Welcome to my new comics review feature here at Skiffy & Fanty. Every month, I’m going to use this space to shine a spotlight on SF&F comics (including print comics, graphic novels, and webcomics) that I believe deserve more attention from SF&F readers.
Because Saga and Squirrel Girl are freaking amazing, but there’s so much more out there to love!
This month, I’m kicking things off by asking you to turn your attention to the graphic novel Another Castle: Grimoire. (This review contains spoilers.)
Another Castle: Grimoire
Written by Andrew Wheeler
Illustrated and Colored by Paulina Ganucheau
Lettered by Jenny Vy Tran, Designed by Hilary Thompson Edited by Ari Yarwood
Published by Oni Press
The self-rescuing princess, no longer a passive object to be rescued but active, powerful and possessed of a metric buttload of agency, is an important corrective to sexist storytelling. But it isn’t a new trope.
The princess as a more competent and heroic character than the bland nominal hero seeking to save her was seen as a comedic reversal in the late 1950s — in cartoons like Fractured Fairy Tales, in movies, and in the Broadway musical Once Upon A Mattress.
The trope evolved over time and took on a more empowering aspect — from, “Ha ha! The woman is the powerful, competent one!” to “Damn right the woman is the powerful, competent one.” Especially for younger readers in the Free-To-Be-You-And-Me Seventies, stories across a range of media, like Sesame Street sketches and Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess, helped children realize that princesses — and all women — could be the heroes of their own stories.
Now, after a few more decades of cultural percolation, of girl power and strong female characters, the self-rescuing princess — while continuing to serve as a necessary counterpoint to the passive, sexy lamps that are still way too common — is common enough a trope that I can simply write “the self-rescuing princess” and you probably not only know exactly what I mean but can think of numerous examples.
It was time, perhaps, for the trope to be examined a little more closely.
Not every trope needs to be interrogated in every story, especially tropes that actively counter still-prevalent but sexist or otherwise bigoted ones. There’s nothing wrong with a self-rescuing princess!
But an inventive interrogation of even a generally positive trope can lead to fascinating questions, and more importantly, great stories. Writer Andrew Wheeler deserves a lot of credit for using Another Castle: Grimoire to ask, “Okay, the princess rescued herself. Now what?!”
Princess Artemisia — Misty — of the Kingdom of Beldora is clearly a self-rescuing sort of princess from page one. Misty is smart, bold, a bit impetuous, and chafing at the restrictive expectations her role places on her and her upcoming arranged marriage to the brash but chowderheaded Prince Pete. She’d much rather use her family’s ancestral magic sword to take the fight to the villainous Badlug, evil overlord of the neighboring Kingdom of Grimoire.
Her aspirations are rendered moot when she’s captured by Badlug, who intends to force her to marry him and add Beldora to his empire.
Her jailers, the half-gorgon Gorga and gargoyle Fogmoth, are suprisingly nice, but Misty is in fact the self-rescuing sort of princess, and quickly makes her escape from Badlug’s castle.
Which is right next door to another castle. One that lies in ruins. Gorga explains that the last time Badlug’s plan to seize Beldora failed — due to a heroic, fatal sacrifice by Misty’s mother — he took out his anger on the people of Grimoire, causing death and the destruction of the old castle.
Misty promises that she won’t be the cause of more devestation to Grimoire, and returns to her imprisonment. There, with the help of Gorga and Fogmoth, Misty plans to rescue not only herself, but everyone. She just needs Prince Pete to hurry up and arrive with her magic sword first.
But if Misty does kill Badlug … then what? What happens to Grimoire, and to its people? And do they get a say in that?
In interviews, both Wheeler and Ganucheau have emphasized the story origin as a reaction to the princess as trophy trope, especially its use in video games — the call-back in the title is clever and deliberate. But the pop culture princesses that cast the longest shadows over Another Castle are, of course, Disney’s.
Wheeler’s writing, while unabashed about these influences, doesn’t allow its love of them to descend into superficiality, and its subversive side only becomes more clear and sharp as the story unfolds and problems mount for Misty and her friends.
Perhaps partly due to the need for narrative compression, some early reversals seem to come rather easily — Gorga and Fogmoth really are almost ridiculously nice, while also being ready to throw in with Misty and join her plot against their evil overlord at the drop of a hat.
But Wheeler balances the earlier, seemingly unearned plot turns by challenging the simplistic solutions Misty envisions. Her plan to overthrow Badlug is pointedly noted to be another example of a privileged aristocrat deciding for herself what the fate of the people of Grimoire will be, without considering or consulting them, in an examination of the story’s tropes and genre itself that approaches the Pratchett-esque.
Understated touches in the plotting and characterization make the book both more fun, and more inclusive; Fogmoth’s once and future boyfriend is both the rightful prince of Grimoire and a person of color; the validity of same-sex relationships is unquestioned even by the villains; the women have a range of ages and body types.
But my favourite of the minor threads woven through the story is the development of Prince Pete, Misty’s betrothed and would-be rescuer. It would have been easy to write him as a minor antagonist and comedic foil, a cocky incompetent to highlight Misty’s competence. And Pete is both arrogant and entertainingly incompetent, to the degree that he doesn’t even know how to hold a sword. But he’s brave, and at his core, fundamentally decent in a way that allows him to grow and become worthy of love.
Ganucheau’s art, too, excels at evoking its inspirations. I see echoes of Disney, of the fantasy Saturday morning cartoons of the ’80s, and the contemporary animation inspired by both, without descending into homage. Her character designs and sequential art are effective, enganging and fun, but her use of color is especially noteworthy; using a bright palette that deliberately invites comparison with highly gendered media and toys for girls and young women, and using it to depict Misty’s heroism, her courage, and her struggle to overcome both Badlug and the risk of despair as setback after setback befalls her and, rather than escaping to freedom, she becomes entangled in more and more responsibilities.
The brightness of the art is particularly effective because this is, at its core, a very light story. Not slight, not superficial, but sunny and positive, in a way that makes the book especially well-suited for younger readers. While not originally specifically marketed as YA — that’s not as common a term among direct market comics publishers, where for many years calling a series “all ages” was deemed a kiss of death for sales — Another Castle is excellent YA.
All of which is to say, if you were hoping to see grimdark in Grimoire, this may not be the graphic novel for you. For my part, I love stories where a key part of the dramatic tension comes from good people learning that they haven’t thought enough about what the right thing to do is, and trying to do better.
Oni Press originally published Another Castle as a five-issue mini-series in 2016; the collected volume, Another Castle: Grimoire, was published in February, 2017 and is available in print and electronically from all the usual suspects.
I spoke briefly to Andrew Wheeler at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) in May, when he kindly signed my copy of Another Castle: Grimoire, and asked him if there were any plans for a sequel. Currently, he told me, there aren’t, but he’d love to return to the world and the characters.
I’d like to see that too, so from a purely selfish standpoint it would be helpful for you all to go buy copies for yourself and possibly for your friends and family.
But more importantly, Another Castle: Grimoire is a fine comic, smart, witty, constructively subversive, and above all fun. I believe it’s truly worthy of your attention.
Disclosures: Andrew Wheeler and I both live in Toronto and are involved in comics; inevitably, we have friends in common, and we’ve run into one another maybe three times, including at TCAF and also the kind of random encounter while using public transit that only seems to happen in Toronto. I wouldn’t call us friends or acquaintances, though, and I don’t believe our indirect connection biased my review. I don’t have any personal or professional relationships I’m aware of with the publisher or any other member of the creative team. I purchased my own copy of the book.