Of the many balls that Will Dinski is juggling in Finger Prints, his assured graphic novel debut (which I received for free from Top Shelf), perhaps the most interesting is the ways in which Dinski applies shopworn stories-about-artists tropes to non-artist characters. Here, we have the artist consumed with making the perfect work of art, willing to ruin both his marriage and his muse in the process, while his young protégé creates a new method of working that undercuts everything he has built. Sounds familiar, right? There’s just one problem: in this mixture of sci-fi, social commentary and Hollywood intrigue, the artist isn’t an artist at all. He’s a plastic surgeon, and the great work of art he hopes to complete is the transformation of a young starlet into Barbie Doll perfection. As art about art-making goes, Ratatouille this ain’t.
Dr. Fingers is a super successful Hollywood plastic surgeon, with A-list clientele, a dead marriage to an aging unsurgeried woman and an ambitious young assistant. His top client, Vanessa Zimba, is the hot young thing of the moment, starring in a comic book adaptation opposite the (closeted) Casey Kansas, with whom she’s having a publicity-stunt affair (shades of K-Stew and R-Pats mixed with Brangelina). She’s also his muse. “I’ve been perfecting you since before you were an actress,” he tells her at a party thrown by Kansas, “My masterpiece… one more surgery and you’ll be perfect”. So consumed is Fingers that the affair he’s having with Zimba seems secondary, a way to convince her to go under the knife again and again and again.
As it turns out, his assistant Dr. Tatsu has invented a machine that will resculpt the user’s face into either Casey Kansas or Vanessa Zimba at bargain basement rates. Soon, this newfangled mass production of movie star perfection is destroying Fingers’ business. Throughout, Dinski makes it clear that what he’s really talking about here is the making of art. Right before Tatsu’s new process is unveiled, guests at a party crown around a painting while of the guests explains, “it’s signed by Eshelbiyer, but it’s more likely one of his assistants painted it. A true Eshelbiyer hasn’t been made for many years.” Not content to explore issues of mass production, the artistic temperament or our fame-obsessed culture, Dinski piles on with questions about authorship, intellectual property and quality versus quantity.
One hundred four small pages, each with ten panels on them is not a great amount of space to explore all of these themes. Indeed, the book can easily be read in under an hour. Its brevity invites multiple re-readings, to see how the thematic questions bounce off of and comment on each other. Ultimately, these themes intertwine to form an examination of The Real. If a work of art is painted by assistants (or made by a machine) can we really say the artist whose signature it bares “made” it?* and if people are constantly employing surgery to change their appearance, can we say that they are really still themselves? Does the public, graceful, charming and heterosexual Casey Kansas exist, or is the private, meanspirited gay social climber the real him? When everything looks the same, how do we differentiate one thing from another? Finger Prints presents the reader with a wryly comical nightmare about mass production, created by an artist known for selling hand-made books, released at a moment when (thanks to digital mass production) the internet is gradually reforming the comics industry.
Finger Prints, then, is a short story to be reexamined, rather than a novel to get lost in. It's built on clever iterations of theme rather than deep characterizations or world creation, and its drawing style efficiently moves the reader through the story. As he discusses in this interview with Tom Spurgeon, Will Dinski constructs each page out of the same component parts, ten equally sized panels (five on each row), occasionally combined to fit in larger images. Dialogue is always sequestered into separate panels from images, almost like a silent film. The drawings themselves are in a sketchy style that will be familiar to anyone who regularly reads webscomics. The overall visual effect is a Sunday funny that’s definitely not safe for kids.
If Finger Prints is any indication, Dinski won’t be wearing the “up and comer” label for too long.