Wednesday, April 4, 2018

D&Q: Anna Haifisch's Von Spatz

Anna Haifisch is tough to pin down. Her art clearly owes a lot to early twentieth century animation and cartooning, but it's impossible to really narrow it down beyond understanding that this is part of her aesthetic. Her ragged, cartoony line is simultaneously off-putting and yet impossible to look away from. That helps create the essential sensibility of her work, which uses deadpan and occasionally absurd humor as the engine that propels the characters and their emotional narrative. The plot supposes that Walt Disney did not die in the mid 1960s. Instead, he had a breakdown and went to recover at the eccentric Von Spatz Rehab Center in California. The center, run by a German immigrant family fleeing Nazi Germany, had some delightfully strange features.

Meant for artists (and cartoonists in particular), the center was notable for its huge penguin pool, its hot dog cart, and its art supply store. Therapy was conducted in a group setting by one of the key characters, a young hippie Von Spatz named Margarete. Disney found himself with great New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg and children's book illustrator Tomi Ungerer. Initially resenting their presence, the book follows this trio as they become friends and bond with each other. The story is told in short vignettes (Haifisch's go-to method), with an early one "The Exercise" doing a lot of story and character duty in a hilarious fashion, as each artist is challenged to do a story with three elements, and Disney's turns out to be the most dark and disturbing by far.

The story lopes and moseys at its own pace, following the odd rhythms of rehab life. The presence of the penguins cheers some of the patients up but annoys Disney. Haifisch cuts between Disney, Steinberg and Ungerer, each dealing with their own problems in terms of confidence and ability to deal with the outside world. There's a great strip titled "Prozac" that essentially shows how radically different each of their reactions to the drug is, with each man having thought balloons dominated entirely by colors and patterns, each one radically different. There's an exhibition important to the center that the artists manage to ruin, as well as a lot of attention paid to Margarete's private life. That includes an affair with someone else at the center and an exasperated phone call to her European mentor regarding her patients.

Haifisch's project to date has been about the life of the artist. She is well aware of how twee that kind of self-reflexivity can come across and is sensitive to pretension and egomania. At the same time, there is something inherently strange and absurd about being an artist for a living and depending on the tastes and whims of others who support you. Especially those who act as gatekeepers. This book focuses on monetarily successful artists who can do whatever they want but still find themselves struggling. Disney here represents not the theme-park building multimillionaire, but rather the soul of someone who is always doubting himself no matter what. Working oneself to death, no matter the profit, only works for a short period of time. This is a book that is fundamentally about self-care, about camaraderie, about love and about non-monetized self-expression. The boys ruin the exhibition precisely because they just don't care about art and money anymore, nor the hoops one must jump through in order to make it.

It's also about the importance of mental health and how quickly it can slip away, especially since creative types tend to be more susceptible to depression on average. Haifisch has a tremendous amount of affection for all the characters in this book, especially the caregiver Margarete, who is trying to figure things out on the fly. Haifisch intermingles sincerity with absurdity, kindness with sharp barbs, and wonder with weariness to create a kind of artist's Shangri-La. It's what the center represents in the course of the story as well as a kind of fantasy Haifisch no doubt wishes really existed, especially since she lists herself as a future patient in the endflaps.

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