Courtney Crumrin & the Fire Thief’s Tale original graphic novella
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Ted Naifeh
Editors: Joe Nozemack & James Lucas Jones
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $5.95 US
Creator Ted Naifeh takes his readers back into the world of a young witch with attitude and her wise uncle/mentor, and once again, he offers up an entertaining, cute and fantastic story with just a touch of a dark edge to help set it apart from other, similar fare. What allowed this particular Courtney Crumrin story to stand out is the unusual structure of the plot and how it intertwines with a story within the story. Though the title character gets involved in the plot itself at a couple of points, she’s really more of a host for a well-crafted story of love, myth and horror. While the supernatural elements bring color and flair to the tale, Naifeh’s script is ultimately about how people are petty, irrational and frightened of the unknown. Naifeh’s dark designs are simple but thoroughly effective in bringing a gothic, eerie quality into play while also maintaining a hint of youthful energy and innocence, mirroring Courtney’s personality perfectly in ever panel of the book.
Aloysius Crumrin, with his grand-niece Courtney in tow, visits an old friend in Romania, only to step into a bit of family drama. Aloysius’s friend’s daughter, Magda, is engaged to be wed to Petru, who’s leading a group of men who fear that a local ban of gypsies are much more than they seem. They believe the travellers are wolves in human disguise, and they set out to put an end to them. The fact that among the supposed werewolves is the man Magda truly loves complicates matters even further. Courtney, for her part, finds the whole affair to be frustrating and ridiculous, and she lets the adults around her know just what is on her mind. In the process, not surprisingly, she finds herself in danger… and learning of dark, magical mysteries.
I love how Naifeh employs darkness and simple shapes to form haunting creatures and landscapes. While the title character is far simpler in appearance and design, the other characters seem to boast more detail in their depictions, though again, their faces and figures are convergences of simpler shapes. Naifeh’s work and style reminds me a bit of Mike (Hellboy) Mignola’s approach, though there’s a more fluid, organic look to Naifeh’s art. The architecture and atmosphere of the artwork conveys the eastern European qualities of the setting and characters quite well. He also brings a timeless quality to the art, making for a more classic tone to the story. The only really modern element here is Courtney’s attitude.
At first, Naifeh’s flashback sequence about the wolf brothers and one became tame struck me as surprisingly brief, given that the book takes its title from the legend. With the “fire thief’s” story over, I thought perhaps this book was a collection of two or three shorter Crumrin stories, with the first serving to provide the volume’s title. But Naifeh brings the main plot back around to the legend and ties those characters in directly with the main action. It was something of a surprise, and I really enjoyed how that story within the larger plot ties the whole book together. It’s an example of strong craftsmanship in storytelling.
I noted earlier that this book is about the fragile fears of the human mind, about the fear of the unknown. But I wasn’t really talking about the fear of perceived monsters, of the things that go bump in the night. The “posse” of would-be werewolf hunters is really just stalking a man who’s a viable challenger for the affections of the group’s leader’s betrothed. Petru’s not afraid of a perceived threat to the Romanian village, but rather, he’s afraid of losing. Furthermore, Magda — perhaps the most pitiful character in the book — is frightened of everything. She’s scared of her true, pure feelings for her lupine lover. She’s afraid of Petru but even more afraid of a life without the security he offers. She’s afraid to be a person in her own right, opting to skulk meekly behind whoever has the most powerful presence in a room.
Courtney’s rage in light of all of that cowardly behavior among the adults around her — people she’s been told always know better than her — is completely understanding. Such anger in the face of hypocrisy is understandable for a young person, but what allows Courtney to stand apart is her refusal to stay quiet, calling the offenders out for what they are. We’ve seen Courtney’s rebellious side and her perceptive nature before. What’s more interesting is her interaction with her uncle in this story. In other Crumrin comics, she’s had other authority figures against which she could revel or about which she could grumble. Now it’s just her and Aloysius, and the kinship she feels for the old warlock comes into conflict with her natural obstinence. The new dynamic between the two Crumrins is intriguing, and I look forward to seeing how the relationship develops. 9/10