Nearly every bit of children’s media that adults also happen to enjoy inevitably gets twisted into some darker story: Ash Ketchum is in a coma, Hogwarts is an imaginary sanctuary for an abused child, and My Neighbor Totoro is really about a horrific crime.
The difference between media that embraces this temptation rather than having that temptation thrust upon it by adult fans is that the former allows the story to go to dark places and venture out of them (just as the characters of Over the Garden Wall do), whereas the latter makes the darkness the journey. Interpreting Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts as an imaginary refuge even within the confines of fiction robs the story of any message other than that life is painful and nothing matters. Over the Garden Wall instead allows both ideas to be true—life is dark, scary, and sometimes painful, but there are also people and stories and wonderful things there, too.
Over the Garden Wall anticipates attempts to turn the story into one of bleakness by using one of its primary characters, Wirt, to voice the overdramatic nihilism of a poetry-obsessed teen, but doesn’t sacrifice ultimate message of persistence. Wirt’s flowery, deterministic monologues (“I am lost, my wounded heart resides back home—in pieces—strewn about the graveyard of my lost love,” for example) aren’t devalued or dismissed as incorrect, but he is repeatedly shown that that isn’t the only way to think.
Like the fairy tales that inspire its aesthetics, the miniseries and comics are enraptured with darkness, but with a modern, less dire twist. These aren’t stories that warn of the perils of venturing outside, disobeying your parents, and being curious—instead, they’re concerned with the problems of pessimism, of nihilism, and of letting fear paralyze you into inaction.
The miniseries follows Wirt and Greg, half brothers who have stumbled into a Victorian-esque fairy tale world with talking animals (such as Beatrice, a human turned bluebird who promises to escort them to Adelaide, the “good woman of the woods”), curses, and steamboats full of frogs in fancy outfits. Each episode of the miniseries is, in part, a struggle between Greg’s unflinching optimism and Wirt’s absurd, self-indulgent pessimism. While the immediate goal of the characters is to find their way through the forests of the Unknown and return home, the more present fear is that of the Beast, who encourages characters to give in to pessimism, to surrender to inaction, to feed his lantern with their souls.
The show ends with the revelation that the two nearly drowned, with the Unknown representing a liminal space between life and death. A small detail in the final scene of the miniseries confirms that, despite the storyline’s explicit connection with death, the two kids are indeed alive, brought home not by divine intervention or left in an ambiguous state—they live, and the Unknown is real.
In the liminal space of the Unknown, they travel through multiple fairy tale-inspired parables that push them down a path not of pure, unthinking optimism—even Greg has lessons to learn—but of perseverance despite their fear. The danse macabre of “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee,” the revelations of “Into the Unknown” and the way that Wirt blames everybody but himself for his inability to act; these are the tests they must endure to learn that inaction in the face of fear and despair is a kind of disastrous surrender.
Over the Garden Wall is a completely story—there seems to be no need for comics to flesh it out, as the boys have traveled through the woods and learned the valuable lesson they needed to learn. But the central theme of perseverance isn’t something that’s overcome once, and the comics, written and illustrated by a variety of creators, expand on the world of the Unknown by allowing Greg and Wirt to return at night and live out even more fairy tale-esque adventures in their dreams.
Where the comics, both the “Into the Unknown” limited run and the ongoing series, do best is flesh out the world of the Unknown into a place that’s not just a vehicle for Wirt and Greg’s much-needed lesson learning, but also a living, breathing space whose characters are more than the archetypes they appear. It’s revealed at the end of the miniseries that the Woodsman’s erratic behavior and wood gathering is an attempt to keep his daughter’s soul alive in the lantern, but the comic takes it a step further—like Wirt was never truly a pilgrim, the Woodsman was never a Woodsman. A city man, trapped by fear of the unknown, he knows nothing of how to live in the woods, especially after his wife dies and leaves him and his daughter, Anna, alone. When Anna sneaks out to gather firewood after dark, he believes she’s lost forever to the Beast–in fact, they missed each other in the woods and the Beast uses the Woodsman’s fear to trap him, tasking him with gathering edelwood to power the lantern that keeps the Beast alive.
The ongoing series fleshes Anna out, showing another character constrained by fear. She mustn’t leave their homestead, or the Beast will get her as surely as it did her father. But this isn’t a typical fairy tale, where she disobeys the lessons imparted to her by her parents and is punished; instead, her isolation makes her more and more fearful. It’s her mother’s ghost that encourages her to venture outside, reminding her that to live inside, away from everybody, is to hardly live at all. And when she listens, things don’t immediately work out—it takes time, but she makes a new friend and ventures out of her self-imposed prison, just as her father does in the end of the miniseries when he defeats the Beast by overcoming fear and smashing the lantern.
As much as we romanticize fairy tales today, the fact remains that they are largely stories of death and horror, usually to warn children of the world’s dangers. Over the Garden Wall, then, is a fairy tale, but not in the obviously traditional sense. It warns not of monsters or wolves in grandmother’s clothing or murdering husbands, encouraging us to stay indifferent and obedient, but rather of the dangers of inaction and pessimism, which keep us trapped in a destructive cycle. Traditional fairy tales teach us patience, restraint, and fear; Over the Garden Wall teaches us to forge ahead anyway, because inaction and apathy are the true dangers.
It does this not in spite of its creepy aesthetics and occasionally dark humor, but because of them. Episode two, “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee,” makes no secret of the fact that this is a town of death, with its inhabitants being skeletons wearing pumpkins and gourds. Numerous characters tell Wirt that he’s not ready yet, that people don’t tend to pass through the town of Pottsfield (aptly, and not subtly, named for potter’s fields—places where poor people were buried, often en masse), and that someday he’ll join them there, but the key word is always yet.
The message of the series and its offshoot comics is not that bad things never happen and we should all be as unthinkingly optimistic as Greg (who learns this important lesson in “Babes in the Wood,” another apt and decidedly unsubtle reference to the traditional children’s story of the same name), but that the way we see the world is as much a part of our experience as the events that actually occur. The “Hunt for Hero Frog” arc is split into two pieces, one from Greg’s perspective (written by Danielle Burgos and illustrated by Jim Campbell) and one from Wirt’s (written by Kiernan Sjursen-lien and illustrated by Cara McGee). Greg’s vision of the scene is brightly colored, gently rounded, and filled with goofy lines about dentistry, while Wirt’s is dark, gloomy, and full of fears about irrelevance, up until he’s eaten by a demonic horse. He lives, of course, because you can’t learn a lesson if you don’t live through it, but we, as readers, never know whether one story was more true than the other or whether they each truly did experience their own version.
Without deliberate storytelling, such a message could feel wishy-washy. Be positive, but not too positive. Be realistic, but not too realistic. Be just afraid enough. But because everything in Over the Garden Wall is written with the intent to subvert and surprise, and its characters themselves are genre-savvy, the result is instead surprising, fresh, and fun. The playfulness of the art styles in both the miniseries—sometimes drab and autumn-toned, occasionally bright and unnervingly Fleischer-esque, other times straight out of realistically-rendered trypophobic nightmares—and the comics, though the use of multiple illustrators, lend even its darkest moments a feeling of levity, a reminder that not everything is as dark as it appears at first glance.