An Interview with Tom Siddell, Creator of Gunnerkrigg Court
With its marvelously moody school setting and low-key heroine, Antimoney, Tom Siddell's Gunnerkrigg Court is a delightfully fun webcomic that still manages to pack in hints of danger and adventure. At last year's WCCAs, Gunnerkrigg Court was nominated for four awards and took home the WCCA Award for Best Newcomer. Even bigger for Siddell, however, may have been gaining noted author Neil Gaiman as a reader along with a mention on his well-read blog. We caught up with him on the edge of 2007 to see what's in store for the new year.
Your comic has a very unique setting, a school that's sort of a cross between Hogwarts and Mervyn Peake's sprawling, crumbling, gigantic Gormenghast Castle, yet with a flavor all of its own. How did you first come up with the idea for Gunnerkrigg Court?
The story came to me about 10 seconds after first drawing Antimony in my sketch book. I'd been wanting to start a proper, long form comic at the time and once I drew Carver I knew that I wanted it to be based on her. I have a few colour markers I very rarely use, and the night I drew her was one of the few times I used them. My limited colours consisted of a brown, grey, red, green and a skin colour, and so I thought a bland school uniform would make best use of the limited pallete. From there I decided that a suitably strange school would fit Carver's personality, and from there the story took shape. The plot is slightly different to what I'd originally intended, but I'm happy with how it came out.
Tell us something about yourself. Any similarities between Antimony's life and your own, for instance?
I live in Birmingham in the United Kingdom and I currently make a living as a videogame graphic artist. It's nothing fancy, but I enjoy it.
There are some aspects of my life that I've used in my comic now and then. For example I used to be in Queslett North, the same class Carver is in, and the other House names at the Court are the same as they were in my old school. My time at school wasn't nearly as interesting as Antimony's escapades, however. I did claim once to have seen a ghost flying around the library, but I was trying to impress a girl at the time. I was nine.
Who are your literary influences?
When I was younger I loved reading Alfred Hitchcock's The Three Investigators. They were difficult to find in the UK, but luckily my mum spent a lot of time searching for used books in second hand stores, which is where I found the majority of The Three Investigators. I hadn't even thought of those books until recently, when I came across them while rummaging through my dad's attic. Looking back at them now I can definitely see an influence there.
Aside from this, and some other books and comics I read over the years, there was a time when I drew comics with my little sister. One comic in particular featured an epic battle between Freddy Kruger and Dracula. At the end Freddy said "Let's not fight anymore and be friends", to which Dracula replied "Okay!". I learned a lot from that.
Who are your artistic influences?
Over the years I've tried to learn from almost all artists I was even remotely interested in, but some of my favourites include Jamie Hewlett, Yukito Kishiro and Mike Mignola. Before I started drawing Gunnerkrigg Court the pictures I'd post on-line were mainly pinups with very little content to them other than a character floating about in the middle of the image without a background. One of the reasons I started a comic was to try and break away from that, but I also wanted to try drawing something without paying too much mind on how other artists drew.
Gunnerkrigg Court was pretty unrefined at the beginning, and I'm still settling into it now, but I'm pleased by the fact that it looks fairly unique.
Who's your favorite character...and why?
As boring as it may seem, I have to say that Carver is my favourite character. I think she has to be, otherwise I would get tired with her as the main character. I know a lot more about her than I've been able to show in my comic so far and I can't wait to explore her personality as the story continues. Aside from her I do like Reynardine a lot. The story is still relatively close to the beginning so again, I've not used him as much as I would like thus far, but as the story goes on he will grow as a character (as will the others). One thing I like hearing about from readers is when they have chosen a favourite character. I find that having a favourite helps draw the reader into the story more.
Why did you put this out on the web at first? What's the most rewarding part of putting this on the web and what's the most frustrating?
Putting the comic on the Internet was mainly done out of convenience, but also because there aren't really many other options for an amateur comic artist who is even slightly interested in having someone read their work. The Internet has made it much easier (or too easy, in some cases) for anyone to create something and get feedback online. That's probably the most rewarding part; reading people's comments to my comic. At first I was a little apprehensive of allowing people to comment directly on the comic, but so far I've had a really great response. The encouraging emails, comments and helpful criticisms has made working on the comic all the more enjoyable. And in the meantime, when the Internet decides to rear its ugly head, I can quietly delete comments from people detailing the ways in which they want to rape Annie.
Will most of the major mysteries (the fate of Antimony's father, why Mr. Donlan wears those peculiar eyeglasses, what happened to Shadow2 and the Robot in the woods) be cleared up, or will the mysterious always outnumber the explained at Gunnerkrigg Court?
I can safely say that all major mysteries I present in the comic have conclusions and will be revealed in good time. However, another frustration that I should have mentioned earlier is that sometimes, to the reader, some answers may seem like they will never come. I can only work on the comic at the weekend, and with a two day a week update schedule even the shortest of chapters take several months. I try to keep this out of mind usually, as I prefer to look at the comic as a whole, rather than a series of updates, but I understand that this might become frustrating to people who want to know what happens next. On the other hand, if I can get people on the edge of their seat, looking forward to the next update then I don't feel so bad about that.
Some of the mysteries in the comic will last a lot longer than others and I can't really reveal too much, but I can say that Mr. Donlan wears glasses because he has bad eyesight.
If this were ever converted to another medium, what would you like to see it as? A moody cartoon? A live action movie or TV series?
I would love to see Gunnerkrigg Court as an animated movie (or several). As an animator I've thought about this a lot, and if I just had time, vast amounts of money, a dedicated team of talent and somewhere to work I would start it in a second. Until that time I can just get on with the comic in my spare time and hope that one day I will be able to take it further than its current form.
Were you surprised at Gunnerkrigg Court winning the WCCA Award for Best Newcomer, Outstanding Use of Color, Outstanding Long Form Comic, and Outstanding Story Concept as well as being nominated for the Clickie awards? Or being mentioned in Neil Gaiman's blog?
Very surprised. But also guilty, as I felt like I was stepping on people's toes since I'd only been working on my comic a year and a half at the time. I was also surprised because I didn't think many people actually read my comic, let alone nominate it multiple times and then vote for it to win Best Newcomer. I'm still very thankful to those who felt my comic was worthy of the award.
As for Neil Gaiman's blog; I've had a copy of his Miracleman: The Golden Age on my desk at work for months. When I got to work one morning and saw that the creator of such a fine comic had read and enjoyed MY comic my face was naught but surprise.
What are your eventual plans for Gunnerkrigg Court? Do you have an ending in view? How many books do you think will be published from it? Any other plans for any other projects you can tell us about?
My current plans are simply to keep going as I have been doing. Eventually I would like to move to updating three days a week and I'm working on the that. I'm nearing the end of the second book now (I draw many pages ahead of the on-line updates to ensure I never miss an update) and I have the next three or four books outlined in my head. There will be a definite end to the comic, but as of right now, I can't say when that would be, nor do I even see an end in sight as I still feel like I'm at the beginning of Annie's story. I do have another comic idea that I've kept in mind for a while, but I'm not at the stage where I would seriously consider starting it yet. For now I'm having much too good a time drawing Gunnerkrigg Court.