Children have little or no say in most matters expect when it comes to names. The first rosy blush of control a child experiences is to name. A name is power, but the power toname is power personified.
In Over The Wall, cartoonist and writer Peter Wartman offers a deceptively straight-forward story: a young girl searches at night through an abandoned and demon plagued city to find her missing brother. When it comes to this story one does well to tread lightly and not name names; what we call ourselves and who gets to know holds real treasure in Over The Wall, secrets held dear right up to the end.
Wartman arrives like a bolt-out-of-the-blue into the world of all-ages and young adult comics. It’s less a question of ‘where has this guy been hiding?’ — Minnesota, apparently — and more a sense of relief at the arrival of such a talent. As a cartoonist Wartman possesses an enviable and singular style that is comparable, but wholly his own. His skill as a storyteller stems from an artistic instinct to show and show and show; the telling becomes self-evident.
To call a comic book ‘all-ages’ presupposes an audience few titles in this category ever achieve. Tack too far in any direction and the esprit detout âges gets lost in either greasy kid’s stuff or workshopped in-jokes measured for maximum adult appeal. To avoid this Scylla and Charybdis Wartman walks a Pixar-like line in Over The Wall and what sugars off is an enviable alchemy of the sober realities of a Miyazaki movie and a folk tale, one unhung with ‘… and they lived happily ever after.’
The story begins with a declaration: ”Mom and Dad, I have a brother, even if I can’t remember his name.” This stop-loss order, so to speak, acts as the hero’s call to adventure and establishes a much bigger (and more dangerous) world where loss is real and memory ephemeral, sad realities at any age.
Every Skywalker and wide-eyed anime heroine worth her pluck must overcome loss; the trick is to make it stick with the reader. Wartman sets the stakes in Over The Wall at a high pitch. Younger readers will thrill to the adventure and even though some may miss the seriousness of the situation. In any case Wartman trusts each reader to find their own level.
In a delightful ‘I-see-what-you-did-there’ moment, Wartman has his young protagonist write out the note to her parents with brush and ink. It is with these tools of the trade that this story ascends to its greatest heights. Over The Wall is (mostly) in black, which gives it the feel of a classic. The other color Wartman uses is light lavender which provides a more fashionable aesthetic. Wartman’s line is sure and steady. With an eye to a younger audience, he makes the emotions that play across the character’s faces easy to understand. One look at the protagonist and the reader knows the kid’s got grit.
Every hero needs a helper. It would be remiss to overlook the pseudo-familiar fork-tailed and gap-fanged demon that plays cruise director on this one girl mission of mercy. Uncivilized Books publisher Tom Kaczynski would do well to learn to sew, go the collectible route à la The Nao of Brown and market limited-edition plush seashell pink demons. Or, better yet, take the (far) less traveled Watterson way and let the work stand on its own.
Wartman works well in drawing out emotions in characters; however, his real medium might be the larger canvas of world-building. His long shots of un-peopled streets, derelict domes and vacant courtyards provide Over The Wall with a sense of scale larger and deeper than these empty places themselves. It’s in details like the offerings alongside the wall, the overgrown green spaces and three moons suspended in the night sky, clues of a relatable (and yet alien) world full of history and mystery. Even the sound effects reverberate within so much space. Wartman links the ‘O’s’ in the sound ‘Thoom’ to form a figure eight to toll a sonorous note of dread.
The story ends at a beginning and not a cliffhanger or an unsatisfying ‘only time will tell’ kind of a conclusion. Instead, Wartman puts his protagonist in a different place than she was when her quest began; what she does matters, it counts. Her bravery is rewarded, but not without the confirmation of a new normal — another hallmark of well-thought out all-ages storytelling — and affirmation about the inherent resiliency of children.
Over The Wall is a wool sweater sort of a comic; it envelops and comforts, but also prickles with reality.