(From Gunnerkrigg Court. Click for full-sized scrounging.)
Longtime readers of Da Blog know that I am an enormous fan of The Order of the Stick, to the point that I will defend it to the death as one of the classics of literature, especially within the fantasy genre. Of course, I can see how people might be skeptical that a humor comic about stick figures could be the best webcomic on the entire Internet. So back in 2009, when I was still regularly doing webcomic reviews, and shortly after one particular defense of OOTS as a piece of classic literature, I decided that if I was really going to call OOTS the best webcomic on the Internet, I had to qualify such a claim by familiarizing myself, once and for all, with the other comic commonly listed alongside OOTS, even by the likes of John Solomon, as one of the two best webcomics on the Internet. I had to do a review of Gunnerkrigg Court.
I’d read the first chapter of the Court before, but I didn’t really find it anything special, or leaving me wanting more (it’s a fairly self-contained story on its own), and at the time I didn’t want to get myself too involved in what was already a considerable archive. Due to the circumstances of my life at the time, I was finding it impossible to keep to the weekly schedule for webcomic reviews I was aiming for, and eventually stopped entirely, but before I did I was determined to push through, finish the archive, and determine once and for all whether or not the Court was really all it was cracked up to be, and whether or not it could go toe-to-toe with OOTS, or even find a place in my RSS feeds.
Is it? Well… let me tell you a story.
Even though I have a 100 Greatest Movies Project I’ve been trying and failing to get off the ground for some time (which you can contribute to!), I’ve never really been much of a movies guy. I went to two movies when I was very little, like less than five years old; I think they were Muppet Treasure Island and The Lion King. Both of those are kids’ movies, yet I could not handle the emotional torque in each one, not even Muppet Treasure Island. I ended up having to leave the theater to avoid what was going on on-screen. Those experiences turned me off of movies pretty much for life, to the extent that I can probably count the number of movies I’ve seen in a theater since then on one hand.
Now, being much older these days, I could probably handle those movies just fine if I went to see them today, or really most any other movie. But there’s still a part of me that worries about that emotional torque, that excess of drama. I’m anything but the kind of person who would go to a horror movie precisely to go through that torque. A while back I mentioned that I seemed to have a bit of an anti-gag-a-day bias in my reviews, that I tended to favor comics with a plot over ones without, but it’s really the reverse. All the comics that I’ve continued reading for some time after reviewing them – OOTS, Homestuck, Sluggy Freelance, Ctrl+Alt+Del, Irregular Webcomic, Darths and Droids, even 8-Bit Theater – for all that they had some plot or went some distance into Cerebus Syndrome, all of them had some humor to leaven the situation or lighten the mood, and OOTS is probably best at that than any other.
Gunnerkrigg Court doesn’t have that. It is strictly a dramatic story comic and nothing else. For as much as the situations can be silly or the comic downright weird, it is still a wholly dramatic comic, with any humor being purely incidential. Reading the first few chapters, I was simultaneously on the edge of my seat wanting the questions the comic raised to be answered, and wanting to just stop and get away from reading this comic. Part of it was my embarrassment at the level of bizarreness I was being confronted with; part of it was the level of suspense involved in the story, which got my heart racing and put me on the edge of my seat, portrayed in a far more dynamic fashion than would be possible in the stick figure style of OOTS. For many people, that’s high praise. For me, it was too much for me to take.
However, after the first five or six chapters, that feeling eventually faded, though I never was completely able to stop needing a break every few chapters and dreaded finishing it, and I think either I got used to the drama or Tom Siddell made it not quite so intense. If I were to recommend whether or not the comic is for you, I would advise you to read the first 11 or 12 chapters before coming to a decision. That’s nearly a third of the comic by number of chapters and almost the entire first book, but really the entire first book is kind of setup. I’m actually a bit stunned at how quickly the Court reached the point where the likes of Solomon and El Santo could praise it the way they have; I never would have thought it would have attracted that kind of praise before the end of the first book. For me, the comic doesn’t really get going until the third chapter of the second book – and for all the mysteries this comic has, it’s the partial resolution of one that got me most interested, when we begin to learn of the origins of the titular Court.
At this point, a major theme of the comic begins to come into focus, one that’s a bit overused in modern “urban fantasy” but nonetheless one worthy of study here: the conflict between magic and technology. A group of humans were offered refuge by creatures of the forest, but began looking for explanations for the strange phenomena all around them, which led to a conflict that ended when the trickster god Coyote divided the world of magic from the world of technology. While the Court was introduced as a school, it becomes apparent early on that it is much more than that, that it is a place that seeks to re-unify the two worlds… or perhaps more appropriately, to continue to attempt to understand magic using science, to apply the strictures of man to a world that stubbornly refuses to fit them.
The character of Kat quickly comes to represent this attitude. A budding scientist, hers is a strictly scientific worldview, one which refuses to believe anything that doesn’t fit her worldview until she’s confronted face-to-face with it, one which refuses to believe there is anything that does not have a rational, scientific explanation. Unlike the rest of the Court, she doesn’t need an explanation to accept what she’s dealing with, but she is quite insistent that there is one. As time progresses and she grows more used to everything, she does start to reshape her worldview and gets some new ideas about how a machine might be able to work.
