The Webcomic Overlook #25: Gunnerkrigg Court
I’m going to make a statement that will make me sound like the perviest perv that ever perved. Or at least attract several nervous sidelong glances from random strangers on the internet. (How does that work, anyway?) But I can’t help it when reviewing webcomics for this site have, time and time again, support an undeniable truth.
I like webcomics featuring young schoolgirls.
Creepy, huh? A couple of months ago, I reviewed three webcomics prominently featuring schoolgirls — Minus, Aki Alliance, and Alma Mater — and I thoroughly loved each one. What are the chances? Did each creator craft a great webcomic on their own, and the whole “schoolgirl” theme is a happy accident? Or does the schoolgirl, or the popular concept of one, tend to infuse a webcomic with a mixture of mystery, romance, and sheer nuttiness that would not be present if the cast was made up of schoolboys or adults? Is there a dynamic where readers identify the principle characters with their little sisters?
Or maybe perhaps there’s something more sinister going on here? Are webcomic readers, predominantly male, I presume, subconsciously piqued by widespread culture taboos regarding underaged girls? Can we, in any way, blame this on the Japanese?
It’s time to explore these thoughts again, because we’re plunging back into the world of pressed uniforms and knee-high skirts. (And, at the risk of making me sound more like a creepy pederast, the school uniform and the innocence it embodies is essential to the appeal of these schoolgirl comics. I doubt there would be much demand for a comic where the main characters dressed like Bratz dolls.)
Today’s Webcomic Overlook reviews a series with a unique title that keeps tripping up my spell check: Tom Siddell’s Gunnerkrigg Court. The comic has won several Webcartoonists’ Choice Awards for Oustanding Story Concept, Outstanding Use of Color, Outstanding Long Form Comic, and Outstanding Newcomer.
The main character of Gunnerkrigg Court is a quiet yet headstrong young red-headed girl named Antimony. She is an orphan … or rather, functionally an orphan, since the whereabouts of her father is one of the comic’s mysteries. There are some inklings that her parents were well regarded sorcerors in a noble secret alliance. She is sent off to a boarding school called Gunnerkrigg Court. It is conducted in an imposing, ominous castle in a place that seems perpetually surrounded by darkness. Just outside this castle is a dense forest inhabited by fantastic and mystical beings.
If all this sounds suspiciously like a famous children’s book series about wizards where the hero has a lightning bolt scar on his forehead and, in the end, should have ended up with Hermione no matter what J.K. Rowling says… well, I can’t deny that there are quite a few similarities. Heck, at least one guest artist picked up on it. Early on, Antimony also seems to have picked up a blonde haired rival … not unlike Draco Malfoy. Also, she hangs around with a happy-go-lucky best friend named Kat who serves, from time to time, to stop Antimony from taking herself too seriously. Ron Weasley, anyone? She even has a small “cute” sidekick — a demon-possessed stuffed animal in fact — named Reynardine who follows her around everywhere. Admittedly, though this character never stoops to the level of pure, unadulterated annoyance as a certain Dobby the Elf.
However, maybe all this comes from a similar shared experience all British people have as school kids. Think about it: Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and Gunnerkrigg Court all originated from the same country. Frankly, I have no trouble believing that all British kids go to a gothic boarding school and are forced to learn potions and occlumency. Maybe we’re just all stupid Americans for assuming that it’s all fiction. Just watch your back if you spot someone with a Cockney accent wielding a magic wand, ya know what I’m saying?
Yet, despite the similarities, it’s not hard to see that Siddell is forging something unique. He didn’t win that Outstanding Story Concept award in vain, after all. From its onset, the world of Gunnerkrigg Court is rooted in steampunk and science fiction as much as it is rooted in fantasy. The Gunnerkrigg Court complex, it turns out, resembles a giant factory. It houses more than just a school. Take a wrong turn, for example, and you may find yourself in a world populated by robots.
The area across a large stone bridge, known as Gillitie Woods, is home to its own mysteries. This is a world where fairies, spectral shadows, and gods roam. The technological world of Gunnerkrigg Court and the mystical world of Gillitie Woods co-exist uneasily. As it always seems to turn out in epic fantasies, Antimony finds herself in the middle of both worlds. Siddell crafts both environments with such detail that it’s one of the few webcomic worlds that are a joy to experience. New environments, which are unique yet never incongruous, makes the comic world feel more vast than it actually is. You almost want to leap into Gunnerkrigg Court and walk the halls yourself, just to journey down one of the untraveled corridors to discover what new surprise awaits.
