It’s a dream every geek, freak, dork, spazz, nerdy girl, artsy fartsy dilettante, re-enactor, socially challenged misfit and misanthrope has had: Sanctuary. A place where you’re left alone. A place where embarrassing quirks, interests and personal oddities aren’t just tolerated, but embraced. And many have tried to build their own sanctuaries from pillow forts to teenage rooms to basements to dorms to studios, each with its freak flag flying.
Linda Medley’s 2007 collection, Castle Waiting (Fantagraphics) is all about sanctuary. In this case it’s not the nave of a church in a bad part of town or a 70′s future Eden; it’s the castle Briar Rose, aka “Sleeping Beauty,” abandons to go live with her beloved acquaintance, Hans. Over time, Castle Waiting and its denizens—including Briar Rose’s ladies-in-waiting, the avian Mr. Rackham Adjutant, Sister Peaceful the Solicitine Nun and Iron Henry, whose heart is held together with iron bands—find their purpose and tell their stories to the self-styled, Lady Jain, the Countess of Carabas, pregnant and on the run from an abusive husband.
Medley obviously intends to present all the characters’ stories through the course of her comic. And she uses some of the forms of Medieval/Renaissance texts like Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but without causing herself the headache that committing to 10 stories from 10 characters over a 10 night plague feast does. Chaucer didn’t set himself up much better with his story telling competition. Instead, Medley plays it smart. She has a series of nested stories the characters tell about themselves and the people in their lives. There’s no formal structure, just the organic one of a curious Lady. But Medley did run into one obstacle—she couldn’t afford to keep publishing her comic. The current book represents the run from 1996 to 2001, when she put the book on hiatus. Now she’s started up their stories again and Fantagraphics published a collection in a schmancy format that looks like the hardcover Series of Unfortunate Events and has a ribbon book mark. And I bet fantasy fans could get their geek on with its length and Romany glossary.
Medley’s art reminds me of woodcuts, especially the thick lines she uses for shading or outlines. And somehow she maintains a balance between more two-dimensional Medieval art and a three-dimensional Naturalistic style. The styles don’t grate against each other. But instead of illustrating people skipping to the krumhorn or sacbut, Medley depicts Peaceful and Nessie escaping from the circus and Rackham and Chess patching a leaky roof. She’s really good at drawing woodcut horses and oxen. They just make me happy.
Castle Waiting might sound like it has that tone. You know, the fantasy magical enchantment and wonder of a very serious nature tone, but with sparkles cause it’s girly. A tone that I like in Neil Gaiman’s work but has lately begun to wear on me. Castle Waiting is a little more playful and a little less engaged in making the audience feel the wonder and delight of a re-enchanted world—or of a world believed to have been thoroughly disenchanted long ago. The writing’s zippy. The fantastic elements are taken as mundane. A “poltersprite” infestation is just a nuisance. Theriomorphic people like Rackham or the Three Pigs just… are and their difference from animals that don’t talk or wear clothes isn’t one that needs to be clarified. The inside references—like Dr. Fell, Iron Henry or Camilla the chicken—are neat when you get them, but don’t become a distracting game of collect’em all. Most of all, the comic is humorous and joyful and, right now, I can use that. Castle Waiting’s more Muppet Show than Mirror Mask.
I enjoyed most of the book but didn’t get crazy excited until the story of Sister Peaceful and her order, the Solicitines, who are all bearded ladies, many of whom worked in the circus. Can it get any better than bearded circus ladies? Yes, it can. They are scampy, bearded circus ladies who use their circus powers for awesome, including an amazing impersonation of what looks to be Baphomet. There better be more Solicitines in the next complete volume.
I don’t know if I can stand the wait. Even though Medley’s hard at work on new issues, Castle Waiting, like Mouse Guard, is not a comic I can read one issue at a time. So I’ll do my best to abide until 2008, then hole up and dream of a freaky, muppet, circus sanctuary for my own little heart.
Carol Borden has been crazy foolish the last 10 days or so and writing for the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness blog. Yes, she’s writing this tired and out of her mind.
(This essay was originally published at The Cultural Gutter on September 9, 2007)