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Henry Speaks For Himself
posted March 4, 2014
John Liney, from the character and milieu created by Carl Anderson
Fantagraphics, softcover, 160 pages, 2014, $24.99.
What an odd book! Henry
is Carl Anderson's long-running newspaper feature best-known for its mute protagonist and a doggedness in terms of sticking around on the comics page long that alarmed veteran newspaper strip readers for whom such life-extended efforts are more than common. The comics are from the comic-book adventures that supplemented the strip, and were much more directly the work of longtime Henry
artist John Liney. In them, Henry speaks: in captions, through thought bubbles, and via word balloon. It's strange to see if you're used to newspaper Henry -- you feel like he's speaking out of turn -- and sort of weird just in general. Henry talks around his adventures, and pushes you through them, and addresses the readers directly and talks to those in his observed reality. It's a positively wordy experience, so much so that some of the silent tableaux settle into the page with surprising power.
The comics here strike me as solid kids entertainment. The main driver of several stories seems to be Henry physically walking from one permutation of a central problem to the next, like a restless performer moving stage to stage, an actor forced to shoot in one long take what might have been better broken up into more concrete scenes -- an intriguing effect for an art form that counts on panels, rows and pages. It therefore has that lovely disconnect from reality that some of the best kids comics offer, the sense that the entire thing is a construct, or performance, as opposed to observed reality. When I was a kid I saw this kind of thing as a sort of admission of defeat from animators and comics-makers that didn't have the skill-set to make reality drop away and immerse me in some cartoon world: I'm not so desperate to leave my own reality now, and it's hard not to feel some sympathy for a performer as game as Liney seems at times. In my favorite, "Henry Peeks Into The Future," Liney shakes multi-panel gags from simple body positioning and the freakier qualities of the lead's design. It's like watching a kindly uncle hold a group of kids' attention with half a playing card deck and a half-dollar rescued from the railroad tracks. The production choices here are straightforward and unobtrusive, almost the opposite of what tends to get done with some of these reprints featuring second- or third-tier creators. I could read a thousand pages, although I'm not sure there's a single panel I need to see.