Patrick McHale & Jim Campbell Climb Over the Garden Wall One Last Time in Four-Issue Comic Miniseries

Comics Features

Despite lasting short of 115 minutes, Patrick McHale’s Over the Garden Wall miniseries for Cartoon Network scales epic ambitions that transcend its runtime. The 10-episode story follows step brothers Greg, a frog-loving adolescent whose non-sequiturs rival Mitch Hedberg’s, and Wirt, a neurotic teenager who records poetry and clarinet cassettes. The pair inexplicably finds itself marching through a folk-fantasy wonderland with the singular goal to find home. While that description may sound familiar—a clear design choice by its authors—the context shifts magnificently from episode to episode, pivoting from genres at a breakneck pace without ever losing a singular vision.


Debut episode “The Old Grist Mill” channels the Brothers Grimm’s fatalistic doom in the tale of a manic woodsman (Christopher Lloyd) who warns of an ominous beast, while the brothers battle a dog who transforms into a feral monster after ingesting black turtles (a recurring, unexplained sight throughout the series). Other episodes revel in the glow of Silly Symphony-era musicals, 1800s folk and John Hughes rom-com sincerity. And it all works together beautifully. Brave, bizarre and intoxicating, McHale offers the same element of surprise that marks his run as creative director/writer on Adventure Time and his quirky mystery novella, Bags.

Now, McHale and original storyboard artist Jim Campbell shift media for a final exploration of what lies Over the Garden Wall. Following a comic special that coincided with the show last November, KaBOOM! is releasing four standalone tales, the first of which is out today. Paste chatted on the phone with McHale about the emerging legacy of his show, how the comics medium affects his storytelling and the addictive music behind it all. (That’s a rock fact.)

Paste: This comic is set between the third and fourth episodes of the cartoon. This is also a divide between one of the most light-hearted episodes, “Schooltown Follies,” and when things get a little more dark and adult, in “Songs of the Dark Lantern.” This first issue is definitely more whimsical and humorous, as was the previous one shot special with the wayward soldiers and land schooners. What’s drawing you to explore the more light-hearted side of Over the Garden Wall?
Patrick McHale: This comic is set between episodes three and four, but the second comic is between episodes four and five and the third episode is between episodes five and six. And the fourth comic is about the Woodsman and his daughter. It does get a little closer to the darker second half of the series as it goes. It’s not really cohesive—it’s just additional things that fit in with the rest of the show.

That said, it does veer more towards the lighter side of things, mostly because it works better for comics. When doing some stuff, I have a sense of how to build the mood or make something creepy. In comics, I really don’t know how to do that. Some people can, but maybe because I’m new to comics, it’s hard for me to think that way without music. If there’s no music, it’s more fun to go with the lighter side of things and make it more about the visuals and jokes.

Over the Garden Wall #1 Interior Art by Jim Campbell

Paste: Were the stories in the comics created initially for the cartoon series? I know you’d initially planned for 18 episodes…
McHale: Well, back when I pitched Tome of the Unknown right out of college, back then I had big plans for my future. I said if this ever got picked up, I’d do three seasons. When I actually started working in the industry, and then it all developed into actually making this miniseries, I was told to brainstorm and lay it out ideally how I’d want it as a finite story, and then we would discuss it.

I wrote 18 premises—it felt nice. I said that fills out everything in detail. And then for the amount of time we had to finish it, and our deadline and all that stuff, well we could only do 10. So I had to chop it down a little bit.

Paste: So were stories you’re going to be telling in the comic thought out for the cartoon series, or are they recent creations?
McHale: A lot of ideas from those additional episodes were mashed together or re-used in different ways for what actually became the series. So it wasn’t like they were these things that were already written that I could just use; it was more like there were these two characters that were supposed to be in an episode that never ended up in an episode, and now I have to write a story for them.

Paste: Greg’s non sequiturs and punchlines work out beautifully for the comic format, especially the food magician bit. Is it easier to write some characters in this form than in cartoon scripts?
McHale: Not necessarily. Writing comics is still weird for me because I’m not drawing it, whereas with animation we usually write an outline and then go right to storyboard. So it’s like you’re writing it and drawing it at the same time. With comics, I’m writing a script and giving it to [illustrator] Jim [Campbell] to do the art. It’s sort of a disconnect. I get a lot more wordy…I mean the show is already wordy enough, and then the comics are already more wordy. I’m just sitting there with words in front of me. So with some of the wordplay stuff, I have a little more time to play around, because that’s the only color that I have to work with.

I don’t know if it’s necessarily easier. It’s more just me overcompensating for not knowing if it’s going to play well. What is good is that all comics are being drawn by Jim, and he’s incredible. He worked on the show. He knows the characters, he knows everything so well. I don’t have any anxiety about that part. It’s a new medium for me, so it’s a little bit tricky.

Paste: I felt like the cartoon maintains a very loving regard for other ‘30s cartoons, mainly Max Fleischer and Silly Symphonies. Did you look back to the comics of the era at all? How much did the works of guys like Winsor McCay inspire this?
McHale: That’s actually something that Jim and I talked about. As we’re going into just doing comics we’re looking more at printed material for inspiration. With the first special that was released a while back, we were looking at Edward Lear drawings for inspiration for those sea captain guys. With the new one we were looking at folk art, but then also old printed material—old comics, old EC Horror comics for issue two. Yes. So…yes. [Laughs]

Over the Garden Wall #1 Interior Art by Jim Campbell

Paste: Have you ever read Kate Beaton’s work at all? I have to ask if it’s an inspiration on Ms. Langtree from “Schooltown Follies.”
McHale: I don’t think directly. The character was created for [ukulele player and vocalist] Janet Klein, who was the voice of that character. When the show was getting greenlit, that was one of my first things—I really wanted to get Janet Klein, so I wrote that character for her. And then Laura Park and Jim Campbell boarded that episode, so Laura designed the character in the storyboard. So that’s the style that she can do. I want to say how amazing an artist she is without sounding insincere. Her stuff is so amazing, but it’s hard to say it on the phone.

