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Monday, January 2, 2017

Mormon Schulz: Scott Hales' _Garden of Enid: Part One_ and _Mormon Shorts_

Sunday mornings were special. I would pad out in my awesome, baby blue, 80's footy pajamas, look through the Sunday paper, and find the color. For as long as I can remember, comics were a part of my life (I have the photos to prove it). Peanuts, Garfield, Foxtrot, Sherman's Lagoon, Mother Goose and Grimm, and Calvin and Hobbes were personal favorites, but everything from the irreverent Farside to the much more innocent Family Circus were all welcome additions to my time sunbathing in the warm window light on my belly on the living room floor, feet lifted and crossed above me. Even Bloom County/Outland was a source of fascination for me, though I strained to understand its political context at that young age.

As I grew older, my love for comics didn't die, it just changed. I eventually crossed over to reading comics of a different kind, like X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, yet if there is a newspaper handy, I still almost always flip to the comics section to look for my old friends. As newspapers are becoming rarer in my life, though, I am now getting in the habit of buying the published collections of old comics. I have started reading my initial volumes of The Complete Peanuts to my six year old for her bedtime, and I find it incredibly bonding. My kids may not grow up with newspapers, but they will know who Charlie Brown and Hobbes are.   

So with my love of the medium, when Scott Hales started publishing his web comic Garden of Enid, I was attracted to its mix of whimsical humor; literary undergirding; soul searching pathos; and obscure references to Mormon history, arts, and culture. Just blend up all my favorite things into one tasty smoothy, whydontcha? The writing is whip-smart, the references often subtle, and the humor human, humane, and hilarious.  

Enid v. Team Eliza
5/29/2014Like many of the comic's initial readers, at first I was fooled into believing that Garden of Enid was really written by a precocious, 15-year-old, Mormon girl with a geeky, feminist, artistic bent. The revelation that it was written by 30-something year old Scott Hales, someone I already knew and admired, was kind of a delicious twist. I figured it out on my own when I saw Scott posting a lot of Enid comics on Facebook and I point blank messaged him and asked if he was Enid.

Discovering the man behind the curtain made Enid no less real to me, though. I followed her regularly, and was sincerely invested in her faith crises, her strained relationship with her mother, her heartbreak at EFY, her theological ponderings, and her well intentioned, but sometimes awkward attempts to connect with her gay Mormon friend Kyle (whom she had previously had a crush on). Her discussions with dead Mormon cultural icons were a personal favorite. Some of them are rather obscure, some well known, some flat out the Book of Abraham Mummy! The Mummy is rad, though I love Joseph Smith's wry wit the best. (I would love to see Enid have some of her snarky discussions with Parley P. Pratt sometime, especially since the dog who chased Pratt, Stu-Boy, has already made a cameo in Hales' comics. Or maybe even some modern Mormons like Stephenie Meyer or Mitt Romney).

Enid vs. The Noise
4/9/2014As fun as splashes of color were in the Sunday Comics, I also loved the daily black and white comics growing up, because they had stories and character arcs. Charles Schulz was a master at this, bringing Peanuts beyond the gags and one-offs of a comic like Far Side (which was brilliant, even so), and raising it to artistic and literary levels, buttressed by contemplative philosophy and expert character development that only got better with time. Hales has accomplished something similar in Enid and her supporting cast: they go beyond stereotype and feel like real human beings.

There was a reason so many people believed the strip was the autobiographical musings of a 15-year-old Mormon girl... Enid felt authentic. Her thoughts and feelings seemed like they were coming from a real place. And, in a way, I think they were. Though Hales' later creation Wyler, who shows up in Enid and then later spins off into his own adventures, seems like a more likely candidate for autobiography (in part because he has a passing resemblance to Hales), I still think Enid is the more personal character, carrying much of Hales conflicted relationship with faith, doubt, mindfulness, introversion, empathy, fun-loving geekiness, intellectual curiosity, art, literature, charity, and culture. As much as I love Hales' later creations--like Wyler, and the fun characters who hang out in his newer Mormon Shorts strip, such as the Mormon Snowpeople (a nod to Bill Watterson?), and the Elders-with-babies in the Church foyer who discuss politics and culture--I still prefer Enid. She still shows up occasionally in Mormon Shorts, but her main storyline is over for now, and it ended on a wonderfully bittersweet note. I hope that Hales will consider an encore for Enid. Often an author or cartoonist will be known for a particular character or cast, and I think Enid is that character for Hales. She is his masterstroke.

“The Father’s Lounge: Christmas Edition
Thankfully, Greg Kofford Books has collected Garden of Enid, and Mormon Shorts was self-published, in formats that remind me of the collected Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes books I grew up reading. Part One of The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl is already available, and Part Two becomes available this upcoming Valentines Day 2017. Mormon Shorts: Volume 1 is also available, all of them from Kofford Books and online resources like Amazon. What I've especially liked in The Garden of Enid: Part One that I didn't get from the webcomic (besides the format of a book, which I find much easier to read and follow) is the Selected Notes and Commentary that is included in the back of the book. It give insight into the meaning invested, and the process Hales went through, as Garden of Enid made its evolution.  The book also contains unpublished comics that weren't included in the original run, for one reason or another.

Mormon Shorts, on the other hand, has Mormon "microfiction" included beside the comics, which are humorous, Twitter-sized blurbs that are often as funny as the comics themselves. Again, the first volume of Mormon Shorts is more Far Side than Peanuts, so doesn't garner the same affection for me as Enid does, but it may at times have more laugh out loud moments with its genuinely funny satire. Mormon Shorts is much like the comics one could previously find in Mormon culture sources... like the comics that would show up in the New Era or Sunstone, or the work of Pat Bagley. It is much of that flavor.

Enid vs. Required Reading
3/12/2014On the other hand, Enid gave us something more unique, more heartfelt, more wonderfully obscure... yes, more intellectual, but also more soulful and universal. Its humor has a bit of pang to it, and its pathos a bit of whimsy. It's in this tradition which I hope Hales follows more as his Mormon Shorts are infested more with characters to follow, such as Wyler and some more glimpses of Enid, while also giving time to the cultural stand-ins that poke fun, have fun, and satirize. It's Enid and her ilk, though, that make culture rather than merely reflecting culture, and I hope to see plenty of her frizzy, pom-pom pig-tails in Hales' future work.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy whatever Scott Hales creates and be buying every volume he and Greg Kofford Books put out. Scott Hales is the closest thing we have to a Mormon Schulz and his characters deserve the accolades they have received.

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