Review: Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 1

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Publisher: Archaia

Story: Tom Siddell

Art: Tom Siddell

Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 1 collects the first 14 chapters of Tom Siddell’s award winning webcomic. Set in the school of Gunnerkrigg this comic follows young Antimony Carver as she explores its expansive grounds. Antimony soon learns that the school might serve as a something more than just an educational institution. It quickly becomes apparent that this is not a school where student extracurricular activity is monitored closely; an issue that would no doubt flag the attention of any decent Ofsted inspector given the abundance of deadly machinery and eldritch horrors that Gunnerkrigg Court seems to have amassed. With weird science, occult symbols, and mythical creatures behind every second door there is more than enough to keep Antimony’s inquisitive mind occupied for her time at the school. This suits Antimony fine as she arrives at the boarding school “Gunnerkrigg Court” soon after the death of her mother. With her mother being rather unwell most of her life and her father the attending doctor we learn that Antimony’s childhood was predominantly spent hanging around a hospital. With Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 1 setting this as its foundation the story sprawls through Antimony’s adventures in the creepy halls of her new school. Along the way she picks up her motley crew that serve as her friends and co-conspirators through much of the rest of the series.

Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 1 creates an atmosphere of gothic gloom from the offset without letting it become sullen and morbid. This is in part due to the writing of Antimony’s character. Antimony is a strong, independent, and headstrong young woman who have an almost pathological lack of fear. With a reasoned head on her and a knack for getting to the point she exudes confidence in a way seldom seen in children her age. Antimony has no qualms dealing with matters of the spiritual or mystic and rather being the cynical character that a story like this seems effortlessly geared to Siddell has written her instead as a level headed young woman who tries her best to do the right thing. She could almost be accused of becoming a Mary Sue for the teenage demographic that Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 1 seems geared to. Not least because between a mix of intelligence and good luck there does not seem to be many obstacles Antimony cannot solve within a chapter. Obviously this has much to do with the webcomic format; readers are less likely to come back each week if the protagonist keeps failing. While Gunnerkrigg Court has a fanbase large enough to warrant further exposure in this collected volume the original webcomic style it was written in does not transfer seamlessly.

Due these origins as a webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 1 is somewhat of a mixed bag when it comes to its pacing and writing. Due to the nature of the webcomic it makes sense to not give panel space to every minor detail. This creates a very interesting effect in which as the reader is meant to fill in many of the gaps. Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 1 allows the reader to employ their imagination to link up characters backstories or to ponder the intentions behind some odd paraphernalia or room that serves as the backdrop to the story; no doubt a treasure trove of material for readers to create their own tales with while waiting for the next chapter. The individual chapters start by being fairly standalone stories documenting some of the misadventures Antimony gets up to in and between classes. Over the course of the 14 chapters that this volume collects an overarching story begins to form. This is a fairly gradual change and one that lulls the reader into the strange world of Gunnerkrigg Court with apparent ease; by the time the main plot is in full swing you are invested enough in the cast to at least passingly care what happens next.

What is strange then is that despite the pacing being well judged the dialogue often comes across as rather clunky and expositional. This basic “point and tell” voice fits nieve characters like the childlike robot that Antimony creates in the first chapter but is wildly out of place coming from our precocious protagonist herself. This is not a constant concern but does have a habit of interrupting the flow of the story when it does happen. This may well be yet another byproduct of the webcomic format. It might not be so much of an issue when readers have to wait for snippets of the story and thus need constant reminding what’s going on in the story. In the collected format however it makes the story read like it was targeted at a much younger audience in places.

The art could be a sticking point for many readers. The style is almost a parody of webcomic design. Simplistically drawn characters with inhuman proportions upon a sparse backdrop means that there is little to draw the reader’s eye. Much of the story is told through character interaction and reactions than interesting visual information. Again, this simplicity has no doubt been a draw for many readers over the last 10 years of this webcomics publication. Its easily replicated style is undoubtedly a draw for those fans inclined to attempt to create their own addition to the story (warning: there is a ridiculous amount of fanfiction out there for Gunnerkrigg Court). This webcomic style is a product of the format so would be unfair to compare to comics that have had the resources to employ an artist willing to illustrate. For the circumstances the art is not terrible but for those readers who are used to the quality of the art in a comic mirroring the writing Gunnerkrigg Court vol. 1 might be too simple for their tastes.

Overall Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 1 is what you would expect to get if you threw the collected works of Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and Lemony Snicket into a literary blender. A mix of the fantastic, the occult, and mad science packaged into the neat setting of a high school with ulterior motives Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 1 almost becomes overwhelmed with gothic themes and imagery. Perhaps it is the writing style or the simple webcomic art that allows it to straddle these themes without ever devolving into a charade. Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 1 wears many of its influences with pride. With an apparent love for pop culture in various forms Siddell makes minor references to Hellboy, The X-Files, and the discography of The Prodigy to name a few.

This comic certainly reads as though it has a clear demographic in mind. The vaguely farcical classroom trists and an unnerving constant feeling of unfocused sexual tension alone could sell this to a teenage girl. Add to that potent mix its love for pop culture, a fascination for the occult and mystic, and a story that excites the imagination you can easily see why Gunnerkrigg Court has been running for 10 years solid and Siddell has been able to quit his job to work on it full time. That all said Gunnerkrigg Court should not be readily dismissed to those outwith that target audience. While there is always an element of young adult fiction about the story it is not so pervasive that non-teenaged readers cannot engage with it. To those who have not heard of it or have avoided webcomics because clicking between pages gets fiddly Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 1 is a more inviting way to read the series. That being said, those who dislike the webcomic format  due to stylistic or formatting reasons will unlikely find themselves swayed by this particular outing.