Now that I’m a senior gamer and freed from any last illusions of ever being cool, I’ll freely admit how fond I am of slight surprises in familiar surroundings. I remember reading Good Omens back in the day, and watching Kolchak the Night Stalker, and playing Grim Fandango: all occasions when I began by expecting to enjoy myself in a familiar way but ended up slightly surprised by how pleased I was and how I’d been pleased. There’s something about unexpectedly fresh and first-rate work in familiar genres that appeals to me deeply, and the initial volume of collected Gunnerkrigg Court comics provided me with exactly the start of pleasure at already pleasant expectations being exceeded that makes for a great afternoon’s read.
In the beginning, Antimony was sent off to a boarding school to learn magic — no, wait, Gunnerkrigg Court is not just good of its kind but goes off in some unusual directions — and met fellow student Kat, who quickly became her friend and fellow rebel-with-a-cause. However, unlike the case with most magical boarding schools you may have encountered, their school is as much a haven of almost-dystopian Science! as medievaloid magic. The buildings can’t decide if they belong in Harry Potter or Bladerunner. Unexpectedly, good-hearted and bouncy Kat is the future Ms. Science and coolly rational Antimony has the odd, near-necromantic powers. And, contributing significantly to the pleasures of the ever-thickening plot, the pair are much more concerned with puzzling out their odd surroundings and the ominous history they hide than navigating the usual peer-group problems of boarding schools. I can’t say much more without spoilers, but cute, creepy, funny, and erudite are all words I feel justified in using.
I could wish I were enough of a visual artist to better praise the collection’s composition, drawing, and coloring. I will write that I was struck by the palette and how well coloring reflected the mood of the settings, I also loved the ingenious, half-hidden visual tributes to all sorts of classic works of speculative fiction as Antimony and Kat went about their business. And it’s amazing how much expressive and story-telling work was done using old-school cartoon eyes. This writer/artist had amazing control.
True, like a great deal of the best work of the past decade, Gunnerkrigg Court was originally written for young adults. However, as is usually the case with a fine YA author, the underlying themes and emotions were mature enough to grip me. On the other hand, you could smuggle this in under the radar as a gift for any discerning niece or nephew; the occasional, mild physical innuendos were light enough not to bruise parental sensibilities and the physical violence — if not the occasional, foreboding hints of problems to come — was low-key. But a younger audience would still enjoy them, and the darkness, compassion, and humor infusing the plots, and the sheer ingenuity of imagination that these first, collected issues displayed.
Sufficient to say, my experience was pleasant enough that I’ll be buying the other collections of Gunnerkrigg Court, and in hardback, yet. On the basis of this first volume, I expect to be pleased, but I’m also hoping to be slightly surprised. You might wish to see if you would be, as well.