“It’s better to be lonely together” – Isolation in Courtney Crumrin
Written, Drawn, and Lettered by Ted Naifeh
Colored by Warren Wucinich
Collected Hardcovers, Oni Press, 2012-2015
Courtney Crumrin is, in a lot of ways, a typical protagonist for YA literature. She’s an outcast who hates the “phonies” who populate her school, and while not quite an archetypal Chosen One, her magic seems more powerful than the magic of all of the other witches in her town (except, perhaps, her uncle Aloysius). Like a lot of similar stories, hers appeals to young adults who feel alone and weird while they try to navigate the uncomfortable, liminal space that is adolescence. Stories where characters are lonely because of their powers or destiny are validating (and relatable) for a lot of teenagers. They provide a much more appealing narrative than “everyone feels like a loser in high school.”
But creator Ted Naifeh isn’t interested in a story of straightforward wish-fulfillment. When the series begins, Courtney is able to get revenge on bullies, narcissists, and any other students she doesn’t like. Courtney can fight back in a way that readers can’t, and that’s an appealing fantasy, especially for young women. She doesn’t solve her problems by being nice or by being the person everyone else wants or expects her to be. But Naifeh turns this revenge fantasy on its head as the series progresses, and we begin to see the consequences of Courtney’s more careless actions. Her spells aren’t simple quick-fixes for her problems; they have lasting effects on people’s lives, and she continues to be lonely because she continues to push people away. Courtney Crumrin isn’t a story that advocates for trying to be something you’re not to please others, but it encourages us to find other weirdos, to build ties, and NOT to isolate yourself if other people try to reach out to you.
The central characters of the series, Courtney and her great-uncle Aloysius, find common ground in their distaste for the normal humans surrounding them. In the debut volume, Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things, Courtney and Aloysius first bond over interest in magic and a callousness toward other people’s lives. Courtney isn’t particularly torn up when a fellow student is eaten alive by a goblin, and Aloysius admits that he only invited Courtney’s family to stay with him to use their blandness as a smokescreen to prevent ordinary townspeople from looking too closely at his home. It becomes quickly apparent that they have more that this in common, and by the second volume, Courtney worries about her uncle to her teacher, Cordelia Crisp, when Aloysius has to face off against a monster.
“If something might happen to him, I need to know about it. He’s all I’ve got.” Despite his age, Aloysius easily decapitates the fearsome Tommy Rawhead, proving Courtney’s fears unfounded. Unfortunately, due to her age and inexperience, Courtney finds her uncle’s protective worries about her a little harder to shake.
They’re first divided after the death of Skarrow, a Night Thing Aloysius was protecting, and whom Courtney had fallen in love with. Courtney tries to free him, while it’s implied that Aloysius had some tricks up his sleeve, and neither lets the other in on their plans until it’s too late. They mend their relationship when Aloysius takes Courtney with him on a trip to Europe, but their shared stubbornness and desire for self-sufficiency once again comes between them. Aloysius, with a lifetime of experience with the supernatural, as well as with isolating himself from the world, continually tries to hide Courtney from danger for her protection, while Courtney sees him as callous and heartless.
Remembering Skarrow, Courtney is upset when a woman is prevented from being with the man she loves by superstition, and Aloysius tells her that “love doesn’t always conquer.” He tries to comfort her, reminding her that “such tragedies happen every day.” He continues, “If we wept for them all, we’d never stop,” but Courtney feels like she’s “seeing her uncle for the first time” and wonders “how cold and shriveled his heart must be.” The fight leads Courtney into the arms of a vampire goth, Wolfgang, who would obviously been quite a heartthrob for a 13-year-old girl.
Wolfgang relates to Courtney’s loneliness, since his own isolation makes him “want to scream, it hurts so much.” He wants someone to care for him, and offers Courtney eternal life away from the phonies at home, once she exclaims to him that she’s never loved anyone.
“It’s supposed to feel like this big warm hug all day long or something. I never felt anything like that. Not about anybody. People let you down. They break your heart. They die on you.” Courtney is in pain, about Skarrow, about her fight with her uncle, and about her friendlessness, to the point where she’ll reject her uncle’s attempts to save her life. We learn at this point that Aloysius is dying and attempts to magically extend his life brought him to Europe, but he still rejects the vampiric Lady Isolde’s offer for eternal life, and he can’t understand why Courtney won’t do the same.
So he and Courtney are both dealing with crises, but their tendency to self-isolate keeps getting in the way; Courtney keeps snapping at her great uncle, while Aloysius can’t quite muster the courage to apologize to her. He’s chastised by a local for treating Courtney as a burden and remembers that she’s still a child, despite her maturity. They finally reconcile when they each acknowledge their shared preference for independence, which stems from a desire to take of one’s self and save others from the risks they’re willing to take. Their similarities are noted by everyone from Aloysius’ old friends to the local goblin, Butterworm, and when they finally acknowledge and accept them, Courtney and Aloysius are closer than ever.
Meeting people with similar qualities isn’t always a guarantee of close friendship, as Courtney learns when she meets other young witches. They recklessly turn another kid into a Night Thing, despite Courtney’s warnings, and she’s as angry at herself as she is with them. Their curiosity and recklessness with magic is “like looking into a mirror.” Courtney is again confronted with the things she doesn’t like about herself when she meets Holly, another loner with an interest in magic. This time, Courtney has to face her past sins, when Holly meets the students whose lives Courtney ruined with vengeful magic. Gareth’s magical hideousness has made him a pariah at school, even more so than Courtney herself, and Alicia can barely leave her house because of the Night Things terrorizing her on a nightly basis. In the end, Courtney loses her friend because of her past, unpunished discretions. The potential for magic to harm people, and to protect people from that harm, is part of what forces Courtney and Aloysius to stay away from people, and it’s what comes between them a few times over the course of the series.
