“I believe — that if you thought for a moment, took your time, you would not resign yourself — resign yourself to your fate.” — Roland Orzabal, “I Believe” (1985)
Or would you? The internal conflict between staying true to one’s ideals and “selling out” for the sake of either commercial success or mere survival has been a central tension in the life of many an artist since time immemorial, and while German cartoonist extraordinaire Anna Haifisch gently explored this topic (among others) in her earlier book The Artist, in her second collection of strips focused on her avian nominal stand-in, The Artist: The Circle Of Life (Breakdown Press, 2019) she goes for the jugular, opening with a vaguely abstract scenario — geometric shapes coagulating and coalescing into an approximation of her protagonist’s face — that nearly precisely mirrors his sparse internal monologue, which is focused entirely on realization, dreams of setting the art world (perhaps even the wider culture in general) on fire giving way to the dawning sense that he never had what it took to do so in the first place, that he was never anything special. So where do we go from here? And what the hell does all this have to do with Disney’s The Lion King?
The simple answer to the first question is “read the book and find out,” of course, but fear not, we won’t simply leave it at that — it’s the second question, however, that probably demands answering immediately, not only because it requires a more thorough explanation, but also because said explanation for the second informs the response to the first. Simply put: while this book is a sequel (and, like its predecessor, much of its contents originally appeared on the nominally “edgy” Vice website), it’s probably best viewed as part of a trilogy, the third entry in its being Haifisch’s ostensibly stand-alone “graphic novel,” Von Spatz, published in 2017 by Drawn+Quartery, which focused on assumedly fictionalized accounts of the rehab stints undertaken by Tommi Ungerer, Saul Steinberg, and, yes, Walt Disney, at the “health resort” of the same name.
The travails of the actual historical personages vis a vis art, commerce, mental health, and all points in between explored in Von Spatz find themselves, at least at a remove, transposed onto the mostly-fictional characters that feature in The Circle Of Life, but what’s interesting is not the hodgepodge of well-known figures Haifisch incorporates into these interconnected vignettes, but how completely and effortlessly she demolishes any sense of hierarchy that may exist between, say, Vincent Van Gough, Snoopy, Donald Duck, The Lion King, Simon Hanselmann’s Owl, and even Matt Furie’s Pepe The Frog, herein mercifully re-appropriated from the content thrust upon him by the “alt-right” assholes of the world. In this act, then, Haifisch seems to be answering the question she starts out with: whether or not an artist — or, as the case may be, The Artist — may as well resign himself to pursuing a course of pure commercial success with a stark “who cares? Whatever you create ends ups tossed into the same stew anyway.”
On paper, I suppose this should be a depressing prospect, but Haifisch can’t bring herself to eschew the funny side of things. While her sense of comic timing — always subtle and impeccable — has never been better than it is here, it’s her confidence in her utterly unique brand of cartooning that makes all the difference. Her intentionally limited, borderline-pastel color palette, trademark “squiggly” linework, and exaggerated-by-means-of simplification facial and body language contextualize her concerns within an artistic framework that is sharply satirical, to be sure, but never anything so lazy as outright mean-spirited.
Walt Disney and his various corporate “offspring” loom large over Hafisch’s now three-volume exploration of art and neuroses, but she eschews judging both the man and his company’s product. In fact, as exemplars of “art has a life of its own,” you could scarcely come up with anyone/anything better than Disney, but the extent to which it looms over the proceedings doesn’t minimize our Artist’s semi-profound bouts of “impostor syndrome” doubts, or his self-imposed indifference, if not outright laziness, in the face of a major Viennese gallery opening. Instead, it put things into proportion, while also offering a much-needed undercurrent of rationality and inevitability to situations that, logic would dictate, preclude much of either. Like so much of what Haifisch does — tonally, conceptually, artistically, narratively — this approach probably shouldn’t work, and she’s too intelligent a cartoonist not to know this. Like the best artists in any medium, though, the fact that she finds a way to make it work is what marks her not just as someone who appreciates a challenge, but as someone who thrives on it and uses it to elevate her work
That being said, the challenge Haifisch may not be able to overcome is her own singularity, the hermeticism of her own body of work making an individual volume such as this tricky, though hardly impossible, to take on its own terms and nothing more. Coming into this book “blind,” as it were — without having read at least The Artist, if not Von Spatz also, beforehand — wouldn’t be confusing, but would perhaps reduce it to a curious piece of light comedy that wasn’t afraid to poke fun at both artist and the broader art world alike. To the extent that it could motivate new readers to track down Haifisch’s past work is all well and good, but if one comes into it already on her metaphorical wavelength, The Artist: The Circle of Life rises to something very near the level of a revelation, a sterling example of an artist, as the cliche goes, “firing on all cylinders.”
No art exists in a vacuum — indeed, Haifisch’s central thesis here appears to be that it’s all part of some already-overcrowded, delightfully absurd smorgasbord — but The Artist: The Circle Of Life is indeed best absorbed and understood as a culmination or, at the very least, a new plateau in the oeuvre of one of the most exciting talents in comics today. It comes highly recommended if you’re new to her work — but it’s absolutely essential if you’ve been following her for some time.