Saturday, 22 December 2007

Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things

Artist/Author: Ted Naifeh (www.tednaifeh.com)
Media: Comic Book/Graphic Novel
Publisher: Oni Press (www.onipress.com)


Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things is the name of the first mini-series (most easily available as a trade paperback from Oni Press). The concept of a stroppy tween/teen girl finding her place in a supernatural world whilst struggling with her everyday life sounds pretty close to perfect concept to me, so I figured that this first mini-series that introduces Courtney and her world was fitting for the first The Winding Way review. For those of you who don't know (and shame on you if that's the case), Courtney Crumrin is the the creation of writer/artist Ted Naifeh. Over the course of the three 4-issue mini-series' and two extra sized specials released so far, this precocious early teen gets introduced to, and starts dabbling in the world of magic and myth. So far, so Harry Potter, right? Well, not really. Whilst there may well have been some inspiration taken from Rowling's boy, adolescent magic-wielders are hardly a new concept. Also, the delicious mix of cute and nasty gives it more in common with the work of Roald Dahl and with touch of Edward Lear. What really sets Courtney apart from her sorcerous peers is her downright ornery attitude. Like many popular young characters she has absent parents. Okay yes, her shallow, yuppie-wannabe parents are still alive, and yes again, she does live with them, but they are oblivious of her to the point of neglect and tend to figure in the stories only when the are using her to climb the town's social ladder. Presumably due to this lack of a warm, loving family unit Courtney is sullen, defensive and unfriendly, however she also possesses a modest amount of confidence and wit, and not a little chutzpah. That combination is a little hard not to fall in love with. Or is that just me?

Each of the four issues is a self-contained story, and  introduces aspects of the main character's life and the world she lives in, whilst also delivering a perfectly formed twisted fairy tale. When he wrote and drew this series Naifeh was already established as a comic book artist, most notably having drawn the goth romance comic 'Gloomcookie'. His experience as an artist explains the simple but distinct character designs, atmospheric architecture and landscapes and clear storytelling. What is more surprising is that this is his first published written work. The accuracy and speed with which he nails these characters and their setting for the readers, suggests to me that he must have had been living with them for a while before he introduced them to the page. In the text page at the end of the first-issue he tells us that the scene that matter-of-factly introduces the supernatural element to the series, in which which Courtney finds a 'night thing' sitting at the end of her bed, was inspired by a dream he had a number of years ago. 'Night things' by the way seems to be a catch-all phrase for faeries, goblins, changeling's and all the other magical creatures one might encounter. This scene occurs on the fourth page of the first issue, and by this point Courtney and her vapid parents have already been introduced, they've relocated to a small, affluent town not too far away from their previous home in the nearby unnamed city. We've also met Aloysius Crumrin, Courtney's paternal great great (at least) Uncle (the number of generations removed he is, is left a mystery - although we don't even learn that until the final issue) and learnt that they have been invited to live rent-free with him. 

We finally get our first proper glimpse of cranky Courtney in all her glory in the following scene (for those keeping track we're still only on page 6) when she faces off against her teacher about roll-call answering technique. Its here that her true colours begin to shine. We're also now into the issues storyline proper. Naifeh grounds the book nicely having real-world problems (in this case school bullies) cause Crumrin more problems than the unearthly things do. In fact she ends up harnessing the night-things with a little borrowed magic from her uncle's books to resolve her problems. This is a trick she repeats more than once in her adventures with varying degrees of success. Each story sees Courtney overcoming some challenge related to her struggles against the oppressive normalities of the society surrounding her. Many protagonists in this genre, have a sense of 'Otherness' about them and Miss Crumrin certainly conforms to this tradition. Philosopher, Professor Lawrence Cahoone has defined the concept of 'The Other' this way: "What appear to be cultural units—human beings, words, meanings, ideas, philosophical systems, social organizations—are maintained in their apparent unity only through an active process of exclusion, opposition, and hierarchization. Other phenomena or units must be represented as foreign or 'other' through representing a hierarchical dualism in which the unit is 'privileged' or favored, and the other is devalued in some way." Looking at the at the way Courtney interacts with the local 'social organisations' - usually embodied by her schoolmates, we can see how Naifeh defines his lead character in opposition to them.  

