frustrating one, as he’s someone who cannot see his misfortunes as being anything other than the result of other’s actions. The first page had me audibly muttering to myself, “Yo, fuck this guy.” His perspective is outward facing at all times, cleverly strengthened by his role as a security guard. The home he purchased because he thought it would better his relationship with his girlfriend represents the very literal walls he put around his emotions. His perspective is blocked, stemming from the upheaval of his emotional bond with his father.
But then Van Sciver introduces art to Bomber’s world and with it, the inkling of new eyes and a metamorphosis of an artist.
In a developing sense of awareness, Bomber’s self-constructed emotional walls are chipped away at in an ironic twist of trust that humorously and forcefully puts an actual face on his trust issues (as seen in the selected penultimate page to the story).
This page is the major dramatic reversal that gives light to the birth of the artist. Here Bomber is proven both wrong and frustratingly correct at once. Here trust wears multiple masks that speak to the larger work itself.
Blammo #9 is rife with this sort of doubt, but it’s never self-hating; only ever self-aware. In the preceding White River Junction autobio story, Van Sciver speaks about his earlier work looking rough with a focus on dense crosshatching. He expounds on how self-conscious he is about the evolution of his craft, and how fascinated he is with the relationship between increased confidence and either the sharpening of detail or the simplification of it. With this page we see an amalgam of the two: the aforementioned crosshatching supplying the darkened texture of the room at night with the more minimal and loose foreground figure work (look at those blank holes for eyes on the robber!). Van Sciver trusts himself to employ this dual style, while also admitting that he’s unsure of his techniques. The confidence with which he admits his lack of confidence is particularly striking.
The pacing is also great, with economical dialogue and the rhythmic beats of the first five panels in this 15-panel page playing out like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Opening with an establishing solid black panel and a quick pan from robber to a sleeping Bomber, the pacing exponentially grows as we head towards action and then ultimately towards a punchline climax. Like a lot of Van Sciver’s pages, it’s a mini-play all on one page that builds on existing themes, but is a clear and concise narrative all its own. Everyone’s actions and motivations are easily understood, with a distinct opening (the establishing darkness) and satisfying conclusion (the exterior shot of police on-scene) that balances drama and comedy all the way through.
It’s that comedy that packs the strongest punch with this story’s innate duality. The therapist, our betrayer, wasn’t wrong about Bomber. His actual assessment of Bomber on page one of the story is correct, which makes his crime as brilliant as it is funny. We have this faceless robber who then provides a face for Bomber’s trust issues in the form of a stand-in for his father. Confiding in the therapist, trusting in him, left him vulnerable to exploitation which ironically means Bomber wasn’t wrong to build his walls despite how they’ve held them him back from seeing inwards. Because someone he trusted validated his shields, put a face to his issues, he’s able to tear them down.
The epiphany that occurs on the final page, the artist being born, only happened because his perspective was skewed by this comedic betrayal. Once that face is revealed, he’s able to see the stain on the carpet from a new perspective; he’s able to see it as art. Bomber develops a trust with a fellow betrayed, Jenny, that ultimately proves fruitful. If the face of his therapist is representative of why he was right to build up his walls because, hey, that dude did totally exploit that for his own gain, then we have Jenny representing why he was wrong to not unlock his emotional door sooner. Bomber confided in both these characters in different ways, and in the case of Jenny, he manages to open himself up in a manner he couldn’t with his ex. As a result, she’s there at the moment his other confidant, the therapist, betrays his trust and she manages to save the day. There’s a risk to trusting in people, including oneself. Sometimes the one you trust will hurt you and sometimes the one you trust will get your back in a way that makes you feel a thousand feet tall.
Blammo #9 is a confluence of perspectives on art and “Little Bomber’s” is the charming apex of this exploration. Trusting oneself to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, is an intricate and indelible part of the artistic process. Sometimes in order to get there, we need to leave our doors unlocked.
— Alex Mansfield (@FocusedTotality)
Wisdom recognizes wisdom. That’s the hope, at least.
From parsing the “true stories of Harvey ‘Holiday’ Van Sciver” to his own rambles through Vermont’s old-growth northern forests with stopovers in childhood memories, Noah Van Sciver spends Blammo #9 noodling on places: physical and spiritual, emotional and intellectual. The appeal of such endeavors comes from the genuine scarcity of self-realization … like, in life? Which is made all the more acute nowadays due to whole of human endeavor seemingly bent on its own solipsistic slog and little else—a time when the lesser angels of our nature shanghai a word like “authenticity” only if it improves the #brand. Van Sciver trucks with no such bullshit. Instead he finds those rare moments when the mortal coil of cynicism shuffles off and reveals what happens when we blunder face first into one of life’s way-stations, a place where actions are assessed, perspective is granted and the judgement that’s passed is to keep on keeping on, but better.
