The Noah Van Sciver of As a Cartoonist is sometimes honest, sometimes caricature, and sometimes somehow both self-aggrandizing and self-effacing (not to mention rather handily self-degrading).
One thing he isn’t—as a character in these strips and, one assumes, as a creator—is unaware of the artifice of his constraints. There are moments in this book that move quite close to memoir, in which the character of Van Sciver interacts with his father, his brother, and his own childhood self, but these moments never escape the feeling of being edited, redrafted by faulty memory or to make for a more concise strip.
So, despite being primarily autobiographical, one can’t quite classify the book as an autobiography. It isn’t a graphic novel; you couldn’t describe it as narratively novelistic. Neither could you define it as a simple retrospective (several of the strips here are collected from his own Blammo comic or anthologies like Now), because the book doesn’t behave the way a retrospective would; there is no sense of timeline, no archivist sterility to the presentation of the strips.
Rather, As a Cartoonist is something so much more considered and directed. Van Sciver selected these strips specifically, and he arranged them in this way, so that perhaps we could understand the vague outline of his concerns, the roots of this work, for which there is no thesis nor conclusion. This is a book grappling with the identity of this present moment.
Whereas the earlier book Complete Works of Fante Bukowski features a character striving toward an artistic legacy, As A Cartoonist illustrates an artist questioning the validity of one.
Van Sciver presents cartooning—the medium and his own work—as something artistically high-minded, beginning the book with portraits of historic greats which culminate in the unnamed “Master Cartoonist”, whose quasi-historic bumbling is captured in several strips under the banner “The 19th Century Cartoonist”. After a few personal stories, Van Sciver sneaks in final portrait, this time of himself.
The larger implication is that cartoonists throughout history might have been fumbling their way to that higher art, mistake after mistake that led to the greats who begin this collection and, ultimately, to him. Given that he is constantly presented as having bad judgment, being inconsiderate or outright rude, and sometimes pandering for attention (as his foolish 19th-century cartoonist might), it feels clear that Noah Van Sciver (the real-world cartoonist) has a hard time reconciling himself as a part of this great medium.
That internal conflict is what unites all the pieces of the book, creating a larger portrait of a man at constant struggle with himself. It isn’t until Van Sciver meets his own child in the final strip of the book that this struggle can end, that Van Sciver can come to terms with having participated in creating an actual, useful legacy.
This book, then, might best be viewed as a collection of evidence, a gathering of arguments, as to what life is As a Cartoonist.
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