She Has No Head! - Linda Medley's Castle Waiting

Castle Waiting.  Linda Medley (creator/writer/artist).  Fantagraphics.  457p.  $29.95.

I was planning to write about the first issue of the new Spider-Girl mini-series, whether I loved it or not, but I just couldn’t gear myself up for a full column slamming it.  It was so incredibly mediocre and uninteresting, and completely what doesn’t inspire me about comics these days that I just couldn’t bring myself to devote the column inches to it.

Instead I decided to talk about a book that I recently discovered, and don’t know how I could have missed all these years – Linda Medley’s excellent Castle Waiting.

It’s not that surprising that I missed it I suppose, considering my sporadic relationship with comics (periods of obsessive love followed by periods of complete burnout), when you also consider Castle Waiting’s own valiant but sporadic publishing history.  In 1996, Medley was awarded a Xeric Grant and self-published the first seven issues of Castle Waiting in 1997 and 1998.  Cartoon Books then stepped in as the publisher of issues #8 – 11, followed by Medley self-publishing on her own again in 2001 and taking the series up to issue #16.

Self-publishing comics, as many of you likely know, is very difficult work, especially to when you are responsible for the entire package – writing, penciling, inking, lettering, editing, etc.  It’s incredibly time consuming and exceedingly difficult to get your product into the hands of readers in big numbers and is thus highly unrewarding in the financial department.  Few creators have the stamina and dedication that Medley has exhibited in continuing her series come hell or high water.  Along the way Medley was nominated for an Ignatz Award for Outstanding Anthology or Collection in 1996 and a Lulu Award in 1998.

Since this is a book of modified fairytales, it's nice for it to receive a modified happy ending in the form of Fantagraphics stepping forward in 2005 to give Medley the attention and publisher she deserved.  In 2006 a gorgeous hardback edition collecting Castle Waiting was released.  At 457 pages it is a massive and stunning work of art, from the production values by Fantagraphics to the beautiful comprehensive work inside.  For Medley and Fantagraphics efforts they were awarded with a well deserved Eisner Nomination in 2007 for Best Graphic Album; and Castle Waiting's French edition was the Official Selection Internatialde la Bande Desinee de Angouleme in 2008. Most importantly however, Fantagraphics hardcover edition provides people like me (and you!) an opportunity to discover Medley's brilliance for the first time.

Castle Waiting begins with an introduction to the castle in question via The Curse Of The Brambly Hedge, which is a new take on Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of previously minor characters.  When Sleeping Beauty abandons the castle, and all the people that were sleeping alongside her for a century, for her new Prince, the castle is forced to find itself a new destiny.  The story then flashes forward in time to find the castle having become ‘Castle Waiting’ a home (and haven) for misfit fairytale characters of all shapes, sizes, and beyond.  The vast cast of characters makes for a fascinating and seemingly endless tapestry of stories to be explored.  Medley makes her way through the cast slowly and deliberately and thanks to that care, the cast size never feels overwhelming.

Not unlike Fables, Medley’s Castle Waiting tackles traditional fairy tales with inspired re-invention and especially to my liking, is that it does so with a bit of a feminist slant.  The tales inside Castle Waiting are extremely female friendly and are something I’d love to see offered up to every little boy and girl as the required alternative to our more standard ‘happily ever after’ tales.  Medley’s characters, for the most part, are a selection of lesser-known fairy tale characters and their stories are full of heart and life lessons that are wonderfully (and naturally) woven into Medley’s tales without ever feeling cliché of forced.

Something easily overlooked because of the general strength of Medley’s writing, world building, characters, art, and unique perspectives, is the sense of humor, which is sharp and constant.  There’s a real feeling of lightness and joy to her writing and characters that is completely infectious.  And yet the humor never attempts to overshadow the other aspects of Medley's work and thus never diminishes the overall heart and tone of the work.

The illustration, though I understand it’s likely not to everyone’s taste, is flat out phenomenal.  I don’t really know how to describe it except to say that the attention to detail, the consistency (every panel is picture perfect), the clarity of story telling, and the character design – down to the smallest facial expression, is just top notch.

Check this out - one of my favorite examples of Medley’s gift with pacing and character – a nearly wordless scene in which Sleeping Beauty’s people react to her abandoning them:

One of the best things about Medley’s Castle Waiting is the wonderful cohesiveness, which is rare, even in creator owned works and perfect creative team pairings.  It feels absolutely like a singular and uncorrupted vision in a way that few books manage.  And I strongly believe that it is that uncorrupted and singular vision that makes this book so strong.  That said, it speaks to Medley’s abilities as not only writer and artist, but also an editor, as it’s exceedingly difficult to create work on your own and to also know how to best edit and revise your work.  It’s something many people never master, and if they do it’s unlikely they master it with the same deftness that Medley exhibits here.

You can feel in the pages that Medley has spent an insane amount of time creating the world of Castle Waiting and it’s clear that she knows her characters and world inside and out.  The wonderful result of that is that you don’t actually feel the writer or artist at all, but rather the characters themselves.  It’s shockingly easy to get lost in their stories, and despite the massive size (I said 457 pages already right?) I was through it in a matter of days.  More importantly, as soon as I finished I looked online in hopes that Volume 2 was already out, so I could read more.  Alas, it's not scheduled to be released until December 2010, but it will also be by Fantagraphics, and with what looks to be the same exceptional production values.

I’ve tried to do as well here in describing what is so exceptional about Castle Waiting as Jane Yolen does in her excellent introduction, but hers has a simplicity that I just can’t match, so I’ll quote her:  “Castle Waiting is a feminist fairy tale with attitude, heart, imagination, laughter, love, and truth.”

That, as far as I’m concerned, is definitely the truth.

Castle Waiting Volume 2 will be released from Fantagraphics in December 2010.  You can also pick up individual issues from Fantagraphics (though beware that some issues are sold out).  Both volumes are scheduled to be $29.95, and I know that seems pricey for a comic, but considering the size, the hardcover production values, and the fact that this beautiful edition will likely sit prominently displayed on your bookshelf for eternity, I think it's well worth the price.  There's also an amazing (but very pricey) handmade edition available from Fantagraphics for Volume 1.

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