Thursday, October 27, 2016

Koyama: Walter Scott's Wendy's Revenge

The new Wendy book from Walter Scott, Wendy's Revenge, sees the titular artist character trying to get her bearings as an artist and a person in several different locales around the world. Whereas the first book was all about Wendy's difficult transition from art school identity to the brutally petty and cutthroat world of gallery art, this book is all about Wendy trying to stay sane as a working artist. The first book was all about silly romances, unavailable men and assorted backstabbing and backbiting from so-called friends. It was also an exploration and affirmation of her own talent, which was a difficult transition for her because of her basic lack of self-respect, because of viciousness of the competition, and because of her own self-destructive habits.

The book opens with Wendy in Vancouver, shifting between the hard-party mode of her slightly younger days and a sort of jaded, drifting existence as she tries to figure out what to do with her life. Her Vancouver self has dyed her hair black, wears a black backwards baseball cap and generally wears all black. It's a pose, just not a well-considered one. The one consistent thing about Wendy in both books is that none of her poses or selves are ever really well thought-out. They are reactive, based on her latest oversensitivities and paranoia. The one thing that frightens her more than failure is success, even as the boldness of her art sometimes speaks volumes she's not willing to voice on her own. Indeed, Wendy's talent and the understanding of what a force she's capable of becoming in the art world is never in question in the book. What is in question is if she will ever be ready to handle that success without becoming completely unhinged and self-destructive, or alternately, narcissistic and greedy. Wendy craves nothing but connections, and in the first chapter, she befriends an older author she admires named Jack. There's a mystery in this section as to who stole a work of art from her gallery show, and Scott's skill in slowly doling out clues and providing a great deal of misdirection is remarkably sharp considering that his narratives tend to be episodic and not particularly plot-driven.

This section also serves as a kind of recapitulation of the characters  before Scott goes in a different direction, as there are a lot of familiar conflicts and character tics here. It makes sense that he'd do something to remind readers of his first book what was going on as well as providing just enough information for a new reader to understand what's going on. It's also a perfect introduction to his idiosyncratic drawing style. The lines are simple and straightforward, and there's rarely anything distinctive about his composition. The format of his panels is fairly standard in that first section. What stands out is the way he uses exaggerated figurework to create comedy, conflict, fear, misery and anger. Eyes bulge and transform into coal-black embers, mouths turn into voids, word balloons expand, waver and contract, and certain characters take on essentialist elements based on their personality. An example is Paloma, a slippery person who's drawn with a snake's forked tongue and is able to slither around.

The second section, when Wendy goes to Tokyo for a residency, stands out because Scott rendered all dialogue in Japanese, putting the drawings on the left-hand side of a two-page spread and the English dialogue translated on the opposite page. The stories are even drawn manga style, which is to say that they're meant to be written from right to left instead of left to right. Prior to that, there are segues to Wendy's friend Wynona, a First Nations woman by birth, going back to the reservation in an effort to save money, as well as other oddballs from the art world. Wendy's overwhelming anxiety makes it difficult to relax and enjoy her surroundings, which triggers several ill-advised partying episodes. Wynona may have her own problems, but she and Wendy act as each other's means of feeling grounded, even though they interact only infrequently in the actual book.

The final section sees Wendy back in her native Toronto and staying with a trusted friend, then sees her ping from Los Angeles to New York in order to make herself known on the scene before her gallery shows. If the first section was a good old-fashioned mystery plot, then this section turned into a heist story of sorts. The heist here was not to steal something, but rather to insert a manifesto exposing two art world mavens as manipulators who were looking to sell out spaces and make money off their sale while looking to place the blame on others. Wendy and Paloma, the target of the attacks, wrote the manifesto and then sneaked into an art gallery to carefully insert them inside show catalogs. The most interesting thing about this section is that it finds Wendy slowly starting to pull herself together, fighting against art-world bullshit and influence-peddling, and even find ways to work with someone she strongly disliked. That Scott pulls off this character growth with some hilarious situations and gags is what makes his Wendy stories so entertaining. The baseline absurdity of Wendy's stories is necessary just in order to compete with the whirring chaos that is the art industry. Tellingly, Scott is careful to not simply bash galleries or the art world in general; indeed, there is praise given to hard-working artists working with conceptual media. That said, he's not afraid to exaggerate personalities and body language to reveal the noise within the art world and how difficult it is to resist it. Wendy's Revenge is not only about resisting those vacuous art world trends, it's about finding ways to work on one's self while doing it.

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