It begins with Butterworm “the neighborhood’s oldest resident”, the tale slipping between his bared teeth: Courtney Crumrin: The Night Things, written and illustrated by Ted Naifeh (Oni Press 2012).
He introduces readers to Courtney Crumrin, who is new in town. Her parents have run out of credit and have begged rooms with an older uncle, Aloysius Crumrin, who is “madder than a Victorian hatmaker”.
Some of Courtney’s concerns are ordinary, relatable. She has trouble fitting in at school, her parents are preoccupied with their own lives and their pretentiousness, her uncle and his home are gloomy and unwelcoming, shadows lurk in the night, and she is bored and lonely. She goes to school, eats dinner with her parents, reads, meets a boy for ice-cream, and gets a babysitting job.
But her reality expands into other dimensions within the first chapter (after all, we were warned to expect the “night things”, and there was the matter of Butterworm’s teeth from the start).
She discovers some interesting reading material in her uncle’s private chambers (and learns about “glamow-er”, glamour), learns that she is not babysitting a human child, visits the goblin market and meets a talking cat.
Even the unusual bits are recognizable tropes, but what sets this series apart is Courtney’s sass. She does not hesitate to describe her charge as “one butt-ugly baby” (though out of the seemingly adoring adults’ ear-shot) or to call out an adult’s quirks or failings (“I knew all that perfume would eventually eat away her brain”).
“I’m rude, bad-tempered, and basically, I don’t like people. Maybe that makes me a jerk, but it sure beats what you are.”
And, yet, she has integrity and – at the core of that – considerable grit. “Despite her bravado, Courtney was fighting off a brief impulse to run screaming into the night. Taking a deep breath, she resolved herself to the task. ‘After all,’ she thought to herself, ‘this can’t be as bad as changing diapers.’
She has a way of reframing her experiences which makes you smirk and snigger, and even while she is in danger, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the creatures who believe that they have one-upped this skinny blonde girl-child.
New figures of authority are introduced and readers come to understand that old Aloysuis Crumrin may prefer to keep to himself but he is, in fact, a prominent member of the magical community.
His choice to isolate himself does pose a risk, as other members take actions without his knowledge, overlooking his power and influence.
Nonetheless, when a major threat arises, other members are forced to ask for his assistance and, despite his reservations at becoming newly embroiled in the political relationships at play, he does what is necessary.
Courtney, as suits her age, is impatient with the rules and limitations (injustices) which are an inherent part of the system. This is convenient for readers (who want the kind of justice that she craves) but inconvenient for her uncle.
However, it is clear that other members, too, are becoming increasingly aware of Courtney’s potential. She has spent hours with her uncle’s books and draws the attention of many creatures. Butterworm once again plays readers’ guide (and he also appears in this volume’s bookplate), and other night creatures are introduced as well (most significantly, Skarrow, and the Duchess of the Underworld).
Courtney “wasn’t exaclty an animal person and regarded cats as tchotchkes that walked about”, but she becomes acquainted with some talking cats and is offered an unexpected view on their political dealings as their community leadership begins to shift too.
Courtney’s Saturdays are taken up with lessons at Radley Hall beginning with The Twilight Kingdom (Volume 3, Oni Press 2013). Many local families send their children there to meet the children of other witches and warlocks (more common than one would think) and to learn coven history.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Courtney does not make friends any more easily here. Then again, despite the heritage she shares with these children, they are not necessarily much brighter than the kids at her Monday-to-Friday school.
Courtney, however, was living in a glass house recently too; were it not for her Uncle Aloysius’ direction and assistance, she might well have made a mistake like that her classmate makes.
Lucky for readers that the mishap occurs, for it pulls Courtney back into the Twilight Kingdom and there are many lovely drawings, including a particulary detailed spread of the Goblin Market.
The map doesn’t do it justice, but it does give a sense of the gradual world-building at play here. Readers recognize boundaries extending, as Courtney’s abilities and responsibilities increase.
In the last volume she was reluctant to take action, and Ms Crisp observed that nobody really feels they are qualified to take the actions they must get during difficult times. In the third volume, Courtney is less hesitant, but she is still anxious and fearful (and rightfully so).
In both volume two and three, however, Courtney observes that although many humans are taught to fear the night things, they are no more evil than humans.
Even so, Courtney does begin to make alliances and to solidify some familiar relationships, including that with her uncle. “It’s called ‘friendship’. You’ll get used to it,” Ms Crisp remarks to Courtney.
It is a fragile thing, however, and the fourth volume, Monstrous Holiday (Volume 4, Oni Press 2013), exposes a weakness. Taking a vacation together can stress even the strongest bonds and Courtney and her uncle have often met only briefly, and under pressure to resolve a problem, so extended time together, in new surroundings, is a challenge for them. As each learns more about the other, errors in judgement are made and, ultimately, their bond is tested in a most dramatic way.
