Autumn is finally upon us—time for hot apple cider, crunchy leaves, decorative gourds, and of course, my annual rewatch of Over the Garden Wall. It’s not every day that something becomes a holiday classic as instantly as this charming cartoon miniseries did in 2014, but its charming rural spookiness and heart have cemented it as an integral part of my fall traditions. So naturally, I was thrilled this year to be able to add something new to my fall ritual, with the release of the newest Over the Garden Wall comic miniseries, Soulful Symphonies.
Over the Garden Wall: Soulful Symphonies TPB
Mike Fiorentino (letterer), Rowan MacColl (artist), Dean Stuart (colorist), Birdie Willis (author)
August 19, 2020
The premise of Soulful Symphonies has the charming simplicity you’d expect from this franchise. In their travels throughout the Unknown, Wirt, Greg and Beatrice stumble upon an eerily empty hamlet that houses a theater run by three sisters—friendly but soft-spoken Sophie, and creepy and overbearing Mezz and Altimra. They encourage Greg and Wirt to audition and then immediately cast them in their mysterious show. But in the Unknown, nothing is as it seems, and as they practice for their performance, the Fantasma Theater and the sisters who run it begin to feel increasingly sinister.
Over the Garden Wall has a very distinct vibe, and the comic does a great job cultivating that same vibe. Issue #1 starts by waxing poetic about the art of acting in a way that’s both cryptic and meaningful, and I can practically hear it in the voice of the narrator, quaint music playing in the background. The dialogue is flawless, perfectly encapsulating the personalities of the main characters. Greg is delightfully whimsical, Wirt is relatably morose, and Beatrice is Done with a capital D. My favorite dialogue interaction is also in issue #1, when Wirt chastises Greg for trying to give away a song because it’s intangible. (“Well, what about giving people hugs? Or giving thanks?”) Also, like the show, music plays a significant role, and several songs are featured both inside and outside the theater. Unfortunately, singing doesn’t translate as well into comics as cartoons, for obvious reasons, and I mainly found myself disappointed that I didn’t get to hear how the songs actually go. But overall, I love the idea of a story about the theater—it’s perfect for Wirt, who is too dramatic for his own good at all times.
Rowan MacColl’s art also does a good job of establishing that vibe without being too stylistically similar to the show. The art feels a little unrefined at times, but in no way do I mean that as a put-down. There’s a scribbliness to it that I really enjoy—it has character and does an excellent job conveying emotions. (It captures Wirt’s anxiety, for instance, in a way that feels like what having anxiety feels like.)
It also gives the art space to lean into being genuinely scary. For instance, characters in the background are often depicted as just creepy, black scribbled silhouettes—and sometimes figures like that are just there, not really representing anyone who was in the scene, unnoticed and un-commented on by the actual characters. Like the show, Soulful Symphonies fosters a creeping sense of foreboding by setting up situations that are off in subtle ways. Greg and Wirt don’t seem to notice that they don’t know what the play they’re rehearsing for is actually about or that there don’t seem to be any other actors—but once you think about it, isn’t that weird?
The comic also manages to really get at something about the human condition. Right from the beginning, it deals with the concept of artistic jealousy, and I always enjoy when a piece of art is self-referential about what it’s like to be an artist. Sophie’s struggle is about working hard to be a talented singer, but still feeling like everyone else is naturally better than her. I think most artists can relate to this struggle, but they also know what she ultimately has to learn, which is that your art is a part of you, and you can’t try to copy someone else’s art without taking away a piece of themself with it.
But it goes even deeper than that. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a story about regret and feeling trapped by mistakes you’ve made in the past. It’s about feeling too paralyzed by fear and the possibility of failure to even try to make your situation better. And it’s about taking responsibility, accepting forgiveness and allowing yourself to ask others for help. Like many people, asking for help is something I really struggle with, and it felt almost like this comic was speaking directly to me: thinking you have to do everything yourself to avoid being a burden can create situations that are hurtful to yourself and those around you, but letting people who care about you help makes you stronger and together, you can uplift everyone. So the way this comic succeeds as an Over the Garden Wall story is by helping the reader look inward—and always in a kind and healing way.
Another thing I always liked about Over the Garden Wall was the fact that it was a miniseries. Some franchises tend to go on and on, past the point when they lost whatever it was that made them great in the first place. I appreciated the artistic integrity of making ten standalone episodes and declaring it complete. But the comics have been a great compromise: they scratch the itch for more content, but because they all take place during the events of the show, fleshing out what was happening between episodes, they still feel integrated with the initial, complete story. Soulful Symphonies is no exception, adding immersion to the world of the Unknown without taking anything away from the original vision.
As the narrator says at the beginning, life is a performance and we have to make decisions about what kind of character we want to be. There’s a lot of foreshadowing in Over the Garden Wall: Soulful Symphonies that ties back to this idea, but foreshadowing that ties into the reader’s own life—that is a real accomplishment.