Thursday, March 23, 2023

Snug Harbor Stories by Will Henry

I used to read a lot of strip-comics collections: I assembled a full set of Doonesbury back in the day, kept up with Dilbert until the writing on the wall was too obvious to ignore [1], and had multiple books from probably a dozen other currently-running strips over the years. But, somehow, the past decade or so has made that seem old-fashioned. Maybe because of so many re-runs (Get Fuzzy, for example, which I still read in the paper but can never tell if it's actually new, because it generally isn't) and legacy strips (too many to mention, not that I ever cared for most of them in even their earlier forms), maybe because of just the weight of time.

Will Henry's Wallace the Brave is probably the first newspaper strip where I've read two collections in...ten years? More or less? So I may end up grumping about some aspects of the strip, because what I apparently do best is grump, but let me underline that first: I like this a lot more than just about anything else I've seen in a newspaper for a bunch of years.

Snug Harbor Stories is the second collection of the strip, after the self-titled first book. It was published in 2019, soon after the strip started running in newspapers. (If I'm reading the Wikipedia entry correctly, it had an extended try-out on GoComics starting in 2015, the first book hit in 2017, and it was actively syndicated into papers starting in 2018.)

And this is a strip comic, so this book is the same kind of thing as the first book, only more of it. I feel like the strip these days is really focused on the kids and from their point of view - so, for example, the teacher and parents are seen from a metaphorical kid-height rather than being viewpoints - but some of these earlier strips are more obviously coming from an adult perspective. I enjoyed that difference, but great strips develop focus and stick to it, so the overall change is both expected and admirable.

I also thought there were even more inventive layouts in this book than the first one, which could be Henry getting comfortable with what's possible within the physical constraints of the strip. My mostly-uninformed idea would be that inventiveness is easier digitally - as when the strip was only on GoComics in the early days - than in print, but maybe newspapers are not quite as hidebound and backwards-thinking as I assume.

I still like Spud as a character a lot better than Wallace, though I don't think I'm supposed to. Wallace can just be too much of a muchness, constructed to be the eternally wide-eyed optimist dreamer, like a Tom Sawyer with all cynicism and sneakiness surgically extracted. Spud is quirky and weird and particular, like normal people. But one of the things that makes a great comics strip is characters you argue about, even in your own head - strips are formed over time, through lots of moments and jokes and recurring ideas. So even my saying, "I like Wallace the Brave the strip better than I like Wallace the character" is a good sign for the strip as a whole.

Anyway, this is about a bunch of six-year-olds, and, like all comics, they're smarter and more articulate and have more physical freedom of action than any six-year-olds have ever had in the real world. Calvin and Hobbes is the most obvious predecessor: the two strips have a similar sense of infinite possibility and joy in the outdoors and exploration. But Wallace is more about community and friendship - Wallace himself is central, but he's not the whole strip. He's the catalyst or the glue, but the strip is as much about his friends and family as about him specifically.

And Henry is an inventive, somewhat loose artist with great sound-effects, a willingness to draw weird stuff (people, places, layouts - all of it) and a complete and total lack of fussiness at all times. It's a lovely, always organic-looking strip full of energy and life

I still think the best way to discover a strip is day-by-day rather than in clumps; the good ones stick in your mind even in small doses like that. But, when you're ready for a larger dose, Snug Harbor Stories (and the book before and, so far, two books after) are there.

[1] From the evidence of my bookshelves, I think this was 15-20 years ago, which is even longer than I thought. I also should note that I wrote this post in early January, before the recent unpleasantness. But Dilbert's creator has been a wealth of unpleasantness for quite some time now.

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