Self-discovery makes for a journey equal parts madcap and satisfying, a grid pattern of one ways, dead ends and cul-de-sacs where the signs (when you find them) appear in a pidgin of your own invention (which, of course) you’ve yet to grok.
In Blammo #9 Noah Van Sciver, the character, comes off as a drama queen, so much so it’s easy to forget Noah Van Sciver, the cartoonist, is the one making the marks. Cartoon-Noah flounders from one awkward situation to the next and the next and the next. At a backyard barbeque with colleagues from the Center for Cartoon Studies, Van Sciver mentions he was raised in the LDS Church. This PC crowd is so precious and such poseurs that they can’t see the beam in their own eyes before taking the mote out of Van Sciver’s eye. Or is you prefer something less Sermon-on-the-Mount-y, they can’t see past their own pretensions for ‘queer yoga’ and vegan dietary restrictions. No judgement! Van Sciver is simply being honest. But there’s the honesty you wear as a slogan on a t-shirt and, you know, honesty honesty. Van Sciver has staked a career clapping on the 1 and the 3 when the rest stomp down on 2 and 4. Blammo #9 gives cartoonist-Noah the opportunity and grace to reckon where he is and how he got there.
The tossed-off iota of Van-Sciver-ology about the LDS Church claps onto cartoon-Noah like … um … the clap and sets him in faux-opposition to a dude who favors top hats and teenage girl manga and an administrator at CCC. The mileage Van Sciver gets out of this gag is as good as any garden variety sit-com ephemera which is to say it works AND it goes somewhere. His admission allows him to unpack childhood events and get at truths about his life—the cartoonist in context. He draws a story recalling a childhood memory when he was stuck in his bedroom and tasked to study The Book of Mormon in order to “keep the Sabbath.” Uninterested and unmoved by the text, young NVS stares out his window and sees a flying saucer. “What the heck was it?” the boy thinks to which his older cartoon self says, “What was that anyway?” Indeed. The subject, the ‘what’, of each statement draws a lot of water in Blammo #9. Like the LDS Church, seeing the flying saucer is another detail Van Sciver seizes upon to contextualize, to understand, himself as Noah-cartoonist comments on Noah-character who’s commenting on himself as a child. It’s all very post-modern. What happened doesn’t matter as much as how Van Sciver incorporates this story into the plot of Blammo #9 and the impact it has on another plot, his life as a cartoonist.
In ‘Comics Festival 2016’ Van Sciver plays the bon vivant indie cartoonist (such a cliché, right?), a life of limo rides, sexual assignations, endorsements, dinners, demands, autographs, sketches and a running commentary on how much his fans enjoyed his “early funny work.” The horror. The horror. It’s fun to see Van Sciver on top and yet still feeling anxious and put upon as people vie for his attention. Such a diva. After some night swimming with a couple of friends, Van Sciver buys a bottle of wine and heads out to the woods to drink by himself which seems a very Van Sciver-y thing to do. While he’s drinking he sees a flying saucer streak across the night sky, (presumably) the same one he saw as a child. This time, not burdened by Scripture, Van Sciver takes off, tracks down the ship and confronts the aliens. What he learns is they like his comics—“particularly the early funny ones,” natch—and if there is a God, they’re not saying. Van Sciver wants to know if he’s made the right choices and couldn’t he do more for society. Their advice to him: “write better comics.” And there it is. Noah Van Sciver is a cartoonist, it’s comics or shut the fuck up.
There’s nothing self-righteous about knowing oneself, in fact, it’s kind of the exact opposite—it’s humbling. Blammo #9 shows Van Sciver has reached a place in his life where he knows what he’s supposed to do and so … the work begins or rather, continues. It doesn’t take a visit from aliens, the word of God or traveling to a comics festival or even tromping off to a provincial backwater like White River Junction, Vermont to figure out one’s place in life. Those are stories, stuff to move the plot along. Not the work.
No doubt Blammo #9 will be tagged as a “mature work” because … well, it is. All artists reckon with their place, be it their surroundings, space time or the panoply writ large. But none of those places changes the work and the incessant obligation to do so. Which in Van Sciver’s case is “write better comics.” Perhaps that’s what Blammo #9 is, better comics.
— Keith Silva (@keithpmsilva)