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Interviews / April 1, 2015

Walter Scott on Life in the Wendy-verse

Walter Scott talks to David Balzer about Wendy, the boy-crazy, neurotic protagonist of his popular comics, his approach to satire and his sculptural work.
A panel from Walter Scott's <em>Wendy</em> comic created for the Spring 2015 issue of <em>Canadian Art</em>. A panel from Walter Scott's Wendy comic created for the Spring 2015 issue of Canadian Art.

Who is Wendy? Kahnawake-born, Montreal-/Toronto-based Walter Scott’s comic character is only a few years old, but she’s widely loved and discussed. Is Wendy a dippy art girl, desperately and romantically seeking success with no real clue as to what that might be, mean or require? (Wendy is boy-crazy and gets drunk, a lot.) She is this, but she is also a vulnerable, neurotic, adorable mess. There is astonishment and depth to the universe Scott has created around her, in addition to exacting, laugh-out-loud satire.

Canadian Art associate editor David Balzer spoke with Scott on the occasion of his new Wendy comic for the Spring 2015 issue of this magazine, the unveiling of his new billboard for Toronto’s Mercer Union (April 8) and his Wendy—Live! performance at Toronto’s upcoming Images Festival on April 18.

DB: Tell me the creation myth of Wendy. Where did she come from, how did it happen?

WS: I graduated from Concordia in 2009. From 2009 to 2011 I made a bunch of artwork and I didn’t know why I was doing it. I didn’t know where I was headed or why I was doing anything. I felt like I had this top-down pressure to create work for a gallery. I had these naïve ideas of what it meant to be a legitimate artist and how to go about doing that and how to situate your stuff. And just generally the whole art-school community. But then in Montreal I was also liking bands and living in St-Henri, which is this kind of skiddy area, full of artists. There’s the Mile End, but then across the train tracks there’s St-Henri, where the bad kids live. I was in a punk scene there. There were drunk crusties; I wasn’t a drunk crusty.

DB: What’s a drunk crusty?

WS: Drunk crust punks. Who mixed with hipster-y artists, girls. And I was inspired by the weirdness of all these young people, a drunk crusty standing next to this girl wearing heels. And we’re all standing on muddy wooden boards outside a punk loft, at a dance party. So I made Wendy one day, after partying; I drew it on a placemat. It was a way for me to make something that wasn’t related to what I thought was my art practice. Like, “Let me do something dumb. A non-thing.” I was tired of having to always do a thing. Everything I did had to be a thing, had to be contextualized. So Wendy was this non-thing.

DB: That became a thing.

WS: Yeah. I posted it on Facebook and it got a lot of likes. So I just started making it to entertain my friends and me. And I did a few Wendys for my friend’s fashion zine; she was one of these artists who was living in this punk-loft, slummy complex. That’s when the narrative started to form. That’s when the Wendy-verse started to happen. She started to have a backstory and she started to have friends and relationships. I worked a little bit backwards and then forwards and created this whole story about her and then Tina, and this guy Jeff—who started as like, “Jeff is here,” and the whole joke was there was this cute guy she’s a mess around. But then Jeff started to have his own character profile and Tina started to have hers. So now in 2015 each of them is complex enough that the Art Book Review has done character studies for each one of them, depending on what kind of shoes they’re wearing.

DB: What are some of your storytelling influences? The narrative is really strong, funny and engaging. Wendy has become not just a parody of the art world but a real story. Art school is not necessarily a place where you learn storytelling skills.

WS: I feel like people have struggled to take comics seriously in that context. One of my influences is Life in Hell by Matt Groening. I liked how it was cartoony and cute but really stark and bitter at the same time. I was raised off of that. I absorbed it.

DB: Did you read a lot of comics while growing up? Did you make comics?

WS: I used to make comics and zines when I was a kid and then in high school I’d sell them. I’d go on comic message boards while everyone else was smoking. And make all these weird friends across America. I sent one of my comics to a correctional facility when I was 16. So I was doing that kind of stuff.

I stopped making comics when I went to art school because I just didn’t have any use for them any more. When I started making them again, disillusioned with the idea of an art practice, I needed to get back into this language. I was able to speak again, suddenly. Once I started it all came flooding back.

My characters shapeshift a bit. They’re all prisms coming out of me, and there are different versions of me in each of them. I grew up in Kahnawake with an understanding that people just change their forms. It’s part of our culture; people can turn into animals, stuff like that. It was very natural for me to create characters that are neither human nor non-human. Screamo is a spirit who almost exists but doesn’t. So I guess there is a spirituality in the storytelling. And I think it’s related to my interest in Kathy Acker and the way she writes Don Quixote; she’ll talk from the dog, with the main character’s perspective through the dog. There’s an intersection between my Indigenous background in storytelling and a feminist desire to create complexity.

