By Karrie Fransman and friends
You know, this one rather got away from me. In theory I had it nailed, knew what I was going to say and how to structure it. Then I read it again, and again, and the more I read, the more I questioned, the more I had issues. So it runs long, probably too long. But hey, sometimes it’s good to hold forth…
It’s August 2013 and graphic novelist Karrie Fransman has invited four old uni friends, a decade past, for a week in the Peak District, a turning thirty desperation thing, a we’re getting old we should meet up thing, a what the hell happened to us sort of thing. You’ve either all been there or you will, one way or another, the sort of friendship group that has you promising you’ll marry each other if you’re still single at 30… because 30 seemed so very far away back then.
Although I doubt you or I would approach it quite the same way as Fransman et al, artists all, or at least they were once; the comic creator, the amateur photographer, the zine maker, the painter & poet, the graphic design student, five musketeers all wondering where their artistic drive went.
Ten years later the idea is to spend a week in the footsteps of Byron and the Shelleys, a week of extravagant hedonism and storytelling, making up tales, reliving their youth, wondering where it all went. Where and when they all suffered the death of the artist.
Fransman’s calling the shots, wants them all to create comics in one form or another, words and pictures combined, five artists, five stories, five very different styles, all based on the simple theme… The Death Of The Artist.
What results is either a self-absorbed, selfish, cruel group of people desperate to relive their youth at all costs, regardless of who they damage along the way or a clever, artistic view on the act of creation, a look at just when you stop being an artist, and how it happens. Which one depends just on how you consider the book. Because there’s two very distinct ways to read this. Either it’s pure truth, absolute multiple autobiography. Or it’s Fransman constructing a very clever meditation utilising the false memories of false friends.
Whatever it is, it’s absolutely a story of growing older, of the realism/resignation/failure that we can all feel as we relinquish our inner artist when faced with the bills, rents, mortgages, weddings, pregnancies, careers, taxes that adulthood brings. It’s just that this quintet worked harder at being artists than you or I might have done, potentially giving it up is going to hurt much more and their reaction to this realisation is going to be far more pretentious and selfish than anything we’d do.
Whichever truth you take from Death Of The Artist, there’s no doubt that each artist/Fransman really steps up, each style distinct and jarring from the last, the stories seemingly only connected by characters and friendship at first, but patterns form, connections develop, of friendship, vague at first, memories recalled, a narrative forms, a story told by all the players.
Fransman sets it up in her introduction, telling the reader of the funeral she’s just been to. You’ll have your ideas throughout, but this is no simple whodunnit, it’s the personalities that are important here, not the place, time, method of death.
Going quickly through the five stages, the five pieces, Manuel’s watercolour wash artwork tells us of first drunken, stoned meetings of the five, up a tree. Perhaps. The five individuals label themselves, all artists, all ambitious. Jackson’s tale is a more frustrated thing, his artwork tight, a muted, unusual palette, stuck for a story, his artistry perhaps already in rigor, he goes the diarist’s route….
“… about our week away and will start it right this second. Now, all you guys need to do is say lots of funny and clever things.”
You know it never works out like that, unless it’s fiction that is. Here, the predictable happens, no less funny for the timing though. Narrative forms here, the quintet down the pub, the whiff of their desperation given form, a young artist in the pub, ripe for the plucking, representative of all they feel they’ve lost, all that potential. The tale carrying forward to Helana’s tale, told in photographs, as the various old hags, male and female, descend upon the youthful artist, vultures plucking at the flesh, seedy, nasty things.
After this, it’s down to Vincent’s story to draw us towards an ending, towards that artistic death and more. It opens quite magnificently, with an image of this drug-addled, lost man-child telling his addled tale, full of intelligence wasted, the Russell Brand of the group, full of great lines, verbal and powder…
“the ice-cream man of ill-repute…”
“one cone mate, with … Extra Special Sprinkles”
There’s a deliberate underground comix feel here, a little Crumb, a load of Jim Woodring, colours only here for psychedelic effect, a drug addled journey through the nine lives of the very weakest of the group.
And finally, Fransman ends it all, the musketeers depart, going their separate ways, towards that funeral mentioned right at the beginning. She’s utilising the style she adopted for ‘The House That Groaned‘, her domestic bliss, her freelancing life thrown unexpectedly into chaos of the hedonistic fallout, her plan to collect it all together unravels and she’s faced with the horror of the blank page…
As instigator, as marshaller, as the name on the front, Fransman has to pull everything together, the beginning, the end, but the ending is nothing like she thought it would be, life throws unexpected events in every plan.
Right then, that’s the structure well covered. Now for the idea, the central conceit, the whole issue of whether the damn thing actually works.
There’s a couple of ways to view Death Of The Artist. And both work equally well. Or don’t work equally well.
I’ve read it multiple times and I’m still not bloody sure.
The first is to take this as a truth, or at least an artistic interpretation of such, the second is to simply consider this a clever manipulation, a fiction masquerading as biography. The former means Fransman has created, alongside her friends, something very real, honest to the point of brutality, the sort of honesty that hurts, that damages relationships. The latter means Fransman is playing us, selling us this fiction as a truth. And if she is, I applaud her, her quintet of personas, artistically and narratively, intrigue and come across as genuine and real.
There are clues through it all, including in the recent director’s commentary here on the FPI Blog, but in all honesty I don’t want to know what Death Of The Artist is, as the doubt, the mystery, the intrigue, all of it adds to the reading experience.
Now, being absolutely brutal about it all, there are too many times it all veers into Richard Curtis territory, Four Weddings with the bohemian, Guardian reading arts crowd. And then there’s the absolute overwhelming nature of the grand central conceit contrasted with the slight sketches of the characters here.
It’s a book that asks what is death? what is art? But by the end we’re rather overwhelmed by the sheer pretentiousness of the cast, of their overly self-absorbed natures, of their venal, selfish, rather pathetically desperately childish selves. The artists are all so concerned with ‘art’, the grand concept, that they forget life. They’re so involved with their own ideals that they can’t see when their actions are hideously inhumane.
Manuel does it first, so strikingly, his life taken an idyllic course it seems, he’s healthy, happily(ish) married, expecting his first child. And still he comes out with this upon finding out about the pregnancy…
“I think this artist may have died a little when she told me.”
I know what’s being said, I understand what’s being alluded to, I get the symbolism. But I also want to reach out to Manuel and suggest he changes, adapts, and perhaps most of all, grows up.
The whole of Death Of The Artist has this selfishness through it, although it’s a selfishness that’s at least understandable IF this is a pure fiction, of Fransman the artist creating these characters in the abstract to question her/our views on art. If however, this is real, then it’s full of characters who really need to take a damn hard look at their precious lives, and like Manuel, change, adapt and most of all grow up. And apologise to all those they’re hurting in their idealistic quest for artistic purity lost a decade back.
In the end though, there’s a question for the reader; which wins? the idea, the central conceit, so well constructed, so intriguing and so well delivered by Fransman (and friends?), or the simple unpleasantness of the characters, abstract or real. Personally, I’m coming down with the idea. The execution, flawed though it may be, wins me over, Fransman (and friends) have a fascinating story to tell, true or not, and real or not, there’s a lesson to us all in here, perhaps not of art, but of life, of the importance of living in the now and of how important it is to simply not be such a selfish, self-obsessed arse. The thing is, on thinking about this long and hard, I don’t think this is the conclusion Fransman wanted me to draw. Does this mean that Death Of The Artist fails fundamentally as a work? Hell, I just don’t know.