Over the Garden Wall – “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee”: Darkness after the dawn

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whaddya lookin at (screencaps, Cartoon Network)

“Folks don’t tend to pass through Pottsville. It’s nice here.”

-Pumpkin Lady, being creepy as shit

In an offhand parenthetical in my last review, I dismissed a particular moment of “The Old Grist Mill” for being a little too self-conscious. I feel like I should clarify that my criticism of the moment is rooted in its uncharacteristic sloppiness, since on the whole Over the Garden Wall is actually a very postmodern show. A pastiche by nature, the miniseries combines the DNA of two dozen genres, classics, fables, and bits and pieces of tall tales here and there, to create a singular timeless vision—neither original nor replication. The final product is offbeat and warped, but polished enough to cover up its Frankenstein’s monster scars.

Two of the most prominent elements in this pastiche chowder (for such an autumnal show, it must be a chowder, or maybe a bisque) are the  clashing genres of children’s television and psychological horror. Scaring the bejesus out of kids while teaching them important life lessons is hardly a new idea—as for who did it first there’s no earthly way of knowing—but Over the Garden Wall’s particular blend distinguishes itself with the masterful “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee.”

The horrorshow horror starts exactly as you wouldn’t expect: It was a calm and sunny morning. Wirt discovers signs of civilization, while Greg is busy freeing a bluebird from the bush. While the premiere taught us not to take the Unknown at face value, things are still looking pretty damn hopey for our lost boys (and Beatrice the bluebird, their salty new companion). These first few minutes are rich with (mostly) friendly banter and gentle sunrays; Greg accidentally lodging his foot in a tiny pumpkin is the scariest occurrence, a moment that relies on rapid-fire comic timing to mask its ominous portent.

The placid façade doesn’t quite shatter into the shitter, rather, “Hard Times” is a slow descent into Hell. Its positioning as the second installment of the series allows it a unique benefit; while “The Old Grist Mill” had to bare its fangs to rope viewers into the darkness, “Hard Times” has the privilege of patience—it is Over the Garden Wall’s first opportunity to stretch its legs. Out of the forest and into the corn fields, the dawning day promises to shed some light on the series’ central mysteries, geography, logic, denizens, whathaveyou.

But, like the leaf spinning through fickle currents, we are no less lost than before. Pottsville is empty. The sun is a big toasty red herring, a thin blanket that coats the mattress of menace established in the pilot. Even though nothing has gone wrong yet, the still air in a seeming ghost town is enough to tell us something bad lurks around the corner.

But before I get to the bad stuff, I’d like to talk about The Wicker Man.

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The Elsewhere: Part-time zinester Charles Mingus will toilet train your cat

The entirety of Reddit’s NottheOnion cannot hold a candle to this gem of an unbelievable news story: Charles Mingus wrote a mail-order zine in 1954 on toilet-training cats. You read that correctly: Charles Mingus, arguably the greatest bassist and composer and bandleader and overall musician in all of jazz history trained his cat to poop in a human toilet. He called it “The Charles Mingus CAT-alog for Toilet Training Your Cat,” naturally.

Print copies of this ridiculous zine (again, authored by one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time) must be mighty hard to come by, so Studio360 did us all a favor and got the Reg E. Cathy to orate a brief audiobook. It’s no secret Mingus loved him some cats—if you squint, you can see a couple on the cover art of Mingus Ah Um, and the same album pays its dues to pussy cats with “Pussy Cat Dues”—but this fantastic piece of history really is something else.

I… I just don’t know what else to say. Cat got my tongue.

Over the Garden Wall – “The Old Grist Mill”: But where have we come?

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Screencaps, wistfulness property of Cartoon Network.

“Welcome to the Unknown, boys. You’re more lost than you realize!”

-The Woodsman

There’s a strange land somewhere out there, a land of folktales and myths come to life under the veil of imagination. Where frogs play ancient ballads on pianos, lost souls fill the roots of trees, and placid pumpkin people greet you at the harvest festival. There’s a land, somewhere out there, where smart storytelling, without a hint of condescension, coexists peacefully with spooky, naturalistic imagery, and where pathos can be wrung from the briefest moments like stream water from a soaked rag. This land is called the Unknown.

