"Gunnerkrigg Court" - The "Harriet Potter" of Webcomics

Everyone talks about "the power of the internet," but what is this power? Can it turn lead into gold? How about a frog into a prince? Most importantly, can the internet turn dreams into reality? Well, if you posed this last question to writer-artist Tom Siddell, he just might respond with a resounding "yes."

Like many other aspiring creatives, Siddell wanted to make a comic book of his own and, more importantly, he wanted others to read it. An idea sprung to mind one day, so he drew up some pages, posted them to the internet, and lo and behold, readers started to appear. It wasn't quite a "book" in the traditional sense, yet Siddell was pleased. And now, through the magical power of the internet (and a little help from Archaia Studios Press), Siddel's "Gunnerkrigg Court" will be printed, bound, and available in a comics store near you.

"Gunnerkrigg Court" is a thrice-weekly webcomic about a unique boarding school. This place of higher learning has robots that run around alongside body-snatching demons, forest gods, and the odd mythical creature. Most notably, however, the school is home to two interesting young girls named Annie and Kat. "Antimony 'Annie' Carver is the protagonist, at least insofar as the story is largely told from her perspective," Tom Siddell told CBR News. "Her mother was bedridden after giving birth to her, so Annie lived in a hospital with her and her dad, a surgeon, until her mom eventually passed away. Annie then got shipped off to Gunnerkrigg and bang into the middle of a social situation she's never experienced before; namely interacting with people her own age.

Interestingly, Annie is largely unfazed to discover ghosts, minotaurs, robots and oversized dragon-created inhabiting her new school. She also finds it hard to mix socially with her classmates. "Luckily for her, however, Katerina 'Kat' Donlan, the daughter of two teachers who work at the Court, becomes her friend early on," Siddel said. "Kat is much more outgoing and personable than Annie and she really helps her come out of her shell over the course of the story."

Plenty of weird situations and characters pop up that drive the main story of "Gunnerkrigg Court," which Siddel says is broadly about the tensions between the very technological Gunnerkrigg Court and the mythical creatures of Gillitie forest. "On a smaller scale, the story is about Annie and how she tries to fit in at school while dealing with the recent loss of her mother," said the author.

Like many enduring comic book creations, "Gunnerkrigg Court" began as a doodle. "I was sketching one day and I drew a very stylized girl with a bored look that was quite different to the usual stuff I was drawing at the time," Siddell explained. "I did another sketch right after that of the same girl and, wanting to color it but only having a very limited selection of marker pens, put her in an ugly school uniform with some crazy makeup. At that point, I decided that I liked her enough to make a comic about her. I thought up some ideas and drew the first couple of chapters before putting it online, and it went from there."

The decision to put art online is a easy one for many, but the notion of doing an entire comic on the web? While some creators might get nervous at the notion, Siddell decided to embrace the opportunity. "I'm not a comics professional, so the only option I had if I wanted people to see my comic was to put it online," he said. "I've been on the internet for a long time now and I've been posting pictures and art to various places when I could, so I saw I had the opportunity to perhaps start a more worthwhile project than one that just got three word comments on DeviantArt.

"I also really like webcomics in general and think they are a great way to read the kind of stuff you'd never see anywhere else. While the quality of comics on the internet vary widely, you can always find some real gems that, in my opinion, blow away most of the stuff you could buy in a comic shop simply by being fresh and innovative. 'Achewood' would never have seen the light of day if it wasn't for the internet, for example. Certainly, I had no other avenue of getting my comic seen by anyone if it wasn't online."

Naturally, the question all webcomics creators ask themselves is, "If I draw it, will they come?" Thankfully, the readers did appear, and more importantly, they stayed. From there, a friend told a friend about "Gunnerkrigg Court," who in turn told another friend, and so on and so on until word reached a particularly prominent friend - writer Neil Gaiman ("The Sandman," "American Gods").

"I'm a very bad businessman, and the worst person in the world to promote my work, so I think it's pretty great that word about my comic got around despite me never having bought more than one or two advertisement banners over the years," said Siddell. "I caught a couple of lucky breaks during the time when some popular webcomic artists linked to me, and then when Neil Gaiman mentioned my comic in his blog - that was probably the biggest boost in the comic's popularity I had, and Neil even took some time to write a blurb for the back cover of the book."

