Courtney Crumrin and the Fire Thief’s Tale

By Ted Naifeh
64 pages, black and white
Published by Oni Press

It’s been a while, but fans of sarcastic and slightly caustic girls with supernatural powers can rejoice—Courtney Crumrin has returned. With Courtney Crumrin and the Fire Thief’s Tale, Ted Naifeh is continuing to expand the series’s world—not only physically, but emotionally. He’s continuing to raise the stakes for all the characters involved, and the end result? I think it’s an important but good shift for the series.

For those who have never read Courtney Crumrin before, the long and short of it is that thanks to deadbeat parents, Courtney and her parents are now living with their wealthy great-uncle Aloysius Crumrin, who is something of a sorcerer. As time has passed and things around Courtney have continued to grow stranger, she’s learned a little bit of magic herself, to hold her own in the local town. She’s about to be thrown out of her depth, though, with a trip to eastern Europe where werewolves roam and the locals are less than pleased. A wedding is supposed to take place soon, but as a reluctant bride is caught in a triangle between a local boor and a member of traveling folk, Courtney is about to learn that she’s in a much more dangerous situation than she is used to—and no matter how hard she tries, things won’t always unfold as she plans.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Courtney running around, but the time apart has kept her as familiar as always. Naifeh hasn’t lost her voice, with her snark and self-assured personality still in place. One of the things I’ve always liked about Courtney is that you can tell things are getting bad when she’s finally truly rattled, and that is absolutely the case in The Fire Thief’s Tale. This is the first story where I’ve really felt that she’s been plunged into something over her head, and that’s a good thing. If each story had easily solvable problems, all the sarcasm and wit from Courtney’s mouth might eventually get old because you know she’s going to wrap things up easily. Here, she’s not just dealing with her schoolmates, or a passing goblin. It’s a complex situation that she’s wading into, and you get the impression that in some ways she’s more capable of messing things up than solving them. The Fire Thief’s Tale is the first story in Courtney and Aloysius’s “European vacation,” so Naifeh’s able to set things in motion long-term here as well; you really get the impression that Courtney needing to learn some humility is definitely on the agenda here.

A lot has to be said for the new setting as well. While setting supernatural stories in eastern Europe is perhaps not terribly new, what I appreciated was that Naifeh takes the chance to bring in some of the local flavor and lore as well. While I don’t know if Naifeh’s story of the Fire Thief is original to himself or a traditional story, but Naifeh certainly has made it feel like the latter. It’s a good fit, both to the series as well as this particular story, and I’m not entirely sure it would have been as successful had Courtney learned about it while back at home. Naifeh also brings up religion here, and it’s a very interesting portrayal, playing devil’s advocate with the idea that if Courtney’s enchantments can work, why not more traditional wards against supernatural creatures as well? It’s a different take on the idea than most go for, and it’s something that works quite well as a result.

About the only thing that is unchanged and exactly as I remembered is Naifeh’s art for Courtney Crumrin, but that’s not a bad thing. I love how Naifeh draws everyone’s angular faces, and Courtney’s little noseless expression gets me every time, be it ones of fear or happiness or relief or plotting. The guest cast is drawn very nicely; while Naifeh uses some visual shorthands to help with characterization (Petru’s manly, hairy arms coming out of rolled-up sleeves, Jan’s fanciful clothing, Professor Markovic’s slight frailty) all of the character designs are deftly drawn and to good effect. As always, Naifeh pays careful attention to the backgrounds as well; his eastern European town looks very different than the town Courtney and her family live in, and helps bring the atmosphere of the story to life.

Courtney Crumrin and the Fire-Thief’s Tale is a very welcome return to this most-excellent series.With a sequel scheduled for later this year (Courtney Crumrin and the Prince of Nowhere), it’s a great reminder as to how much fun Naifeh’s creation can be. It’s a sharp series, one that deserves even more attention than it already gets. If you’re looking for a mix of adventure, magic, suspense, and sarcasm, you cannot go wrong with Courtney Crumrin. As always, highly recommended.

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