November 07, 2019

(++++) THE PAST IS PRESENT


Wallace the Brave. By Will Henry. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Wallace the Brave 2: Snug Harbor Stories. By Will Henry. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Although there will never be another comic strip quite like the late Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac, any curiosity about that strip’s influence is laid to rest – quite delightfully – by Will Henry’s Wallace the Brave. Though the specifics of the art differ and the setting of Henry’s strip is a coastal fishing village rather than a crammed suburban area near Washington, D.C., the sensibilities of the characters and their basic appearances are so similar in Henry’s strip to those in Thompson’s that fans of Cul de Sac will breathe a sigh of delight and perhaps shed a tear for what cartooning lost when Thompson died of Parkinson’s disease in 2016 at the age of 58.

     Yet Wallace the Brave is far from a slavish imitation and is not really any sort of “tribute” strip, either. Instead, it is a strip that partakes of the same sensibilities as Cul de Sac, the same oddly skewed vision of childhood, the same sense that even in today’s speedy and hyper-technological world, there are spots (at least on the comic pages of fast-disappearing newspapers) where life moves more slowly and kids still engage with the real world and make everyday discoveries that are anything but mundane.

     The strip revolves around the title character, whose father is a lobster fisherman and whose mother stays at home and raises plants plus Wallace’s little brother, Sterling, who has a tendency to erupt in misplaced wrath at pretty much anything and who eats bugs at every opportunity. Wallace spends little time with his family, though, except when he needs rescuing from a misadventure of some sort involving his best friends: Spud, whose head is shaped like a refrigerator (the actual point of one specific strip); and Amelia, the “new girl in town” in the first Wallace the Brave book, who proves more adventurous and outgoing than both boys put together (“that new girl found a hornet’s nest and is gonna chuck a rock at it!!”). Spud has a thoroughly unrequited crush on Amelia, which only makes the interactions among these three more amusing.

     The kids’ facial expressions and body language are uniformly wonderful, and are placed at the service of deliciously apt dialogue. Spud complains of his “stinky fish-and-banana lunch” at one point just before getting hit in the head by a T-ball, then remarks, “I should really pay attention when I’m ranting.” Wallace tells Amelia about a schoolmate called “Scratch-n-Sniff” whose shirt is always covered in stains that kids can smell for a nickel and try to guess their source – Spud says “I think I got pineapple once” and Wallace says “I usually get garbage.” On a day when nothing much is going on and Wallace is just lying back in a beached rowboat, enjoying the sunshine, Spud walks over and says, without preamble, “I think my mother is going to sell me for grocery coupons.” Amelia yells at another girl, “Hey, Two-Shoes, why’re you wearing two different shoes?!?” and the girl, from outside the panel, yells back, “Got two different feet, don’t I?” Spud tells Wallace he worries about the size of his hands – if they do not grow big enough, he won’t be able to palm a basketball – and when Wallace helpfully says, “You don’t like basketball,” Spud replies, “I’ll look foolish holding grapefruits.” The comments are just surreal enough to give this “days of childhood” strip the sense that it takes place both in the everyday world of children and in some even stranger place.

     And Wallace the Brave occasionally echoes another much-loved strip about childhood, Calvin and Hobbes. This happens when Henry lets himself go in his art and introduces monsters – not real ones, but the ones conjured up regularly by young children. In one strip, Wallace invites Spud to join him and Amelia as they jump into the ocean from a boat, at which point Spud imagines a prehistoric-looking, gigantic-mouthed fish many times the size of the entire boat, just beneath the surface of the water and with many-toothed mouth wide open. In another strip, Wallace thinks he sees a quarter at the bottom of a storm drain and Spud warns him that “there literally could be anything beyond the darkness of those grates” – as Henry shows a huge-eyed lurking monster derived from Where the Wild Things Are, only more menacing. And when Wallace nonchalantly replies that it might not be a quarter after all but a half dollar, Spud says, “Wallace, no one drops half dollars. That’s bait.” In yet another strip, Wallace tells his mom that he wants to be a fisherman, just like his dad, so he can “explore the seven seas” and “find lost treasure” and “fight sea monsters” – as brave dad is seen leaping, harpoon ready to strike, in the direction of a Cthulhu-like many-eyed multiply tentacled thing with a huge, completely round mouth filled with teeth everywhere. Wallace’s mom warns that he may be romanticizing the profession a bit, and the final panel shows Wallace’s dad gloomily standing in the back of his boat during a huge downpour, trying to find a way to catch something. That sort of contrast between childhood imagining and adult reality is just one of the things that Henry does so well in Wallace the Brave. Another such thing involves sheer absurdity, as in a strip in which Wallace is catching butterflies and imagining that he will tie enough of them to his beach chair so they will carry him aloft and “I’ll be in Tahiti by lunchtime.” Henry’s art for that bit of imaginary travel is a tribute to the balloon-lifted house in Pixar’s Up! And it is yet another of the many ways in which the wonderful Wallace the Brave echoes and is reminiscent of other kinds of wonderfulness without ever slavishly imitating anything. Henry has his own distinct comedic vision, and the fact that he constructs it atop some other artists’ also-excellent ones gives Wallace the Brave a delightful awareness of the past to meld with its own clever and thoroughly winning approach to the world.

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