Thursday, March 1, 2012

Courtney Crumrin by Ted Naifeh

I promised Mona Lisa Overdrive, and I’m getting through it, but I recently got a birthday care package which included the most recent Courtney Crumrin story and I found myself going back through all the first ones as well.  I hadn’t read them in a while, and had somewhat forgotten how solid (and scary) they are.  Ted Naifeh is a familiar name in the comic book scene, and Courtney Crumrin is his best-known solo work (he does a lot of illustration for hire, this one is his baby.)  I didn’t realize this, but apparently there’s an ongoing series about to start in April, so this is probably a good time to look at this, in any event.

So stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Courtney Crumrin, aged somewhere between about nine and twelve, has to uproot herself from the life she’s familiar with and move in with her parents to her creepy great-uncle Aloysius’s house (or maybe it’s her dad’s great-uncle?  possibly even her grandfather’s great-uncle?  wait, how old is this guy anyway?)  While there she gets crossways with the local brats but discovers a secret world of fairy creatures and even discovers magical powers within herself.  Sound like just about anything you could find in the YA Harry Potter ripoff section at the local bookstore?  Uh-uh, not this one.

First unique thing about Courtney – she’s got a super well developed personality, and it’s informed by everything we know and see about her.  I’d be tempted to say that her parents “aren’t bad parents, but . . . “.  However, that would be wrong, since they are bad parents.  Well meaning, but inadequate to the task.  They’re small-minded wannabe social climbers, without any of the wit or resources needed to actually socially climb, and they find themselves utterly incapable of dealing with the daughter that they’ve actually got as opposed to the one they’d like to have.  They compensate by neglecting Courtney’s actual needs, and she, in turn, compensates by pretending not to care and acting like she doesn’t need the help.  She’s sullen, unpleasant, bratty, and doesn’t even take much comfort in the fact that she’s usually right.  Courtney’s so used to being alone that she pushes away even those who might be friendly, and is so used to being miserable that she sabotages herself at every opportunity so she won’t have to deal with the unexpected.

An altogether typical pre-teen, in other words, if a little bit more prickly than most.  It’s unusual to see a protagonist with this many relatable flaws in this genre.  What makes it even better is that her discovery of magical powers doesn’t actually affect any of this – she’s still equally unlovable and now she’s even scarier.
The series so far has comprised of a few limited series, compiled into four trade paperbacks, and a prequel story which focuses on Aloysius as a young man.  All of these are at least pretty good.  Actually, the first one is a little disjointed and features somewhat flat antagonists.  In my personal opinion, the second one, Courtney Crumrin and the Coven of Mystics, is so far the real standout.

There’s a great overarching antagonist in that one – it’s a hobgoblin that’s feared for its apparent bloodlust and imperviousness to any sort of magical assault.  Naifeh’s art style and character design match perfectly here – you almost never quite see it all in one shot, since it’s usually blending into the background, but what you do see is jaw-droppingly horrific.  It’s all hunched over, but still twice the size of a man, has ridiculously long limbs, looks to be dripping moss and/or gore, and has a skeletal face with too many incisors and what you imagine are sunken, glowing eyes.  It’s an excellent nightmare creature, and as it turns out it’s really as bad as you’d expect, although it’s also relatively urbane and has a sense of humor.  And although it’s certainly terrible enough, the real villains are the humans – it’s still a monster, but that’s just according to its nature.

Naifeh has a lot of control over the narrative in that one.  Aloysius doesn’t suffer fools lightly, nonetheless he’s the go-to guy when the other magicians in town have a problem that’s too tough for them to deal with, which makes them resent him even more.  Later on he manages to make a strong case very badly, essentially arguing that the magical council should find in his favor because they’re too stupid to understand what’s going on.  Naturally he manages to lose, dramatically demonstrating that being right doesn’t always mean you’re effective.

Another nice thing is that adults aren’t totally useless.  Aloysius isn’t (he literally wrote the book on dealing with Night Things), neither are a couple of Courtney’s other teachers.  Nonetheless, she decides to take matters into her own hands – something not entirely uncommon in YA fiction – but takes them perhaps a little bit too far.  Now, it’s certainly possible to argue that what she does is justified (after all, the person she does it to surely deserves it).  Nonetheless, she manages to ignore all that due-process stuff and go straight to vigilantism.  It’s also pretty profoundly disturbing, since you have to wonder about her mental stability at that point.  The book establishes that working around magic can make you a power-mad lunatic, and you have to wonder if Courtney’s not only a neglected girl but possibly just bad.  The book is surprisingly agnostic on the subject; it's certainly possible to argue either way.

Her actions end up having repercussions not just for her but for many other people as well; these are explored in the third volume, which is also pretty solid.  There will no doubt be ongoing problems for her as well as a result of her actions, since it’s not the sort of thing that can be undone or really ignored.  But she does manage to come out of her shell a little bit and possibly learn from her (and Aloysius') mistakes about interacting with people.  Even stupid, annoying people who don't know as much as she does and aren't nearly as powerful.

The fourth volume deals with her trip to Europe on vacation with Aloysius where they basically cement their relationship and deal with more traditional monsters.  I thought this one was OK, especially in its subversion of audience expectations regarding true love conquering all, but was not quite as strong as the second and third collections.

So with Courtney starting out in a reasonably good place, at least as far as she is concerned, I’m interested to see what Naifeh has in store for her in an ongoing series.

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