I have no love for my alma mater. My university experience was mostly one of disappointment and Kafkaesque interactions with school administration over everything from lost tuition checks to the deletion of the program I was part of. Based on his fictionalized depiction of higher education in Art Schooled, I’d say Jamie Coe had a marginally better experience, but not by much. Maybe that’s why Art Schooled falls prey to the criticism levied at Coe’s stand-in Daniel Stope through the comic: why so judgmental?
Blessed with a vivid cartooning style, Coe’s work has the feel of a Jamie Hewlett/Bryan Lee O’Malley hybrid, its bizarre characters distinguishable and lively, decked out in post-apocalyptic coloring that emphasizes their youthful otherness. But Coe lacks the humanity both of those creators give even their weirdest of creations, making Art Schooled a frequently whiny slog, where everyone other than Stope comes across as a petulant, trust fund weirdo and even the object of his affections is bereft of a solid personality. That’s too bad because Coe’s character designs are a thing of wonder, and when it comes to creating the actual aesthetic environment of art school, Coe excels, making each of Stope’s classmates feel fully lived in stylistically even if their personalities fall flat.
Granted, Coe paints Stope as an outcast whose attempts to understand his classmates through art nearly always end in hurt and frustration so it’s not hard to see why Stope might be so unsympathetic towards his peers. Stope constantly struggles to make sense of the message-driven art his classmates turn in and his biographical comics illustrate that attempt at understanding. Over the four years that he’s at school, he really only makes one friend, while alienating almost every other person he encounters.
It’s easy to feel Stope’s frustration, and how that impacts his bonding with other students, but where Art Schooled is inherently flawed is in Coe’s balancing of Stope’s frustrating alienation and the actual human qualities of the rest of his cast. Even characters who are given brief moments of illumination—like a young woman with a phallic aesthetic obsession, or a militant vegan who lands a plush post-grad job and offers to provide Stope with an in as well—quickly revert back to their previous states of outlandish cliché.
Comic veterans might be getting flashbacks to that previous biographical art school flop Art School Confidential, which had Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes depicting a similarly ostracized artist going to the extreme of pretending to be a serial killer in order to get his classmates’ respect, but at least that film gave its losers more opportunities to display more than one layer to their personalities. Art Schooled by contrast is a work where its creator displays some gorgeous character guides only to preemptively defend their reliance on stereotypes by having the narrator shrug and say
“Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking! This is going to be a pretty judgmental section of the book! And…I probably shouldn’t go ahead and reinforce unfair stereotypes—but let’s face it, you’re bound to recognize at least a few of these dwellers of the art school habitat…”
To borrow some phrasing from Stope’s lone friend Charlie, it’s a fucking cop out, innit? Coe’s expressive, frankly beautiful artwork is essentially used in the service of a kind of classist, anti-academic hate screed, where the judgmental stereotypes, caricatures and clichés are defended as basically truthful because it matches the frustrated, angsty experience the fish-out-of-water protagonist had. There’s nothing wrong with working out bad experiences through art, that’s basically why art exists in the first place, to provide expressions of complicated feelings. But by the end of the work, it’s hard not to agree with Stope’s classmates, who find his depictions of them to be inherently untruthful, judgmental and shallow.
Stope defends these accusations by saying he just depicted what they said and did at certain times and inherently showcases his lack of understanding for what a true documentarian does, which is provide as many angles of a story as possible in order to reach a greater truth. Instead, Stope—and by extent Coe—cherrypick situations, characteristics and quotes that fit the work’s larger point of “everyone at art school who isn’t me sucks.” But a better work would have done more to either convey why Stope seems incapable of fitting in anywhere (a visit back home helpfully indicates it’s not just in school that Stope is failing to sustain viable relationships) or at least provide more internal examination of Stope’s alienation.
Some of the most telling sections of the book are the recurring talking head interviews with Stope’s classmates. They always feature the same characters, and these characters always basically confirm Stope’s stereotyping. These interviews are clearly meant to provide some levity, but it’s worth noting that when Stope’s peers are given the opportunity to provide their own thoughts on art school and their experiences, all they’re allowed to do is function as a Greek chorus, repeating Stope’s points either by making ironic statements or, in the case of a frequently lampooned modern hippie, by shedding their ideals and turning into the corporate monsters Stope always suspected they would become. The point is that Coe’s narrative leaves no room for other experiences. There is only Stope’s experience and all others are false. It’s basically on the level of me assuming everyone else who went to university with me left a semester away from completing their degree because lost tuition checks, deleted programs and generally unpleasant bureaucratic experiences broke them. I ask again: why so judgmental?
Art Schooled will be available in the US from Nobrow on November 18th.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover