I won't lie to you: My very first impressions of Gunnerkrigg Court was that it was yet another story feasting on the bloated, overexhuasted corpse of Harry Potter and the obsessive buzz that the franchise generated. Magic, a mysterious school, a kid with mysteriously absent parents, a cabal of teachers who seemed to know something, lessons in untraditional crafts and skills--it all smacked of dancing around in JK Rowling's ample shadow. Pardon my suspicion.
I read deeper into the thick hardcover collection, and I was actually rewarded for the effort. There's a very distinct point around the ninth chapter, roughly 150 pages into the story, where all of the various elements coalesce into a story that the reader starts to care about. This might seem like the story requires a lot of patience, but once the foundations are set, Gunnerkrigg Court evolves into something that can be both hilarious and moving--even if that Harry Potter stuff is still clinging to its ankles. I don't think that Harry Potter ever had robots, even if it also had talking ghosts, mythical creatures, and awkward teenage romance.
The over-wise protagonist, a girl named Antimony Carver, seems to be a standard in just about every other fictional tale since Alice in Wonderland (and every Neil Gaiman story ever written), and Gunnerkrigg is no different. During the earlier chapters, she's drawn so emotionlessly and hollow that you wonder if she's human at all, but her humanity evolves as the story shifts--which I'm not sure is intentional as much as the artist finding his voice. Again, it takes some patience, but she's likable.
Because this collection consists of webcomics that were originally published online, the art reflects that unique "webcomics" aesthetic--which is occasionally rushed to meet a tight daily or weekly schedule. At first, the drawings come across as lazy and static, but Siddell evolves as an artist as the book progresses, and by the later chapters the art starts to come alive as he perfects his craft. If you pick up the book to scan it for yourself, start with the back pages, as they're more visually impressive.
The story itself hasn't yet reached any revolutionary points, but the 14 chapters within the collection are definitely sequential and hint at larger things in the Gunnerkrigg universe, establishing a mythology that mixes in a certain element of science, a larger conflict, and a fondness for the characters involved.
Parents and librarians should note that there's references to demons, use of the word goddamn, and a brief instance of a demon-possessed doll indicating that he'd like to see two of the young, female characters kiss. I'd still feel comfortable giving it to my nine-year-old niece to read, and I think she'd love the idea of these empowered young girls forging their way through a strange school and building weird flying machines to rescue each other from fairies and minotaurs. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens in book two.
-- Collin David