To reach the Unknown, you must simply hop Over the Garden Wall.

This Cartoon Network miniseries, which I reviewed in full over here, boasts one of the richest fictional universes to be explored this decade in the Unknown. This universe is also one of the strangest, a qualifier earned by its incredibly bold pilot, a dark and obscure chapter that holds all its cards close to the chest, soaring on the strengths of mood and character while boldy delaying the plot. It’s conceptually daring, an in medias res opening that barely introduces the central characters, offers the smallest taste of a mythology, and obscures the tapestry of its autumnal setting in a heart of darkness.

It’s a neat analogy to the plight of our heroes: like Wirt and young Greg (bearing no resemblance to Old Gregg), we are lost in the Unknown. By structuring the first episode, “The Old Grist Mill, like a puzzle box that can only be fully understood by viewers who completed the whole series, creators Pat McHale, Tom Herpich (an Adventure Time storyboarding stalwart with some hilarious deadpan chops), and Amalia Levari are forced to lay the groundwork of the show’s universe by showing, not telling. We are without a compass, but we are encouraged to soak in our surroundings rather than fuss over the details.

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Over the Garden Wall: A Glorious Grimoire

From Over the Garden Wall wiki

Images courtesy of Over the Garden Wall wiki, 17th century American fashion, and a supremely creepy riff on Hayao Miyazaki

Chaos took over The AV Club, a site I regularly follow, after reviewer Kevin Johnson accidentally awarded Cartoon Network miniseries Over the Garden Wall the forbidden A+. grade. The AV Club system caps at a vanilla A, despite their technology going the extra +, so occasionally these mistakes happen and the editors course-correct.

Here’s the thing, though: accident or not, Johnson’s original score was spot-on. From the first installment to the last, Over the Garden Wall is remarkable. If you’re going to make one exception to the A+ rule this year, this might have to be it.

Over the Garden Wall, helmed by Adventure Time and Flapjack veteran Pat McHale, pits everykid stepbrothers Wirt and Greg in the middle of a dark forested world (un)known as The Unknown. Wirt, voiced to angsty perfection Elijah Wood, is the elder brother, full of hemming feelings, hawing poetics, and a latent talent for the bassoon. Greg, voiced by actual child Collin Deen, is the embodiment of joy, curiosity, gumption, and plain old ridiculousness, using buffoonery to counter Wirt’s self-serious bassoonery (I am so sorry). Accompanying the pair is the bluebird Beatrice, affable and smart-mouthed, who promises to help guide the kids home, away from The Unknown. Also, there’s a frog.

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Won’t superhero comics PLEASE think of the children?!

Mainstream superhero comics are imbued with a permanent asterisk, a stigma born from a number of stereotypes perfectly embodied by The Simpsons’s Comic Book Guy. The basement-dweller, the neckbeard, the casual misogynist who relishes sex, violence, and exaggerated musculature in his (always “his”) art. Of course, stereotypes are just stereotypes, and there are plenty more superhero enthusiasts than this subset of readers.

Such as children!

Hell, I remember when I was just a children, I was all about the superheroes. Every Saturday morning it would be Superman, Batman, Ninja Turtles, or Gargoyles, and I would head straight for the comic rack at the barbershop to pick up the new issue of X-Men, Spiderman, or whathaveyou. For a multitude of reasons, Young Horrible Paul was drawn to comics and superhero stories.

Just over a week ago, Comics Alliance’s Janette Asselin articulated the myriad reasons children dig superhero stories better than my cheap nostalgia ever can. In this fantastic read that cites psychologists, Supergirl writers and editors, librarians, and comic store owners, Asselin demonstrates why mainstream comic creators need to do more than just cater to the Comic Book Guys of the English-speaking world:

“Parents want to be able to give their kids inspiring superhero comics that are based on the heroes they know and love, or even just the ones that their kids are asking about. Currently, the companies that own those superheroes are not providing comics material that offers evergreen, accessible, kid-friendly storytelling.”

“It’s true; it’s not just “bam! pow!” (insert your own comics cliché of choice here); comics can be a wonderful developmental tool for children. Regardless of the genre, comics of any kind that are created for a young audience offer something that words alone do not. For new readers, pictures can help a great deal with making a story understandable.”

