“Not everybody who gets to Heaven gets there through the Front Gate.”
Sometimes I think it’s a pity that a fugitive can no longer run into a church, demand asylum, and triumphantly wait things out until powerless police personnel get bored and call the whole thing off. The medieval concept of asylum, which plays such pivotal role in Victor Hugo’s “Notre Dame de Paris”, is also central to Linda Medley’s “Castle Waiting.” (And that lovely gypsy Esmeralda even gets name-dropped here!)
We pick right up from “The Curse of Brambly Hedge.” As soon as the Ambien wears off for Sleeping Beauty, she gets swept off her feet by Prince Charming and disappears into a lovey-dovey ever-after, leaving the denizens of Castle Waiting to wake up to the fact that they are more than secondary characters in the periphery of a pretty princess. Some time after, a pregnant woman going by Lady Jain arrives to CW. She’s running, (it seems like) from an abusive husband, and no one annoys her too much with questions. Everyone in CW knows how to provide comfort and understanding. There’s Sister Peace from the Bearded Solicitine Order; Patience, Prudence and Plenty, (Sleeping Beauty’s former fairies-in-waiting); Simple (and gentle) Simon; Dinah the cook; Chess the Knight/Horse; the quietly kind Iron Henry; and Rackham the Adjutant Stork, who behaves like the local Jeeves.
Medley is leisurely about telling us exactly which familiar fairy Lady Jain belongs to, as if even she finds it indiscreet to pry. As I said before, haphazard best describes this graphic novel’s publication history. (Some of it was self-published, some came out under Jeff “Bone” Smith’s Cartoon Books imprint, then Fantagraphics) That, and the artist’s confessed ebbs and flows of financial support and inspiration, mean that if you like tight plots and clear conclusions, you should keep on going down the road. It’s not harsh drama and violent plot reversals, but gentle gossip and a meandering, relaxed sense of timing, that make “Castle Waiting” such a charming destination. Charming, too, are the designs, inspired by woodcuts and stained-glass iconography.
Medieval saints and pilgrimages are very much in Medley’s mind, and so are Chaucerian stories-within-stories; namely, a multi-issue arch one involving bearded Sister Peace and her stay at the Abbey of St. Wilgeforte.
We even detour into an asylum story within an asylum story within an asylum story: St. Wilgeforte was the 14th century patron saint of abused wives. According to the legend, Wilgeforte (which means something like ‘Strong Virgin’) was a Christian convert about to face an arranged marriage with a heathen, and so she prayed to be made repulsive in order to preserve her virginity for Jesus, at which point she promptly sprouted a beard. The heathen suitor balked, the angry father crucified her. (Medieval miracle logic was not too consistent: Jesus was very capable of preserving the virginities of saints, but not so efficient at preserving their lives.) The legend almost certainly originated with confusingly effeminate Italian images of Christ in the cross, which had to be retroactively explained when imported to other, manlier, countries. Church historians debunked the St. Wilgeforte myth well back in the 1500s, but androgynous saints have a weird persistent appeal: St. Sebastian, St. Joan of Arc, St. David Bowie, etc etc.
The story of St. Wilgeforte illuminates “Castle Waiting,” which is definitely about providing a shelter for battered women, or women who don’t fit typical standards of femininity. That could have been grim, a pessimistic take on marriage, (or men) but it never comes across that way. (As a matter of fact one of the most moving moments of the series is a good ol’ Church wedding ceremony.) As the abbess of St. Wilgeforte says:
“Being here won’t keep (an abused wife) from meeting someone or getting married. The misogamy and man-hating are only in the legends. After all, helping someone out of an unhappy marriage is the first step toward helping them into a HAPPY one, isn’t it?”
It’s true. The males in the story are mostly good and likable; the abusive, cheating husbands are not presented as some norm of the damned patriarchy, but as an aberration. Sleeping Beauty’s happy (“hetero-normative,” some might say) marriage is not mocked or judged. Wonderful for her! It’s just that there ARE other lives – and ways of loving – that are just as worthy of chronicling, and not covered by the usual narrative. What animates every one in “Castle Waiting,” male or female, is the conviction that they may have been denied the conventional fairy tale endings, but their existences are still full of wonder.
Henry VIII, the ultimate abusive husband, chipped away at- and greatly reduced- asylum laws in England. Today, a cop WILL follow you into a church and drag you out, so don’t bother running into Our Lady of the Parking Ticket Debtors for refuge. But you can still run into a book like “Castle Waiting” to spend some time away from a world of abusive, annoying trolls.
RATING: COOL! But you must be patient.
Rackham the Stork shouts out to Arthur Rackham, whose work is the golden standard for the so-called Golden Age of British Illustration. Here’s his take on “Sleeping Beauty,” in golden slumber.
POST-POST- SCRIPT: Todd Klein letters “Castle Waiting” – and too many other of your favorite comics to even list. If you want an example of why lettering matters in graphic novels, look at Todd and his character-defining work for Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman.”