guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

November 2006

Linda Medley, Castle Waiting (Fantagraphics, 2006). Hardcover. $29.95; Castle Waiting vol. 2 (Fantagraphics, 2006-). Bi-monthly; $3.95.

by Jared Gardner

For many long-time fans of Linda Medley’s fairy tale about what happens after “happily ever after,” the arrival this summer of Fantagraphic’s beautiful new edition of Castle Waiting was an affirmation of the promise that quality will win out over sales in the great karmic battles for the future of comicdom. But there was still more reason to rejoice than the return to print of Medley’s ill-fated and often-interrupted epic. After a five-year hiatus, Medley would be picking up the story where it left off in 2001, with regular bi-monthly issues. And with the first of these new issues finally in hand this month, there is indeed reason for Medley’s fans to smile.

But there is also reason for doubt—less from the quality of the new work (which indeed looks promising and reenergized) than in the evidence provided by the lusciously produced volume of the collected earlier work, which was self-published on-and-off between 1996 and 2001. The earliest of this work, “The Curse of Brambly Hedge,” is a delightful and lively prologue to the story of the Castle, where we learn of the curse that has consigned it to its ramshackle and abandoned fate a century later. And the first installments of the story proper, in which the pregnant Lady Jain escapes from her marriage and seeks to save her unborn son’s life from the vengeance of her husband )once he learns that the child is not his), are pure pleasure. Lady Jain finds sanctuary in Castle Waiting, where she meets a cast of characters who have been occupying the deserted structures, seeking solitude within its cursed walls. Indeed, there is much here, from the fairy tale landscape to the clean white and black of the art, to remind a first-time reader of Jeff Smith’s

But now that Castle Waiting is bound in a 450-page book, it is precisely that inevitable comparison (one encouraged by the earlier trade publications of
Bone at Smith’s Cartoon Books) that casts doubt on the ultimate canonicity of the project. As a volume, the hardcover book highlights the uneven publication process—the fits and starts of its composition and the economics of self-publishing—as much or more than it does the story it is telling. This is especially the case in the long story that dominates the second half of the volume, “Solicitine,” which tells the prehistory of Sister Peaceful, formerly of the Solicitines, an order of bearded women. Clearly, it was Medley’s goal to tell the story of all the denizens of Castle Waiting in turn, but unfortunately it is Peaceful’s story that comes first and which (for unaccountable reasons) takes seemingly endless chapters to tell. Once one has enjoyed the cross-dressing pleasures of the tale (for what they’re worth), the parade of bearded women and their struggles with oppressors and admirers alike quickly grows tiresome. We share little of the infinite interest Lady Jain expresses in the next installment of the interminable tale and—we almost hesitate to confess it—by the end of the volume, we were almost praying for the sweet deliverance of bankruptcy. The conditions under which Medley was trying to write and self-publish these final chapters certainly impacted the quality of writing and imagination here, but in retrospect there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum: did the quality fall off precipitously because Medley was not able to make the project economically viable, or did the market for the book disappear because, by the end, it was growing increasingly dull?

In the end, it does not matter if, now with a publishing partner in hand, Medley is able to pick up the energy and wit of the first half of her earlier run. And from the first two issues of the new volume, there is
some reason to be optimistic. Cross-cutting here between the domestic tribulations of Castle Waiting and the trials of Jain’s childhood, Medley seems to have recovered her original spirit and hopefully abandoned the backstories of the other fairly uninteresting fairytale characters who inhabit the castle. The first issue, a leftover from when Medley had to drop the project a few years back, begins the new narrative arc, and visually it maintains the clean lines—visually between 1930s linocut and medieval woodblock—and energetic architectural drawings of her earlier work. Here the castle seems again to be the central character, and her loving attention to its nooks and crannies is a real pleasure. I look forward to exploring all of its reaches and trap doors with Jain. The flashbacks to Jain’s childhood (where we are finally to be let in on the secrets of the unhappiness that led her to seek refuge in Castle Waiting in the first place) are a delight, the relationship with her father is convincing and complex, and the superficial royal stepsisters are great wicked fun.

But, oh! the Waiting!

I suppose it is hard to complain about the pauses, digressions and endless publication interruptions in a book that announces its refusal to be rushed so prominently in its very title. But after all this time, one had hoped to follow through a bit more on this new storyline, moving between Jain’s childhood and the everyday adventures in the present-day castle. Instead, in the middle of issue #2, we are introduced to a new pair of characters (leprechauns or elves) on their way to the Castle for unknown reasons, arguing about characters we have never met, and making references to other mysteries that frankly only leave us wondering if we really want to follow these new unnamed characters into the castle at all.

In addition to breaking off this new chapter at a seemingly arbitrary point in the narrative and all the frustrations this new digression might inspire in even the most patient long-time fan, there is another sign of trouble. This chapter, which shows signs of being composed most recently, also shows signs of being composed most
quickly. Drawn in a style that has somehow lost the delicate balance of the earlier work, the lines here are thicker, the compositions more haphazard—even the font has changed and looks…well, like a font. There are clouds on the horizon, I fear, that suggest that perhaps the frustrations of self-publication were not the only reasons for the unevenness of Castle Waiting over the years. But I for one am willing to wait a while longer in the quite genuine hope that I am wrong.