From the stack: CASTLE WAITING

August 6, 2006

What do you do if the family you’re born into or the life people expected for you don’t fit? If you’re lucky, you find a place like Castle Waiting. Lucky comics fans can enjoy Linda Medley’s comic of the same name in a beautifully produced new collection from Fantagraphics.

Castle Waiting makes the wonderful argument that new beginnings and second chances are waiting for anyone. It begins with a slightly skewed retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend. Charming as Medley’s revisions are, they’re really just a way to clear out the conventional fairy-tale figures and make room in the castle for the endearing oddballs who make up Medley’s cast.

First among them is Lady Jain, a pregnant noblewoman for whom “happily ever after” turned out to be anything but. She flees an abusive marriage for the safety of Castle Waiting. Before she even reaches it, she begins to get a sense of her own resourcefulness in some misadventures along the way. When she arrives, she finds the kind of warmth and security that family and home promise but sometimes don’t deliver.

It reminds me strongly (and favorably) of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books. Both celebrate the power of the family of choice and feature rich casts of characters. Medley pulls bits and pieces of classic fairy tales together to build a world as real and endearing as Maupin’s 28 Barbary Lane.

Instead of dwelling on the princesses and wicked queens, Medley populates her world with characters from the fairy-tale margins. The castle was founded by Sleeping Beauty’s abandoned handmaidens, now well into their dotage. It’s occupied by an eclectic group – a fastidious stork, a flirtatious horse-man, a bearded nun – who all offer Jain their own unique forms of friendship and welcome.

Medley focuses on quiet moments that reveal character rather than constructed intersections of fairy-tale tropes. Her small observations about human (or mostly human) nature are always warm and potent, whether the castle residents are celebrating the birth of Jain’s child or just sitting around coloring each others’ hair.

The long sequence starring the bearded nun is easily my favorite, as it embodies so many of Medley’s essential themes. Sister Peace may have taken the vows, but she wasn’t born in a habit, and her path from a girl with facial hair and a restless spirit to woman of substance is funny, twisty, and fascinating. She’s spent a lifetime turning disadvantages into strengths and helping others find their own place in the world, like a one-woman Castle Waiting on the march.

I love Medley’s classic-but-modern style of illustration. She has a particularly splendid way with facial expressions, which are always funny, telling, and real. And Fantagraphics has put Medley’s comics into a beautiful package, courtesy of designer Adam Grano. The book looks like a classic fairy-tale tome, hard-covered and complete with a sewn-in bookmark. It’s the perfect physical vehicle for the story.

I’m always looking for re-readability in comics – stories I can pull down from the shelf and enjoy again and again. With its great characters, charming spirit, and wonderful execution, Castle Waiting has landed squarely on my list of all-time favorites. I can’t wait to catch up with Medley’s world with the new ongoing series.