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School's In!
Lowdown by Ross Payton, posted February 08, 2008

 

A child with a unique past studies at a magical school that mixes contemporary trappings with the weird. Forget Harry Potter and start reading Gunnerkrigg Court. This ongoing webcomic is a breath of fresh air and one of the most engaging comics currently online. As one of the WCCA 2008 nominees, the comic is building interest and an audience.

Neil Gaiman described Gunnerkrigg Court here as "a semi-gothic funny-sweet school story with mysteries and robots and so forth -- but I kept finding myself reminded of the early days of reading Bone. Nice stuff."

Tom Siddell’s comic began in 2005 as a unique entry in a field overcrowded with Penny Arcade knockoffs and dreadful melodramas with terrible art. It has woven a captivating tale of an otherworldly school and seemingly normal students and teachers who take ghosts, robots, forest spirits and more in stride. While it follows the structure of a British school story, with houses, rival school children and classes, Gunnerkrigg Court appeals to anyone with a sense of wonder.

Despite this menagerie of supernatural creatures and events, it all works, as absurd as it sounds, in a weird way. You never question their presence or lose your suspension of disbelief. Main characters Antimony and her best friend Kat contrast the fantastic nature of the school well; perfectly charming kids with a bit of mischief in them.

Gunnerkrigg Court has recently made the switch to print. Archaia Studios Press will be releasing a 296 page collection of the comic, entitled Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation. I talked with Tom Siddell about his work and web comics in general.

Broken Frontier: Could you describe how you developed Gunnerkrigg Court and what you wanted to accomplish?

Tom Siddell: Before I started GC I wasn't really doing anything interesting with my art. Since I'd always wanted to make a long form comic and try my hand at telling a story, I knocked up a few short practice comics and then went headfirst into Gunnerkrigg Court. I drew a sketch offhand one day that eventually became Antimony and liked the design enough to base the comic on her and just ran with it.

I took a lot of inspiration from things in my life (music, school, etc.) and tried to put together a story I felt was interesting. I figured if I did that, I'd at least be making myself happy. I wasn't really looking to get into the webcomic "scene", and just used the Internet because it was my only means of getting the comic seen by anyone other than myself.

My main goal when I started was to get a book printed and in my hands, which I was able to do with the first seven chapters through Lulu.com. After that, however, I just kept working at the comic and now it turns out I'm having a proper book published in just a few months, which is a goal I never would have dreamed of when I started.

BF: Your comic's art style has subtly changed over time, for example Carver's appearance. How else has GC evolved since it began?

TS: When looking at quite a few other comic artists I notice that some seem to get trapped into a particular way of drawing, and their style never evolves despite drawing for many years. I didn't want to fall into that trap so I'm always looking to improve my art, and I have no problem incorporating any improvements into the story as it continues. I think it works well to show the characters getting older and growing up. My favorite comics are ones where you can see a visible improvement in the artwork, and ones that show characters changing over time, just as people do in real life.

Aside from the art, and a period where I was finding my feet at the beginning of the comic, I feel the writing has been fairly consistent. I wanted a story that wasn't always either too serious or too lighthearted and that gives me the freedom to try a lot of different things. Gunnerkrigg Court was originally going to be more adult when I started working on it, but by the time I finished the first chapter I realized it would work better if I made it more accessible to a wider audience. I understand the appeal of niche comics that use certain devices to target a specific audience (such as sex, pop culture references, videogames, violence, etc.) but I didn't want to rely on those when telling my story.

BF: What are you reading these days, both online and in print?

TS: I must admit that I read very little print comics these days. Mainly because I find it hard to come across anything I like, and also because the comic book industry does very little to make comics appealing to people who aren't already fans of "comics". That is to say, when I came across an issue I thought looked interesting, I was always dismayed to find that it was issue 7 of 12 of an alternate universe spin off limited run that had no back issues.

I much prefer reading comics as graphic novels/trade paperbacks, but even then, most of the western books are based on 40-year-old properties that will never change, and Japanese manga is targeted to a market I don't particularly feel a part of.I think manga has done a great thing for comics in general (it's what got me back into comics after I stopped reading The Beano) but now it's time to either import a wider variety of manga, or let western artists try out new things that are more original than giving Spider-Man a new suit for a week.

As for online comics, I'd have to say my favorite right now is Achewood because I feel Onstad can do no wrong. I can't get enough of his writing, either in Achewood itself, or his various character blogs. I also read Penny Arcade (of course), PVP, Scary Go Round, Starslip Crisis, Overcompensating, Sam and Fuzzy, Heliothaumic, Dr. McNinja, Girly and a few others I try and keep up with.

BF: Given the recent print release from Archaia Studios Press, are you planning to try to make the comic your full time job?

TS: While that is something I would love to do, I think the realistic answer is that I should not hold my breath. Aside from some donations and custom drawings, I don't make any money through my comic, and there is no guarantee the book will have the cash rolling in. Living in the UK already means that any money I get from a mainly US-based audience is going to be less than half the actual amount and so, until I can think of a way to get my readers buying stuff from my website regularly, I'll still be waiting for the 111 bus at 6:00 in the morning to take me to work (to complete the picture; usually it's raining, and the bus is late. Somewhere a violin plays).

BF: What do you think differentiates web comics from print? Does the instant feedback from fans and critics affect your work?

TS: Ideally there should be little that differentiates print comics and the web other than the means of distribution. The reality, however, is that large print-based companies will never try anything risky to bring in new readers while webcomics have the opposite problem, and it's hard for a new reader to find something decent amidst all the usual scum floating around the Internet.

When the average person on the street thinks of "comics", the first thing they will associate with that is "super-heroes" and, by and large, that's the majority of the subject matter you would find in any comics shop. It's not as bad as it used to be, with many more smaller publishing companies putting out stuff with a much wider range, but I think more needs to be done to get the public aware of the diversity of comics. Maybe even something as simple as marketing comics outside comic shops (seeing as the general public would never go into a comic shop, no matter how nice they are) or perhaps selling a horror graphic novel on the "Horror" shelf and not tucked away next to the Pita-Ten and Triple Platinum Anniversary Crisis Dimension Batman books on the "comics" shelf at the back of Waterstones.

As for webcomics, I think the boys at Halfpixel are doing some good work in trying to get the word out. Getting webcomics into comic shops isn't really the way to go, in my opinion, since you're just looking at a dead end there. But it's good to have some guys who know what they are doing, ignoring the typical high school-type drama you find in webcomics and getting some work done.

Lastly, it is great to get feedback on my comic as I post it online. Sometimes it's a little hard because people can judge my comic page at a time, and not chapter/book at a time like you can do with print comics, and so some readers will throw a tantrum at the first sign of things not going how they want. I just have to bear in mind that I know what's going to happen and let the readers discuss amongst themselves.

Since the gool ol' Internet is a terrible place filled with terrible people and terrible things, you just have to take everything that's said with a pinch of salt. I know my comic isn't perfect, but then I also know it isn't ruining people’s lives. I must admit I've been really surprised and pleased at the response my comic has gotten from many different types of people. I'm sincerely hoping the print book will do just as well.

Discuss this article on the Lowdown forum

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