“If the comics industry is to thrive in the future, it needs to appeal to not just a wider variety of ages in its demographics, but also a broader diversity in terms of race and gender. [Psychologist Dr. Andrea] Letamendi has noted the effect diversity has on young comics readers. ‘When children read literature, they ask themselves, “How is this character like me?” and “What do I see in this character that I see in myself?” This is where gender can be important: Children notice differences at surprisingly young ages.'”

The article, and its many sources, damn a system that has polluted established properties–the kind of comics parents read as kids, and can no longer recommend to their own children due to inappropriate content–while failing to produce enough suitable alternatives. If a kid these days, let alone a kid who is not a straight white cis male, wants a superhero they can understand and relate to, their options are barren.

Three days ago, author of American-Born Chinese and all-around superstar Gene Yang wrote something of an addendum, arguing that comics as a general medium have richer opportunities for children’s literature, even though the slate of kid-friendly superheroes is relatively bare. To quote:

“Kids are reading lots and lots and lots of comics these days. They’re just not reading the same kinds of comics that their nerd parents did.”

While Asselin’s article takes a more elegiac tone about the death of the superhero mainstream, lamenting that today’s children won’t grow up to draw the superheroes of tomorrow, Yang isn’t quite as mournful. He rattles off half a dozen graphic novels outside of the superhero genre that have pushed their way into the mainstream. He assures us that his daughter loves the heck out of those books, and that’s just enough. You can get the same childhood joy and psychological, educational boons out of a comic, no matter what it’s about.

Basically: superheroes: who needs ’em? Even if the majority of current industry brass doesn’t want to greenlight diverse, accessible graphic literature, who cares about them when there’s tons of great stuff from the fringes going public? If children want it, parents will come. In addition to the titles Yang rattles off in his blog post (and Yang’s own kid-to-teen friendly books), there’s a healthy influx of quality comics coming in from independent publishers.

Françoise Mouly, best known for handpicking every New Yorker cover for the past twenty-one years, is one such publisher planting seeds for the next generation of children and cartoonists. With her line of TOON Books, Mouly is cultivating an armory of comics for kids as young as three-years-old, including one aimed at second-graders that unabashedly wears the superspandex. In her article, Asselin mentions that there are few genuine comic books, not just picture books, out there for very young children. If Mouly’s TOON vanguard breeds more success, then perhaps parents will find it easier to pick up a copy of Mo and Jo instead of wading through Wonder Woman’s troubled history to find a saga appropriate for their little one.

Mouly’s TOON comics remind me not of the old-guard, “nerd parents” comic properties, but of a relatively newer superhero who graced the inside of my third-grade classroom desk: Captain Underpants. When I am a nerd parent, maybe he will be the first superhero I introduce to my kids. Or maybe I’ll just pass down Bone, or Prime Baby, or even Rice Boy when they’re older. To paraphrase Megadeth, the world needs heroes. They might just look different from the ones from the last generation.

Too Much Coffee Man: My First Cup of Comic

When I was a wee lad of indeterminable age, I became accidentally exposed to my first non-mainstream comic, a satirical lark by the name of Too Much Coffee Man. My family was driving upstate to Ulster County, New York to see my grandparents up in the Catskills, and there was a comic shop we occasionally stopped at along the way in scenic New Paltz. My sister and I picked up a handful of Bongo’s Simpsons comics, or some of its many spinoffs, and my dad would venture into the back of the shop, the dank corner that smelled like ozone and overripe bananas, packed with alphabetized white crates three stacks high.

None of the comics I recognized. No Marvel, no DC, no Simpsons, so what could they be? I asked him, as he pulled a skinny issue from the crate. On the cover was a massive, steaming styrofoam cup, dwarfing a man clad in a woolly red jumpsuit. I had no idea what this unusual comic was, or why it would be buried so far in the back of the store, but the cover reassured me that it was, in fact, “The Lawsuit Issue.”

“Adult comics,” Horrible Dad said. “You probably wouldn’t get them.”

I was in shock.

My dad was buying pornography.

Naturally, I had to sneak a look.

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