Another great aspect of Gunnerkrigg Court is its mood. This is a series, like the television series Lost or Jeff Smith’s Bone, where mystery is the main attraction. Gunnerkrigg Court is set in a world that the reader would find fantastic, yet the characters find it normal and mundane. This only heightens expectations when the story’s characters encounter something that they find unexplainable. The mystery begins early when Antimony encounters a pesky sentient shadow. From this point on, the reader encounters several strange things that may or may not have answers. For example, why are there mechanical birds patrolling the grounds? Why is the gym teacher some sort of uber-samurai? Why does one girl have blacked-out eyes?
And … do I really want to know what’s going on here?
Siddell’s artwork, which matches the story and it’s dark fantasy elements, wouldn’t look out of place in a Sandman comic. Like most webcomics, Gunnerkrigg Court evolves with every new page. The dark style remains, but it has become more polished and fluid. Antimony, who begins as a short girl with a football-shaped head, has evolved into a tallish, elegant young woman. It’s almost a commentary on Antimony’s maturity as she find herself more deeply ingrained in the conspiracies of the Court.
So far, I probably make Gunnerkrigg Court sound deep and oppressive and confusing and too convoluted for you to ever really enjoy without an Unauthorized Dummies’ Guide to the World of Gunnerkrigg Court Handbook, 3rd edition. But, to tell you the truth, this is one of the breeziest webcomics I have ever read. If I’d been so inclined, I could have probably read the entire series in one sitting. At first glance, this is no easy feat: Gunnerkrigg Court currently is 16 Chapters and 350 pages long. Yet, Siddell packs each page with more bang for the buck. Some webcomic artists like to cram their pages with dialogue because they don’t want to cheat their readers. Not with Gunnerkrigg. The art style is simple, the writing is sparse, and the economical style keeps the story and the action moving along. Siddell lets the story speak for itself, and it works.
It also helps that Siddell has a silly sense of humor, and it keeps the story whimsical without losing any of the epic and mysterious aura. One story, for example, has Antimony and Kat tracking down a minotaur who turns out to be not as fearsome as the myths make him out to be. In another chapter, Antimony encounters a ghost who fails to frighten her, because, honestly, he’s more cute than scary. And in a later chapter, a fairy becomes human and becomes intrigued by the concept of a “haircut.” I suppose these flights of fancy won’t go over well with readers who prefer their fantasies dark and foreboding. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed fantasy stories that infuse their worlds with a healthy sense of humor. In fact, I feel it adds to the realism. The real world — our world — is full of funny, enjoyable moments. Why not in a world inhabited by fairies and robots?
And yet, some of the best moments in Gunnerkrigg Court have nothing to do with either action or humor. For example, Chapter 11, entitled “Dobranoc, Gamma,” tells a self-contained and purposely confusing story around Zimmy, the girl with blacked-out eyes, and her friend, Gamma. It leaps through time and employs some rather striking visuals. When the chapter comes to an end, it’s similarly vague and inscrutable. Normally, I don’t like it when writers are trying to be weird for the sake of being weird. But for some reason, “Dobranoc, Gamma” fits just because the rest of the series is so straightforward. It’s part Watchmen, part Sandman, and an unexpectedly refreshing entry to the Gunnerkrigg saga. And it’s not unlike stumbling onto that one untraveled corridor in the mazes of Gunnerkrigg Court and finding something new. One day, it might be a confusing story told out of chronological order. The next day, it might be a sweet story where Antimony and Kat are sitting under a cherry tree and enjoying a sunny day.
With stunning artwork, a highly enjoyable story, and a well-crafted world, Gunnerkrigg Court is one of the best webcomics I’ve ever read. It’s fantasy done with a wink and a nod. It’s steampunk with a some humor. It’s a coming of age tale, an experimental examination of sequence, and a ghost story. And, yes, it’s another great webcomic starring schoolgirls. Talk about adding another nail to my coffin.
Note to FBI: if you’re thinking about hauling me away, I keep my door unlocked, so please don’t break it down. The downstairs neighbors can get royally pissed sometimes.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Posted on January 10, 2008, in 5 Stars, adventure webcomic, fantasy webcomic, gothic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Gunnerkrigg Court. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.