The past is another country — except when it isn’t.
Noah Van Sciver has long been one of the undisputed modern masters of autobio comics, to the extent that even his most famous fictional character, Fante Bukowski (whose trilogy of books recently concluded with A Perfect Failure — reviewed a few weeks back on this very site) is obviously liberally populated with (admittedly exaggerated) people, places, and events from his own life — but a close look at one’s upbringing and how it continues to inform life right up to the present day, well, that’s quite a thematic evolution from, say, My Hot Date and similar works, is it not?
Which isn’t meant as a slight against his earlier, Ignatz-winning work, mind you — anything but! That comic more than earned its near-universal praise. But how the kid we met in its pages grew into the man we’ve seen in strips such as “Wall Of Shame” — that has generally remained uncharted territory for this most introspective of contemporary cartoonists. Enter One Dirty Tree.
Near-evenly-split between the mid-1990s and 2015, Van Sciver pulls no punches here in his depiction of growing up in a dilapidated New Jersey house, second-youngest (if memory serves correctly) of a huge — and highly dysfunctional — Mormon family torn between hewing to the notoriously patriarchal rules of their faith and recognizing stark economic reality. On the one hand, yeah, the most obvious surface-level manifestation of this is mom slowly realizing that she’s going to have to work outside the home in order to help make ends meet, but when you throw in a father struggling with acute (albeit undiagnosed) mental illness and a gaggle of kids at varying stages of development, each with different needs, mom’s two-way debate with herself takes on a whole raft of determining factors and potential consequences. Unflinching coming-of-age memoirs, though, even ones as superbly executed as this are, let’s face it, a dime a dozen. What makes this “novella” (so described by Van Sciver himself, and at 100-ish pages that seems a pretty fair categorization) worth you giving publisher Uncivilized Books 20 of your hard-earned dollars? I’ll be glad to tell you, but you’ve probably already sussed it out —
Breakups are a motherfucker, are they not? I’m not sure, looking back, which sort I “preferred” : the slow-burn, inevitable sort, or the brutal and immediate explosion/implosion. Van Sciver’s split with his most recent girlfriend, Gwen, which forms the backbone of the “present-day” segment of this book, was the former, which definitely makes for very interesting (and, yeah, voyeuristic, who are we kidding?) reading. but it sure must have hurt like hell to write and draw it all out. The narrative transitions between “then” and the nominal “now” are so smooth as to be essentially seamless here, and that subtlety carries over from the visual side of the ledger to the written, Van Sciver never hammering the “timeline-jumping” over readers’ heads by means of hackneyed and heavy-handed parallel events or emotional reactions to same — instead, the truly expert pace at which he lays out each “half” of his story quite naturally complements the other as he “toggles” back and forth between them, the resultant effect being something akin to a slowly-dawning realization that of course this is how things were going to play out now, given how they went then.
Van Sciver’s relationship with his faith comes in for the same deft treatment, as his family drifts from its more ludicrous tenets over the course of his youth, while concurrently becoming more and more dependent on its charity as their financial situation deteriorates. It’s probably no surprise, then, that the adult version of Noah has gone the “non-practicing” route, but at the same time, when his girlfriend’s old college roommate puts him “on the spot” about various well-known LDS practices, he reacts about as well as someone “called out” on their belief system would be expected to, his calm demeanor temporarily giving way to a passionate defense not so much of his religion, but of the impact it left upon his core values. You get where he’s coming from while also implicitly understanding why he has strayed from the path, given that Mormonism, in a very real sense, may have helped his family through some tough times when he was a kid, but was also the cause of those tough times given their belief in large families, man as head of household, etc.
Throw in some of the usual trepidation about turning 30, some of the usual frustration with low-wage service work (Van Sciver punched the clock at a Panera Bread until somewhat recently), some of the usual casual estrangement one develops with certain family members as you go your separate ways in every sense, but particularly geographically, and you’ve got a pretty full plate of concerns (all rendered in Van Sciver’s highly distinctive, humanistic style, elevated here to unprecedented levels of visual fluidity thanks to his increasingly-confident use of color), but it all comes back to his formative years — culminating in an emotionally-resonant epilogue wherein Van Sciver and his older brother, Ethan (himself a reasonably famous mainstream comics artist —- hell, some would say an infamous one given his prominence within the reactionary fan “community” known as “comicsgate”) return to their childhood home and find that it’s changed — yet somehow, in some crucial respect, remained exactly the same.
Which, come to think of it, is probably a fairly nice summation of One Dirty Tree‘s central thesis. I should say, though, that even though the past always informs the present and future, it needn’t necessarily hamper either — and with each successive book, the future looks increasingly bright for Noah Van Sciver.