Anna Haifisch’s Artist sprawls on a mattress on the floor, staring at a paintbrush while a pineapple lies on his pillow. Later, he drinks a six-pack alone and then shows up too late for the party. Another day, a dog destroys the drone he’s installed in a contemporary art gallery, and then he’s told that he has no desk—there are only ball pools—at the start up where he work. He also has a fuzzy backpack in the shape of a Labrador. If this narrative sounds vaguely familiar it’s because we’ve all been Haifisch’s Artist at some point, haven’t we, in one way or another?
In 2015 the German illustrator began drawing a weekly comic for Vice called The Artist, a strip about the lonely misadventures of a dishevelled bird that paints. Now season one has been released in its entirety as a gorgeous hardcover (by Breakdown Press in London and Misma in Paris). Sensitive, shy, and fragile, the Artist navigates his yellow and salmon pink pastel world with bewildered melancholy—no stereotypically rumpled-chic genius here.
“The myth of the artist is so much fun to dispel,” says Haifisch. “Blessed with talent, the privilege of eccentricity, a sexually uninhibited lifestyle… being some kind of saint or savior; the Artist is pretty much the opposite of all the above.”
Haifisch underscores the cliché with a lofty tone that’s simultaneously satirical yet heartfelt; she still wants us to empathise with her character. Consider the birth of the Artist: “As soon the embryo hatches, the young artist is ready to absorb the sadness of the world,” the narrator informs us. “Who will I become?” asks the hatchling. “Oh dear world, please handle me with care,” he implores. He shivers in his shell in a way that recalls Sanrio’s sad egg, Gudetama (wait, side note: an egg and a bird—is millennial angst finding expression in the emblem of a fragile eggshell?), Haifisch’s shaky, thin lines exude the trepidation and skeletal shape of her character.
“There is no animal more frail than a bird,” she explains. “His mother was a swan and his father was a crane. When you think of his texture, I want him to be soft as a feather and little warmer than body temperature. When you touch his chest, you should be able to feel his heartbeat.”
What’s striking about seeing the series in its entirety is the richness and referential irony of Haifisch’s opening panels. In one, the Artist sits on his mattress, a painting recalling a Lucio Fontana taped to the wall. In another, the bird is squeezed out of a tube marked “success” while comets obliterate the earth. “These images accumulate the whole mood of the episode,” says Haifisch. “My friend Anja Kaiser always helps with the fonts; I just describe to her what I’m looking for.”
In another panel, the Artist stands center-frame on a mountaintop (an homage to Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog); it’s dream-like and symbolic, revealing that the Artist is standing on the brink of something, putting himself in unknown and adventurous situations, a lonely figure overwhelmed by a distant world around him but that’s his for the taking.