Expanding on the Cartoon Network miniseries of the same name, “Over the Garden Wall Special” #1 is predictably goofy, expectedly jaunty — and startlingly witty. Plenty of all-ages comics embrace absurdity, but writer Pat McHale actually embraces absurdism. The narrator Wirt’s existential angst plays against Jim Campbell and Danielle Burgos’ chipper artwork for a unique, delightful read. The plot waxes purposeless, but the book encourage and accepts that — because really, isn’t all human endeavor?
“Over the Garden Wall” follows two brothers, melancholy Wirt and plucky Greg, as they try to find their way out of a strange forest called the Unknown. Continuity-wise, this issue begins sometime after the second episode of the miniseries, after Beatrice (a bird) has already become the boys’ constant guide. However, it isn’t necessary to have seen the show at all to enjoy what’s going on.
Readers who’ve seen the show might be surprised by Jim Campbell’s thicker, almost marker-like linework, which is a contrast to the show’s more delicate lines. However, “Over the Garden Wall Special” #1 still feels very much like an off-kilter Victorian fairytale. The “army” that Wirt and Greg encounter is wackily proportioned and exaggerated, yet Campbell and Burgos filter everything through an unexpectedly soft color scheme. When the cast sets sail on a gigantic hat, the field of wheat they sail on is still kind of beautiful. In addition, Campbell has a great eye for the quizzical facial expressions and eye rolls that make some of the book best’s moments.
Campbell also deserves some major kudos for his spunky, cramped text that sometimes takes up nearly a third of the panels. I’m sure it was tempting to go for something period, but the choice here complements the story much better.
Still, the book’s biggest appeal is the narration from Wirt. As he mopes from panel to panel, the exaggerated diction and despair of his meditations inevitably made me laugh. I dare anyone to see a character in a long red dunce cap say, “I began to fall again into my autumn reverie” and not laugh. The contradiction between the slapstick that surrounds him and his melancholy, existential thoughts — “A tragic poem, the world is” — is so funny, but McHale is careful not to try too hard. The pithier and more unexpected Wirt’s narration is, the better the joke reads. That said, the extended gag about poetry and the people who like it is handily my favorite sequence in the story.
Much as I like it, this is still very much a Cartoon Network book. Anyone who’s seen “Adventure Time” or “Steven Universe” won’t be surprised to find that there’s no issue-sized endgame. It’s unclear why Wirt and Greg are doing anything or how they got into the woods, and McHale has no interest in providing those details. The journey is the point, even when it ends with the protagonists literally right back where they started. The book is enjoyable enough that I didn’t mind, but in an oversized issue, it does mean that the reader has to be super-engaged and amused by this universe; otherwise, they’ll start wondering what exactly is at stake.
It’s a rare book that brings to mind both Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books and “The Myth of Sisyphus,” but “Over the Garden Wall Special” #1 surprised me in more ways than one. It’s a really fun read that makes great use of the oversized special format.