The need to laugh at our derangements is unquestionable, but this slim graphic novel could have used a little gravitas.
If Von Spatz, the new graphic novel by German artist Anna Haifisch, were a joke, it would open like this: Artists Tomi Ungerer, Saul Steinberg and Walt Disney walk into rehab and…there is no real punch line, but there is a through line about how obsessiveness and perfectionism destroy artists, blinding them to the beauty of their creations. Ungerer, Steinberg and Disney are the three main characters, patients at the fictional Von Spatz Rehabilitation Center. In group therapy and alone in their studios, the artists get time to interrogate the inner turmoil that drives them to create. Since something has broken within each of them, a great deal of time is spent hiding under the covers or lying on the floor. All three are suffering, but its Walt’s journey that drives the slim 68 page volume.
In honor of its star, all the characters except Disney are talking cats, birds and dogs, but this would be a Disney cartoon designed by Dalí. The rehab center caters to artists and has an art supply store so the patients will have the means to express themselves, but it also has a hot dog stand and a penguin pool. Interaction with penguins is highly recommended, though Walt hates the feel of raw fish in his hand. Disney arrives withered and small, drained by a perfectionism that was ruining his staff and studio. In Hollywood, he was a powerful man, but he’s just another artist at Von Spatz, and possibly the patient with the least talent. Ungerer and Steinberg tease him during group therapy, but also seek his criticism. They form a trio of the broken, addled on Prozac while working through their individual depressions.
Haifisch clearly admires her three subjects. Her loose, impressionist cartooning evokes both Ungerer and Steinberg while Disney works as a vessel for imposter syndrome. He draws to survive himself while hating what he produces. He understands that he created arguably the most famous cartoon in the world and will never exceed that achievement. The themes are serious but seem diminished by Haifisch’s yellow, orange and blue palette and child-like drawings. She is skilled in the art of silences, sight gags, splash pages and a general strangeness that buffers against potential melancholy. While a story of tortured artists, Haifisch makes sure her readers do not suffer as well.
The message Von Spatz posits beneath the laughs, bright tones and anthropomorphism is the grave formation that mental illness is the price for creating art. Community offers hope and help if the artist can evade the impulse to isolate and there is a responsibility to help others once a semblance of recovery is achieved. This is Disney’s journey and ultimately it’s a facile one. Haifisch has created a thought-provoking world, but Von Spatz is neither funny nor powerful enough to resonate as the advocacy for which it strives, its very brevity and cleverness undermining its cause. The need to laugh at our derangements is unquestionable, but this slim graphic novel could have used a little gravitas.