In the final story, Courtney is called to answer for her magical crimes (including raising a monster to murder a member of the Council of witches) and goes on the run to evade capture and punishment. At her mentor Calpurnia Crisp’s urging, Courtney flees without speaking to her uncle, and he joins the Council members trying to track her down.
Narration reminds us that Courtney’s “whole world revolved around her great uncle Aloysius. He taught her magic, and opened up a place in his heart for her. He became her best friend,” yet she doesn’t trust his judgment enough to protect her if she faces the Council. Her lack of trust turns out to be well-founded, when her memory and magical abilities are erased, but even before that, Miss Crisp reminds Courtney that Aloysius has a long history of using and discarding people, erasing their memories or abandoning them when he no longer needs their help. Even though she’s surprised he could turn on her, Courtney heeds Crisp’s warning that Aloysius “has a way of betraying anyone who gets too close,” and doesn’t try to talk to him until she’s captured. As before, she and Aloysius both keep their agendas to themselves, and want to bear their burdens alone, despite their obvious affection for each other; we’re reminded of their bond when he uses himself as an item with Courtney’s psyche in it for a tracking spell to find her.
When she feels she has no other means of escape, Courtney makes a deal with the Dread Duchess, a Night Thing with a history of taking human children and making them her own. The Duchess seems fearsome, introduced buying a stolen human child at an auction, but Courtney realizes that like herself, the Duchess is lonely. The Duchess regularly threatens Courtney (and any other humans who enter her domain), but she seems more interested in preserving their lives than ending them, as she allows her familiar to be wounded saving Courtney’s life more than once. Like Courtney’s, The Duchess’ angry exterior masks hurt and loneliness, and takes in human children because she longs for companionship. One of those human children is revealed to be Aloysius’ twin brother, Wilberforce, abandoned in the realm of the Night Things when they were children. Wil misses the sunlit world (as Skarrow did, and as all of the Duchess’ children are likely to eventually), but Courtney suspects that Aloysius didn’t abandon his brother out of malice or self-preservation, but because he wanted to let his brother live forever in a realm of magic and wonder. If this is true, Aloysius achieves his abandoned dream when the Duchess is able to bring everyone some peace. She takes Aloysius as an immortal companion in her realm and releases Wilberforce, creating a reality where he is Courtney’s brother. Courtney and Aloysius will miss each other, but their loneliness is assuaged, somewhat, having gained companions who are their equals.
When faced with the reality that not all love stories end happily, Courtney tearfully exclaims that “All things considered, love is pretty worthless. I don’t see why anyone bothers with it.” She’s being naively absolute, but her sentiment is familiar to anyone who’s had their heart broken. Aloysius chooses to be alone, but we learn of two past romances: Alice Crisp, whom he gave up to protect the secrecy of his community, and Hermia Harken, who broke his heart. Calpurnia paints both relationships in the same light, since Aloysius abandoned her mother, Alice, and erased her memories of him. Hermia chose to live alone with only Skarrow, and isolate herself; since she didn’t want Aloysius, he chose to do the same. In the first series, he makes it clear that he lives alone by choice, dedicating his life to upholding the law of his ancestor, Ravenna, the first witch of Hillsborough: to keep witchcraft a secret, and to prevent rogue sorcerers from using magical for selfish or evil means. This duty comes before all else in his life, including romance.
Most of the major players in this series sequester themselves out of a fear of being hurt. The Dread Duchess confesses to Courtney that she cloisters herself because of old wounds that haven’t healed. She was abandoned by a mother who refused to move underground during an ancient war with humanity, and she still hurts from being forced to flee alone. The vampiric Lady Isolde feared death, so she became undead. Courtney fears being forced to fit into a mold chosen by someone else, and being picked on as a result, as we see in the reality when magic is taken away from her. She’s beaten up after school, and resigns herself to wearing a pink dress that her mother picks out. This is foreshadowed earlier in the series when a doppelganger takes Courtney’s place, and everyone in her life seems to like the replacement better.
“Perhaps she was missing something about the world…After all, what was more likely? That the world was filled with complete doofuses? Or that there might be something wrong with her?” To a schoolchild, maybe it’s easier to keep to yourself and for other kids to be afraid of you, than to be made an outcast against your will. After all, isn’t that the punishment Courtney tried to visit on Gareth, by magically making him hideous? Or on Alicia, by sending Night Things to her room at night, terrorizing her to the point that she can’t leave her house? Not only should Courtney know better than to use magic in such an irresponsible way, but she knows how hard and devastating loneliness can be, since it’s been her “constant companion for as long as she could remember.”
For a young adult reader, this could serve as a reminder that it’s easy to feel superior to the fakes and phonies who surround you, but that pushing everyone away doesn’t get you anywhere either. Courtney Crumrin doesn’t believe that you have to compromise who you are—Courtney is the only witch left at the end of the series, after all—but it encourages readers to make friends with the rest of the freaks and weirdos instead of cutting themselves off from the world. Making yourself vulnerable to someone else can lead to hurt, as Courtney learns again and again in this series, and the series validates the ugly feelings that come along with the pain of losing someone to you, because of death, moving away, or simply drifting apart. Courtney never really becomes likeable, but for many young people, she’s certainly relatable. And at the end of the series, she has a companion who understands and cares about her—that’s not exactly a fairytale ending, but for a weird, bad-tempered, smarmy, and very lonely girl (and others like her), maybe that’s enough.