After the Fairy Tale Ended
Think of a medieval fantasy world and the first association that usually comes to mind is an exotic backdrop for fantastic adventures. Yet couldn’t the headaches of day-to-day living in such a world be an adventure in itself? Linda Medley’s medieval fantasy comic series, Castle Waiting, attempts to tell mundane tales in a fantastic setting.
Jain, accompanied by her half-human and half-canine son Pindar, has abandoned her former life as a noblewoman. To make a fresh start, she has decided to settle down at a distant but somewhat ruined seaside castle. It will not be an isolated existence. Nearly a dozen people already live within the walls. There’s a nun whose role as a paragon of virtue doesn’t obstruct her greed for caramels or her lusting after a wandering humanoid horse-knight. Doctor Fell, a death-obsessed scientist, seeks ways to harness the power of legendary creatures such as the Basilisk and the Hydra for the benefit of humanity. Leeds (aka Thuribulus) is an agent of the Devil who monitors the castle’s souls on a very relaxed basis.
The castle’s squatters aren’t in serious danger of displacement by the former owners. The Keep’s booby traps have long been dismantled. The treasury no longer houses gold and jewels. The castle buildings have been allowed to fall into slow decay. Rackham, an old humanoid stork, essentially acts as the castle’s custodian and historian. One also senses he appreciates having other people present to bring a touch of life to this lonely place.
Rackham gives Jain, Pindar, and Simon (a simple-minded giant of a man) a grand tour of the castle’s rooms. The light-hearted tour is both orientation and a chance for Jain and Pindar to find a room in which to live. The former noblewoman chooses the old counting house. That room evokes strong memories of her happier childhood days.
Meanwhile, the other residents of the castle go about their daily lives. Dinah still needs to get the laundry washed. Chess, the humanoid horse-knight, develops a cracked hoof and needs to scrounge up repair supplies. The Sister tries to find metal that can be melted to make a cross for Jain. Eventually, all these tasks are accomplished.
Castle Waiting fans that have followed the series from the beginning may grumble that much of this Fantagraphics-published issue is a reprint of two previously published issues. But since this new comic re-starts an uncompleted storyline begun in the reprinted issues, perhaps this transgression can be forgiven. For new readers unfamiliar with Medley’s imagined world, this issue provides a good jumping on point. Still, there are moments when one can get lost.
Rackham: I’ve never been able to find a plan of the Tower in any of the archives. I’ve tried to figure it out myself… The architect was either a genius or a madman. Or both!
Medley’s plotting can equally be characterized as genius, madness, or both. By the issue’s end there seems to be no sense of a large plot payoff lurking somewhere off stage. That quality would drive away readers who equate fantasy tales with a cornucopia of incident and high emotion. On the other hand, the lack of obvious melodramatic moments pushes the patient reader to pay attention to the story’s scintillas of information and then mull on their implications. Chess is only mentioned once by name, in the panel preceding his first appearance in the issue. One then sees the character on panel, a humanoid horse-warrior who walks upright. Then Medley’s cleverness sinks in. A knight is a chess piece, and is represented on the chessboard as a horse.
Medley’s stronger achievement is to use simple or mundane incidents to make telling points about character. A running joke centers on the nun’s efforts to find metal to make a cross for Jain. The cross is intended to "keep out evil spirits, and stuff." Yet the Sister doesn’t notice that Leeds, a literal Devil’s agent, passes easily through a doorway with a cross hanging over it. In other words, the nun is unaware of how much of her beliefs may be organized superstition.
This depiction of religion should not be surprising. Medley portrays an era where superstition and prejudice are mistaken for scientific knowledge. Doctor Fell thinks a Venus flytrap is a plant-based descendant of the legendary Hydra. Chess, who lacks botanical knowledge, takes the doctor at his word and worries that the small potted plant may eventually grow large enough to pose a danger to the people of the community. One may chuckle at these characters’ ignorance. But that bit of humor quickly turns bleak when one remembers the organized efforts of American Christian fundamentalists to foist "intelligent" design on unsuspecting students.
At this point, Jain appears to be the most complex character among the Castle Waiting cast. It is not explained why she left the dream life of nobility with little more than her son and whatever she could carry on horseback. The flashbacks to Jain’s childhood tantalize the reader, especially with its mention of young Jain’s enthusiasm for visiting the Royal Court. Did she eventually feel as unwillingly fenced in as Floramunda the goat?
Only Doctor Fell matches Jain for emotional complexity, as he displays the charming quirk of wearing the medieval equivalent of a hazmat suit. The other characters generally induce minor curiosity about their situation. For example, if Chess is a horse-knight, does he ride other horses to get around and perform heroic deeds? Simon is a possibly cloying exception. He’s the simple man who innocently displays bouts of wisdom. Medley barely saves the character from sentimentality by keeping such moments to one or two panels per issue.
A less forgivable aspect of the series is the characters’ occasional tendency to utter bits of modern slang. Medley is not trying for camp appeal a la Xena: Warrior Princess. Thus, having characters say "and such" and "doofus" appear jarring and undercut the fairy tale revisionism atmosphere.
Yet Castle Waiting doesn’t kowtow to its time period. Being part of the nobility is not considered an inherent good. Nor is eating off of actual silverware the signifier of earthly paradise that people believe it to be.
The comic’s artwork takes a different shift between its reprinted material and its new material. The first two chapters are the product of a lot of careful line work, as seen in the panels depicting every single brick of a castle wall. Was Medley trying to grab readers who judge a comic first by its visual aspects and secondly by its story? In the last chapter, the artwork feels looser and a bit more expressive. There’s less attention to the particulars, as not every single brick is drawn in. Instead, the visual focus centers on the characters to good effect.
Castle Waiting displays talent and intelligence, but it is obviously not a fantasy comic for everyone. Readers who thrive on spectacular battles and exotic locales will definitely not be interested in a comic depicting a day spent on the process of moving in to a new room. But for readers who feel the small victories of life can contain more emotional meaning than the strum und drang of a battle, Medley’s comic will indeed be something special.
[Amazon has a hardback collection of Volume 1 of Castle Waiting, which is what I’ve linked to in the sales section – Cheryl]