Review: Gunnerkrigg Court Volume 1 – Orientation

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Gunnerkrigg_Court_v1_TP_PRESS-CoverVolume one of Thomas Sidell’s excellent Gunnerkrigg Court came out this week, and you should definitely pick it up. It’s engaging story set in a thoroughly intriguing world, and the characters are some of my all-time favorites. I’ve been reading its web iteration for years and there have been some independent print collections before, but this time it’s being published by Boom! through their Archaia imprint. This volume covers the first eleven chapters of the webcomic, and I really hope the support of a larger publisher helps it reach the wider audience it deserves.

Gunnerkrigg Court is the best comic about a friendship that I’ve ever read. I was originally going to say that it’s the best comic I’ve ever read about female best friends – and it is – but that qualification is unnecessary. I can’t think of any other comic that features such a nuanced, interesting, and healthy friendship. When reading works that feature adolescent girls, I’m often frustrated by the cliche of best friends who are hyper-competitive or incapable of communicating. Annie and Kat aren’t like that; their relationship is a source of strength and growth for both girls, while still featuring a realistic amount of conflict.

Gunnerkrigg Court and the Gillitie Wood provide a wonderfully eccentric setting that mixes gothic fantasy and science fiction. Antimony Carver is a new arrival at the strange, city-like boarding school known the Court, where she meets Katarina Donlan, an upbeat girl who loves science. Annie and Kat spend their days learning about the Forest and the Court: twin realms of magic and technology, spirits and humans, and maybe chaos and order? I think? The thematic divisions of the school and the forest are mysterious; puzzling them out is half the fun.

Over the years Gunnerkrigg has become one of the most beautiful comics out there, but the art in the early chapters is immature compared with the rest of the series. It takes about a hundred pages for the rough edges to soften – both literally and figuratively.

AntimonyCollage

I’ve seen this collage a few places where the comic is being discussed. I’m not certain of its origin, but it’s a pretty great example of how Siddell’s art develops over the first few volumes.

The writing solidifies more quickly, even as the art is still finding its feet. That said, the first couple chapters rely heavily on Carver’s narration, which… actually sort of resembles the kind of slightly stilted, purple prose I would have used in my internal monologue as a middle school-aged kid. Things feel more natural later on, when Siddell has more confidence and lets the art do more of the narrative heavy lifting.

While I have a few minor quibbles about the art and writing early on, this volume is absolutely required reading. Gunnerkrigg is known for its interwoven storylines, and as a longtime fan of the comic I was amazed at how much of the groundwork was established this early on. Some things in this volume are goofy one-offs, and other stories introduce characters that are going to break your heart a few volumes later.

Gunnerkrigg Court is one of those rare comics that I would truly recommend for all ages – if your kid can handle the first couple Harry Potter books, they can handle Gunnerkrigg – and unlike Harry Potter there’s no rapid escalation in grimness or brutality as the years go on and the girls get older. There is some moderately spooky stuff with ghosts, monsters, and nightmares (including a brief interlude with creepy clowns) so this book isn’t entirely safe for someone young and nightmare-prone, but it’s absolutely perfect for kids who like slightly scary stuff. Tonally it has some commonalities with the films of Henry Selick, sort of like Coraline if Coraline had a best friend who was super good at science to make everything less menacing.

Antimony and Kat in a Tree

I can’t recommend Gunnerkrigg Court highly enough. The webcomic version is still available online if you want a preview, but it really shines as a physical book – it’s the kind of story that was made to be shared. If this had existed when I was younger, I guarantee it would have been passed around between my entire group of friends, read and re-read. I’ve followed a lot of narrative webcomics in my time, and Gunnerkrigg is the most cohesive and consistent – one of my all-time favorites. Seriously, go read it and buy it and tell your friends.

Gunnerkrigg Court is now available from Archaia Comics.

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