Gunnerkrigg Court Volume 1: Orientation (Archaia HC 6″x9″ edition) – Thomas Siddell

5 out of 5

After having my sides split by Munchkin, I knew I had to track down more Thomas Siddell.  To my chagrin, I discovered he’d been writing (and drawing) the webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court, which chagrined me because I’d passed it by several times, having glanced at its serialized releases as an appreciator of Archaia’s output.  I just, I dunno, assumed that it was the kind of teen girl fantasy stuff it, for all intents and purposes, is… I just didn’t realize that the right author can write the hilarious hell out of the genre.  Which is fair enough, considering that I probably would have foregone Munchkin if not for Ian McGinty’s amusing art style; a series I was drawn in to because of the art, and then here I am, judging another book (negatively) by the same.

Not only is Gunnerkrigg a blast, it also manages to be incredibly affecting, and intelligent.  And now I love the art style as well.  In other words: Thomas Siddell’s a right bastard for not getting me interested in this series earlier.

One of the best aspects – and trickiest to pull off – of GC is its balance.  Not only with its whip-smart humor – which has the same observational bent to it that was a pleasant surprise in Munchkin, but isn’t scared to get silly or goofy – but with the way Siddell swings between coming-of-age, world-building mystery, and general, enjoyable hijinx.  That all of these aspects are equally engaging is really the win, as it means GC could continue on in any fashion it desires and still be a page turner.  We join Antimony in her first year at the Court, which is an unusual school, to say the least.  Not only does it exist in an odd realm that seems to be both futuristic city and schoolgrounds, separated from a haunted woodland by a long bridge guarded by robotic birds, but the school is stocked with talking ghosts and shadows and mediums and sword-wielding teachers.  Ah, so it’s, like, Harry Potter?  Yeah, right.  Get tha fuck outta here, Potter.  GC – and Antimony, and her schoolmates – take all of the oddness in stride, acknowledging it for sure as new and occasionally frightening, but not treating it with any page-wasting Wowness; Siddell, in this manner, makes the cake and lets us eat it: we get to witness his wonderful imagination but spend more time learning about the characters through their incredibly naturalistic responses to things (…naturalistic given the book’s fairly dry tone, at least).  Again, this is that tricky balance, to world-build but not overwhelm, to make the universe breathe with characters but not feel like name dropping, but it passes by so effortlessly, even when chapters start out on completely out-there footing before, chapters later, winding us back around to understanding.

Siddell’s art style is fairly basic, but not simple.  He exaggerates angles and characters for wondrous effect, and his comic timing – and action timing, actually – is aces.  And, appreciably, we see his art get more confident and less notably stylized as the pages turn, Antimony and her classmates less angular looking, emotional expressions more nuanced.  It helps to sell the surprisingly affecting expressions of kindness in the book, or the open-ended analyzation of self-worth, or of truth.  It also helps that Archaia forever does a bang-up job of handsomely packaging their books, outfitting GC with a sturdy cover and binding, a sleekly designed dust-jacket and bright, clear printing.

This is an amazing series.  It’s a powerful, and empowering, tale for not only young girls, but for readers of all ages and genders, such is Siddell’s intelligence with the wielding of his pen.