“I Fantasize About Being in Jail”: An Anna Haifisch Interview

There is something calming about the control Anna Haifisch exerts over her works with her defined color palettes. Even in her most off-hinged works, such as Von Spatz, can be entered with equilibrium. Haifisch’s Von Spatz is the story of the Von Spatz Rehab Center, a fictional oasis and healing space for a number of creatives, but Walt Disney, Saul Steinberg, and Tomi Ungerer are the few who find themselves at the center of the narrative. While the book may be an explosive representation of artistic anxiety, her peach, lemon, and sky blue colors stabilize the otherwise sticky subject matter.

I spoke with Haifisch about working first in screen-printing, then in comics, her lifelong love of Walt Disney, and writing for audiences who speak various languages.

What’s it like having one specific work, like Von Spatz which first came out years ago, come out to different parts of your audience over such a long period of time? How does your relationship change to the work?

Yeah, that was a bit weird for me. When I lettered Von Spatz for D&Q, I went over the drawings again, and I corrected some stuff, but not a whole lot. Sometimes I said, like, “Oh God, I gotta redraw the whole page actually,” it feels kind of old, but I don’t think it is. It’s from 2015, that’s when I drew it. It’s only been three years, not even.

Do you think that the way you think about the work changes when you’ve been thinking about it, and going over it, for so long?

Yeah, I mean of course there’s no chance to change it, to do a major change or something, I’m totally fine with it. But some stuff I like how I wrote it, and how I drew it, but I’m like, “What was I thinking?” Some pages I should have done it differently, not in a bad way, but I would do it differently today for sure.

Were you intending this work to come out in French, German, and English when you were first making it?

No, no, no, not at all. Because it’s my first proper comic book, actually, before that I was only doing zines and shorter stuff. This was my first book. I didn’t think further than the German thing, actually, and it was a big deal for me. The German publisher, Rotopol, and Misma from France, they’ve worked together previously and they sometimes make these deals with sharing the printing cost, and printing it together. When this came up, it was huge for me because I didn’t think [that would happen] at all. When I drew Von Spatz, I was not at all thinking it would be of interest for anybody else. I hoped so, but I was really insecure of the whole thing.

I accidentally actually bought The Artist in Spanish online when I first read it. [laughs] How much control do you have over the translation of the books?

With Spanish, I’m completely out, I have to say. I had English at school, and then French, and when I’m lettering both languages I can kind of understand what I’m writing down. It’s also working with Misma, they’re really nice people, and I know them personally, I trust them to death. The English version, of course, I can read it, and I can see if it’s right or not, but for the Spanish version I really have to trust people I don’t know, and a publisher I don’t know, and a language I can barely make sense of.

From Von Spatz

Do you find that when you’re making comics now that you’re thinking about translation more?

Yeah, a bit, but for the next Artist it’s only going to work in English actually because it’s going to be a bird opera, and it’s rhyming, and it’s untranslatable, I think. I mean economically it’s probably a stupid thing to do [laughs], but I think it’s the right way to go for the story and for the idea. I had to choose a language, and English is the nearest, and we can spread it way better than German. I don’t have the translations in mind all the time because you never know what publishers want to pick up [the work]. I can only think so far, and I’m proud enough when I finish a book, and I can see where it goes from there.

Do you feel that there’s much different of a reception when you release something to a German market versus to an American one?

In Germany, I toured Von Spatz when that came out, and it caught some attention, that’s for sure, but Germany’s very conservative in the reception of comics, or like even visual work in general. It was only when The Artist went on Vice that, back home, people responded to it like, “Ah, okay, the North Americans obviously liked it so it must be good for some reason.” It’s a bit strange to feel that, I mean it doesn’t feel like a rejection or something, but I think without Vice, for example, The Artist or Von Spatz wouldn’t have been so interesting to anybody.

How did you start working with Vice?

