Friday, October 24, 2014

Art School Familiar: Wendy

Walter Scott's Wendy (Koyama Press) is a book that sneaks up on you. The crude line drawings and idiosyncratic page design is off-putting at first, as is the seemingly shallow nature of its characters. As one gets deeper into the life of art school grad Wendy, the visual language that Scott employs becomes remarkably versatile and expressive. Scott can get away with Peter Bagge-level exaggeration because of the simplicity of his line, so when Wendy's face turns into a circle with two huge black circles for eyes and a huge black oval for a mouth, the emotion she's feeling becomes visceral and hilarious to observe as a reader.

In many respects, this book is a modern update on Dan Clowes' classic short story Art School Confidential. Unlike Clowes, Scott isn't afraid to get extremely personal about his own life, as he invests various aspects of his life into different characters. To be sure, Scott mocks art world bullshit and pretension but treats what's at stake in terms of life and career with deadly seriousness. There's also the volatile mixture of art school pretension and Wendy's own young person-stupidity and sex drive that leads to a host of hilariously questionable decisions.

The story follows Wendy through the post-graduation blues as she struggles to build a career while looking for love. There are friends who stab her in the back and seeming enemies who turn out to be good people. Wendy makes horrible choices with regard to men, like dating a sleazy guy in a band who cheats on her with her best friend at first opportunity. Later, she gets an art sabbatical opportunity but has to deal with a jealous former mentor making her life miserable. There is backstabbing, backbiting, petty revenge, scheming and drinking way too much for all the characters involved, but Wendy herself is on a genuine quest to try and figure out just what she wants to accomplish in life.

What separates the book from yet another screed against the uselessness of art school is the genuine depth of character Scott gives to each member of the cast. Even seemingly shallow characters like Wendy's gay friend Screamo (whose visage is that of the killer from the movie Scream), a party animal and sex maniac, have a certain essential sadness that informs the entirety of their behavior. Wendy is treated sympathetically but never let off the hook for her own stupid or selfish behavior, and she certainly pays for her mistakes. What I loved about the book is the way she manages to tap into her actual talent and empathy for others, even when faced with distractions (many of the them self-created). The friendship between Wendy and Winona, an artist of First Nations descent who also has an internship at the same sabbatical camp, zeroes in on this relationship. The otherness that Winona is made to feel by supposedly enlightened artists is sickening, but her eventual betrayal by Wendy was a far deeper cut. Seeing them reconcile (sort of) was one of the more heartening moments of the book, displaying Wendy's burgeoning sense of empathy and responsibility and Winona's capacity to forgive.

Finally, I should mention that this book is hilarious from beginning to end. Scott serves up some art-world groaners that still land hard, like one artist telling Wendy that her work wasn't "quilts, they're textile hypersigils!" The pettiness and corruption displayed by artists, critics and others in this world is played for laughs as much as Wendy's own foibles are made the butt of Scott's jokes. This book is raw, honest and far more visually sophisticated than one would think at first glance.

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