Anna Haifisch’s illustrations offer a distorted version of the cute
Anna Haifisch has a beautifully singular and surreal way of discussing and emailing artists, art and the “art world”. Strange, animalistic and sometimes laden with pathos, her work has long explored the nuances, trials and tribulations of what it means to create.
Haifisch’s book The Artist was published in 2016, having been serialized as a comic on Vice; with its follow-up, The artist: the circle of life, arriving in 2019 with the same tongue-in-cheek, nonsensical commentary on universal struggles like creative block, love, loss, and impostor syndrome. The protagonist is, naturally, some sort of crane-like bird.
Animals – usually elongated and skinny, in bizarre proportions – are a staple in Haifisch’s work, and now cult comics publisher Fantagraphics has put together an anthology of his recent short story comics, which focus all about “navigating etiquette and diplomacy within the vicissitudes of the animal kingdom,” as Fantagraphics puts it.
Titled Schappi, the six-story collection begins with the eponymous tale, which centers on a nervous but dignified creature who presides over a sort of artistic world, built according to a strict hierarchy of her own making. You get the gist of this character right off the bat: we see him hunched over a picture on a gallery wall, one hand clutching an exuberant feather duster, the other with a long, outstretched finger like ET.
“I’m healthy. I’m influential and finally I’m very, very rich,” he tells us. As we see more of the gallery space – a dildo sculpture here, a tiger painting there – it continues: “I own a piece of land on which I have erected my gallery. Perhaps I am being too humble. More accurately, it could be described as a large arts hall.”
Things are getting more and more megalomaniac as the creature describes the artists who have settled in a colony at the foot of the gallery as “pitiful and funny figures”, desperate to see their works chosen for inclusion in the collection, many toiling on their parts to the point of death (drowning, usually). We are told that “they have fashioned a reluctant and sinister society in which the daily routine is characterized by mistrust and mental breakdowns.” Who knows, maybe it’s an allegory of the struggling artist and the seemingly impenetrable upper echelons of the art establishment, but that’s really a guess.
Later in the collection, things get more surreal, if that were possible, as we venture down the weird ways of the animal kingdom. In The Mouseglass we see what really happened at the “42nd Animal Summit”. Although there are clearly differences between the assorted and stretched shapes of seals, leopards, elephants, etc., we are told that “delegates are hoping for meaningful discussions and excellent snacks in a tasteful atmosphere”. But things quickly become a little less distinguished: the weasel kisses the ferret; the skunk “held the squid’s hand a little too long”; the elephant flirts with the mouse.
Haifisch’s skill is in making it all not just joyful and bizarre, but somehow utterly believable. It’s not hard to immediately suspend disbelief, despite its imaginative leaps in storytelling, its sparse line art style of illustration, and a color palette largely limited to bright greens, oranges, and yellows. The penchant for a distorted version of cute certainly doesn’t hurt; and despite the lack of detail, there is a lot of emotion to be drawn from the faces of the various creatures that make up the artist’s menagerie.
Maybe it’s because, as Fantagraphics points out, she “blurs the lines between humans and animals in subtle and absurd ways.” And while his works are united by their elongated creatures and an overall sense of wry, humorous pathos, his style is also fluid: in Fuji-San things are stripped even further down to white and purple, and the lettering becomes a Mail-like typewriter font, with the odd word bloated or miniaturized.
The story tells of the life of a dog-like creature who gave up ordinary life to hang out with a squid and a rooster he saved from a cockfight. It’s a simple life, he spends his time playing chess. But it seems he didn’t want it any other way: “Yesterday, for a long time, I thought about going back to my old life. What an awful thought,” he said. “I succumbed to megalomania. Ridiculous, haunting and paralyzing. My heart yearned for the love of puppies for success and comfort…. Hanging on like this to squid, rooster and my clumsy drawings. Only death can scare me now.
Schappi is now available, published by Fantagraphics; hai-life.com