Holy Antimony!: a review of Gunnerkrigg Court

Gunnerkrigg CourtI’m going to make this easy for you.

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.

Rating: ★★★★★

Gunnerkrigg Court
by Tom Siddell
http://www.gunnerkrigg.com

Reviewed by Larry “El Santo” Cruz

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (15 votes, average: 4.67 out of 5)

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14 Responses to “Holy Antimony!: a review of Gunnerkrigg Court”

  1. Delos Says:

    Hmmm… I agree that the characters don’t remind me of Bratz or Powerpuff Girls. Those big eyes were a little creepy, though. They were a tad too big for my caricature artist sensibility, perhaps.

    Also, nice touch with the “if you love this comic so much” approach to the review. Revel in your bias, my friend. Revel! :)

  2. Larry Cruz Says:

    Hey, I figure all of us get the right to turn into a blubbering fanboy once in a while. ;) Weird how the four of us ended on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum, but I rather like it when things turn out this way. It tends to bring out a lot of interesting POVs.

  3. The Doctor Says:

    Delos and I are of a kind - neither of us like horror/dark story lines. Not really surprising, but neat, I agree.

    Given some of the things in it, I don’t know that I could agree it could be enjoyed by readers of all ages, though.

  4. Larry Cruz Says:

    To me, it’s “all ages” in the sense that the Harry Potter series, Lemony Snicket, the Hobbit, The Neverending Story, the Oz series, the Chronicles of Narnia, and works of Hans Christian Andersen (especially “The Traveling Companion” and “The Marsh King’s Daughter”) can all be considered “all ages.” I don’t think Gunnerkrigg Court really ventures into territory that’s substantially more “adult” than some of the darker fairy tales.

  5. The Doctor Says:

    In that sense, I agree. Dark it may be, but unless you’re talking about VERY young children, then I can see where it would be “all ages.” Heck, I know people who complained about “The Real Ghostbusters” because it was ‘too scary,’ so I guess it will take all kinds.

    I concede your point.

  6. Talekyn Says:

    Oo! Oo! When the wedding happens, do I get to be best man?

  7. The Doctor Says:

    If I’m invited I’ll show up in my scarf and hat - promise! :)

  8. Sly Eagle Says:

    I think if your first thought when reading this comic is “Harry Potter,” then you must be an American. Most people from Britain, and the rest of the Commonwealth (ie, people who swear allegiance to the Queen on England) for that matter, were sent away to boarding school at some point during their life. Naturally, a good portion of youth Brit lit focused on plucky heroes who arrive at these institutions for the first time. Naturally, there’s a sense of wonder and grandeur at this new place, but also foreboding. Generally, there are rules that the main character ends up breaking (for noble or sympathetic reasons of course). Always, it’s time for some good old-fashioned coming of age.

    For some reason, these stories usually don’t pick up a following in the US. Probably because most Americans do not ever attend boarding schools, so they can’t identify with the characters too well. So instead, we get the college dorm situation comedies. Oh, goody.

    But yes, Rowling doesn’t own the boarding school setting. Dickens used it, Kipling used it, C.S. Lewis notably didn’t use it, preferring to whisk the kids away from boarding school to a magical land where they were sure to learn a lot more while having a much better time. Read more Brit lit! Whoo!

  9. Bengo Says:

    What is the most obscure webcomic that has entered your personal pantheon of favorites? (I say “has entered” because pantheon occupants sometimes depart.)

    It’s hard to measure obscurity, but a nominee for mine would be “Ugly Girl” on ComicGen. Actually, it has a weird URL, I better add it…
    nanda.comicgenesis.com/ Give her some publicity. The art starts a little shaky then gets great.

    Anyway, I just offer mine out of fairness. Having heard the famous titles you love, I wonder if you have any lesser known at the moment.

  10. Bengo Says:

    Bonus points if you can name the web host where GC got its start.

  11. The Doctor Says:

    Your premise may very well be spot on for all the reasons you mentioned, plus one - here in the States we have a penchant for insipid, pointless, repeated-to-death comedy, and once something becomes the “darling” of everyone, it gets driven in your face until it becomes nauseating. Such was the case with Harry Potter. It’s one of the reasons I grew to hate it. Such is also the case with the endless succession of sitcoms like those you mentioned, and also ones like Seinfeld, Friends, and the like. Oh, goody, indeed.

    As a side note, Potter was only a very small part of why I didn’t care for the comic, actually. The main ones dealt with my interpretation of the characters (being a writer, myself) and the overall “dark” tone of the comic, which I felt was just too much. (Some dark is ok, and even necessary - this seemed almost to the point of being depressing and/or oppressive)

  12. Larry Cruz Says:

    I think it’s safe to say that all four of the Comic Fencers are Yankees. That’s an interesting effect of the British literature that we’re exposed to in the States, by the way. Except for Dickens and Kipling novels, most of the exposure we get with regard to boarding schools do include a fantasy element. And even Dickens & Kipling are somewhat magical, since those stories are set in a gaslight world that we’re only familiar with in our imagination.

    Generally, Americans don’t wear uniform either. So that imagery of kids in jackets and ties sorta taps into a magical world we were never familiar with. Well, with the exception of Wednesday from the Addams family.

    I shudder to think what the rest of the world thinks when American media shows junior high and high school kids in designer duds. I’m guessing Clueless didn’t resonate much with the Brits?

  13. Larry Cruz Says:

    Such was the case with Harry Potter. It’s one of the reasons I grew to hate it. Such is also the case with the endless succession of sitcoms like those you mentioned, and also ones like Seinfeld, Friends, and the like. Oh, goody, indeed.

    Don’t forget that this phenomena happens in webcomics, too. When Sly mentioned college roommate sitcoms, my mind immediatly went to all those roommate comics out there.

  14. The Doctor Says:

    Absolutely, Larry, and good points all around!

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