How is Wendy handling the pandemic? “Perhaps we should send her an e-mail,” jokes Walter Scott, her creator and kind-of, sort-of alter ego. “‘Dear Wendy, I hope you are doing well during this weird and unprecedented time.’”
Wendy is the anxiety-ridden, millennial, art-world naïf who stars in Scott’s series of acclaimed graphic novels. Though the rubber-faced, black-clad up-and-comer has lately appeared in The New Yorker and on the CBC (Scott was profiled on In the Making, the docu-series on contemporary art), her latest adventure, Wendy, Master of Art (Drawn & Quarterly, 276 pages, $29.95), sees her hunkered down in a stifling rural Ontario town, fumbling her way through an MFA program, a teaching gig and an open relationship.
After cringing with her throughout her farcically boy-crazy, hard-partying twenties in Wendy (2014) and Wendy’s Revenge (2016), I hated to think of her finally maturing and succeeding, only to have her horizons contract in the age of physical distancing. That I could conceive of this googly-eyed scribble in such personal, familiar terms speaks to Scott’s accomplishment: Wendy, her pals and her milieu comprise a fictional world as fully and funnily inhabited as any in recent Canadian storytelling.
The lifelike qualities of what Scott has called the Wendy-verse derive in part from the fact that the Kahnawake-born, Toronto-based artist draws from – and distorts – his own experiences when putting Wendy through her paces. This latest book arrives after Scott’s two-year stint in the MFA program at the University of Guelph. Compare Wendy’s tenure here in a similar town, “Hell, Ontario,” where the downtown is dotted with businesses such as “Goatee Town” and “Hetero Pub + Grill.”
“It’s easy to mine humour from a situation,” Scott says of his time in grad school, “just not necessarily in the moment it’s happening.” Scott’s cartooning dwindled while he focused on academics, but he never stopped gathering material. “In school when I was bored, fried, disappointed, or filled with dread, I tried not to take it too personally, because if grad school wasn’t a mess, there would be nothing to write about when it was done. And there are some good memories, too, of course.”
The artist lovingly skewers a host of grad school archetypes. There’s the failed instructor who clings to the past (“whatever happened to a pure exploration of form?”), the straight white woke ally who’s constantly sweating and worried he’ll get cancelled, and the bright-eyed careerist from Toronto the Good whose “practice incorporates themes of quirkyness [sic], manners, respect, and moral responsibility.” And that’s not to mention the host of skeevy landlords, aging hipsters and gormless undergrads who crowd the margins of the book.
While the cartoonist gleefully sketches this new cohort, we also see different, more nuanced shades to Wendy’s old friends. Scott reveals particular depths to best friend Winona, the performance artist whose trips home to the reservation ground the gang’s gallery-world exploits, and Screamo, the constantly cruising hedonist, whose face is an Edvard Munch shriek. “So, in this new book,” Scott says, “you understand a bit more the challenges Screamo faces in his queer world that might have made him as callous as he is. And you get a closer look into how Winona’s family has shaped her psyche, and in turn, her relationship with Wendy.”
As the most obvious avatars of queerness and Indigeneity in the series, in contrast to white-bread Wendy, Scott makes sure to give these characters their due. “I don’t want Winona to be the token Indigenous character who is written to have no character flaws because of the burden of representation,” he says. “Plus, I’ve written at least two other characters as having Indigenous ancestry, but there’s no way of knowing unless I do some kind of J.K. Rowling-esque reveal, so you’ll have to just guess which ones they are for now.”
Scott draws this complex, burgeoning cast of characters with the deceptive simplicity of placemat doodles (this is, in fact, how Wendy began, one hungover morning nearly a decade ago). His loose, seemingly spontaneous style actually contributes to the depth of his characters’ lives. The sillier they look, the more vulnerable they seem. Scott’s lo-fi storytelling ends up somewhere between the confessional bluntness of British artist Tracey Emin’s My Bed and the breezy simplicity of the newspaper comic strip Cathy – halfway between Art and “Ack!”
Art and comics can be strange bedfellows. The comics world has often resented the art world’s prestige, partly because the fine arts, in turn, have so often dismissed comics as kitsch. But Scott seems serene about the relationship between comics and art in his own work. “That doesn’t sound fraught to me,” he says, “it seems natural to appropriate the formal aspects of comics in art and the subject matter of art in comics. But maybe just for me because that’s what I do, and because my art practice is all starting to meld together these days anyway. The idea of ‘art’ and ‘comics’ being separate might persist until the end of time, but if so, I enjoy having Wendy be the portal where one world of viewers can meet the other.”
In the current case, he says, “I like to imagine a reader who comes to the Wendy books for the jokes about social anxiety, but then later googles Rebecca Belmore and discovers something new.” As much as Scott satirizes the art world – its personalities, institutions, and specialized lingo – he has nothing but respect for art itself, and the people who make it. “I think the Wendy series is often mischaracterized as a ‘cynical takedown of the art world‚’” he says, “which it might be, for readers who have an investment in feeling that way. But if that were actually the case, I probably wouldn’t be interested enough to write about the lives of artists at all.”
With Wendy, Scott gives readers the life of an artist suffused with too many hangovers, too much screen-time and too much self-consciousness – sordid, hilarious, and compassionate. Wendy lives fully, in three dimensions, like the messy, intimate sculptures Scott’s created since his own MFA (on virtual display now, at Edmonton’s Latitude 53). I do hope she’s well during this weird and unprecedented time.
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