Let me attempt to begin with a joke. So Walt Disney, Saul Steinberg, and Tomi Ungerer walk into an insane asylum. No wait, I'm telling it wrong. Walt Disney walks into his therapist's office. The therapist says, "Why the long beak?" Because in this story, Walt Disney is depicted as a bird. I'm kidding; I wasn't really attempting to tell a joke, but summarizing the basic plot and visual sensibility of Anna Haifisch's Von Spatz, where Steinberg is a cat, and Ungerer's a mouse, but no one preys on one another. They are all in rehab due to the psychic toll being artists has taken on them.
This is not one of those comics where the biography of an artist is depicted in a cartoonist's approximation of their style. Haifisch has chosen as her subjects three people whose commonality is that they are all cartoonists of one sort or another, and she depicts them in her own cartooned style. The characters are simply delineated, essentially stick figures, distinguished from one another by their animal heads, but the backgrounds pop with color. Trained as a printmaker, Haifisch uses black lines and limited colors to convey pictorial depth and depth of feeling equally adroitly. There's respect for these artists, and affection for them as characters, but they exist on her terms: It's fiction, not biography. Not only did this never happen, there are many ways in which it never could have happened. Anachronisms and shifting contexts form the core of the book's sense of humor. A few moments suggest cartoon characters might be staying at the clinic as well as cartoonists. The book is a deadpan delight, as the logic, or illogic, of its world is slowly charted. The whole thing proceeds with a "ha ha what?" tension, not quite cohering into something that makes sense, and obliquely suggesting the nature of the characters' breakdowns. The tone is absurd but conveys a tired malaise, like a Steven Wright one-liner, or Zach Galifianakis at his most despondent.
The subject matter is not far from the strip Haifisch produced for Vice, The Artist, which was collected into a book by Breakdown Press. That strip is also about a neurotic bird artist, living in and stressing out about the world of New York City galleries, the pressures of socializing for the sake of networking, not wanting to socialize because of depression. It's a maybe necessary corrective to romantic notions of the artist, but the strip also feels very "on-trend" in its depiction of the lives of contemporary young people as helpless and hapless as they attempt to "make it" in the arts. You might love it, you might see it and think "relatable" or "mood." You will definitely understand why it ran at Vice. If syndicated twentieth-century newspaper comics afforded their creators enough success that they could make strips the middle class could relate to, our current era of online platforms reproduces for creators the struggling circumstances of gig workers in urban settings, allowing them to make eminently relatable work. Von Spatz, with extremely successful twentieth-century artists as its subject, requires a greater leap of imagination for Haifisch, and the result is a work of art that is less immediately apprehensible. The book is more rewarding for feeling created without an audience's expectations in mind, and funnier due to the reader's not knowing when the punchlines will come or where they'll come from. Von Spatz is also an improvement on The Artist for not featuring the halting pace of a cover page then two pages of comics every three pages. Rather than being a series of anecdotes, something like a plot develops. More important than that, we see a world grow. Not only do we see the fleshing out of setting through repeated appearances of the same locations, though there's that too, but we enter into the mental space where Haifisch can freely create.
The chapters vary in page length, letting each character to take the spotlight. The characters don't really interact with each other that much. Character is not revealed through dialogue. (Each artist seems to view the others as something inflicted upon them, though Walt feels guilt for the way he treated Ub Iwerks prior to entering the asylum.) They reveal themselves through their art. A sequence where each draws a comic based around the same predetermined story elements is reminiscent of strips in Olivier Schrauwen's The Man Who Grew His Beard. It's not a detour — it fits into the book's larger freewheeling narrative — and it's not like the book tries to hide its influences.
One thing it doesn't do is contextualize itself in terms of other people's praise. The lone quote on the book's back cover is attributed to Walt Disney,"One cannot imagine a more wonderful place," and if it were ever said at all, which nothing I've found suggests it was, would've most likely been in reference to the opening of Disney Land. Haifisch implies it refers to the book's fictional asylum. If Haifisch isn't going to defer to the facts of Walt Disney's biography, why would she defer to the praise of her contemporaries as means to sell her work?
In contrast to the neuroses displayed by the character of The Artist, it's pretty healthy to be so self-assured. The comic feels like it's about psychiatry as much as it's about postmodern art-making. Another major character is the therapist overlooking the asylum, who stars in a sequence about falconry, a mostly silent bit that emphasizes fields of color. Elsewhere she seems as overwhelmed by how to run a clinic as the artists are about how to make art. Haifisch herself seems confident and assured in her choices, satisfied with the comics medium's ability to do what she wants it to do.
The sequence where our characters witness an eclipse is beautiful as a page, but also suggests a cartoon face. In the adjacent panels of the sun as slivers we see two eyes, and when it's fully blotted out we see the face's nose. It feels wild to witness. We get so used to seeing cartoons and reading images as faces that it takes work to see such things as truly beautiful. That Haifisch can hide the face in something that comes across as soothing and beautiful conveys a revelatory effect once the reader works out that's what was done.
The only other instance in the book where gradients appear instead of pure flat colors is an image of a splash into a pool, directly referencing David Hockney, but as a cartooned image in a comics sequence. It's a quiet joke for those who notice it, but a joke that remains interested in the original painting as a thing of beauty. When it is assumed that comics are a worthwhile form, Hockney homages slide easily into comics pages, and Hockney enters the book's private constellation of great artists. It doesn't matter if the reader gets these inside jokes. I know nothing about Tomi Ungerer or his work, which I think is more popular in Europe than in the United States. All I can deduce from the book, in terms of what matters to it, is that Haifisch is a fan. That becomes enough for me, over the course of reading, to trust her and her judgment. She knows good art well enough to make it.