DB: Wendy’s a white girl—a middle-class, bougie white girl. When people understand the comic as a parody of the art world, a parody of the art girl, does that ring accurately for you? How would you describe your relationship with that character in terms of identification, affection, loathing, critique?

WS: It’s weird because she formed during a time in the zeitgeist when a lot of those types of narratives were sprouting up. Maybe I accidentally absorbed some of that. When I did interviews at first people were like, there’s Girls, there’s Two Broke Girls…is Wendy a part of that? I read something recently that these types of stories are misogynist because these characters are treated like clowns. I’ve become very aware of this. I know it’s working when I’m making myself laugh, because I’m laughing at my own vulnerability. That way I know it’s coming from a deeply personal place and it’s not just me creating this clownish white-girl character that could be problematic and misogynist. But that’s a weird ground now. Questions of authorship.

DB: I’m being a bit facetious when I ask this, then, but does it make it OK for you that you’re a queer guy writing this comic about a young woman rather than a straight guy doing that?

WS: I wonder about that a lot. The authorship question is so big. Ryan Rice who works at OCAD University asked me, What do you think would have happened if you had created Winona first and this was about a Native person? But it’s about a white person. Do you think the reception would be the same? And my response was, Wendy’s not white; she’s black and white. And my second response was, I don’t know what would have happened. Because the minute you engage with something from an Indigenous perspective, people’s walls go up and they automatically assume they won’t relate, and they find reasons to say no. Whereas, in a way, Wendy slips through the radar like a Trojan horse, into the consciousness, because she has a default, blank, white-girl identity.

That could almost be a political tactic from a Mohawk perspective, if you wanted to go there, in that, afterward, after you’ve laid the groundwork, you’re able to slip in more direct references to an Indigenous experience that can grow in this garden you’ve already cultivated, by using or understanding what possibility and what privilege can allow. It’s a double-edged sword of creating a space using what’s available and then afterward slipping in thornier, more important, political, racial and identity-based narratives. And at the same time parodying that that’s what’s happening. So basically I just have to keep making fun of myself, and be really self-aware, for this project to not just feel like something nefarious.

DB: So, when you wrote Winona, were you conscious of wanting to insert an Indigenous character into the comic?

WS: I didn’t think about it at first. It was only after I completed the first Wendy zine that I realized that it was something I was going to do whether I wanted to or not. It was just going to come out of me somehow. This was an opportunity to make that kind of story funny because it was in this framework that already worked well for me. I think it was a way to bring that kind of stuff to an audience that’s not expecting it. Everyone’s just waiting for the next Wendy story because they want to read something about an art girl who gets drunk. I like blindsiding people with something they’re not expecting.

DB: When Wendy took off, then, did you feel it took you away from making art?

WS: Wendy is art!

DB: I know—I mean the non-comic kind.

WS: Well I took a bit of a break. I just wanted to do Wendy. I liked how it was going. Then when I did a residency in Banff I wanted to take advantage of having a studio. I had bought a bunch of paper to make a bunch of drawings, but I went to the Fabricland and started to get really into the vinyl, and bought all this cloth material, and then I guess this sculpture started to spring out. I had created this fictional Wendy universe and that made it OK for me to start making these more sculptural kinds of things, because it sprang from a fiction, and it took the weight off of creating the sculptural things from a personal experience. Which I feel like could be very draining or could become heavy-handed. I could take my MO of satire and put it into sculpture in a way that I wouldn’t have known how to do if I hadn’t have made the comics before. And now it’s serving me well, because now I can do performances and anything else and it still springs from this MO of creative fiction. And makes things a little bit more fun and light.

DB: So you haven’t grown to resent Wendy in light of your sculptural practice?

WS: Do you mean do I feel like Keanu Reeves, feeling like he really wants a music career but people only see him as an actor? Because I kind of understand how he feels.

DB: Also because Wendy can be such a scathing portrait of the art world, of gallerists, of artspeak, and generally of contemporary-art posturing—as someone who’s also contributing to that world, do you find there’s a tension there?

WS: Well, you know, we have to laugh at ourselves. If people take it too seriously that’s not my problem.

DB: Do you see Wendy as a form of art criticism?

WS: In the way that I think she is shapeshifting, yeah. Because comics are a form of satire that can actually get away with saying a lot more than if I were writing a critical text for a magazine, because that has its own restrictions. It’s funny because you can write something really critical and tongue-in-cheek and people will say, “It’s just a comic.” People have to question why they’re so outraged by a comic, and it must be because it has some sort of relevance and dialogue. I like Wendy as a comic and as a pop-culture figure and as something that’s a little more accessible because it battles intellectual warfare by being really ditzy.

David Balzer

David Balzer is the author of two books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, winner of ICA London's 2015 Book of the Year, and the short-fiction collection Contrivances. He has written about art and culture for the Globe and Mail, the GuardianFrieze, Artforum, The Believer and others, and is currently editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Canadian Art.