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A writer drunk on hero worship
ADITYA MANI JHA  22nd Aug 2015

Fante Bukowski (2015)

Creator: Noah Van Sciver

Fantagraphics

Charles Bukowski, who would have turned 95 last Sunday, was the undisputed laureate of American lowlife. In our era of easily digestible wisdom perpetuated by a quick mugshot with a catchy one-liner attached, he is perhaps the most quoted poet on social media. His deceptively simple poems are easier appreciated than emulated: he has ended up inspiring an unfortunately large number of imitators, most of whose works have little literary value.

The recent graphic novel Fante Bukowski is the tragicomic tale of one such wannabe: the titular protagonist who is a true Bukowski devotee; he drinks gallons of cheap wine, spends a lot of time obsessing over his own misfortunes and — in a masterfully coordinated gag — even starts talking to a cat (Bukowski was rather taken by feline intelligence). The opening panel itself sets the tone: Fante lying in bed, staring at his ceiling, muttering "vapid cows" (meant for the editors who, predictably, have sent him reams of rejection letters). He is wearing a t-shirt that reads: "Careful or you'll wind up in my novel".

We all have a friend like this: who's convinced he (and it's generally "he": sadly, this tendency towards vain solipsism comes rather easily to 21st century men) is God's gift to mankind in general and the fine arts in particular. And if the world doesn't realise the true magnitude of his talent, it's either bad luck or a conspiracy hatched by people with vested interests. The thing is, when a man like this comes face-to-face with his own mediocrity, it hits him hard, sometimes causing irreparable damage.

Fante's story is somewhat predictable, but Van Sciver's genius here is twofold: his goofy artwork, which always takes the narrative to surprising places, and the punchiness of his dialogue, which manages to convey the deadly serious consequences of Fante's hilarious goof-ups and general awkwardness. The scene where we learn of his real name, Kelly, is a flat-out masterpiece, a classic one-page skit James Kochalka or Jeffrey Brown would have been proud of.

Our hero's pen name, as you might have guessed, is a portmanteau of the names of two writers: John Fante and Charles Bukowski. The former was Bukowski's idol and Bukowski himself is hero-worshipped by poor old Kelly: a chain of influence is thus laid out by the author. Why must we be forever beholden to our idols? For an aspiring writer, is there no escape from this cycle? Van Sciver asks these big questions in such a gentle, unassuming manner that one can't help but marvel at his skill.

But let's come back to the scene where we learn this: we meet an old acquaintance of Fante, who meets him by accident and blurts out his real name: "Kelly". He then proceeds to reel off his career graph: he has just been given a huge promotion by his employer, the founder of a large law firm. This employer just happens to be Fante's father. We learn that Fante threw a tantrum to get out of his father's firm; he wanted to strike out on his own and struggle to establish his literary credentials.

Fante's discomfiture throughout the scene is superbly depicted, of course, but what really elevates the page is the punchline: Fante with a very level-headed expression, coolly saying, "When I'm famous I'll crush you." We realise, in that moment, the extent of Fante's very real psychosis. In an earlier scene, Fante had asked a young woman what's the worst that could happen if she went out with him. The woman replied that he could chop her up into little pieces. After this page, we are not so sure that her assessment was inaccurate.

Fante Bukowski is filled with sharp, extremely observant gags like these; it is easily one of the best new comics releases of 2015.

—Aditya Mani Jha

 
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