Webcomics Review: Gunnerkrigg Court

Imagine a gothic mash up of Sandman and Harry Potter and you have Tom Siddell’s Gunnerkrigg Court, a fantasy comic set on the fictional grounds of a large boarding school of the same name.

The main character is a young student named Antimony Carver whose parents have a past entwined with the school’s history. Antimony lives at the school because her father is away on business and her mother is deceased. The girl is brought into the school as a sort of legacy student and had adventures within its walls and outside the grounds. Along the way she teams up with another student in her grade level named Katerina (Kat) and gains a demonic ally who inhabits a stuffed animal she carries around with her. The creator goes to great pains to show that Antimony is nonplussed by all the strange occult goings on around her; whether it’s meeting a minotaur in the school’s labyrinth (naturally) or talking with a ghost or even communing with a shadow creature that plays a larger part in the overall story. Maybe it’s all the underworld gods she encountered while visiting her mom in hospital.

The atmosphere of the work is interesting as the British boarding school background reeks of J.K. Rowling yet the fast and loose or even lazy interpretation of mythology and mysticism betrays at least some Neil Gaiman. And of course the Court itself smacks of both Peake’s Titus Groan series and Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. Yet there is a high technology angle to the tale as well with robots and antigravity machines and other crazy devices. But this superscience is dealt with so nonchalantly that I’m reminded of Dan Simmon’s Hyperion series that’s set in a far, far future where technology is so advanced that we’d consider it magic. Antimony can build a robot in a few minutes with a box of parts, something they didn’t teach at the junior high I went to.

Strangely it seems more that the school itself is the main subject of the work regardless of what the students and faculty do inside or out. Sure they encounter gods and demons and creatures from mythology but the question always remains: what is this place actually? It’s part Gormenghast, part Courts of Chaos, a sort of goth Olympus where deities mingle freely with mortals. Across a bridged chasm where the students are forbidden to venture is a forest called Gillitie Wood where spirits of various types dwell. The friction between the two locations generates more of the plot than the characters themselves who seem to almost be actors in a greater play than we see in the first 14 chapters.

The comic has been ongoing since 2005 with the creator working weekends on it and storing up a few months worth of entries before posting them several times a week. The strip has won several awards both online and off and is considered a good young adult comic. However adults will have no trouble with it as it doesn’t write down as many YA stories do. The tale progresses methodically through the first three-hundred pages or so at least–I have much more to read–but many of the chapters are self-contained.

The art began in a very stylized manner but grew over time to become less self-consciously different focusing on telling the story instead of showing off Antimony’s cheekbones. The writing has remained interesting enough to compel a reader forward and with most webcomics that’s more than you can ask for. I’ve heard that this strip isn’t Siddell’s primary source of income which is a shame. One wonders what he could accomplish if he concentrated on the pages full time.

I read the hardbound Archaia Volume 1 called “Orientation” that compiles the first 290 or so pages of the strip. You, lucky reader, can get the whole thing up to date in the Comic Rocket archives here. I can only imagine how it would be to discover this series one page at a time, three times a week–suspenseful. I know I’m going to read up to date in several large chunks.

I would recommend this strip to a general audience that likes white magic fantasy comics.