Anna Haifisch’s illustrations supply up a warped model of cute

Anna Haifisch has a beautifully singular, surreal way of discussing and sending up artists, art, and the ‘art world’. Strange, animal-heavy, and sometimes tear-jerkingly pathos-laden, 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 previously been serialised in comic form on Vice; with its follow-up, The Artist: The Circle of Life, arriving in 2019 with the same deadpan, absurdist commentary on universal struggles like creative block, love, loss, and imposter syndrome. The protagonist is, naturally, a sort of crane-like bird creature.

Anna Haifisch, Schappi, cover

Animals — usually stretched out and scrawny, in bizarre proportions — are a staple in Haifisch’s work, and now, cult comics publisher Fantagraphics has put together an anthology of her recent short story comics, all of which focus on “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 focuses on a wiry but dignified creature who presides over an art world of sorts, built to a strict hierarchy of its own making. You get the gist of this character from the get go: we see it poring over a picture on a gallery wall, one hand holding an exuberant feather duster, the other with long, ET-like finger outstretched.

“I am healthy. I am influential and at last I am very, very rich,” it tells us. As we see more of the gallery space — a dildo-like sculpture here, a tiger painting there — it continues, “I own a piece of land, on which I erected my gallery. Perhaps I am being too humble. More accurately it could be described as a great hall for the arts.”

Anna Haifisch, SchappiAnna Haifisch, Schappi

Things get increasingly megalomaniacal as the creature describes the artists that have settled in a colony at the foot of the gallery as “pitiful and droll figures”, desperate to have their works chosen to feature in the collection, many toiling over their pieces to the point of death (drowning, usually). We’re told that “they’ve carved out a grudging and sinister society in which the daily routine is characterised by distrust 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 anyone’s guess.

Later in the collection things become more surreal, if that were possible, as we adventure into the weird ways of the animal kingdom. In The Mouseglass, we see what really went on at the “42nd animal summit”. While there are clearly differences between the assorted, stretched forms of the seals, leopard, elephants and so on, we’re told that “the delegates are hoping for meaningful discussions and excellent snacks in a tasteful ambience”. Things soon get a little less genteel, however: the weasel kisses the ferret; the skunk “held the Squid’s hand for a little too long”; the elephant flirts with the mouse.

Anna Haifisch, SchappiAnna Haifisch, Schappi

Haifisch’s skill lies in making all of this not just seem joyful and bizarre, but somehow quite believable. It’s not hard to immediately suspend disbelief, despite the imaginative leaps of her storytelling, her sparse line-drawn illustration style and a colour palette largely limited to bright green, orange and yellow. The leaning towards a warped version of cute certainly doesn’t hurt; and despite the limited detail, there’s a lot of emotion to be wrought from the faces of the various critters that make up the artist’s menagerie.

Perhaps that’s because, as Fantagraphics points out, she “blurs the boundaries between humans and animals in subtle and absurd ways”. And while her works are united by their elongated critters and a general sense of wry, humour-drenched pathos, her style is also fluid: in Fuji-San, things are stripped back even further to just white and purple, and the lettering becomes a Courier-like typewriter font, with the odd word inflated or miniaturised. 

The story narrates the life of a dog-like creature who’s dropped out of ordinary life to hang out with a squid and a rooster he’s rescued from the aftermath of a cock fight. His is a simple life, whiling away the time playing chess. But it seems he wouldn’t have it any other way: “Yesterday, for a long time, I thought about returning to my former life. What a dreadful thought,” he says. “I succumbed to megalomania. Ridiculous, nagging, and paralysing. My heart yearned in puppy love for success and solace…. Clinging so much to the squid, the rooster, and my clumsy drawings. Only death can scare me now.”

Anna Haifisch, Schappi

Anna Haifisch, Schappi

Anna Haifisch, Schappi

Schappi is available now, published by Fantagraphics;