I cannot claim that I came to Oni’s new series Another Castle, written by Andrew Wheeler and drawn by Paulina Ganucheau, without a whole bunch of preconceptions and biases:
- I’ve enjoyed Wheeler’s work and general internet presence for, god, more than a decade now, from the Warren Ellis Forum and its satellites through Ninth Art through Twitter through his stint running Comics Alliance.
- I have a lot of respect for Wheeler’s chops as a creator of fiction, based on his serial fiction podcast Valentin & The Widow, and also for his chops as a thinker-about-the-craft-of-fiction, based on his other podcast, Storybeater.
- I submitted a pitch to Oni’s open call, so I spent a lot of time thinking about how to approach this and admire the ways in which Wheeler and Ganucheau succeeded (where I, quite deservedly, did not).
- As the father of a young-and-growing daughter, the feminist-spin-on-Disney-princesses premise of Another Castle is something that appeals to me and that I’d like to see more of.
So that’s potentially good, but it’s also a whoooooole lot of Matt Baggage to ask a humble li’l comic to unpack. WOULD IT SUCCEED?!?!? FIND OUT BELOW!!!!!
Another Castle #1 has a lot of heavy lifting to do, which is nothing particularly unusual for a first issue: introduce your heroine, her world, her conflicts, her opposition, and her supporting cast; then ratchet up the stakes a notch and introduce a higher-level antagonist, some deeper emotional conflicts, and, why not, a few new supporting cast members. All in 24-ish pages of story.
What is unusual is how effectively Wheeler and Ganucheau pull it off here, especially for relative newcomers to mainstream comics. The book is the story of Princess Artemisia (or “Misty”) of Beldora, a heroine with very little time for the expectations of a princess, who would rather be taking the family’s magic sword and smiting the family’s enemies than waiting around to be proposed to. That’s the initial status quo, and — given modern comics pacing and the popularity of royal politicking in Game of Thrones, it would’ve been easy enough for the book to settle into that groove alone, at least for an issue or two, and still be enjoyable and engaging.
Instead, the stakes are raised almost immediately: Misty is captured by the family’s ancient enemy, Lord Badlug, who plans to conquer Beldora but needs to marry Misty to do it. And, again, there’s a bit of an expectation that the book will settle in here for a bit as well. But no: Misty almost immediately effects her own escape … and then discovers something that causes her to decide to stay in Badlug’s clutches.
The high-level result of all this is that the first issue feels packed and fast-moving, but the secondary result is that Misty retains agency over her own status quo, and we as readers know it. It’s cleverly executed, a way of subverting the damsel-in-distress cliches while still getting to play with them.
Which is, of course, the point of the whole exercise, a fact that Wheeler and Ganucheau make eminently clear on page 2, when Misty notices — and promptly slaughters — the heart-marked songbird that opens the issue. Wheeler’s voice on Twitter and his work on Comics Alliance make it eminently clear that he values (and champions) diversity and inclusivity in fiction, and it would be very easy for Another Castle to stumble into heavy-handedness or wearying didacticism. But Wheeler treads the line very smartly and very carefully; if you’re looking for that sort of thing, it’s all there, but if you’re not, well, this is just another lively heroine ghost-riding the zeitgeist behind Katniss and Anna and Elsa and Furiosa and Rey and all the rest.
Ganucheau’s art has to walk the same line, selling Disney-esque brightness and light while also selling the more sincere moments of the story, and she’s up to the task. Misty’s character is established as much by her acting and body language as by her actions and dialogue. It’s nice work, well-suited to the story.
The book isn’t flawless, of course. It sometimes leans a little hard on the influences it’s responding to (there’s a strong whiff of Beauty & the Beast about it that hasn’t quite been subverted — at least not yet), for example. And Ganucheau’s art gets a little confusing in spots when the action picks up speed — there’s a crucial moment when Misty is captured where I’m genuinely not clear what happens panel-to-panel. (To be fair, this is partially because much of the acting is very precise and particular, so the breakdown in this transition really jumps out.)
But it is very, very good, and very, very exciting, and something that I’m very much looking forward to reading more of. I’m not sure my daughter is quite ready for it yet (it kinda depends where the next few issues go), but I’m also very excited that it’ll be there to give to her when she is.
It’s been awhile since I’ve felt quite this enthusiastic about a new book. This is a fun, impressive debut, even if you don’t bring as much baggage to it as I did.