A stark contrast with Kat is her best friend and the comic’s protagonist, Antimony Carver. Antimony is not entirely on the side of magic – merely being human is enough to assure of that – but she definitely seems to be more attuned to, and on the side of, magic than the rest of the Court (though many other human characters clearly have misgivings about the Court’s position). Antimony grew up in a hospital, isolated from the outside world, her mother bedridden from the day she was born. While there, she had the ability to see the numerous spirit guides whose job it was to escort the dead to the great beyond, and would accompany them and comfort the dead as they were taken away. It’s apparent, though not obvious to Antimony when the comic begins, that her mother arranged for her to go to Gunnerkrigg shortly after her death to further develop these talents and take up her own mantle as the Court’s “mediator” to the world of magic.
If I had to describe this comic in a single sentence, it might be: “if Daria went to Hogwarts”. Even at the height of activity in the early chapters it never reaches the sort of world-shattering confrontations that characterize the later Harry Potter books, and Antimony is not quite as snarky or disdainful as Daria could get, but she does hold a certain ambivalence toward everything going on around her and isn’t terribly affected at the presence of “ethereal” things (much like I’d like to pretend I could be, as though this comic didn’t put the lie to that). Her reaction, in the first chapter, to having a “second shadow” follow her around is to confront it, ask it what it wants, and build a robot to transport it across the bridge back into the forest; her reaction to encountering a ghost is to give it tips in how to be more scary; when she encounters a huge demon… dragon… thing, she strikes up a conversation with it, eventually comes to see it again when it’s re-imprisoned, and when the demon accidentially enters into her wolf doll, befriends it.
(That demon, Reynardine, may be my favorite character in the entire comic. His snarky ways were quite invaluable in getting me through some of those early chapters, adding some needed levity to the proceedings. He’s developed quite a bit since then, though those early days aren’t gone entirely, and Coyote may have passed him as the most fun character to be around. He’s… well… pretty much everything you’d expect a trickster god, accurately portrayed, to be.)
Although that first chapter (and the following one, really) read like a self-contained story when I first read it, not only do both the shadow and robot make return appearances, but it also serves to set the stage for the comic as a whole, and possibly serve as a microcosm of it. Antimony is confronted by a magical phenomenon – the shadow creature. She doesn’t shun it as some sort of abomination against science, as some sort of foe encroaching on the world of technology, but instead talks to it and learns that it just wants to go home. But her solution to that problem is technological: to build the robot. It is an alliance of magic and technology, indeed of the latter assisting the former, where once the former felt the need to shun the latter. There may be a bridge between the Court and the forest, but the real bridge is Antimony, and her ability to represent the best of both worlds.
That was once her mother’s job; now Antimony is in training to make it her own, in a way her mother never seems to have embraced. Her mother once romanced Reynardine in his normal fox form, but if I may be permitted a minor spoiler, it turns out to have been all a ruse to get him captured by the Court. Antimony, by contrast, has a more genuine (if somewhat slow to develop) friendship with Reynardine, and seems to have been accepted by Coyote and the creatures of the forest in a way that doesn’t really apply to anyone else in the Court. If Harry Potter is a game of Dungeons and Dragons, the Court is more of a chess game, with the pieces warily moving around each other, slowly setting up for a final showdown, with Antimony in the middle, potentially the deciding factor in the outcome, and perhaps the one best hope for bringing the two worlds back together.
Gunnerkrigg Court isn’t perfect. It’s certainly nowhere near challenging OOTS for my personal “Best Webcomic Evar” title, and I’m not even sure whether or not it’s better than Homestuck; certainly Homestuck was easier to get through despite taking longer. A big part of my problem with it is the one that I’ve hinted at when I’ve referred to the Court in the past: the effect of always releasing the comic a page at a time. While it makes for a breezy archive binge (it should take you no more than two days, maybe not even that if you reserve the whole day for it and can handle the emotional torque), some pages can be confusing and the pace of the story moves agonizingly slowly when read as it comes out, with some pages not feeling like full updates. Also, Siddell is so committed to making a mystery out of everything that sometimes the fact that something would be a mystery ends up making one or more parties look rather stupid.
It’s also not the most original comic in the world; the most obvious and notorious influence is probably Harry Potter, but Siddell has also borrowed heavily from mythologies and symbolism the world over, and I can also see reciprocal influences with other webcomics, as the art style sometimes reminds me of the later Scary Go Round (especially Parley), there’s a bit of Kim Ross of Dresden Codak (in)fame in both Antimony and Kat, and I can definitely see the Court‘s influence on Fey Winds.
And perhaps most of all, it can still be quite dark and depressing – and upon reread I realize it actually got darker as it went along, to the point one actually could say it went through Cerebus Syndrome. I’m interested enough in where it goes that I’m going to put it in my RSS feeds, but on a provisional basis. I’ve done this before – Irregular Webcomic! during the Irregular Crisis, Sluggy Freelance during the extended “bROKEN”/”4U City” storyline, Homestuck – but this is the first time where the reason for the provisionality isn’t because I’m just staying for the end of a storyline. Rather, the reason for the provisionality is because I want the freedom to bail on the Court if I find I can’t handle it. I may have only just gotten back to webcomic reviews, but I have never gotten closer to abandoning them entirely than when I was reading those first five or six chapters. The Court isn’t going to be the last webcomic of this type that I review, and regardless of what my personal inclinations are, if I want to have any credibility as a reviewer I need to at least be able to get through comics that may be quite good, but that deal with themes and subjects that put me through that much emotional torque.
Although, if page-at-a-time webcomics can be archive-binged as breezily as the Court, maybe I should try a full archive binge of Girl Genius sometime soon…