In the short comics story “Comics Festival 2016,” a limo driver picks up cartoonist Noah Van Sciver at the airport, before sheepishly asking the artist to draw in his sketchbook. “I know who you are!” the man at the hotel’s front desk exclaims later, before Van Sciver can get his name out, adding, “love your work!” Later, after speaking to a packed hall, a group of well-dressed attendees vie for the artist’s attention, alternatively calling his talk “brilliant” and “sexy.” An attractive woman in sunglasses with a stylish hairdo inquires whether he’s free that evening.
“That was just a fantasy,” the artist tells PW with a laugh. “That’s not how my life was at all. That year, I made $8,000. It was a terrible, miserable year. So, I drew myself as being more successful than I was as a cartoonist, having fancy dinners with other artists like Ivan Brunetti.”
The story appears about one-third of the way into As a Cartoonist, a collection of short autobiographical comics published by Fantagraphics on July 5. That’s also the exact same day Abrams ComicArts released Van Sciver’s 464-page graphic nonfiction opus, Joseph Smith and the Mormons. Even for a cartoonist as wildly prolific as Van Sciver has been for the past decade, it’s a lot. The two books, while dramatically different in tone, present a handy microcosm of his body of work.
Joseph Smith offers a sweeping portrait of a 19th century man of faith determined to launch his own church in the face of often violent religious persecution. The book builds on foundations laid in an earlier work of creative biography, Van Sciver’s graphic novel The Hypo, which told a fictionalized story of Abraham Lincoln as a young lawyer battling depression, decades before he ascended to the presidency.
As a Cartoonist presents the humorous pathos of the artist as a self-deprecating and neurotic young man. In a story named for his first graphic novel, Van Sciver buys a copy of The Hypo from a bookstore bargain cart, noting to himself that he doesn’t have one at home. Wracked with guilt that he’s robbed a potential shopper of the opportunity to stumble upon the book, he attempts to sneak the book back into the store, attracting the unwelcome of attention of a store employee. This story, too, Van Sciver notes, is fictionalized, but it captures a kind of unquantifiable struggle between artist and art.
Earlier works such as his 2018 graphic memoir One Dirty Tree and various stories that have appeared in Van Sciver’s sporadically self-published anthology series, Blammo, detail his childhood years as the second-youngest of eight siblings growing up in a poor, comic book-obsessed Mormon household. Despite those early years spent immersed in comics (his older brother, Ethan, would go on to draw superhero comics like The Flash and Green Lantern), Van Sciver stopped making comics, opting instead to become a “serious” painter. He’s quick to admit that, frankly, “It didn’t work out.”
A pair of films about comics figures–Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 Robert Crumb documentary, Crumb, and the 2003 Harvey Pekar biopic, American Splendor–brought him back to comics by introducing a world of comics storytelling outside of the superhero genre. Both the artists presented in those films are published by Fantagraphics and Van Sciver says he sent away for the Fantagraphics catalog before beginning to self-publish Blammo in 2007. His work began to appear in Mad Magazine and, in 2011, his short story, “Abby’s Road,” was selected for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Comics anthology. The following year, Fantagraphic published The Hypo.
Van Sciver confesses that he wasn’t entirely ready to take on such a serious biography. “I was real hot-blooded back then,” he says. “I knew I wanted to be a published cartoonist. I'd never done a graphic novel at that point, but I knew where I wanted to be, and I was very driven to get there. I took on a book about Lincoln, even though I wasn't necessarily artistically prepared to take that on. I just bulldozed my way ahead.”
The book was well-received—PW gave it a starred review—and while he still believes the art is too “cartoony” for its subject matter, Van Sciver says he’s “actually surprised” by how well the story turned out after a decade of hindsight.
For years, he kicked around the notion of another historical biography, this time exploring the roots of the Mormon church. “I was raised in the church and baptized in it,” he says. “I felt a strong connection to it. As a child, I felt like I had a whole path set up for me in my life, very early on. And then my parents got divorced. My mother left the church, hates the church, and has nothing to do with it. My brother says, we go so far back in [the church], that we’re ‘ethnically Mormon’”.