In the meantime, readers are treated to a volume which is divided into two parts (rather than four). Now is a good time to mention that the reissue of the series, by Oni Press, in full-colour, is beautifully presented, each volume bound in a contrasting sombre shade, each with a silken dove-grey ribbon (the same colour serving as an accent on the inner pages).
The European setting offers the potential for a different colour palette and the kind of intricate drawings reserved for the goblin market are employed here for castles and courtyards. The bonus materials offer a glimpse of the process involved in developing Courtney’s Euro-look (as well as the shaping of the characters who dominate the first half of the volume).
The first half of this volume is devoted to what Courtney initially believes to be a bedtime story, an archetypal tale of two brothers, two wolves. But this tale has more immediate relevance to the Crumrins’ European travels than Courtney comprehends.
The second half of the volume also explores enduring bonds, but not between brothers. Aloysius’s powers are revealed more completely and the sense of a legacy is presented (again in the context of someone else telling a story) for readers to contemplate.
The fourth Courtney Crumrin collection also considers a matter explored in earlier volumes, the fact that evil deeds are more often perpetrated by human beings, rather than by the creatures that humans villify.
This kind of ambiguity is also explored in volume five, which I have previously discussed here. In The Witch Next Door, Courtney relates to this conundrum :“I can’t even do good without doing evil as well.”
In the sixth volume, The Final Spell (Volume 6, Oni Press 2014), the action shifts out of Hillsborough. Courtney’s capacity for spellcasting has developed remarkably and as she grows, her power increases (she turned 13 in the last volume).
As such, she could be a powerful ally – or a serious threat. “You never know with witches. They are all mysteries at heart.”
Given her history with disappointment and betrayal, she must continue to rely upon her own skills, and her independent spirit blossoms. After the complications faced in the last volume, she continues to struggle with the question of whom to trust.
“Don’t wait till you’re on the run, or my age, before you realize you need friends,” an older woman advises. But without the support of her uncle Aloysius in this volume, Courtney has limited resources.
“It’s better to be lonely together,” suggests another outcast (and this concept resonates through another storyline as well, for had different choices been made, which protected rather than broke alliances, a happier ending would have been had).
This volume is standout in the series for a number of reasons, many of which are contained in the decision to move outward from the small magic-soaked community of Hillsborough. If there was a car in an earlier volume, it was parked or immobile; in this volume it is more often racing (and, sometimes, flying).
The afterword of the seventh volume tackles the difficulty which simmers beneath the sixth volume as well. “But every story has an end, and that’s always at least a little bit sad. When you love the people in the story, you don’t want to turn that last page. It takes some courage to face the prospect of saying goodbye. The more you love them, the braver you have to be.”
In Tales of a Warlock (Volume 7, Oni Press 2015), the focus shifts significantly once more, into the past and into the younger lives of Alice Crisp and Aloysius Crumrin; the first of the two chapters is narrated by the former and the second by the latter.
There is more exposition than dialogue in this volume, and it will most likely appeal to those readers who enjoyed the world of Courtney Crumrin as much as they enjoyed Courtney (for, of course, at this point in the past, she is not even a shadow there).
Nonetheless, there have been brief glimpses into Aloysius’ past, in earlier volumes, and these chapters do echo some of the same themes (some recognizable characters do reappear and new characters are introduced to fill historical gaps).
Although a grown woman, Alice Crisp (an ancestor of Ms Crisp) embodies some of the most Courtney-ish qualities and because she, too, is a misfit in her own way (longing to reach beyond the conventional behaviours of a woman in that time), she, too, soon develops a complicated relationship with Aloysius.
“To be quite honest, I’d liked Aloysius from the first. He was polite without being overly friendly, and didn’t assume he was smarter than I was, a rare courtesy among men his age.”
Alice’s father accepts her presence on the fringes of the Society (the Anti-Sorcery Society, and, yes, Alice and Aloysius do comment on the unfortunate acronym), but he is more likely to dismiss her as a silly girl with foolish notions than to put her to work.
“Whatever I or my father had told ourselves, that we were decent folk fighting for the greater good…we really just wanted to see magic.”
But the line between spellcasting and belief grows murky, as the dreams and desires of humankind grow more complicated.
Even though the characters are much older than the cast of the early volumes in the series, familiar issues arise (questions of identity, conflicting needs of the individual and society, the loneliness of one who consistently strives to “do right”).
Tales of a Warlock does echo elements of the series’ earlier volumes, but its themes are more likely to appeal to readers who are willing to engage in the narratives of old folks (over 18) and, yet, paradoxically, the more adult elements of the story are described in the simplest terms so that younger readers can still relate on a basic level.
As an offering to those readers who weren’t ready to say goodbye, the seventh volume serves a purpose. and it succeeds on many levels. But I suspect that the younger readers will want more of what most appealed to them (i.e. Courtney) and the older ones will want more detail and context to allow the historical and emotional elements of the older characters’ storylines to truly resonate.
In short, the best answer to not have to say goodbye to Courtney Crumrin is to reread this excellent series.
Note: All the images snipped here are from the first four volumes of the series to avoid spoilers (even so far as who appears in them and who does not).