“Out of everyone here, who do you think will change the most if they ever make it big?” — Chun Jongseop, Artists

Who, indeed? This is the driving theme of Young-Shin Ma’s graphic novel Artists, which is the second of his many work to be published in English through Drawn & Quarterly. This hefty book is about three middle-aged friends who are artists: Kyeongsu Kwak, 46, is a painter;  Deuk-nyeong Shin, 44, is a writer; and Jongseop Chun, 42, is a musician. 

These men are all single — Kyeongsu is divorced — and would generally be viewed by society as losers. They have not accomplished much for their age, they live like college students and do not take care of themselves well, and they also like to put down artists they know who found success. “If one of us hits it big, let’s promise we won’t turn into pompous dicks,” says Kyeongsu during a dinner with all three of them.

Things start to change when Deuk-nyeong, a published author, encourages Jongseop to publish his web posts about his days as a musician and his experiences with the music industry as an essay collection. After meticulously editing, giving him editorial feedback, and collating his stories, he helps Jongseop settle on the title “Mostly Jackasses” and practically acts as his agent, typing proposal letters and submitting drafts to various publishers he is connected to. 

Jongseop immediately hits it big, but the success gets to his head, and the three friends start to resent each other and become distant. Deuk-nyeong, feeling betrayed and forgotten, reassesses his friendships and starts alienating himself from Jongseop. He does the same with Kyeongsu after seeing the book he signed for him wind up in a used bookstore. 

Kyeongsu eventually gets the opportunity to oversee a promising government art installation project while Deuk-nyeong decides to submit a short story for a literary competition. Upon winning the prize, things start to look up for Deuk-nyeong as he gets into a meaningful relationship with a woman and starts a literary magazine. 

The question is, who will win the rat’s race? 

Artist has a compelling theme that, despite its less than savory main characters, will push readers to see who will ultimately win. In an interview with Drawn & Quarterly, Ma explains he collected all the feelings he had from the time he was 20 to his mid-thirties and condensed them into these three characters. “I see myself in all three of them since I am a person and have inconsistencies, too.” 

He believes other people who read the book, particularly artists, will identify with some aspect of the characters but will not admit it. “What’s funny is that these are portraits of typical artists,” he said. “There’s a reason why so many artists see themselves in these characters.” 

Artist is an unadulterated peek into the world of professional creatives that will probably make readers cringe, laugh, and relate to some degree. It certainly made me wonder how I would react if a few of my friends became famous: How would I feel about it, and most of all, would my friends change drastically and forget where they came from? Would they leave me in the lurch?

There is rampant sexism and weak depictions of women throughout the book, and though it caused me to roll my eyes, these depictions made sense to me since they were told from the perspective of unsuccessful male characters, especially in a patriarchal society like Korea. To balance that out, readers will get to see the lowliest of men and the combative egos that spring forth as they struggle to reach the top.

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