It’s a summer day in July and I start my morning online routine in the same place I do practically every Friday morning, checking out the newest page from Tom Siddell’s Gunnerkrigg Court. I start my Mondays and Wednesdays this way, too, and have for over a decade now for the simplest of reasons—in content and quality, Gunnerkrigg feeds my love of richly drawn, complex worlds in ways few other media do. There are other webcomics I love—Rob Balder’s quirky, compelling Erfworld, Kaja and Phil Foglio’s fun, frenetic Girl Genius, Rich Burlew’s gag-laden, meta-heavy The Order of the Stick, to name a few—and countless others to discover, but there is only one Gunnerkrigg.
At first glance, Siddell’s webcomic might strike one as, if not derivative of Harry Potter and friends, at least firmly lodged in a similar space. The titular location is, after all, a school populated by wondrous creatures both within and in close proximity to the student body. The main character, Antimony (Annie) Carver, is a young girl who is for all intents and purposes an orphan—her mother is dead and her father absent—and who explores both the school and its surroundings, making friends as she encounters a bevy of fantastic beings and mysteries along the way. But such comparisons quickly become insufficient and even reductive as more is revealed of the science-based Gunnerkrigg, filled with its mechanical creatures and metal buildings, and the neighboring Gillitie Wood, filled with fairies, elementals and other woodland creatures.
Gunnerkrig Court Art by Tom Siddell
As the series’ protagonist, Antimony Carver is naturally the reader’s initial window into the world of Gunnerkrigg Court—it’s the rare chapter that doesn’t involve her presence in some way. But she’s also a marvelously opaque, unpredictable protagonist, not so much an unreliable narrator (she’s rarely actually the narrator) as an unreliable—read, human—protagonist. As she copes with (or denies) issues of abandonment and of inadequacy, she often makes the wrong choices. For all of its fantastic creatures and situations, some of the most moving and memorable moments come when Annie falters in her friendships or is called out for her flaws. As one gets deeper into the story, one realizes that the detached little girl in those initial panels wasn’t just yet another iteration of the “precocious child protagonist”—she’s actually a very damaged, emotionally stunted little girl. Sure, she’s seen some things that give her a unique perspective and enable her to react to otherwise disconcerting or wondrous events with aplomb, but she’s also suffering from the things she hasn’t seen, such as healthy models of friendship and responsibility. Stay with Gunnerkrigg Court for a while, and you’ll see Annie stumble and fall, rise and recover—and you’ll be reminded how fraught emotional growth can be.
About Annie’s friends…
That’s not to say Annie has a monopoly on deftly executed character development. The supporting cast of Gunnerkrigg Court is itself a delight, often challenging reader preconceptions as frequently as they do Annie’s. Foremost among them is Kat, Annie’s bosom bud and not-so-mad scientist. Their friendship may be the most nuanced depiction of friendship I’ve ever encountered in a sci-fi/fantasy setting and their interactions—both positive and painful—are the glue that holds all the fantastical events together. Without spoiling anything, Kat also represents a laudably positive depiction of coming into one’s sexual identity, but that’s not really surprising—Siddell’s world brings to mind Rebecca Sugar’s wonderful Steven Universe in its depiction of love between sentient beings.
Gunnerkrig Court Art by Tom Siddell
About Annie’s world…
All this discussion of well-drawn characters and satisfying emotional arcs may make Gunnerkrigg Court seem more cerebral than fantastical, but put all emotional development aside, and you’re still left with a richly imagined world populated by variants of “classic fantasy” creatures—ghosts, fairies, elementals, etc.—that are by turns humorous, menacing and surprising, but always so freshly imagined as to defy reader assumptions. Foremost among these are a trio of canine entities—Reynardine, Coyote and Ysengrim—who along with Annie and Kat often drive the story’s action and intrigue. Along with the less seen but frequently plot-crucial psychopomps, these beings approach Gaiman-esque levels of complexity. There’s a similar complexity and defying of expectations in Gunnerkrigg’s various plot threads, large and small. Though Siddell understands the value of letting some questions loom and simmer (and, occasionally, haunt), he also knows that most questions will need to be answered, and he’s pretty damn good at introducing news ones in the process.
In case it’s not evident, I’m more than a little in awe of Siddell’s achievement, yet for all the creative components that make that an understandable reaction, there’s an another, purely logistical reason Gunnerkrigg Court stands out. A simple fact that takes me from “mouth agape” to “jaw fully dropped”—for more than a decade, Siddell has not missed an update on a Mon-Wed-Fri, full-page webcomic. Anyone who has ever followed and eagerly anticipated the next chapter of a webcomic—or who has tried to do anything outside of biological functions steadily three days a week—should be able to appreciate this achievement. It’s like that kid senior year of high school who has had perfect attendance since first grade, if that perfect record also happened to benefit you (instead of causing you to wonder how many times he or she was patient zero for some outbreak because “Gotta keep the streak alive!”). It’s an astounding achievement, made all the more so when one takes into account the full-color, richly drawn art of Gunnerkrigg Court. For aspiring artists, the progression from Siddell’s first panels to his current ones is itself a cause for inspiration. As the stories have grown in complexity and emotional heft, so, too, has the art depicting them. (You can also check out Siddell’s YouTube channel, where he provides commentary on each chapter—the lag is roughly 20 chapters behind the current content.)
Taken all together, Gunnerkrigg Court presents its readers with one of the most fully realized, deftly presented sci-fantasy worlds of the last decade. For those who prefer their episodic updates collected in a single volume, you can find Volumes 1-6 on Topatoco (and, of course, Amazon). But if you’ve always wanted to watch a masterpiece in the process of creation, to see each figurative brush stroke, each strike of the chisel, each piece of mortar laid … there’s a place you can go every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Michael Burgin is the Movies Editor for Paste. Thanks to Tom Siddell, he now thinks of individual pigeons as “City Face.” He also really hopes praising Siddell’s uncannily steady production doesn’t jinx him.