When the idealism of college short circuits after graduation, the question of how to use one’s potential becomes an existential crisis. It’s a crisis both self-important and preposterous enough to provide fertile ground for character development and disillusionment, as well for critical engagement with generational divides (see the television series Girls, films like The Graduate, etc.). What separates Walter Scott’s comic Wendy, serialized in Random House Canada’s literary digital magazine Hazlitt, is the backdrop of the contemporary art world, which its titular character never quite penetrates but believes herself to operate in nonetheless. We follow young artist Wendy as she sets out to define the parameters of just what to do with all the newfound freedom and agency of adulthood. Throughout her journey, she forges new friendships, fucks up, learns about herself, and ultimately figures out something about what she can (not should) be, even if it’s not wholly defined by the time we leave her.
Though she consistently looks for opportunities for herself, Wendy relies on other people to help her define just what she can do- she takes on group art projects, waits on her friends to set her up with jobs, and looks for validation in her peers, who can turn on a dime. Her story takes us through the dregs of hipster Montreal, which provides the funniest scenes and a scathing look at the clash between cynicism and inexperience young artists face. What we see of Montreal establishes an environment toxic enough to discourage anyone just starting out; her friends are back-biting and self-serving, the music is loud and shitty, and Wendy often copes with a bottle and ultimately faces the consequences of losing control. Scott’s drawing is loose and expressive, finding a tongue-in-cheek tension between the lofty language of the art world and the cartoony quality of his characters. My favorite of these moments is when Wendy’s facial features, out of shock, disgust, or drunkenness, simply turn into just three huge dots on her face. The decision to draw some characters as human/animal amalgamations lends to the dreamy, trippy quality of Wendy, which seems to be a recent tendency in comics with similar themes (see also Mia Schwartz’s excellent Strawberries or Simon Hanselmann’s Megahex).
While it makes sense to look at Wendy as the story of a young woman making her way in the world, it also functions as a nice little critique of the art world and the art school system that feeds it. When we first meet her, Wendy is describing her artistic practice using the clichés of any contemporary art gallery press release; intellectualizing a way of ultimately saying, “hardly working.” It’s established that Wendy wants to be part of the capital “A” Art World, but what role she will play is up for grabs. The deepest irony of the book is that we never see just what kind of artist Wendy is: she never even specifies a medium. (When her boss-cum-boyfriend suggests she works in drawing or painting, she snarks back, “It’s more complicated than that.”) The determination to “be somebody” without any sort of goal or idea of how to get it rings true of the social-media generation, where Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame extend to landing a tweet at the right time and becoming an instant personality. It’s also a look at the futility of trying to set forth any sort of language on art right now: between the cross-pollination of theory from almost every other discipline, art writing has, essentially, fucked itself stupid. There are a ton of great examples put forth in Wendy of employing absurd novelty to make a splash without actually having to say anything; a personal favorite is a fashion show of couture neck braces. The marketing is the message.
Scott is smart to counter the uncertainty of Wendy with a more assured young artist, Winona, an indigenous young woman who Wendy meets at a residency program set in the wilderness. Winona’s work is chided by another resident because it explores her spirituality, which lays out the unfortunate art-world binary that artists of color are expected either to make work exclusively about their racial or ethnic identity, or to avoid the subject entirely. We get the sense that Winona, unlike Wendy, does not have the luxury of taking all the time she might like to find herself, and must deal with the projections of identity already put upon her. There is a plot line of a small conspiracy, in which an instructor attempts to keep Wendy down in the residency, but it reads as minor compared to Winona’s story.
Wendy’s stumbling path to finding herself ultimately takes her back home to her dysfunctional family, and shows where her seeds of insecurity may have originally been planted. However it’s by conversing with her grandmother, who is cynical herself but with the life experiences to justify it, that Wendy is inspired to make the choice to opt out of the path she was on and forge a new one to a destination unknown. It’s an ending that employs a filmic stillness and adds a touch of sentimentality and hope onto what’s an otherwise biting piece. Here’s hoping for the re-education of Wendy, and her speedy return.