I have no idea actually. Nick Gazin wrote me an email asking if I’d want to do a weekly comic. Alex Schubert, who drew the Blobby Boys with Koyama Press, recommended my work to Nick Gazin. He bought a zine at Desert Island I think, or some comic book shop, and Nick Gazin wrote me, like, “Alex Schubert recommended your work to me, and I really want to do a weekly series.” I was just like, “Why a weekly thing?” I needed a topic that was sustainable for six weeks, or something, and so I said yes. I thought it was the chance to do something really short and nice. I had no idea what it could be, but I said yes instantly.

You lived in America for a couple of years, right?

Yeah, one and a half years.

Okay. At that point were you making comics already?

Not really. I was studying illustration, and I liked printmaking a lot. I worked for a screenprint studio in Brooklyn, really as a screenprinter, and we drew posters, and flyers, and whatnot. When I got there, I moved into a flat ‘cause somebody recommended it to me, and it was with someone who drew comics at that time. That’s when I found my old passion again, ‘cause I was only doing zines, and short stupid stories, and never really took the comics medium super seriously. Printmaking was my thing at that time. When I moved there that wasn’t an option at all, but when I left I thought about comics a lot more, as a thing to do.

I know you do The Millionaires Club, but do you feel like you have a big comics community in Germany, too?

There’s of course a community because it’s a big country still, but I was always looking outside of Germany because I always thought the wilder and more reckless stuff visually, and also storytelling wise, was happening in North America. Just the way stuff looks, like the style of Gary Panter, you know, was kind of unusual to European eyes. In Germany of course there’s a quite big community––I mean, still small of course, it’s comics, but there’s Hamburg which has a very good art school. They teach comics there, and a lot of those students are my best friends, and they are leading figures in the German comics world. Then Berlin, of course. Leipzig kind of was never really in the comics community because they didn’t have a school for it, and it wasn’t known for comics, but I think with the Millionaires Club we made it happen.

Do you feel like working on the Millionaires Club, and within a community, affects your work a lot?

Totally, I think drawing is such a lonesome thing to do. Organizing a festival with friends, you have the chance to invite the world to a smaller place. I think it still is a very big chance to meet people, and to get to know people whose work you really, really like.

I wanted to talk about your use of color, and your really strict color palettes. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about how you plan that, if you do, and just your relationship to color?

Yeah, I think my coloring is really coming from my former days, and my passion for, screen-printing. When you print you have a limited palette, otherwise you work yourself to do death––okay, if your French, use 17 colors. [laughs] When I was screenprinting I did like four colors maximum. Whenever I start a project I already have colors in my head. I think a lot in colors, and the Photoshop colors make me nervous in a way because there’s so many options. I usually pick like 5, 6 colors, and I work with them no matter what. It’s also that I like the idea that the colors don’t go really well with each other, that it’s not too harmonic in a way, but at least two colors bite each other. I don’t know if that’s an expression in English, but that it doesn’t look too friendly, in a way.

With The Artist you’re using this character that’s really youthful and urban, and with Von Spatz you’ve chosen these characters that are these huge art figures, and they’re older, and they’re dealing more with the stresses of having an established career, rather than, as in The Artist, documenting someone trying to get to that point. What made you choose the characters you did for Von Spatz?

I think that came out of an admiration, of course, for the biggest artists, drawers, of the twentieth century. People I really admire. Of course there are a lot of females I admire a ton, but I chose the men because it’s so much easier to kind of deliver them to the artist. Not to make fun of them, because I don’t want to make fun of them, but it feels so much easier to write about, or make a screenplay, in a sense, with men. Saul Steinberg is my biggest hero, but Walt Disney I chose as the main character because he’s the world’s biggest artist, or visionary. Every kid grew up with his stuff.

Did you first choose to make a story about these specific artists, or were you first thinking of centre it around the clinic itself?

