At its core, cartooning is about drawing lines in a way that makes it feel like there is more to it than that. There is innate, primal appeal or repulsion that comes from linework alone, bypassing narrative and concept: each stroke contains each figure, each figure—each panel, so on and forth. It’s a wildly complex thing distilled into something that seems effortless to everyone apart from the artist. When it works, there’s no separation between style and substance, and everything just is.
Anna Haifisch is a prime example of all that interplay in balance: once you fall in love with her drawings, you are probably going to be on board with all the stories, too. Her sentences have the same deliberate, searching patterns as her lines, and together they form a language of their own—a language of simultaneous encryption and decoding. There is a patient exactitude in the way she draws real objects, brand logos, and places, and her line transports them into a parallel world, where everything is quiet and suspended. Her drawings of toys, mugs and book spines feel like you know them, regardless of your cultural background—she pulls the essence of these things, translates them into lines, and lets them re-translate themselves back to the reader.
I’ve watched many people draw, and I’ve often felt that there are two fundamental approaches to markmaking: gestural and constructed. I feel less confident about the latter term, as it implies something cold and calculated, which certainly is not the case with Haifisch—she builds up her lines in small deliberate and seemingly erratic strokes that add up to a tightly-woven whole despite the loose and scratchy manner of each movement. This approach gives her awkward animals so much humanity and warmth, it’s hard to think of them as anything other than real, despite their flat characterization, non-existant backstories and a general absence of all that fluff that is supposed to make a good believable protagonist.
Anna Haifisch’s language is also one of constant contradiction. A great deal of great art (and great comedy especially) is a marriage of sophistication and stupidity—one without the other is safe and boring, and mixing them runs the risk of ending up with unintelligent sophistication or pretentious stupidity. One of my favorite of Haifisch’s stories, The Mouse Glass (originally published by Perfectly Acceptable, and soon to be collected in Schappi by Fantagraphics) is a good example of seemingly clashing elements working together and creating not only a unique look, but a complete world with its own atmosphere and ecosystem. Smudged ruler lines stand next to scribbly shapes, violent colors fill up the spaces with little consideration for page-to-page consistency—and yet it’s anything but dumb. There are so many excellent decisions that go at once against and along cartooning traditions and common sense, much like the works of Olivier Schrauwen, especially Arsène Schrauwen, which is itself a book about cartooning, as much as it is a book about the author’s grandad’s escapades.
Having established such a strong, recognizable style with ink and bold bright colors, it takes a lot of confidence to strip it away and stick almost exclusively to pencil drawings, printed in monochrome. As a result, Mouse in Residence is a bit more gestural and loose, which fits the story perfectly. The lines feel fragile and uncertain, much like the wobbly mice in their austere surroundings. Still, there is plenty of subtlety in the book’s presentation. A room looks sketchy and empty with two mice in then, then, after one of them leaves, it grows almost oppressively detailed. Elsewhere, there is a very tender router.
Mouse in Residence is a quiet, slow-paced story of two mice in an art residency. They can be identified by headgear, and respective art practices—one is a cartoonist, the other is a painter. The former revels in the isolation, the other one feels trapped. I don’t want to write much more about the story itself, because it’s best experienced firsthand, and because it’s vintage Anna Haifisch. Nothing much happens, the dialogue is funny and abrupt, and the narrative moves towards its conclusion in small repeating arcs. It’s masterfully structured and paced, and, like Robert Walser’s best stories, it stays almost invisible. Kafka also comes to mind—it is a cliché to bring him up, I know, but if there’s anyone in the cartooning world that follows in his footsteps, it’s Anna Haifisch—and I don’t mean all the bureaucracy and narrow corridors, I mean the sense of humor, the little hints of warmth in dry detached delivery, and the cruel playfulness (Kafka’s last story, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk, casts a direct line, even outside the furry angle). Mouse in Residence is an exemplary short story—the sort that doesn’t seem to do a thing in front of you, but sets off an explosion somewhere beyond your field of view.
There just isn’t anyone like Anna Haifisch, and we’re lucky to have a voice so strong and confident, and so unwilling to bland out, or stop evolving. She is at once consistent and unpredictable, and each one of her works is always different, always the same. I can look at her drawings and read her stories over and over again, and never fully see them, and every time each line and word is just as new and full of life as on the first time.