The Arkansas Review reviews Von Spatz

“Von Spatz” / The Arkansas Review / March 13, 2018

In Anna Haifisch’s absurdist graphic novel, visionary artist Walt Disney suffers a breakdown caused by artistic self-doubt, disillusionment, and perfectionism. To restore him back to health, Walt’s wife, Lillian, delivers him to Von Spatz Rehabilitation Center. Apparently tailored to artistic clientele, its unconventional grounds include a penguin pool, a hot dog stand, an art supply store, and personal studios. There, Walt spends his days with artists Tomi Ungerer and Saul Steinberg, both artists who, like Disney, stray from realism to relay deeply imaginative and surprising images. By acting out the struggles of the average artist with these iconic figures, Haifisch makes us see these struggles in a new light. The world she creates is strange—characters all have animal heads, and Walt suspects he spots Spongebob under a beach blanket. Nevertheless, they go about mundane activities: Tomi takes his cat to the vet, Walt struggles to use the copy machine, and all three draw constantly. The three artists have so much to gain—recognition, connection, comradery—but to do so they must risk vulnerability and failure, sharing their drawings and accepting each other’s callous critiques. These “tortured artists” are not romantic figures, instead they are comically thin-skinned and grouchy. “The complete and total arbitrariness of the world as well as my sense of self hits me,” Walt thinks, before jolted out of his thoughts by a man nearby who “eats like a crocodile,” no doubt due to his crocodile head. “Have some dignity, moron,” he gripes. Still, their depression and anxiety is both realistic and relatable. With its simple, unvaried lines, offbeat color palette, and scrawled lettering, Von Spatz takes its audience into the mind of visionaries, where the border between the real and the fantastic often blurs, and creativity can be both destructive and liberating.

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