I’m going to state up front that I have been a fan of Tom Siddell’s Gunnerkrigg Court for a long time.
It’s not just one of my favorite webcomics. It’s one of the few webcomics that holds an honored place in my personal Pantheon of Webcomics Par Excellence. The Pantheon — which includes Scary Go Round, Templar Arizona, The Surreal Adventures of Edgar Allan Poo, and Achewood — looms above the sad morass of its contemporaries, flashing their accusing yet gentle eyes as if to say, “You know what you are doing is a sin against storytelling. Why do you work against the power of Our Love?” With their terrible swift swords, hey reduce even the efforts of most print comics into quivering piles of sad, half-hearted doodles. Then afterwards, I imagine that they hang out with Peanuts, Calving & Hobbes, and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, knocking back four-color brewskis. Ah, yes, that’s what you come to Comic Fencing for, isn’t it, my dear reader? The anthropomorphosis of sequential panel funnies.
What follows, then, will be less of a review and something more akin to a fan rant. If you aren’t rolling your eyes and screaming, “Well, if you love this comic so much, why don’t you marry it?” by the end of this review, I will be very disappointed.
Like a lapsed parishioner, I haven’t read Gunnerkrigg for about six months. This is partially because when you’re out there reviewing webcomics on a twice-weekly basis, you tend to forsake the ones that you enjoy. The biggest reason, though, is that, like Kobayashi at a competitive eating event, I like to digest long-form comics in big, meaty chunks. I find that it’s better to wait a while until several story arcs have built up a backlog. Then I dig in. I liken it to buying a trade paperback, or, of you’re more into TV shows, waiting until the entire season is released on a boxed set. Yet, I’ve been waiting for the right moment to return to Tom Siddell’s gothic world. When Comic Fencing announced that this week’s review would be Gunnerkrigg Court, I licked my lips greedily.
Gunnerkrigg Court stars Antimony Carver, a capable Titian-haired girl with a head shaped like a football. She starts school at the gothic Gunnerkrigg Court, am imposing walled city full of mazes and fantastic creatures. Her parents, who are absent or dead, were highly regarded sorcerers in a secret alliance. If this sounds an awful lot like Harry Potter… well, you’re not far off, and chances are that Tom Siddell is very aware of the parallels. (There’s even a guest strip that points this out.) Yet, if you’re writing the series off as cheap J.K. Rowling knock-off, you couldn’t be more wrong, buster. And you’re cheating yourself.
More than any other comic, Gunnerkrigg creates images so memorable and haunting that they’re likely to linger the recesses of my mind forever. A robot caught in the lights of a stone bridge. The owl-headed deities inhabiting the impenetrably dark Gilitie Woods. Zimmy’s eyes, mysteriously and frighteningly shrouded in shadow. The lithe, shadowy form of Coyote. Even the humorous moments, such as when stuffed animal companion Reynardine morphs into an aesthetically pleasing form, are filed away in bundles of cerebral neurons that would be better used for storing phone numbers or computer passwords.
When I resumed reading Gunnerkrigg, I finished up the chapter with a childhood ghost story. After that, we follow Antimony as she begins to train with an elite class of mediums. Then we folllow her and her bestest buddy, Kat, as they scrounge around in a cellar filled with robots. It’s incredible how Siddell manages to maintain the same energy from earlier in the series. New, intriguing ideas are introduced, never growing stale, and yet everything from the beginning feels so consistent, as if he’d planned for these twists and turns all along.
The world of Gunnerkrigg Court is a mix of science fiction, steampunk, and fantasy. Siddell opts for a dark but very cartoonish style. Some people are put off by the look, throwing around phrases that the main characters — mostly schoolgirls — all look like either Powerpuff Girls or Bratz dolls. “The comic looks like it’s for preteen girls,” I’ve heard some critics say.
I love the simple look. The story is, after all, reminiscent of young adult fantasy fiction, and it should be festooned appropriately. To me and my glittering fanboy eyes, the characters far more resemble Edward Gorey illustrations with some of the macabre edge filed off. Not all, mind … just enough. Yet the horror is still there, lurking in the shadows and waiting to pounce at the right moment. The story involving Antimony’s childhood threatens to plunge into darker territory, yet the story holds us right at the edge of oblivion and reassures us with the warm touch of a mother’s hand. The evolution of the designs, too, suit the story well. Antimony evolves from an awkward looking girl to a beautiful young woman before our eyes, which mirrors her own personal development towards maturity and adulthood.
If there is only one webcomic you will read in your entire life, read Gunnerkrigg Court. In a medium where sameness is the rule and adolescence is the state of mind, Gunnerkrigg Court stands heads and shoulders above the rest as a stellar milestone in webcomics. Like Harry Potter, Gunnerkrigg can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, blessed with refreshing originality, solid storytelling, fleshed out characters, and beautiful artwork. This is El Santo, from the rugged lands of the Shaolin, signing out.
by Tom Siddell
Reviewed by Larry “El Santo” Cruz