Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 1: Orientation
Written and Illustrated by Thomas Siddell
I’m certain without looking that someone somewhere has already compared Gunnerkrigg Court to Harry Potter. I imagine that someone somewhere may have even called it the next Harry Potter, because that thought crossed my mind too. I hope that no one’s called it a rip-off of Harry Potter, because that would be grossly unfair.
It’s impossible to ignore the superficial similarities. For one thing, there’s the concept of a young person’s entering a strange and wonderful school – divided into four “houses” even – where her parents once played important roles in the institution’s history. For another, there’s the structure of following this student through her academic career with each volume covering a single school year. But the story unfolding in Gunnerkrigg Court is very much it’s own, unique thing. There’s no particular significance given to which house characters belong to (at least not in this volume), none of the characters parallel JK Rowling’s, and Antimony Carver isn’t some kind of messianic wonderchild. She’s an outsider to most of the goings on at the school, but none of the other students single her out or bully her. They’re not always friendly to her, but that isn’t a significant focus of the story. Student politics aren’t even a consideration.
Antimony – or Annie, as her new friend Kat calls her – is a quiet, pleasant girl. She’s lonely, but not angsty about it. Having lost her mother at a young age and been shipped off to boarding school by her distant father, she seems to have accepted that that’s how life is for her. Her relationship with Kat is important to her though and reveals that she’s not content with being alone. The two girls share a profound friendship that’s sweet and funny. This optimistic attitude is something else that Annie has in common with Harry Potter, but her early experiences at the school separate her from him again.
Minotaurs, clockwork birds, ghosts, gods, and faeries after the break.
Gunnerkrigg is an odd place, but it’s not overtly magical the way Hogwarts is. In fact, it’s rather mechanical and scientific with a subtle steampunkish aspect to it. There are clockwork birds watching over it (though no one seems to know who created or is controlling them). Across the river from the school though is another story. Accessible only by a very long, well-lit bridge is Gillitie Wood, home to gods and faeries and other magical creatures who share an uneasy truce with Gunnerkrigg Court. By the end of the volume I’m still not sure what all this relationship entails or why things are the way they are. Sidell unpacks information slowly and carefully, letting us find answers only as Annie does. She and her family are obviously already involved in the situation in a deep way, so Annie can’t help but be pulled further into it as various creatures and faculty-members attempt to manipulate and use her in whatever the hell’s going on. All of this of course makes me very anxious to read the second volume.
I say that Sidell reveals clues slowly and carefully. He does this by not making the story always about the conflict between Science and Magic. Each chapter in the book is a self-contained story. Sometimes a chapter will directly address the main story line, but often it’ll just be about Kat’s crush on a new kid, Annie’s teaching a young ghost how to be scary, or how Annie doesn’t really get into the virtual-reality space-missions that the other kids so look forward to. Although, even events that seem to be unrelated will frequently tie back into the larger story in cool, unexpected ways.
Siddell’s drawing is imaginative and expressive. He’s capable of a lot of detail, but often chooses a simple, uncluttered style – especially when it comes to faces. There’s a gothy manga influence going on that helps a lot to communicate the vulnerability of these young girls, but I wouldn’t characterize the overall book as being either gothic or global manga. Like with its Harry Potter influences, it’s far too much its own thing for that.
Five out of five crazy, class-interrupting scientists.