After several false starts (including one that appears as a short story in Blammo #7 in 2011), Van Sciver says he opted to wait until he had “the chops” to give such serious subject matter the serious art it deserved. Along the way, his comics finally began to generate enough income to allow him to quit his job in food service.
“It was 2015,” he says. “It was a great year for me. I had done the My Hot Date minicomic and the first Fante Bukowski and St. Cole. All of a sudden, all these opportunities were opening up for me. I got work on a Ninja Turtles comic. People were reaching out, and they all had money. That’s when I was able to quit Panera Bread and take comics seriously.”
The next several years found Van Sciver working on a series of graphic novels starring Fante Bukowski, a humorous graphic novel series about an overly-confident (and unaccomplished) writer determined to become a literary great, a story which drew upon his own bravado during his earliest days as a cartoonist. “Fante Bukowski is that piece of me that desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an artist,” he says. “I felt I should be taken seriously as an artist against all evidence to the contrary.”
Another graphic biography, Johnny Appleseed, is also a collaboration with comics scholar Paul Buhle, and saw the artist gaining confidence in his ability to draw a serious historical nonfiction work. Published in 2017, the book laid the groundwork for him to begin working on Joseph Smith in earnest.
“Around 2016 I felt like I could do it,” says Van Sciver. “Plus, I happened to be in the Center for Cartoon Studies [In White River Junction, Vermont] at the time. Joseph Smith's birthplace [Sharon, Vermont] was not that far of a drive from the school, so it was the first site that I was able to visit. I felt I could commit to it.”
Despite its author’s departure from the Mormon church, the work treats its subject with dignity and is a detailed and straightforward retelling of the church’s mystical founding. “It's very delicate,” he says, “It’s a faith that holds together a lot of families and keeps people together. For all the bad stuff in it that you can throw out, spirituality and religion can also have a lot of good things for a lot of people too. I want to be considerate of that.”
Through researching and writing the story, Van Sciver says he was able to reconcile his own relationship with Mormonism. “That process involved taking in the story of the church through my art,” he says. “I inhabit things through my comics. I could read and watch movies about Joseph Smith, but if I’m reading and drawing it, I am Joseph Smith. That’s what comics are: a machine of empathy. To portray characters, you need to empathize with them. I became Joseph Smith, I became his wife, I became [early Mormon and Latter-Day Saint apostle] Oliver Cowdery. I became all the characters.”
Once the work was finished, he says, he could “step back into being Noah.”
In its own way, As a Cartoonist also offers its own bit of reconciliation. Van Sciver’s earlier works revealed an often difficult and strained relationship with his father, as the cartoonist drifted away from the church following his parent’s divorce. Near the end of the book, the autobiographical story “Beverly, New Jersey,” details how the two were able to reconnect . The collection closes with “Remy,” a one-page comic about the birth of the artist’s own son.
Van Sciver says that, while the pandemic ultimately had little impact on his prolific publishing schedule, having a child has forced him to be even more productive during the limited amount of time he has to draw. “That’s advice I got from [cartoonist] Dan Clowes,” he explains. “He said, ‘you’ll never know what you can get done in 45 minutes like you will when you have a child.’ It’s true.”
While working on Joseph Smith and the Mormons, Van Sciver also collaborated with writer Chris Miskiewicz on the music-focused nonfiction graphic work, Grateful Dead Origins, which tells the story of the origins of the famous rock band, and was published by Z2 Comics in 2020. He also drew a comic for the publisher’s Cheech & Chong's Chronicles: A Brief History of Weed, published (appropriately) on 4/20/2022. After scrambling in the wake of a massive project, he says he’s – unsurprisingly – got a number of other projects in the works. Though the future depends, in part, on the success of this massive new work on an admittedly sensitive topic.
“A couple of fiction stories that I wrote a few years ago, I’ve perfected in my head,” he explains. “Then what I really would like to do, is a sequel to [Joseph Smith] about Brigham Young, and how the church was settled in Salt Lake City. That’s how it became more of the modern church that exists today. I guess it kind of depends on how this book is received.”