We need to talk about Gunnerkrigg Court.
In 2005 Tom Siddell created what is certainly one of the best web comics out there right now; this ten-year old leviathan is a science-fantasy epic that is not only a source of artistic inspiration, but just a really damn good read. This is the story of Antimony Carver and the strange events that took place while she went to school at Gunnerkrigg Court.
One of the first things you will notice about the comic is the art style. Over the last ten years, it has evolved, improved, and become something quite astounding. Such is the great leap in artistic quality, that it is a common refrain amongst fans to reassure people “The art gets better. So much better.”
Antimony arrives at the Court to discover that it resembles more an industrial complex than a school. It is vast, unspeakably vast and dark. She soon discovers that while at school she has acquired a second shadow – a shadow with a mind of its own. This shadowman is a native of the Gillitie Wood, an enchanted forest across the bridge from the school. With the help of a robot, Antimony gives her little shadow friend a way home. But this act upsets the delicate balance that has existed between the Court and the Wood. The divide between technology and magic, the divide between the etherial and the scientific, is broken.
So begins the complex, intriguing, exciting, and mysterious adventures that are still now ongoing.
As the characters have grown up the series has put them through increasingly dangerous and ever more uncertain situations. Antimony and her best friend, Kat Donlan, represent the two dominant world-views within their world, with Annie leaning ever towards the etherial and magical elements, while Kat has, from the beginning, shown a near superhuman affinity with robotics and technology.
The series plays a lot on your expectations, subverting and undoing many assumptions the audience as well as the characters’ own preconceptions. Tom Siddel challenges a lot of tropes that exist within not only the fantasy genres, but in many others.
Annie, for example, is almost always shown wearing makeup, dressing well, and appearing to be what most other media would write as a girl who is destined for romantic entanglements. Yet Annie never has a romance, and shows absolutely no interest in it, to the point where many fans (myself included) read her as aromantic and possibly asexual. She enjoys makeup for its own sake – it is for herself, it is her own identity.
Kat, meanwhile, is the grease-monkey archetype, a girl who can build, design, and understand just about anything technological. So often, this sort of character is written as too focussed on her work to be interested in any romance. Yet Kat is shown romantically besotted by teachers, boys, girls, and even bird people.
There is a wonderful mix of mythologies within this world. There is everything from traditional English fairy tales and folk-lore (the wolf Reynardine is a main character), Native American myth (the trickster god Coyote is a major antagonist / ally), as well as alchemical themes. I am reminded somewhat of the Mythago Wood novels by Robert Holdstock. Both deal with a wood where the imagination of humanity has actively created physical manifestations of these mythical figures.
Of the various story arcs ongoing within the comic, the tale of tale of Reynard / Reynardine is the source of much emotion for many readers. Here is a demon who began as one intent of killing Antimony, but when thwarted is trapped in the body of a toy wolf. He is then left under Antimony’s complete command (as the toy belonged to her). Reynard is a sly character, giving quips and jibes from time to time, but slowly through many periods of self-reflection and danger, he grows to love Antimony and Kat, becoming one of their closest friends and allies.
Kat’s own story is also a great source of intrigue and misdirection. She is a lover of technology and has become a figure of worship amongst the robots. She finds this rather flattering if a little unsettling – to the point where she assumes a love letter she receives is from a robot. These mechanical people keep calling her an “Angel”, which she takes as a sweet little compliment. In reality, though, they perceive her as an angel in the old biblical legend sense – an awesome creature of majesty and terrifying power. This fits into one of the themes wherein the robots of Gunnerkrigg Court are more akin to Golems than what we would call robots. The Golems come from Jewish myth and folk-lore, and as such are more connected to the notion of angels as creatures of tremendous power. The power of life and death.
In the most recent and currently ongoing chapter, we get more insights into Annie’s character and mental state. The story has been dealing with themes of child abuse, emotional manipulation, and trauma. This has hit me personally and resonated with my own experience, and is very much what has prompted me to become quite evangelical about the series. It does not hold back on facing down tough ideas and issues, often admitting when there is no easy solution and letting the characters go through it to the end, even if it is a bitter end.
One of the effects of abuse of the kind the story deals with is that the abuser makes you feel ashamed of yourself. This is part of the controlling mechanism, to keep you from speaking up about it. If you speak up, you think, people will think you’re stupid, weak, or whatever they’re trying to drill into you. The idea of other people discovering the terrible secret (i.e. that you’re struggling / weak / stupid / whatever) is incredibly painful. When someone calls out the abuser, you have been so convinced of the flaws they have imposed on you that you think someone calling the abuser out is the same as calling you out.
So that’s Gunnerkrigg Court! There are currently over 1,500 pages to the comic, so if you have a spare hour or so here and there you could catch up in a week, probably. It’s well worth it and you won’t regret it.
Look out for our exclusive interview with Tom Siddell coming soon!