In the first issue is made to feel she doesn't fit in with her well to-do schoolmates because of her attitude, background and because of her Uncle who is seen as the town eccentric, this progresses quickly to physical bullying. Despite not backing down, playing the the lead bully at her own game and winning, Courtney remains an unpopular outsider. In the second story she tries to fit in by making herself more attractive, by way of a fairy glamour. As is always the case with these things the spell backfires and she ends up having to reverse the spell, stepping back into her role as the friendless loner, not before casting a repulsion spell on the most popular boy in school, her revenge for his overly-aggressive pursuit of her. In the third tale, possibly the most complex for Courtney, she must rescue the infant she was babysitting, after it is snatched by goblins to be sold at their market. In the end she fails in her quest, losing the child and leaving the unsuspecting parents to raise a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking gambling changeling the goblins left in its place. In this story Courtney actually tries to do right by the entitled society that distrusts and dislikes her, she was only asked to babysit as a last resort. It is suggested by her uncle that the parents will not notice the switch, so no-one will discover the switch. Involuntarily Courtney has planted a misfit, in the heart of a well-respected family, so yet again she puts one over on the established hierachy, albeit without intending to. In the final issue an unnamed night-thing impersonates her and starts living her life for her whilst draining Courtney's energy. This faux-Crumrin does well at school and crucially fits in with her classmates and with her parents, by conforming to what is expected of a girl of her age in a middle-class, upwardly mobile community. To defeat this foe, the real Courtney draws her strength from her otherness, by decrying the imposter for being a phony, who has given up everything Courtney Crumrin is so she can fit in and get on. Interestingly this tale (and this first series) ends after the doppelganger is despatched with Courtney embracing and being embraced by her Uncle Aloysius, himself an societal outcast. Early in the series he has confided in her that he invited her family to live with him so he could hide in plain sight, behind the bland normality of Courtney's parents. Cahoone's definition of 'The Other' states that social units define themselves by having 'other's' that stand apart from it, and  it is clear that at the heart of this series is a conflict between Courtney (the other) and mainstream society. By the end of the series she is starting to define herself as being outside of/apart from society and using this in a positive way. This puts her, and her uncle  more in line with the Night Things than humanity, even moreso once they start using magic. And if night things can't be called 'other', what can?

With its MacGuffin-esque plots this series is reminiscent of many things, as well as the aforementioned authors there are definite echoes of Buffy, Casper the Friendly Ghost and a soup├žon of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but as far as its sequential art contemporaries I would say tone-wise it is closest to Mike Mignola's Hellboy. The obvious comparison being the supernatural setting, but they share a similar down to earth voice, and an expressionistic edge to the art. Naifeh draws his titular character without a nose, which individualises her further from the rest of the character's, but in the words of her creator he wanted to present an incomplete main character, in the hope that would allow readers to invest more of them self in her. I also feel that in separating her from the humans, it pushes her one step closer to the night-things. Certainly she seems far more comfortable in her dealings with them than she does with her parents or the other kids at school. It is interesting how one little feature, or lack thereof, can add multiple layers to what could just be read as a simple children's story. Courtney's struggles with human relationships and her own feelings are a theme that is continued through her adventures. 

As a 34-year old man, I suppose I'm not really the typical target audience for this kind of book, but as I said earlier, it matches my particular aesthetic almost perfectly. That the series also has some serious and interesting points about identity and a person's place in contemporary society, gives it an edge over its contemporaries. It evokes some familiar feelings within this 'grown-up', and these were the main reason I chose to review it. I knew that I would have quite a lot to say about it, and there's lots more I haven't touched on, so expect further reviews of the later Crumrin stories. I'd like to think that such a sophisticatedly pitched and crafted story would earn it a wide readership and while it has been well-received by those who have seen it, I fear the snobbishness towards the comic book in a lot of Western society blunts its crossover appeal. However, there is a Courtney Crumrin film in development currently so it seems like our tough and stubborn heroine is fighting for wider recognition. I'd advise you to seek her out before she finds you. You'll thank me for it... 

1 comment:

Sina said...

Ahhh, Courtney... how I love thee! It's been ages since I've read any Crumrin so it was really nice to read this in-depth assessment of the first book and I really like your interpretation of Courtney as "The Other"!