Tom Siddell's Gunnerkrigg Court has won awards, critical acclaim, and the heart of Neil Gaiman. With its mysterious boarding school setting and curious, lighthearted blend of science fiction, fantastical creatures, gothic imagery, and silly humor, it's easy to see why.
After the death of her mother, Antimony "Annie" Carver is unceremoniously dumped at Gunnerkrigg Court, the same boarding school her parents attended in their youth. Aside from the uniforms, Gunnerkrigg doesn't resemble a school as much as a sprawling, spooky industrial complex, which sits at the edge of an unnamed city just across the river from a forbidden forest.
Annie encounters no students in her first days of Gunnerkrigg (outside class, presumably), but she does quickly find that she's acquired a second shadow, a sentient, playful creature that needs Annie's help to get across the bridge and back into the forbidden forest. After finding a box of spare robot parts in a closet, Annie is well on her way to helping the shadow home.
It's a simple first adventure that sets in motion the ever-deepening mysteries of Gunnerkrigg Court. Annie eventually meets Kat, a science and engineering whiz kid whose parents are on the Gunnerkrigg faculty, who becomes her partner in exploring the twisting passages and dark secrets of their school. Along the way, they encounter a friendly ghost in need of scaring lessons, a black-eyed student with apparently demonic powers, a pair of vain girls who once were fairies, the trickster god Coyote, and a body-stealing creature who has a history with Annie's mother.
But there's a tension between all the magic — or the "etheric sciences" as they are called — and Gunnerkrigg's high technology mission. The Court itself plays host to technological wonders: an artificial environment, a virtual reality simulator that casts students in a black-and-white alien adventure pulp, and incredibly sophisticated robots who are inexorably to a portrait of a mysterious young woman. And Annie finds herself caught up in the politics of these two worlds, neither of which she fully trusts or understands.
Siddell mixes gothic imagery with an often playful, almost childish style that keeps the series light, even as we understand that Annie is dealing with very serious, very powerful forces. And he understands fully understands the genre he has chosen, tempering his arcs about lost souls and demonic hallucinations with science fairs, teenage crushes, and inverted Aesopian tales.
Annie herself is patient and thoughtful character, one who often perseveres by keeping a level and an open mind, and by being almost unfailingly polite. In less adept hands, this would be a recipe for a Mary Sue, but much of the humor comes from the other character's inability to phase her and her absurdly rational interactions with those around her. And Siddell has increasingly fleshed out the cast of students, teachers, and mystical and mechanical beings whose lives intersect with Annie's, keeping the interactions bright and enriching his world.
It's ultimately a strange menagerie of ingredients that fill Gunnerkrigg Court's pot: science fiction and fantasy (with healthy doses of Egyptian, European, and American mythology), thick-lined manga and gothic elegance, self-aware silliness and the epic sublime. And by all rights, it should come out to a jumbled mess. But Siddell has struck a delightful balance that makes his comic at once an engrossing mystery and great playful fun.