I think it was both. Walt Disney just fascinates me since I saw these photographs of the old studio days when they invited a deer over to draw it. The very first Disney studio, where they’re all standing in front of it, and they look into the camera like so––it’s really touching in a way. They’re like 22 years old, and they’re starting this thing, and they’re so excited, and so visionary. I was always drawn to Walt Disney as a character. The clinic was always a big topic to me, too, as the perfect place for an artist. It’s like I fantasize about being in jail. They have a regular schedule, and get fed, and have time. I know it’s not like this, but in my worst moments I think about this stuff. A clinic would ideal, in a way, with everything you need.

Do you feel like this narrative was borne from your own fantasies in moments of burn out?

Yeah, of course. I mean I was lucky so far, never say never, but I didn’t have to go to a clinic, but I visited some friends there. In Germany, and probably everywhere around the world, these places are friendly looking, but horrible inside. It’s just awful. I mean, I was really just fantasizing. It’s a thing I would wish to exist somehow, it doesn’t have to be for artists only, but… I’m thinking about the Betty Ford Clinic where all the VIPs go to, like I see Lindsay Lohan with the electronic cigarette, and the ankle monitor. Whenever I see these pictures, I have a warm feeling somehow. I can totally relate actually.

From The Artist

That’s so interesting. I wanted to ask you how, obviously with The Artist those were in comic strips because they were for the Vice weekly comic, but with this book, too, you wrote it in little vignettes. What attracts you to that?

I hope it looks like attraction, but I think I also have a hard time planning a book from beginning to end without chapters, or things. I’m not a person working with a storyboard, or something, and planning the whole scenario, with the writing and the drawing throughout the whole book. I think my way to work is really in smaller steps. Drawing chapters for Von Spatz was really the only way to go. I drew a lot more, and I ended up throwing out probably 40% of the pages or chapters ‘cause I thought they didn’t make any sense. Having a scenario with the whole book planned out, and then you decide to throw out some pages, you end up with the whole story destroyed. I think it’s the only way for me to work at the moment. I think unable to do like a 200 page book from beginning to the end without breaks, and chapters.

Were you thinking about, not in the sense of storyboarding, but at the beginning were you thinking of exactly how you wanted to represent the character of Walt Disney, or were you just going instinctively?

No, no, I had the complete way the character should be seen for the reader figured out. I thought it should be a very loving view, that was the biggest premise. The chapters, like what they do, and what they’re experiencing, that was interchangeable. That was a variable to move around, but with the general appearance of Tomi, Saul, and Walt, my intention was to have them being of course at the end of their rope, but still loving, and likeable.

I know that you were saying you do the colors in Photoshop, but how do you do the actual drawings? Do you do it in pencil?

Yeah, yeah, I usually use the pen, with really old fashioned ink, in black and white. Everything that’s black is ink, and then I scan it, and add the color.

Do you still screen-print?

I still do it. Now I have limited access to studio space, but nowadays I plan it and then I go there. It’s not like in the old days when I was just constantly in the workshop, and printing on top of stuff, and just going with whatever’s there, and I would draw in the studio. That stuff is not possible right now, but actually I don’t miss it, it’s way nicer to plan it more. It’s more economic, and you also don’t waste as much resources.

As a closer, I was wondering if you could tell me about any upcoming projects you’re working on?

I mean, The Artist #3 is a big one because I changed a lot in it. Now he’s successful, it’s going to be an opera. It sounds like a bit of a stupid or insane project, but I really like working on it ‘cause I got so sick of the whole comics structure, and stuff. A lot of the other stuff is commercial stuff. I like to do it a lot ‘cause I don’t have to think too much. The Artist #3 is the biggest thing right now, but I’m also doing another book with Matt Davis on Perfectly Acceptable, and that is always super important for me artistically, and for my practice to work with him closely. It’s always smaller projects, like 24 pages max, but it’s really exciting artistically for me. I mean, riso printing is the same as screen printing in a way. It’s also super important this year.