Originally, the character was based on old dolls. She had that long neck, which none of the other characters had.

Paste: Have you been to any comic conventions recently?
McHale: No.

Paste: The reason I ask is that I was at San Diego Comic-Con and saw multiple Wirt and Greg cosplayers. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the response to Over the Garden Wall has been overwhelmingly positive. You ended the miniseries on a very definite note. Is there any discussion or likelihood of Over the Garden Wall’s world continuing beyond Greg and Wirt’s narrative?
McHale: No. I don’t think so. It’s sort of like that story is part of them and the fall. There are sensibilities in the show that are just things that I’m interested in, and that I’d love to continue investigating for most of my career. I don’t think it would be a True Detective Season Two type thing with Over the Garden Wall.

Paste: Moving onto the characters, the divide between Greg and Wirt is a lot of fun, especially how both respond to very adult situations. Is Greg based on your son at all? Where does Wirt come from? I saw the tweet about you remembering listening to David Bowie on the floor of your parent’s house, and that sounded very Wirt-like to me.
McHale: No, Greg isn’t based on my son. Greg was based on me as a kid, pretty much. My son wasn’t born until I was already making it. There’s not really a connection except my son is pretty funny, and so is Greg.

Sort of the concept of Wirt and Greg for me was that they’re not me, but Greg is inspired by the younger me and Wirt is inspired by the teenage me, and having them hang out, and not necessarily get along, but learning the value of each other. There are pieces of other people I know in both of them. I was thinking of my friend [episode #9 storyboard artist] Vi [-dieu Nguyen] when I was thinking of Wirt’s dialogue. And then, from pilot to series, [voice actor] Elijah [Wood] influenced how we wrote Wirt, too. The poetry stuff came out of us wanting to hear Elijah do that, and how he would make it really funny if he was reciting this stuff, so it evolved out of that.

Over the Garden Wall #1 Interior Art by Jim Campbell

Paste: I also had an epiphany when Beatrice exclaims Jiminy Cricket in “Mad Love.” But she’s such a subversion of the angel on Wirt’s shoulder. For most of the comics and cartoon, she’s trying to find her own conscience and inspiring Wirt’s confidence.
McHale: Yeah! Since you mentioned that phrase, the thing with Beatrice is that it’s really hard to write her for a kid’s show. When I picture her speaking normally, I feel like she’s saying a lot of bad words. We had to get creative with how to phrase her lines so they felt really biting and sharp, without using bad words. And then to have [Beatrice voice actress] Melanie [Lynskey]’s beautiful voice, bouncing it off was fun for her.

At first she came about as sort of the guide, the blue bird of happiness, the fairy guide character. But I wanted her to have this sort of dark past that she was hiding, which is the reason she has that chip on her shoulder the whole time. There were a lot of different versions of what that might have been as we were developing the story. It became what it becomes.

Paste: The music is a huge part of the cartoon, and you’ve continued that thread by including sheet music in the back of the comics. The first issue of your new miniseries includes the theme song. Are you considering new music for the comic series? How much would it take to include MP3s in the digital comics? I have to be honest: I tried playing the theme song but it has four sharps in the verse, a key change and four flats in the chorus. That’s daunting. [Laughs]
McHale: I don’t think so, but the four comics that are going to be released will each end with one page of sheet music. And I think issue #3 is going to be a song that wasn’t in the show; it’ll just be a new song for the comic.

What we are doing is there’s a tape cassette that Mondo is releasing that will have all new music. [Laughs] It’s funny to talk about. It’s all new music. It’s Wirt’s tape from episode #9; the tape that Greg takes from him. Poetry and clarinet. It’s going to be about 20 minutes of content. It’ll be clarinet music with Elijah reading poetry and stuff over it. It should be pretty neat.

Paste: I know you’re directing the Costume Quest cartoon. What are you up to after that?
McHale: I’m helping out with [Costume Quest]. Zac Gorman, who also worked on Over the Garden Wall, he wrote it and worked on the characters. I’m mostly just helping with the process of getting it together. But I think it’s looking good. And then after that…it’s hard to say. There are some things that may or may not go that I can’t really talk about. I’m trying to develop stuff that’s amazing.

It’s funny that a show came out about a year ago, and now we’re doing press again because of the DVD and the comics and the tape. It’s kind of fun.

Over the Garden Wall #1 Interior Art by Jim Campbell

Paste: Is it weird returning to script comics in this world again?
McHale: It was trickier than I thought it would be because they have to fit in between the other episodes. It’s tricky to make sure that the motions are right in context of the other episodes. But those characters, at this point, are pretty fun and easy to write. Just the banter is fun.

Paste: Is this the last time we’ll be over the garden wall?
McHale: Umm….I think so. But I’ve said so before, too. [Laughs] And then there were these four comics that popped up. Who knows, but I think so. I think this is it.

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