Created by Scottish cartoonist AC Macdonald, Twistwood Tales feels like a webcomic from a bygone era, one that relished breaking free from the typical 4-panel restraints (and content limitations) of newspaper funnies to create something entirely new with the medium, to challenge the perceptions of what a “comic strip” could truly be. After debuting back in 2019 it quickly became an immediate sensation, especially on Twitter and Instagram.
With a gentle style and sensibility the kids would call cottagecore, the world of Twistwood Forest looks and feels like it exists somewhere between Jeff Smith’s Bone and Walt Kelly’s Pogo, with a dash of Tom Wilson’s Ziggy. Twistwood Tales, this book, collects nearly 160 pages of Macdonald’s webcomic in one irresistible paper package that suits its contents perfectly.
Be forewarned, though. Twistwood Tales requires patience and an open mind to fully appreciate its wildly unique atmosphere presented through lavishly illustrated panels that wouldn’t look out of place in a children’s book. While some of the comics may veer towards darker humor there’s not a shred of wickedness to them, while others offer enough low-hanging puns and sight gags to make Stephan Pastis jealous.
Most of the denizens of Twistwood Forest are literal depictions of what they are: Bucket Boy (much like the gaming star Cuphead) is just that: a boy with a bucket for a head, his two “eye holes” making it difficult to stay full for long. Loghead has a wooden log for a head, Knight Owl comes complete with helmet and lance, Rock Girl is a girl with a rock for a head (which makes swimming difficult), and so on. The Fairy Gourd Mother, naturally, is a darkly shrouded pumpkin-headed fairy that appears during Hallowe’en to give all the good little pumpkins a candle (you don’t want to know what she does with the bad ones).
Other than Bucket Boy the real breakout star seems to be the Doctor, a beak-nosed quacky sort rendered almost entirely in silhouette who’s much too eager to dispense questionable medical advice (to say the least) and has a penchant for amputations. There’s a new character on almost every page as mermaids, skeletons, goblins, knights, dragons, potato men, janitors, candies, lumberjacks and more join the cast…It’s a lot to keep up with. Maybe too much for some readers, honestly.
Macdonald is able to mine humor from their obvious visual opportunities but wise enough to never make their appearance their sole defining characteristics. Often, their attributes lead to obvious metaphors (a lantern-headed boy has self-confidence issues), others make obvious nods to their surreal nature, like when a chicken-headed muscleman breaks a goblin’s curse to return to his original form, which happens to be…a chicken. Another has a rule-breaking Pinocchio fishing with his extended nose, another follows Mr. Wolf pining for his old friend “Little Red”.
The comics alternate between one-off gags and larger connected stories, which is fine for a quick laugh but this erratic plotting can make it difficult for recurring storylines to find any real momentum. It’s interesting to observe how much the comic evolved in such a short time as newer entries begin to favor longer plots with more complex narratives instead of one-offs, just as the busy artwork starts to give way to more restrained, yet easier to follow illustrations. Perhaps a sign of things to come?
Twistwood Tales asks a lot of readers, possibly too much for a comic with such ambition, but there’s a cheerful earnestness to the whole affair that makes it worth the journey. Those unable, or unwilling, to buy into its unique aesthetic may not be into the vibe AC Macdonald is offering, but it’s hard not to appreciate a comic that dedicates itself to those “who enjoy fairy tales not grim, but twisted.” It will be interesting to see where Macdonald takes the adventures of the Twistwood Forest from here on.