Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Wallace the Brave by Will Henry

Books aren't just catapulted out into the world willy-nilly, no matter what some people might think. There's always a complex calculation on the publisher's side, to figure out who the audience is and how best to get to those people. The books that don't have any clear audience, or obvious way to reach them, are the ones that tend to be rejected.

Newspaper cartoons, on the other hand, tend to be thought of as "for everyone," at least by your less thoughtful kind of editor. And who else is left in the newspaper industry after thirty years of cutting? Admittedly, newspaper strips tend to skew to the older side, like everything else in a dead-tree newspaper, but that can mean that the more thoughtful editors - I've been told they still exist, perhaps like the Sasquatch, eternally rumored and never witnessed - try to counter-program, picking features and investigative series and even strip cartoons that appeal to different, even younger audiences.

But I didn't think Will Henry's "Wallace the Brave" strip was particularly one to appeal to current-day kids. It's set in the modern world, as far as I can tell, and it features a central cast of kids, but the tone feels like nostalgia, like an imagined version of what growing up used to be like, before helicopter parents and cellphones and Internet, set in a rinky-dink New England fishing town that might as well be cut off from the rest of the world. It's a very constructed world, is what I mean: a vision of what never was, but that older generations always talk about as if they lived through it.

But the first collection of that strip, called Wallace the Brave, as is traditional, includes a bunch of activities for kids at the back, so my guess is that someone actually thinks this will primarily appeal to actual kids, and not just adults who want to believe their youth was carefree and wonderful. Those someones may even be right, though I wouldn't want to try to attract elementary-school kids to a dead-tree newspaper feature these days.

Anyway, this first Wallace book came out in 2017 and collects what looks like roughly the first four to six months of strips. It has 166 pages of comics, and pages are mostly a single daily, so that's how I do the math. Henry, or his editor, has laid this out more like a graphic novel, with longer strips and sequences - I think mostly Sundays, but potentially week-long continuities, or maybe even new material for the book? - a few panels to each page, making the whole book flow more than the average strip collection.

Oh, don't get me wrong: the  majority of pages here have what seems to be one daily strip. But Henry sticks to four-panels for a daily less than most, so some dailies are turned sideways to get one long panel in, some have three or five or seven panels arranged in two or three tiers on the page, and some places, as I said, it's clearly a longer sequence stretching across multiple pages.

The strips are about a kid named Wallace - that's him at the right on the cover. He's the traditional pushy dreamer for stories like this, the guy who wants to do everything and experience it all, impatient with rules and limitations and always ready to do "real" things. The two overlapping circles of the cast are his family (fisherman father; stay-at-home mother; younger brother Sterling, who is not quite as feral as he later becomes in these early strips) and his friends at school (neurotic best friend Spud, overwhelming new girl Amelia, teacher Mrs. Macintosh).

Wallace the Brave is not a direct descendant of Peanuts, but Henry's kids are smarter, more thoughtful, and better-spoken than their real-world counterparts in the same ways Schulz's were; they're neither realistic six-year-olds nor the doll-like joke-engines of strips like Family Circus. And what they do is in the vein of early Peanuts, or Calvin & Hobbes - more-or-less what real kids do, only more so. Sometimes more so because that's what makes it funny, sometimes more so because that's the "perfect childhood" mythology here. Sometimes both.

Henry has a great illustrative line, detailed and energetic - it reminds me of a lot of the great strip cartoonists of a century ago, back when they had more space for extra detail and complication.

This is a fun strip, which I started reading maybe a year ago, maybe a bit less. You can search out the books if you want - I think there are three more after this one, so far - but the best way to read a daily is daily, so either look for it in your paper (assuming you have one) or check it out on GoComics, and slot into its daily routines.

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