When a comic is produced for a newspaper, it is usually found in one of two formats: the comic strip, like "Garfield," or the comic block, like "Family Circus." The unique thing about webcomics is that there are no limitations as to their sizes or shapes. However, Siddell decided to stick with a classic printed page-style layout. "I started the comic with the intention of having enough pages that I could take it to a local printer and get a hard copy made up that I could hold in my hand," Siddell admitted. "I suppose after that I would have put the comic away in a drawer and gone back to videogames and the odd pinup picture.

"However, after I finished the seventh chapter, I came across lulu.com and had the first 'book' printed out using print-on-demand," Siddel continued. "I did that and got my copy, but it also didn't cost me anything to leave the thing up for other people to buy. Even though I met my goal of having a comic printed, I just wanted to carry on with the story. Then I was contacted with the opportunity of getting my comic printed professionally, so I decided to go for it. It certainly wasn't something I'd planned, so I guess it was good luck that my pages were already drawn in comic book format."

For other webcomics creators with dreams of seeing their work in print, Siddell offered a bit of friendly advice regarding the process. "The main problem with [creating a printed publication from the web] is going from RGB color to CMYK color. I probably should have started working in CMYK from the start, but since I didn't imagine my comic getting printed professionally, I went for the more monitor-friendly RGB. Luckily, I tend to use fairly muted colors in 'Gunnerkrigg Court' so even though I went back over each page when I exported them to print format, I didn't find any areas that really caused a problem. I haven't seen the final print, however, so we shall see!"

One of the key elements in helping to ensure the success of a webcomic is consistency in publication. "Gunnerkrigg Court" is updated three times a week, and has been almost since its inception. Readers of the comic should have no worries about the schedule ever changing either, as "GC's" creator is a man with a plan. "Before I started putting the comic online, I made sure to have the equivalent of three months worth of pages as a buffer in case I needed something to fall back on. I still have that buffer even though I switched to three days a week -- originally, it was just two days a week. It's something that weighs heavily on my mind. Since I work full time and have other obligations, I can only work on the comic over the weekend, when I have to do at least three pages. If I have to go somewhere, or take a holiday, or am unable to work on the comic for some reason, it's very difficult to catch up and I get very anxious and nervous about it. The fact that I still have my buffer largely intact should answer any questions about my social life.

"However, while it can be hard going at times and I don't exactly get a return on it, I still can't think of anything I enjoy more than working on my comic. It can be easy to feel down when people get angry that I'm not drawing the comic they want, but I just try to keep in mind that I'm basically drawing and writing what I want to draw and write about. I suppose if that wasn't the way to go about it, then my comic wouldn't have gotten this far."

As Siddell's popularity grew thanks to people spreading the word about "Gunnerkrigg Court," he felt compelled to recommend some webcomics for those CBR readers who would like to expand their webcomics horizons. "I have quite a few I read, but along with the usual giants people usually mention like 'PVP,' 'Penny Arcade,' 'Scary Go Round,' etc., my personal favorites are 'Achewood' and 'Starslip Crisis.' Kris Straub can do no wrong. I also like 'Heliothaumic,' 'Overcompensating,' and 'Girly.' Oh, and 'Wonderella' is also a fantastic comic."

"Orientation," the first Archaia Studios Press edition of "Gunnerkrigg Court" includes the first fourteen chapters of the webcomic, coming in at around 300 pages, and cover Annie's first year at school. For those who read "GC" in print and want to follow Annie and Kat's subsequent adventures online, Siddell promises there are several new chapters to enjoy. "Chapter 18 is currently online, though I finished drawing it months ago. I'm currently coming to the close of the 19th chapter off-line," he said. " I do have a definite end in mind for the story, but I don't know how long it will take to get there. Ideally, it's a long ways off since I have a lot more story I want to tell, but I also have the freedom to change things around and bring about the ending whenever I want, really.

"I suppose even if all my readers abandon the comic, I'll still keep it going as long as I'm able and interested in the characters, which means it should be going for a long time."

Now discuss this story in CBR's Indie comics forum.

Spawn #301 Preview Showcases McFarlane, Crain & Alexander's Art

More in Comics