Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review - Castle Waiting

Castle Waiting
by Linda Medley
Lettered by Todd Klein
1998 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
1998 Eisner Winner for Best Lettering

Castle Waiting is a great example of the Best New Series award. It starts off brilliantly, loses focus and starts to wander, and ends up someplace weaker than it started off without dealing with the story it started telling. The promise it showed in the first few issues doesn't get fulfilled as Linda Medley wanders off the topic that she started with.

The series starts with a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”. The first three issues is consumed with the story setting up a cast of witches, a princess, and a curse that isolates a castle for a hundred years until a prince arrives. So from this one might think that Castle Waiting stakes out a position of unique takes on fairy tales, perhaps continuing “Sleeping Beauty” out beyond the “happily ever after”.

And that would be completely wrong. Almost all of the characters that were developed for those first three issues vanish entirely from the series. Fairy tales are reduced to just a few art references in the next issue. The plot threads that had been established in that first storyline initially look like they may dovetail with the new story but are never mentioned again. The book takes a sharp turn abandoning just about everything except the storybook style and essentially starts over.

So the story is now about a noble girl fleeing her abusive home after she becomes pregnant. After a brief adventure on the road she winds up at Castle Waiting. The castle has become a home for those who have had to flee society and she joins the quirky cast who are united in having secrets. So obviously the book is about the complications that ensue with these secrets as the reader slowly discovers the true nature of the cast.

Wrong again. After playing with that theme for about six issues Medley turns the book into the story of a convent of bearded women.

This kind of inability to stick to any particular structure or theme is common in situations where an artistic project both takes a very long time to complete and has no one keeping the creator on track. Comics are where I most often see it (you could make a real study of it by examining webcomics that have run for more than two years) though it crops up in other mediums. It's a real problem for Castle Waiting since if Medley could have picked one concept and run with it the quality would have improved dramatically. I liked all three major stories she told but they do not connect together: I liked the quirky take on a fairy tale at the beginning, the odd cast of characters in the middle, and the unique theme in the third. Sticking them all under one header just left me frustrated when nothing ever finishes.

A real problem with the plotting is the lack of conflict. In the opening storyline there's a wicked witch and that keep the tension high. With the second story line there's a brief opening about how everyone in the world isn't nice but you'd never know that once the story gets to the castle. There are no personality conflicts; everyone is cheerful, kind, helpful, sweet and get along with everyone else. The closest it comes is one of the characters is an introvert with a heart of gold. All of the conflict occurs off stage at arm's length and is only referenced broadly in what the reader sees. Even outside of that section any conflict is fleeting and kept as far away from the characters as possible.

On the positive side for the writing Medley has a distinctive view for her fantasy world. It exists almost as a world of an adult telling a story to a child; it's has the traditional elements and at the same time bits of the modern slip in at the edges. I think the closest I can compare it to are the Disney takes on folklore as she maintains a lighthearted tone even in the rare dark moments. When the story changes I was interested in the quirky cast; they were odd but Medley seemed to be building to reasons for them being so odd rather than it just having strange characters for their own sake. Unfortunately only one of their backgrounds is ever properly explored.

Medley's art has a very clean look to it that fits the fairy tales by way of Disney story that she is telling. She definitely has a way with forming distinctive looking characters and her choice of filling out some of the characters with anthropomorphic animals (another Disney connection there) helps diversify the large cast. She does tend toward some broad distortions in expression which pushes Castle Waiting to having a designed by an animator feel to it. In the first arc she used a few unique stylistic flourishes that made some of the pages look more medieval but those are lost quickly and I thought that was a shame since it was a clever design for expository pages.

Those typophiles who are waiting for something on the Eisner winning lettering of Todd Klein are going to have to wait; he didn't show off his skills in Castle Waiting and it was listed along side many other books he lettered that year. I've some something in mind for dealing with his award but that will have to keep for a few weeks.

Castle Waiting was a disappointment for me. If Medley had chosen one concept and went forward with it I would have been much more interested. Instead it feels like she became distracted and started over multiple times. She has apparently continued the series after this book but I have no desire to read further since I'm dubious that there will be any kind of resolution to any plot that she starts. I can see why it was have received an award for best new series since it started out great; I just wish that Castle Waiting's creator had lost her way after that.