Will fame burst the car­toon bub­ble of two as­pir­ing artists?

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY G. WIL­LOW WIL­SON book­world@wash­post.com G. Wil­low Wil­son is a writer and cocre­ator of the Hugo Award-win­ning comic book se­ries Ms. Mar­vel.

Con­sid­er­able shelf space has been ded­i­cated to the artis­tic ri­val­ries and col­lab­o­ra­tions of men: Mozart and Salieri, Hem­ing­way and Fitzger­ald, Pi­casso and Matisse. The ten­sion be­tween do­ing the work and get­ting the credit — be­tween art and its more elu­sive cousin, ac­claim — is ripe for good sto­ry­telling, get­ting as it does at the pas­sion, jeal­ousy and anx­i­ety that lie in the guts of the cre­ative process. If his­tory is any guide, two ge­niuses work­ing to­gether in a room is usu­ally one ge­nius too many. When the drama of real hu­man life fu­els your art, es­pe­cially when that art is cre­ated in tan­dem with an­other per­son, the line be­tween in­spi­ra­tion and theft is dis­con­cert­ingly thin.

It is this ten­sion that pro­pels Kayla Rae Whi­taker’s de­but novel, “The An­i­ma­tors.” Yet un­like the bulk of lit­er­a­ture ded­i­cated to the pathos of cre­ative part­ner­ships, the artists at the cen­ter of Whi­taker’s nar­ra­tive are, re­fresh­ingly, women. Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are na­tive South­ern­ers who grew up poor and find them­selves out of place at a snobby lib­eral arts school in Up­state New York where both are study­ing fine art. Their friend­ship takes shape with swift im­pul­siv­ity: Mel, dryly funny and finely wired, is the nat­u­ral leader, while Sharon, through whose per­spec­tive the story is told, re­tains a kind of earnest credulity. The girls bond over their shared love of clas­sic Warner Bros. car­toons and the darker el­e­ments of alt-comics, and when Mel makes the first of many clearly tele­graphed prompts — “Let me know if you ever want to work on some­thing. You know? Like part­ner up? Do some car­toons?” — their course of ac­tion is set.

That course leads, in­evitably, to Brook­lyn, and one of the con­verted in­dus­trial stu­dio spa­ces that have — in real life — al­ready be­gun to dis­ap­pear. Sha- and Mel take on free­lance work, stretch a small in­her­i­tance, and sur­vive on con­ve­nience-store fare in the grand tra­di­tion of starv­ing ur­ban artists. Though their re­la­tion­ship is fi­nan­cially ten­u­ous, it is ar­tis­ti­cally fe­cund, pro­duc­ing what we are told is a mas­ter­piece of hand-drawn an­i­ma­tion, a fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of Mel’s child­hood called “Nashville Com­bat.” Ac­co­lades and prize money quickly fol­low, but it is pre­cisely this sud­den suc­cess — and the in­va­sive press that comes with it — that sends the artists’ friend­ship spin­ning off its axis.

It is here, too, that the nar­ra­tive be­gins to wob­ble a lit­tle. The ur­gency with which Sharon and Mel’s friend­ship is tested by fame, and by the ques­tion of whose vi­sion and la­bor are more es­sen­tial, is de­railed by a sud­den health cri­sis, and then again by the ar­rival of a child­hood friend bear­ing se­crets. The an­i­ma­tors dis­cover they have been hid­ing things from each other, and the un­com­fort­able prox­im­ity of art and life proves shat­ter­ing.

While the cre­ation of great vis­ual art is ter­rific grist for prose, the art it­self is more dif­fi­cult to trans­late. Car­toons rely heav­ily on move­ment and tim­ing and vis­ual puns, com­pound­ing the nov­el­ist’s dif­fi­culty. There is prob­a­bly no com­pelling way to sum­ma­rize an an­i­mated film. Whi­taker, to her credit, tries valiantly, but in the end, the artis­tic merit of Sharon and Mel’s work must be com­mu­ni­cated through mi­nor char­ac­ters in some rather di­rect ways. While their part­ner­ship, which is at once fer­vent and won­der­fully un­sen­ti­men­tal, gives “The An­i­ma­tors” its soul, the clos­est we get to their films is a kind of nar­ra­tive closed-cap­tion­ing, leav­ing us to guess what all the fuss is about. Ref­er­ences to an­i­mated cult clas­sics from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s come thick and fast — “Ren and Stimpy,” “The Maxx,” “Fritz the Cat” — but th­ese touch­stones blur rather than sharpen the fo­cus. From an artis­tic stan­dron point, we know what Sharon and Mel like, but we don’t know what they are like.

Nev­er­the­less, the emo­tional heart of the story — the anx­i­ety, com­pet­ing pas­sions and need for val­i­da­tion that drive Sharon and Mel’s re­la­tion­ships — is well-wrought and evoca­tive. We get the sense that there are real minds at work. Sharon, for all the com­par­a­tive in­no­cence she dis­plays at the open­ing of the book, proves a some­what un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor, ca­pa­ble of fib­bing to her­self, and there­fore to us. And while the cli­max of the story veers into melo­drama, it’s rooted in a very real fear that we can­not es­cape our­selves. Sharon longs to “dis­cor­po­rate,” to leave her body be­hind, yet the art she sees as her re­lease steadily pulls her back into an in­sis­tent, imperfect re­al­ity.

THE AN­I­MA­TORS By Kayla Rae Whi­taker Ran­dom House. 372 pp. $27

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