Monday, September 5, 2011

Gunnerkrigg Court

Quick Overview:
Title: Gunnerkrigg Court
Author/Artist: Tom Siddell
Started: April 2005
Ended: -
Pros: Unique, moody setting; numerous slowly-developed mysteries; nice balance of darkness and silliness
Cons: Simplistic early artwork might turn some viewers away

I'll admit to being somewhat superficial when it comes to my first impressions of comics-- I am easily turned off by an art style even if I know the story to be worthwhile (I've never been able to bring myself to read V for Vendetta for this very reason: I just can't stand all that black in those claustrophobic little panels). I nearly wrote off Gunnerkrigg Courtbecause I found the early artwork to be too simplistic for my tastes. Luckily, the story gets off to a quick start, so I didn't really have the opportunity to dwell on my stylistic preferences-- I was too busy being hooked. 33 chapters (and counting) later, the art has turned out to be amazing.

The story: Gunnerkrigg Court chronicles the adventures of Antimony Carver, a mysterious new student at an equally mysterious boarding school/city/ industrial complex. The "true" plot is slow to unfold, and for the first few chapters we are treated to a series of charming but seemingly insignificant and unconnected escapades. Pretty soon, though, things start to snowball, and characters and events gain dizzying complexity. The mood varies from section to to section, ranging from plain silly to deathly serious.

The setting: Gunnerkrigg Court is the name of the Hogwartsian boarding school around which the comic revolves, although it is much more than just a school. It spans miles, and contains innumerable secrets. A heady blend of science, magic, mythology, and alchemy lends spice and warmth to the cold, industrial, forbidding environment of the Court. The nearby Gillitie Wood, separated from the Court by a deep chasm and a heavily-secured bridge, houses yet more mysteries, and its ancient wildness is in constant tension with the Court's science and technology. The world beyond the Court and the Wood is not discussed.

The characters: Antimony is very reserved and mysterious, qualities which sometimes make her seem simply flat. Her character certainly develops slowly, but I believe this is due to deliberate pacing rather than a lack of content. In the meantime, there are plenty of other fascinating characters to entertain us, including classmates, teachers, robots, ghosts, demons, and gods. Secondary characters are often swiftly developed in a single chapter or flashback. Other characters, most demonstrably Antimony, slowly solidify one puzzle-piece at a time. Suffice to say, the cast is large and diverse.

The art: As I mentioned, the early art is very cartoony and exaggerated, and this is most noticeable in the human characters. The style matures quickly, though. Compare the first and most recent pages to see what I mean. The environments and non-human characters, however, look fantastic from the very beginning. Siddell has a real gift for architecture, objects, ornamentation, and grungy, industrial details. The Court's ominous atmosphere is strengthened with a consistent palette of bruised colors: gray, purple, black, brown, and dull yellow-green. Somewhere between chapters 10 and 20, the style really blossoms, and many pages are breathtaking works of art in and of themselves.

The writing: This is one of the best-written comics I am currently reading. It has the perfect mixture of subtlety and drama, humor and darkness, mystery and revelations, and the pacing is masterful. It has an incredibly complex plot, composed of innumerable interwoven sub-plots, but it never feels overloaded or out of control. And it only gets better as it goes along. Early chapters have Antimony narrating by way of overlaid text boxes, but this technique gradually fades away, rendered completely unnecessary by Siddell's sophisticated storytelling. Dialogue is natural, if a bit homogeneous. Characters communicate as much with their faces and bodies as with their words. The storytelling is also infused with a rich symbolic language, drawing from alchemy, chemistry, and mythology. Nature vs. technology is another major theme.

The bottom line: A unique, atmospheric, absorbing, and endlessly surprising comic with an excellently convoluted plot and (what turns out to be) beautiful art.

Rating: Five stars

>> Read Gunnerkrigg Court here! <<

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