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Sunday, 21 March 2010

Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things

written and drawn by Ted Naifeh
Publisher: Oni Press

“No, I mean it. No adventure, no little schemes. I don’t want to come home and find you’ve sold your parents into faery servitude.”
- Uncle Aloysius

What’s It About?
Courtney Crumrin is the daughter of two desperate social climbers who have been living beyond their means for far too long. Having run our of credit cards, the Crumrins are moving to Hillsborough to live rent-free in the mansion of great-uncle Aloysius, who needs caring for.

It would be bad enough for Courtney living in a dark, creepy old house and being looked down on by all the rich kids at her new school but there are also strange creatures… “Night Things” her Uncle Aloysius calls them, and a whole world of magic for her to discover.

What’s Good About It?
 Like all good writers of children’s fiction, Ted Naifeh shows respect for his audience. Its something of an old chestnut but I really think this applies: the plots here are simple enough for children to follow but not so simply presented that they would bore an adult. In fact there is a lot in this series for adults to love such as the social satire of Courtney’s parents’ desperate attempts at social climbing. From the other perspective, of course, those jokes won’t necessarily be lost on younger readers who will put it down to “grown-ups do silly things”.

Or perhaps they will get the joke, you never can tell with kids.

In Courtney herself, Naifeh strikes the difficult balance between making her smart enough to solve her own problems but not so smart as to be unbelievable as a child. She screws up a lot but she usually solves those mistakes herself. Sometimes Uncle Aloysius helps her but usually solving the problem, if not the whole solution, is down to Courtney. She’s a capable protagonist but the author never forgets that she’s only just starting out as a witch. As a witch, she’s mainly self-taught, which adds whole new levels both to her ability and her ability to make mistakes.

She’s also a great wish-fulfilment figure for the younger read. Children are so often powerless that seeing someone like themselves wielding power gives them an escape and Courtney has a nice line in poetic, magical revenge not only on the Night Things but on her fellow schoolchildren.

What’s Bad About It?
The back cover touts this book as suitable for “Age 7+” and that might be a tad over-optimistic. There are a few incidents of mild swearing (“bugger”, in the main) as well as a scene or two involving drinking and smoking, including a baby-shaped Night Thing with a cigar. In recommending this as a comic good for all ages, it is probably best to mention these things.

The horror elements of the series are toned down for the age of the audience, however. For instance, one boy gets eaten by a goblin. We don’t see him get eaten but we are told that it happens. Nothing visceral or horrific is actually portrayed, which is an important distinction. How important is up to the individual reader (or their parents).

What’s the Art Like?
There’s a fairy tale atmosphere to the art, black and white with deep shadows with wonderfully weird creatures hiding in them.

Ted Naifeh has a real eye for atmosphere, take that first example with Courtney walking cautiously through her uncle’s house in the dead of night. There’s plenty of humour to the art, little sight gags like the Night Things hiding behind every corner.

Naifeh’s lines are rough and jagged, his figure work close to caricature. I have no idea why Courtney has no nose (how does she smell?) but it works, especially when the Night Things are around, more realistically proportioned human characters might look out of place against the likes of Butterworm the wolf-goblin-thing (see the second example). It all combines to the give the world of Hillsborough a unreal feel to it which work wonderfully in the context of the story.

Other Information
Courtney Crumrin & The Night Things collects the first four issues of the Courtney Crumrin series. It retails at £8.99 and is available from Amazon here.

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