Sons of the Underground: Noah Van Sciver & Joseph Remnant

Posted by on July 9th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

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Blammo #6; Noah Van Sciver; Kilgore Books; 32 pp., $3.95

Blindspot #1; Joseph Remnant; 28 pp., $4.50; B&W

One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that there are an increasing number of young cartoonists who are drawing their inspiration directly from underground cartoonists like Robert Crumb, as opposed to the alternative artists of the ’80s, the Xeric generation of the ’90s or even their own peers.  It’s the fact that most of Crumb’s works are in print and readily available, as well as a testament to his enormous talent and the ways in which he works out his neuroses on the page.  He’s a self-doubting schlub who nonetheless feels the need to keep drawing, no matter what.  While Crumb may be our greatest living cartoonist, his influences are not in question: comics by Carl Barks, John Stanley and (especially) Harvey Kurtzman.  S. Clay Wilson inspired him to let loose his id on the page, while Justin Green proved instructive in how to write about embarrassingly personal details in a way that was still entertaining.

All of that blended together, combined with being in the right place at the right time, helped make Crumb one of the most successful alt-cartoonists.  It’s only fair that a new generation of cartoonists have found different aspects of Crumb’s work to inspire them .Joseph Remnant has been influenced by Crumb’s realistic style, heavy use of hatching and cross-hatching and bleak outlook. Noah Van Sciver‘s confessional style is not unlike Crumb’s in some ways, especially the way he works out his problems on the page.

It’s clear that both Remnant and Van Sciver have an ambivalent attitude toward cartooning and the life of an artist, but it seems like both simply feel compelled to keep doing it. It’s as though they’ve passed the point of no return a long time ago, because despite the struggle to get published, the punishing act of drawing itself (both have an intensive style that must be time-consuming) and a lack of recognition, drawing is the one thing that keeps them from drowning in the inanity of everyday life.

Both artists recognize and mock their own need to be recognized. Remnant’s “No One Ever Said It Would Be Easy” is one long argument with himself on why he even bothers, one where a “man on the street” starts berating him for moaning about the difficult life of the cartoonist. It’s an argument without a happy resolution…yet Remnant is compelled to see it all the way through and publish it. “Welcome To The Show” has Remnant introducing his comic as though it were an episode of Masterpiece Theatre, until his roommate reveals that Remnant is pathetic and desperate for attention.  Van Sciver’s “My Ignatz Award Acceptance Speech” is a more succinct distillation of this idea, as he daydreams out loud (and on paper) exactly what he would do and say if he won this small-press award, an admission that’s hilarious and embarrassing.

In terms of character design, Remnant’s work reminds me a bit of Rick Altergott, mixing naturalism with the grotesque for humorous effect.  His “Ace Goddard” story, about a washed-up ’80s heavy metal star looking for a comeback, was especially effective in this regard.  He simply nails the slightly unsettling and vacuous stares of the star’s fans from the ’80s, while his depiction of modern-day Goddard reveals a fat, pimply man with delusions of grandeur.

Most of Remnant’s comics seem to be about the conflict between the expression of honest admiration and joy and a world-weary and ever-present cynicism that borders on nihilism. “Truth With A Capital T” is about the subjectivity of taste vs. objectively good and bad art that actually winds up as a lively debate and ends with a great punch line.  “Art Show” feels like the most directly Crumb-influenced strip, as an elitist art collector at a gallery tries to buy a painting to impress a woman, but learns only too late that she’s engaged and not interested.  This was the most affected and obvious of Remnant’s strips, going after easy targets in a manner that’s a bit too on-the-nose.  On the other hand, “Blind Date” succeeds because, while its premise is not original (an account of horrible blind dates), Remnant grounds it and gives it weight with the specific and hilarious details that he provides.

Van Sciver’s career to date has been marked by a relentless, if somewhat scattered, work ethic.  He’s all over the place in more ways than one: his own one-man anthology, frequent cartoon interviews for The Comics Journal, a weekly cartoon strip and appearances in countless anthologies.  Through it all, it’s clear that Van Sciver is desperately trying to get better and develop his own voice, even if that process has involved primitive, pointless or otherwise untethered work.  Van Sciver is not afraid to fail, and do so in public, because it’s clear he’s trying to swing for the fences with every story.  Blammo #6 is his most consistently strong effort to date, jammed to the gills with jokes, gag strips, autobio stories and painful slice-of-life anecdotes.

In many respects, Blammo is a throwback to ’80s and ’90s alt-comics one-man anthology series like Eightball, complete with letters pages and other ephemera.  “Abby’s Road” is a fascinating first-person story about a young Juggalo (a fanatical devotee of the rappers Insane Clown Posse) recounting a failed relationship, told with a great deal of sympathy for the lead while never pulling any punches.  “As I Remember It,” a collaboration with his brother Ethan (a superhero cartoonist), is a remarkably sweet and bizarre snapshot from their youth, when they lived in a dilapidated house they were all ashamed of and sought any means of escape possible.  The obvious affection Ethan feels for his younger brother shines through, especially since Noah loves drawing as much as he does.  The story ends with Ethan realizing that Noah’s interests are quite different from his, as he sees him scratching out a gag strip involving chickens.

Immediately following that is the latest installment of these “Chicken Strips” characters, a bit of whacked-out grotesque gags and a comic called “Punks Vs Lizards” which is entirely self-explanatory.  One senses that Van Sciver has a need to engage in this kind of absurdity, but they’re not his most memorable stories.  They do act as a nice change of pace, giving Blammo a visceral quality even if one forgets them as soon as the page is turned.

On the other hand, the exaggerated autobio of “Convention” has  a number of laugh-out loud moments, as Van Sciver amps up the loathing factor (both for himself and others) in this account of a comics convention experience.  Here, Van Sciver’s scribbly, frantic line is at its best in rendering a hilarious drawing of a traumatized John Porcellino (a gag that got funnier as it’s repeated), mockingly outlining ragged zombies when another cartoonist says “they’re hot,” and scrawling out a declaration of purpose when he notes “I want to see the artist’s nervous breakdown happen on the page!”

That describes Van Sciver’s work to a tee: a way of blasting through his own emotional problems by hacking away at them on the page.  What’s different about this issue is that Van Sciver has started to exert a greater deal of control over the page, both in terms of his drawing and story structure.  There’s simply a better balance between serious expressions of emotion, gag work, self-flagellation for partially comedic effect and childish bursts of self-expression.  His scratchy line and exaggerated expressions grow on the reader as one goes from story to story.  The only problem I have with his art is an over-reliance on grayscale in his stories.  I’d prefer to see him use starker blacks instead, or have more confidence in his line-work as it stands.

Remnant and Van Sciver are both cycling through influences and trying to do it as quickly as possible.  Both have the potential, through sheer hard work, to become big-time talents.  It’s clear that both of them are committed to getting better and aren’t afraid to put their work out there, even if they’re not entirely comfortable doing so.  Both artists are in the process of trying to discover their own voice, to move beyond their influences and find out what kind of story they tell best.  For Remnant, he seems to work best when he exercises a bit of restraint and grounds his stories in detail.  For Van Sciver, his best comics are grounded in emotional truths, be they humorous or serious.

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