Castle Waiting hardcover. I have yet to get my hands on it, but I thought it would be nice to end the year with a look at the award-winning first volume. Linda Medley isn't the only comic creator to reinvent classic fairy tales. Other fantasy writers have exploited the source material to delve into the dark recesses of the human psyche, engage in narrative deconstruction, or update universal archetypes to more contemporary settings. In contrast, Castle Waiting is resolutely kid-friendly and consistently light hearted. While there are small hints of violence and an abstract recognition of the struggle between the forces of good and evil, what's given prominence are interpersonal relationships, especially those centering on the private lives of women.
This handsomely produced volume, which collects the entire series up to that point, can be divided into three sections. The first, The Curse of Brambly Hedge, comes closest to an obvious retelling of well-known fairy tales, in this case Sleeping Beauty. But the focus is on the peripheral characters such as the wise woman and the castle's staff. After the awakened princess suddenly departs with her Prince Charming, her ladies-in-waiting convert the castle into a refuge.
For the rest of the book, Medley tends to be much more oblique with her references. This keeps the plot from becoming too familiar or predictable. The next part introduces the character Lady Jain Solander, former Countess of Carabas, fleeing from her abusive husband and searching for the castle (Alert readers will notice the tangential connection to Puss in Boots). Upon arriving at the "Castle Waiting", she finds it occupied by similarly obscure characters from other tales. The rest of the book is spent on Jain familiarizing herself with the castle's inner workings and the other residents.
The last part shifts attention on the eccentric Solicitine nun, Sister Peaceful Warren. As her backstory takes up a third of the book, she basically hijacks the series, and becomes the volume's most fleshed-out character. But this section is also where Medley's own particular concerns are most pronounced. Like any fantasy series, Castle Waiting is attentive to world-building. But there is no over-arching conflict to focus the narrative. The series simply meanders at a leisurely pace, content with introducing the reader to Medley's oddball cast. It's as if Medley is taking pleasure in sharing a newly discovered treasure trove of fairy tales featuring overlooked minor players. At first, Jain occupies center stage. But her back story is only partially revealed before Peace steals the spotlight.
Medley's narrative choices compliment her down-to-earth viewpoint. She's particularly concerned with exploring topics typically associated with women: domestic violence, marriage, relationships, and children. Jain's story quietly addresses the issue of spousal abuse. Later on it's explained that the Solicitines are a heterodox monastic order who draw inspiration from the story of St. Wilgforte, the "patron saint of unhappily married and independent women." They are in many ways as much a women's shelter and support group as they are a religious organization. Jain and Peace's experiences are indicative of the other characters. All the conflict that takes place in Castle Waiting are deeply personal in nature, and scars them in different ways. This is at the core of the book - people finding ways to overcome past emotional damage with the help of a surrogate family, or in the case of the Solicitines, the power of sisterhood.
Castle Waiting isn't heavy-handed or cloying with it's characters. Medley continuously uses humor to diffuse tension, and to expose delusional behavior. The enchantment that causes Sleeping Beauty and her prince to fall in love at first sight is made to accurately portray them as two impulsive teenagers running away to elope (Which makes the dumbfounded reaction of the entire castle all the more hilarious). Medley is thus able to explore some of the darker aspects of of the original material while being able to poke gentle fun at it from a more modern and shrewd perspective. She's also very adept in creating comic pairings to keep the reader engaged. This is necessary since Castle Waiting is a comic which is heavy on dialogue. Compared to her contemporary Jeff Smith, Medley's art is more strongly influenced by classic children's fantasy illustration as well as comic books. So while she's a brilliant conveyer of facial expressions, her character designs don't have the cartoony exaggerations of Smith. And she's still whimsical enough to portray various fantasy elements like the anthropomorphized animals and mythical beasts that populate her world. The quality of her line is a lot less geometric and more organic in execution. As this volume represents a decade worth of output, there's a noticeable evolution in Medley's art in which she learns to loosen up her style and employ weightier strokes, making her character designs more attractively stylized. The change occurs between The Curse of Brambly Hedge and the Lady Jain arc. But from the beginning she's already a phenomenal artist with a knack for creating unique-looking individuals.
Castle Waiting volume one is tantalizingly incomplete. The book is absorbing, but it stops quite suddenly after the Solicitine arc, leaving a number of unanswered questions about Lady Jain's past. It's not exactly clear what direction Medley intends to take the series. Is she working towards a larger story arc which will draw together the various narrative threads? Or will she simply continue with her intimate character-driven explorations? Either way, Castle Waiting is wonderfully imaginative, and a rare gem of a comic book possesing qualities which are accessible to a larger audience, whether it be children or adults.