A review a day: Gunnerkrigg Court volume 2: Research
There’s no reason why I should like this book, and I don’t … I LOVE it!!!!!
The kind folk at Archaia recently sent me the very handsome second volume of Gunnerkrigg Court, subtitled “Research,” which is written and drawn by Tom Siddell. It’s a chunk of change at $26.95, but it’s also a good, sturdy hardcover a shade over 250 pages, so it’s good value. Plus, it’s frickin’ excellent. If you want to read it on your computer, click the link above and head on over to read the webcomic.
As I wrote, there’s no reason why I should like this comic. It’s all about icky girls, young teen ones at that, and who wants to read about them? Plus, it’s all fantasy crap, and who wants to read that? And, as has been pointed out recently, I’m a heartless, soulless bastard who thinks anything of wonder in the world needs to be ground under the boot of conformity. So why do I love this?
Beats me. Because it’s awesome, maybe? Sidell follows two main characters, Antimony Carver and Katerina Donlan, as they attend boarding school in Gunnerkrigg Court, which is an odd place, but I’ll get back to that. Siddell’s world is full of magic and science, with keen robots existing alongside ghosts and fairies and talking animals. Annie is much more magically inclined, while Kat is the scientific one. The world is also divided between the Court and the Gillitie Wood, which forms the political backdrop of the comic – the two sides have an uneasy truce, and Annie, somehow, is able to bridge the gap in understanding between them. As the comic progresses, I imagine this will become more important, as in this volume, Annie takes the first steps toward being an ambassador from the Court to the Wood. There’s a lot going on in this book, though, so that’s just one part of Annie’s life.
Siddell reveals things slowly and occasionally obliquely, which is kind of neat. You don’t need to have read the first volume to glean what’s going on, because Siddell refers to earlier events quite often and fits them neatly into the narrative. Annie and Kat have many adventures that slowly peel back the secrets surrounding the Court and their history, including those of their parents (Annie’s are, apparently, dead, but they were friends with Kat’s mother, and we see some of their relationship in flashback [after reading some of the earlier chapters, it appears Annie's mother is dead and her father is missing]). Annie has special powers that allow her to escort the dead to their final rest (and see ghosts, which doesn’t seem too special in this world), while Kat tinkers with machines and, for instance, disables the security system so she and Annie can sneak out one night. They make a good team, and Siddell does a nice job showing how they play off each other.
While the vignettes themselves are well done (each “chapter” tells a fairly complete story, while still building the world nicely), where the book shines is in Siddell’s characterization. Annie and Kat have a wonderful friendship, but they’re just two of the many characters in the comic. Annie is more reserved and more thoughtful, while Kat is more vivacious and rebellious. That’s not to say that Annie isn’t rebellious or Kat isn’t clever, because they are, but Annie’s rebelliousness comes through in more subtle ways while Kat is less a fine student than a girl who finds a different outlet for her intelligence. Siddell, however, populates the book with neat characters and shows how the two girls interact with them. Kat’s mother has secrets, some of which we learn in this volume, and she tries to guide the girls without exposing them too much to the danger in the world. Annie is calm when confronted with strange things, as Siddell shows she is much more comfortable dealing with them than most people. The girls act like young teens, too – Annie gets angry at her ghost friend Mort, but needs no one to realize that she should apologize; a strange girl with black eyes and sharp teeth, Zimmy, feels like an outsider but Annie tries to make her more welcome; Kat flirts with a boy over their love of technology. Siddell does a nice job of making the girls terribly precocious, almost to the point of unbelievability, but then gives us a scene that shows that they are, after all, thirteen years old. There’s also quite a lot of humor in the book, both from the situations the girls find themselves in and from the banter among the characters. Siddell strikes a nice balance. He also strikes a nice balance between the innocence of school and the sense of vague menace running throughout the book. This isn’t like the Harry Potter books, in which there is a tangible and very dangerous threat, but there is something strange going on, and the adults don’t talk about it and the kids don’t know about it. Only Annie feels that something bigger is going on, which might be why she’s chosen as the emissary. Siddell does a nice job keeping this “all-ages” while still hinting at more “adult” themes in the book.
Siddell’s charming art is somewhat manga-influenced, which may or may not be your thing. I think it’s wonderful, but I may be wrong. He draws the students well, keeping them kids but also showing how they’re starting to be interested in at least hanging out with members of the opposite sex. The creepiest chapter in the book, “Power Station,” has Annie and Kat going to a gathering on top of a building, where some boys have congregated to check out the station of the title. Before strange things start happening, we get some nice interaction between the girls and boys, both in the dialogue and the art, which shows the awkwardness between them. When Annie visits Coyote in the forest, Siddell does a great job keeping Annie grounded in the wood while Coyote’s world twists and bends around them, pulsing with color and magic. There’s a wonderful sword fight in Chapter 17, “The Medium Beginning,” between the fencing teacher, James Eglamore (who has some connection to Annie’s and Kat’s parents) and Jones, a mysterious woman at the school. Siddell uses skewed perspectives and changes the laws of physics to show the speed of the fight and the abilities of Jones, who wins easily (as Eglamore predicted she would). It’s part of what makes the book look so great – Siddell cares more about being impressionistic than being realistic, so we get the sense of the fight more than what it “really” would look like. In a book where magic is real (although they don’t call it “magic” because they’re too scientific), it’s not surprising that Siddell would go this route, and it works very well.
There’s a lot more to the book (I haven’t mentioned Reynardine, a demon who inhabits a stuffed animal), but that’s because the comic is packed. Siddell piles on interesting tidbits on each page (possibly because he publishes only one page at a time on the web site), which makes it a very fulfilling read. He brings up stuff from volume 1 that makes me want to read that, and he sows the seeds for future stories in this volume. Gunnerkrigg Court is a marvelous comic, and although I understand if you don’t want to spend money on it, it’s very much worth it. If you don’t, I recommend heading over to the web site and planning to spend some time, because once you start reading, it’s very hard to stop.
Tomorrow: Yeah, nothing. I just got that bunch last week, but I’ve only read one of them, so I need some time chew them over. I’ll be back, though! You can’t keep a reviewer down!