Cartoonist Noah Van Sciver has created three graphic novels about Fante Bukowski, a fictional writer whose comical delusions of literary greatness are matched only by his lack of talent for anything but drinking. Apparently, three books weren’t enough.
This month, Van Sciver and Fantagraphics have teamed up to publish The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, a hardcover compilation edition that includes the three previous works along with a cache of bonus new material. This new book is an authoritative, albeit tongue-in-check, account of the life, works, and dubious character of the fictional Bukowski.
The new volume includes Fante Bukowski (2015), Fante Bukowski Two (2017), and Fante Bukowski Three: A Perfect Failure (2018), all published by Fantagraphics. There’s also a cheeky, passive aggressive foreword by novelist Ryan Boudinot, and a section of visual tributes to the character by cartoonists Box Brown, Nina Bunjevac, Ed Piskor, Leslie Stein, Simon Hanselmann, and others.
Created in deference to the character’s self-proclaimed literary genius—born Kelly Perkins, he renamed himself for legendary tough-guy writers John Fante and Charles Bukowski—the new volume is tricked out to look like an iconic Library of America hardcover edition. The parody volume features LoA’s distinctive black cover jacket, the famous type font and red/white/blue ribbon marker (running vertically down the cover rather than horizontal), as well as the aforementioned mock appreciation by Boudinot.
PW talked with the Ignatz award-winning Van Sciver about the many qualities of Fante Bukowski.
PW: You’ve written three books about Fante Bukowski, a delusional, arrogant, and slovenly character. Do you find something admirable in his belief in his own greatness?
NVS: I’m always interested in people who are obsessed with one thing, like people who become obsessed with comics history. I think it’s admirable to dedicate your life to this role. But now I have to think about it. Is he admirable? He’s dedicated to being a drunken writer [laughing]. I don’t know if that’s admirable, though.
Do you think deep down he may actually be a good writer?
He doesn’t have an interest in it. He doesn’t have an interest in learning the craft. He has an interest in being a writer and just having that title. He has an interest in being an alcoholic. He thinks that seems really cool. He would never go to a writing workshop or anything like that. Because in his mind he doesn’t need that. He’s already a great writer and he’s not going to work on that.
So he’s more alcoholic than writer?
Actually, no. He doesn’t have the disease of alcoholism. I just think he thinks there’s something cool about being downtrodden. But he’s not. He’s someone who drinks and likes the typewriter.
You use his megalomania as a comic foil. But can writers actually relate to his poverty and desperate need to be published?
Sure. But I wasn’t really trying to make a character that writers would relate to but a character that writers would run into. Like this was somebody that I knew in Denver, Colorado, this self-obsessed writer, the person who’s like “I’m a genius.” Absolutely. I mean, I have [met people like him] in real life. But they wouldn’t see themselves as that.
The books also lampoon the publishing industry via the character of the literary agent Ralph Bigsburgh. Does this reflect your publishing experiences?
Yeah. A lot of that came from me. When I was in my twenties, I was a big self-promoter and it felt like I wasn't getting a fair share of attenion, I wasn’t getting the attention I wanted. So, in self-defense I had an attitude of, “They can’t handle what I’m doing, it’s too raw for people.” That agent reflected how I felt people were dismissing me in my twenties. It was all about self-preservation. But if I hadn’t had that dumb ego at that age, the kind of ego that blinded me to how bad my work was, I would have stopped doing comics and done something else. I needed that. It was almost like beer goggles for seeing the world. A lot of Fante comes from my own self-delusion.
An artist’s self-delusion can be a form of armor that helps them survive the rejections. It must be especially tough as a graphic novelist.
As a graphic novelist, it’s like, anybody can do it but the hard part is spending 10 years creating really bad work until you get to something that is passable. I had to build up that armor where it was like everybody was against me just to get through those years where I wasn’t producing anything valuable or interesting.
At first glance the new book looks like a Library of America edition. Would Fante approve of being a part of that list?
Fante always felt like he deserved to be in it. But if he was actually given that kind of prestige, he might find some way to sabotage it.
You’ve said this will be the last of the Fante Bukowski books. Is that part of your creative career in the past?
I think that’s fair. I don’t have the drive or desire to focus on that kind of character anymore. I’m done analyzing that part of my life.