There’s a kind of conflict between the representational art that drives the comics world and the world of “high art.” For decades the art world has worshiped at the altar of abstraction, much to the frustration of creators who want their work to directly reflect what they see in front of them. Similarly, creators who want to tell stories have felt stifled by art’s current atmosphere, which discourages artists from telling audiences what to think or how to feel. So, can a book attack the pretensions of the professional art world without becoming pretentious? Matthew Thurber’s Art Comic answers this question with a resounding “Why bother?”
Critics have met Art Comic with accolades. It even had a chapter included in The Best Comics of 2018 anthology. In a word cloud describing this book’s Internet reviews, “satire,” “hilarious,” and “merciless” would play starring roles. However, few critics have chosen to address the book’s many problems. Satire isn’t excused from basic rules of storytelling. Humor can have its own aesthetic, but any aesthetic needs to be chosen and executed with care. The book certainly has its funny points—the dead artist who eats the God of Art Heaven only to be applauded by his fellow artistes—but much of its humor feels unearned. Not only is there not much of a coherent story in Art Comic, there aren’t even many hints of a story worth telling.
Satire functions best when it comes from a place of love. This story demonstrates neither a love for art nor a love for comics. Thurber talks about real problems—hero worship, celebrity culture, commercialism, suppression of ideas and talent—in the art world without suggesting any improvements. It hits targets readily, but they’re all low-hanging fruit, ideas no one would openly defend.
There is a plot. In fact, there are many plots. An artist-turned-knight errant, questing like Quixote to destroy art’s vanities. A suicidal artist in an art-obsessed Heaven, outraged by the pointlessness of his posthumous creations. A black female art student who, finding no room for her religious beliefs in the secular art world, wanders the world in a boat, meeting pirates, serial killers, and the like. An evil cabal of vampires called The Group, sabotaging generation after generation of potentially great creators. Two human-appearing robots who constantly have sex. A group of porcine cartoons known as the Free Little Pigs, dedicated to bringing destruction to all commercial art. And then there’s Cupcake, possibly the main protagonist of this comics soup, obsessed with filmmaker/photographer/sculptor Matthew Barney, and apparently acting as Barney’s real life stunt double when the creator gets bored with his jet setting lifestyle. All of this adding up to one quintessential truth: too much chaos is boring. Art Comic’s people ricochet from plot point to plot point while in the background the two robots joylessly copulate. The best of them try to destroy art—all art—and have nothing to offer in its place.
The book’s visuals struggle as well. Thurber is a good, if straightforward, visual storyteller. That said, the book’s backgrounds vary between the lazy and the haphazard, with characters standing in monochromatic voids more often than not. Buildings are usually well-rendered, but the book’s sense of perspective is arbitrary, resulting in people with stunted legs looming larger than the buildings they’re rushing towards. The characters themselves are almost uniformly grotesque. It can be argued that this is an intentional choice, but in most comics characters are ugly for a reason; whether it’s Sluggo from Nancy or Tom Hart’s Hutch Owen, their appearance says something about them. Here each character, sympathetic or monstrous, is burdened with overdeveloped facial features and visible individual teeth in every panel. There’s no emotional expression in their faces or responses, or responses seem inhuman and unreal. All of these details taken in, as often as not the readers then have to watch these characters have sex. These visual problems combined with gratuitous sex and nudity throughout undermine any points that the text might be making about art, emotions, and depth. It forces a response the same way a crucifix immersed in urine does, but it’s equally trite and shallow.
For myself, I believe in the power of absurdity, of Dadaist comics and comics based on somnambulist fantasies. However, this is a book that combines the frustrations of a long, meandering dream where nothing is accomplished with undergraduate discussions about the interference of the marketplace and the purity of art. It concludes nothing, choosing self mockery as its easy way out. It commits only to the ideology of Cynicism. There may be genuine emotions somewhere in this book, but behind its multiple absurdist backdrops, curtains, and facades, they are only obscured and lost.
Art Comic’s prominence means public and academic librarians may want to purchase it, though unlike a lot of better books it doesn’t need the help. Issues of quality and gratuity may keep librarians from purchasing it. It is a stand-alone volume with no sequels currently planned. Its primary audience is adult, as its topic is unlikely to interest teens or younger readers, and it belongs firmly to Adult collections.
By Matthew Thurber
Drawn and Quarterly, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
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Character Traits: Black, Lesbian