Don’t look now, but with his third book, the just-released Wendy, Master Of Art, Walter Scott can safely be said to have created the indie comics equivalent of that dreaded cultural staple known as the franchise — and a venerable one at that, given that it’s found a new publishing home at Drawn+Quarterly in the wake of the phase-out of Koyama Press. And, really, it couldn’t have happened to a more worthy series.
Any way you slice it, the Wendy books are both fun and eminently — sometimes painfully — relatable, as well as carrying an inherent whiff of the nostalgic about them for those of us, this critic included, who find themselves involuntarily sliding into a post-middle-age demographic. Fortunately for our fragile sense of our own mortality, protagonist Wendy herself ain’t gettin’ any younger, and after the jet-setting-on-a-budget of Wendy’s Revenge saw the erstwhile heroine jaunting from place to place in service of something very much like a singular, coherent, front-to-back story, her settling in a small Canadian backwater in pursuit of an MFA makes for yet another welcome change of both pace and scenery in a series that consistently excels at finding a new creative “groove” every time Scott engages in such metaphorical deck-shuffling.
So, yes, we’ve got ourselves a typically absorbing supporting cast to get to know this time out, but Wendy herself is still very much the same vaguely neurotic, self-destructive, accidentally charming, and yes, charming and funny character we’ve come to know and, I’m not ashamed to admit, love, but as she finds herself confronted with the responsibilities of teaching and — gasp! — setting an example, she becomes keenly aware that the clock is ticking on the one hand, but that she still has a lot of living she’d like to do on the other. And so, in typical Wendy fashion, she finds herself getting involved in a questionable relationship (this time with a guy who’s already got a girlfriend, who, in turn, appears to have a girlfriend of her own), suffering a serious case of imposter syndrome as she attempts to make artists out of the University Of Hell (really, that’s the name) undergrads in her charge, and creating art that, in continuation of a long-running series gag, is deliberately confused or wholly unexceptional on its face.
Have we been down this road before? Most assuredly. Comics about the art world — and art school in particular — are as tried and true as almost any genre you’d care to mention at this point, but Scott’s winning blend of cartoony exaggeration and situational authenticity breathes not so much new life, but at least new methodology, into the “been there” and the “done that.” And even though his cartooning style remains as deliberately populist and loose-form as ever, the degree to which he’s continued to flesh out his title character is notable indeed and appears to be bleeding over into his secondary players, who are now, more often than not, fairly fully-formed in their own right over the course of their narrative utility. Certainly, some of the immediacy and rawness that were hallmarks of Scott’s origins in the self-publishing ranks remains — his drawing hasn’t changed, or unnecessarily refined itself, all that much — and that’s notable in and of itself, but the fact that he’s able to balance this with an increasingly sophisticated, but no less heartfelt, approach to story and character development is what really sets Wendy and her (mis)adventures apart from the plethora of “artist’s life” books out there competing for a reader’s time, attention, and money.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: most of us critics have times where we feel every bit as fraudulent as most artists do, but whether it’s marriage and commitment, parenthood, homeownership, establishing ourselves in a career, or any combination thereof, sooner or later we all find ourselves in a situation where we’re sure we absolutely must be out of our depth, only to discover that, hey, maybe we’re not, after all. “Fake it ‘till you make it” is as tired as cliches come, but, like many cliches, it’s remained a fixture in our common parlance for as long as it has precisely because it’s true — and while Wendy may externalize her reactions to this journey more than most and trip herself up more often than some, there is a winking-and-nodding undercurrent running through her third book that, like it or not, she just might be in the process of getting her shit together yet. Admittedly, this said process is never more than one ill-advised (and likely drunken) hook-up away from going completely out the window, of course, but to her credit, Wendy is getting better and better at navigating herself back on course after she’s fallen off it, and while it may be reductive and overly-simplified to put it in such stark terms, looking back on this same period in my own life, it strikes me that this may, indeed, be what the whole project of growing up is all about. At least I think so — give me another 15 years or so and I’ll get back to you with a more definitive analysis from the safety and security of my front-porch rocking chair.
I suppose it’s inevitable that, sooner or later, Scott will want to move on from Wendy and her world, but mercifully enough, that day still seems to be quite a ways off yet. Wendy, Master Of Art is proof positive that he still has plenty to say with this series, that he’s still very much in the process of fleshing out his character in real-time before our eyes, and that he’s still got plenty of ideas and scenarios he’d like to explore with her before all is said and done. I look forward to a new installment in this wonderfully human comedic saga every few years the same way I look forward to Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy giving us a new Before film every decade or so. I don’t expect her comics to still be a going concern by the time I’m old, withered, and spent, assuming I’m fortunate enough to make it that far — but if things do work out that way? I won’t complain a bit.