Gary’s Garden is a sprawling and witty ensemble piece from an ever inventive creator at the very forefront of the current renaissance in UK children’s comics.
Originally published in the pages of UK weekly children’s comic The Phoenix, the first collected volume of Gary’s Garden – acclaimed cartoonist Gary Northfield’s wonderfully batty comic strips focusing on the adventures of the animal, bird and insect inhabitants of his back yard – is one of a number of compilations from the comic published this year by David Fickling Books under the banner of ‘The Phoenix Presents’.
Taking that small plot of land behind the esteemed artist’s domicile and focusing on the playful politics, eccentric interplay and downright daftness of the fauna (and occasionally even the flora) therein may seem like a simple idea for a series but, as with the exploits of his kiddie dinosaurs in The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs! last year or his unforgettable Derek the Sheep of years past, Northfield proves adept once again at taking an elegant but unassuming premise and adding layer upon layer of inventive wit and madcap characterisation to it.
And what a curious cast of creatures reside at the back of Gary’s gaff! There’s the hyperactive, acorn-obsessed squirrel Rupert, blundering pigeon Penny (or “Podgy” as she’s known to the other avian occupants), and night-time ninjas Boris the fox and Monroe the hedgehog whose nocturnal combination of stealth and bungling in their attempts to raid Gary’s bins provides some of the best laughs in the entire comic. Every week in The Phoenix each spotlight on a different character (or combinations thereof) has run from between 1-4 pages meaning that this first volume of comics also represents an ideal opportunity for the younger reader to dip in and out of the book at their own leisure and reading speed.
What Gary’s Garden succeeds so well at providing is something that was echoed in last summer’s Teenytinysaurs. Once again we subconsciously connect with so many of his characters and their peculiar, individual fixations because first and foremost Northfield is projecting very human idiosyncrasies on them. Take the unfortunate Jennifer, for example, a tadpole whose siblings have long since made the change into tiny frogs and who embodies the awkwardness of the self-conscious late developer. Similarly Terrence the snail is a kind of stroppy gastropod version of Harry Enfield’s Kevin the teenager, defiantly pushing his boundaries and standing up to his patient, long-suffering mum.
Ninja fox Boris encounters the bog-eyed, hyperactive, acorn-hoarding squirrel Rupert
Ronald the spider’s surroundings may be somewhat more outlandish but, essentially, this failed performer forcing his wretched routines or musical interludes on his (literally) captive audience of flies is reminiscent of every wannabe bore whose aspirations outmatch their abilities. As all good comics where critters take on anthropomorphic attributes should (though in this case it needs noting that anthropomorphism is in terms of outlook not physical appearance), the narrative speaks to us as much about our own foibles as it does about those of its furry and slimy subjects.
What makes Northfield’s work so accessible for its genuine all-ages appeal. Kids will see these strips and simply identify with the wacky characters and their dippy doings while adult readers can interpret them from an entirely different vantage point. Indeed, Gary’s Garden is full of subtle and not-so-subtle references to pop culture, retro playground rituals and comics conventions that I’m sure will fly over the heads of some of its core demographic.
Ronald the spider’s showbiz pretensions seem doomed to failure…
That old comics/cartoon standby of a devil and an angel on a character’s shoulder representing his “good” and “bad” sides makes an early nostalgic appearance, for example, and the ERB pastiches of Larry the Ladybird, who sees himself as a Tarzan of the garden, and fellow ladybird John, who has Warlord of Mars-style journeys to the Red Planet (the neighbour’s garden), morph into a parody of a Republic serial (complete with dynamic cliffhanger!) when fellow crazy coleopteran comrade Doctor Zarpovia enlists their aid. It all means that while the kids have their own recurring characters with running gags (and soon to be familiar schticks) to follow there’s also a degree of fun familiarity for the adult reader too, ensuring that Gary’s Garden is a book that parents and children alike can read and share together.
Gary’s Garden is a likeably self-deprecating offering with Northfield setting himself up as on-page stooge for the cast’s hijinks – having his kitchen fall victim to an animal raiding party for example or being conspiratorially mocked from afar in his choice in headwear – and generally being the butt of their jokes. As the reader discovers the strange society that exists within the garden so too are that realm’s denizens slowly making sense of the human world and how best to exploit it! There’s something of the classic BBC animation Roobarb about the feel of this strip in places, not just in the sense of set-up but also in the slapstick energy that Northfield’s always absorbing cartooning embodies. So much of the charm of the oddball creations in this book comes from their lively visual design whether it evokes a feeling of the frantic, the sympathetic, the grotesque, or a sense of sheer buffoonery.
On every occasion that I review Northfield’s work I find myself noting that this is a comics artist who truly understands the core audience he is targetting. We speak a lot in the UK at the moment about the renaissance of comics in terms of both self-publishing and the literary graphic novel but the demise of comics for children has had far less attention. There is cause for celebrating, though, because we are seeing a slow but steady resurgence in this area as publishers like David Fickling Books, Walker Books and, recently, Jamie Smart’s Moose Kid Comics, continue to recognise that the audience for children’s comics never went away – it just stopped being catered for. Gary’s Garden is a sprawling and witty ensemble piece from an ever inventive creator at the very forefront of the current renaissance in UK children’s comics.
Gary Northfield (W/A) • David Fickling Books, £6.99, September 2014