Yeong-shin Ma’s Moms dealt with a demographic rarely given any quality time in comics - middle-aged, working class women, desperately trying to avoid falling below the poverty line while having to deal with shiftless children, lecherous bosses and unfaithful boyfriends. It was a frank and frequently funny comic that didn’t let its obvious sympathies prevent it from highlighting the characters’ various foibles. It was one of my favorite books of 2020.
Now we have Ma’s follow-up, Artist, nearly twice the size of Moms (and in full color, no less). It’s not as good as the previous work, lacking that street-view glimpse of lives rarely portrayed in media, but it does underscore the notion that Ma is an cartoonist and satirist worth paying attention to, with a keen eye attuned to some of the pettiest aspects of human behavior.
Artist follows the ups and downs a trio of ne'er-do-well struggling artists–a writer, a painter, and a musician–who, well into middle age, and with several failed relationships and jobs behind them, are slowly realizing they might not ever attain anything resembling success if they don’t knuckle down. So when one of them actually garners a small amount of money and status, jealousy and sniping are quick to follow (especially since one of the others is largely responsible for this success).
Perhaps surprisingly for a book about artists, actual art (or at least the process of producing it) is rarely seen or discussed. Instead, our hapless trio are more focused on getting drunk at restaurants and karaoke bars, hitting on women, and navigating treacherous political waters as they attempt to garner positions of note. Artist is a book that is more concerned with the realities of trying to make a living in the arts than with craftsmanship.
Not unsurprisingly in a book of this nature, the trio’s efforts are frequently undermined by their own vanity, lust, or just general social ineptitude. Even the faintest wisp of success leads them to sexually harassing bartenders or using the company card to act like a big shot. And they remain largely clueless about their behavior. At one point a character creepily hits on a pair of younger cartoonists only to fly into a rage when his teenage daughter texts him that her tutor is making a pass at her.
So this isn’t a book that casts any illusions about the nobility of artists or the joy of being creative for a living. In fact, these guys continually berate each other and throw passive-aggressive insults, calling each other names or castigating each other for their lack of knowledge - perhaps in a vain effort to become the alpha male of the pack. Kwak Kyeongsu, the painter, is the worst of the three, at one point pretending to be one of the writer’s female fans via text only to mock the poor soul for actually thinking his writing was at all worthwhile.
The last third of the book focuses on Shin Deuk-nyeong, the writer, who by virtue of having an eye for talent as well as a certain amount of integrity, has not only found love but starts fronting a successful literary magazine. The book then becomes a sort of workplace soap opera as Shin faces pushback from contributors, suggesting he is more than willing to let the entire thing go down in flames than acquiesce. At the end, he contemplates his ruthless desire to ensure that “second-rate posers will never have a chance to bud.”
If there are any political overtones in Artist, they perhaps lie at a frustration with a corrupted monoculture that caters to established “elites” that aggressively try to prevent others from participating. While the protagonists might be undercutting themselves through their own selfish ineptitude, there are clearly barriers that they have trouble maneuvering around. For example, the musician, Chun Jongseop, gets roped in at one point to the issue of karaoke royalties, a subject that I suspect Ma has his own strong feelings about. Chun discovers that those profiting from the system are more than happy to kick his legs out from under him.
Although he draws in a pleasingly simple, cartoonish style, Ma rarely delves into extreme exaggeration, saving his more Tex Averyish moments for instances of sudden shock or anger. Mostly he leans toward more subtle facial expressions–a sneer here, smug pride there–with an additional emphasis on how clothing and environment can reveal something about the characters. There are also some cute artistic moments, as when Shin’s potential love interest looks at a metaphorical, house-shaped hole in his chest and asks if there’s room inside for her.
Some of the artistic decisions are just plain odd, however. Shin, for example, has a missshapen head that makes him look more than a bit like the Elephant Man. No explanation is given for this deformity or whether it’s supposed to serve as a visual cue for how he stands apart from his friends, It’s just there.
And while Ma largely regards the men’s behavior in this book as sexist and gross, to put it mildly, the female characters are relegated to minor roles and are rarely portrayed as little more than supporters or victims. The worst off is Ha Seya, a seemingly unstable hanger-on who gloms onto the various members of the trio and becomes instantly unattractive once she puts her hair in a ponytail, revealing her chubby face.
Despite its strengths, Artist doesn’t have the poignancy and social oomph of Moms - there’s plenty of stories out there about egotistical artists, and these goofballs don’t do much to generate sympathy. Ma goes a lot harder towards his cast here than he did in Moms. There’s certainly a pleasure in seeing these self-centered men behave badly, not to mention all the consequences that accrue as a result of that misbehavior. But compared to Moms, Artist feels a bit overlong and meandering for a story that, at its core, is just a reminder that making art for a living isn’t as much fun as you might have thought when you were 12, and you don’t become a better person for doing so.