Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Entry 55: Camp Weedonwantcha

The thing about children is that they are the most vulnerable members of the human race. The other thing about children is that not only have they not fully integrated societal norms into their worldview, they typically don’t have a fully developed sense of morals at all, or even necessarily an understanding that other people have their own thoughts and feelings and capacity to feel pain.

If a group of children have no adult caretakers, they won’t be capable of taking care of themselves because they don’t know how. As for taking care of each other, not only do they lack the skill and the reasoning ability, they may not even realize that other people have needs at all, let alone what those needs are and how to meet them. Today we’ll take a look at just about the most lighthearted take one could have on a group of children left to fend for themselves without the support of adults or the outside world, Camp Weedonwantcha.

The premise of Camp Weedonwantcha is that children whose families want to get rid of them drop them off at the eponymous camp, never to return. The reader only gets glimpses into characters’ backstory that hint at how they arrive and provide grounds for speculation as to how the parents discovered Camp Weedonwantcha’s existence or how it came to be at all. The circumstances that may have compelled particular families and society at large to allow a place like that to form are left to the imagination, and the comic concerns itself entirely with what happens once the kids are already there.

Camp Weedonwantcha is a funny comic, but it’s necessarily a dark humor. These kids deal with injuries, food shortages, and quite literal abandonment issues in a hostile and uncaring environment. There’s no proper medical care around, so kids have to make do with what they already know or what they can figure out on their own (or just make up) when they get hurt. And given that people get injured fairly often when spending time outdoors, and that even adults rely on professional medical care for many of their injuries, the population of Camp Weedonwantcha on a whole is slowly deteriorating as none of their serious infections, injuries or diseases receive proper treatment.

It’s easy to make Camp Weedonwantcha sound much darker and more disturbing than it is. While the harshness of the setting is acknowledged, the comic’s tone is far lighter and more fun than might be expected. I bring my own perspective to the comic reading it as an adult, but the perspectives in the comic are all those of the children at the camp. Attitudes differ from child to child, and some embrace their circumstances more readily than others, but none of them have enough life experience to picture exactly how wrong things are for them.

So lots of the kids just make the best of a bad situation. Even the ones who are depressed, or who refuse to just accept their circumstances, tend to focus on minor details. There’s no “I’m going to slowly starve to death” or “one day this building will collapse and I don’t have any way to fix it;” there’s “I left my favorite toy where I can’t get to it anymore” and “I don’t have a comfortable and private place to poop.”

Granted, I imagine most adults in that kind of situation would focus on specific annoyances, too. Big issues can be difficult to process, and sometimes fully feeling an emotional response to one’s circumstances would be too much to handle, so a person will compartmentalize. Individual characters find their own ways of coping, through denial or distraction. They don’t allow themselves to feel the full weight of their losses, because they can’t. They wouldn’t be able to go on.

That denial and distraction is what makes Camp Weedonwantcha, the comic, bearable for readers, just as much as it makes the camp bearable for those living there. The kids play games, get involved in schoolyard drama, and seem to hold onto their humanity despite their inhumane environment.

The focal character is Malachi, a relatively new arrival in Camp Weedonwantcha, who is still unfamiliar with most of the details that other characters have already grown to accept and take for granted. That lets the reader learn things as they are explained to Malachi. Notably, we don’t see Malachi when he first gets to the camp, so though the newcomer-as-justification-for-exposition device is used, the reader is still left in the dark as to exactly what happened, how he transitioned from being a kid with a family to one of the abandoned campers.

In a way, there is no outside world. From a reader’s viewpoint, Camp Weedonwantcha contains only this abandoned campground and these abandoned kids. Backstories and supply drops don’t change the fact that our direct observations are limited to a small and isolated environment. Camp Weedonwantcha and its inhabitants might as well be all that exist.

Since I’m someone who likes speculation about my comics, I keep asking myself questions about Camp Weedonwantcha’s provenance. Clearly at some point it was a regular summer camp, judging by the buildings and so forth that are still there. Said buildings are now falling into disrepair, as no adults are around to maintain them or bring in materials to rebuild when something is damaged. I have to wonder if any organization is actually “running” Camp Weedonwantcha, if it’s just a drop-off spot that parents share with others who are looking to abandon their children, or even if the abandoned children were never intended to arrive in that place specifically, or just all happened to be dropped off close enough to camp that they found their way.

Occasional supply drops fall in from the sky, which would support the idea that someone knows these kids are there and is taking steps to look after them, but the nature of the “supplies” is variable at best. I get the impression that the crates dropped onto the campground may be less intended to provide for the children, and more to find a dumping ground for unwanted goods. Every supply drop that’s been directly shown in the comic is either harmful or, at best, neutral. It’s implied that some supply drops do contain food, because there’s no other clear way for the kids to have obtained what food stores they have, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the food is expired or otherwise deemed unfit for consumption.

There is definite continuity to Camp Weedonwantcha, and one installment pretty reliably follows the previous one, but for the most part there’s no overarching narrative. Plenty of installments stand on their own, and when there are longer stories, they typically last for a few pages before the comic moves on. So feel free to read from the beginning, or jump in wherever you like.

The comic’s depth increases as time goes by, and the setting and characters become established enough that there’s room to explore individuals without losing sight of the whole. Camp Weedonwantcha is an ensemble piece, but it’s hard to get emotionally invested in a collective story. A connection with an individual character makes that easier, and when Camp Weedonwantcha starts focusing, for a moment at a time, on individuals, it becomes more moving. My favorite story so far begins here.

We even start to see the way that kids are forming families-by-choice, after their birth families abandoned them. That kind of dynamic, the friends who are so close as to become family, shows up stories, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to PVP. As often as it’s used, it never feels any less powerful or less capable of bringing a tear to my eye.

Camp Weedonwantcha is written and drawn by Katie Rice, and the longer it goes the better it gets. I recommend it to people with a dark sense of humor. There are laughs, there’s pathos, there are mysteries if you want to look for them. It’s fun and heartbreaking at the same time, which is one of those balances that very few works of fiction ever manage to achieve, but I love it every time someone manages to pull it off.

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