I haven’t read a comic book in a while, and after taking almost three weeks to read my last book, I thought I’d pick up something I could definitely get through in a day. And I did get through Wytches in a day, in an afternoon, rather, though it’s a text that would’ve been better suited to reading alone on a cold, dark, night, because it’s fucking terrifying. Actually, I’ve changed my mind, it would’ve been too scary to read in the dark or alone. An afternoon in early Summer is probably the best time to have read it. Yeah, actually, let’s go with that.
Wytches is written by Scott Snyder, with artwork by the one-name-Madonnaesque Jock. The two men (like everyone working in the comics industry, it seems) previously worked together on Batman, yet what they’ve created here is somehow simultaneously both very derivative and startlingly original. What appears on the surface to be a colour-by-numbers Stephen King inspired fantasy-horror about a teenager on the cusp of adulthood becoming involved with witches, actually turns out to be a mature and engaging comic book all about anxiety, depression, family and selfishness.
The story centres on the Rooks, a heteronormative family with only one child – a daughter – who have just moved to a new town in New Hampshire, following some bad things that happened elsewhere. The daughter, Sailor, was involved in the mysterious disappearance of a violent bully: Sailor claimed she saw evil-looking, alien/demon-like creatures drag her into the belly of a tree, while doctors claim the bully hit Sailor so hard in the head that she blacked out and hallucinated. Obviously, as the title implies, Sailor was right, and the witches (always “wytches” in the text, but every time I type that it autocorrects to “watches” and I’m tired of changing it) are real, they live underground and are hideous, nasty things, an offshoot of humanity able to live off the greed and selfishness of humans. They eat human flesh, but only human flesh that is pledged to them by others. Give the witches the gift of food (a friend, a neighbour, an enemy, a child) and they will reward you with all the perks a magical being can give. The town the Rooks end up in is one that has been living with the witches for so many years that there are very few people untainted by guilt or magic: if the witches are able to make you impervious to bullets, why wouldn’t you offer them up the children of anyone who’d ever pissed you off?
And that is the world Snyder creates, a town where everyone is corrupt, where everyone weighs the life and freedom of themselves as preferential to those around them, where people pledge the bodies of others, once to make their lives easier, and again to make them better. Uncorrupted, though, is Sailor’s father, an author of children’s books with long-standing mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and seasonal alcoholism. Is it his want for stability and happiness for his daughter that draws the witches in? Or is it his love for his family that keeps them away for so long?
He is the only person who ever encounters someone who fights against the witches, an old woman with a shaved head called Clara, who has dedicated her life to fighting and killing witches, ever since they ate her legs when she was a child. No one corroborates her story, no one else has magical potions and weapons created to fight against the villains, and no one else knows as much about the truth as she does. Sailor and her father, with the smattering of information they receive from Clara, are the only people making steps to protect the town and themselves from the evil that is within it.
The witches are distinctly other, so instead of the usual “women as villain” trope of most witch myths, Snyder makes it very clear that the evil in the woods is not an exaggerated sexist stereotype, rather his wytches are different from humans, different but reliant upon them. Unable to live within the human world, but unable to live without it, because their hungers, their needs, require human flesh brought to them as a result of human weakness.
In addition to the story, every chapter of Wytches includes a short essay written by Snyder about the ideas and experiences behind his narrative. These start off quite simplistically, “I remember being a child and playing at witch hunting”, before growing into something that not just complements the rapidly developing main narrative, but actively expands it. Snyder offers essays about parenthood, about depression, about finding creative satisfaction and about turning his own darkest experiences and thoughts into something positive. He writes, too, about the power of imagination and creativity in his personal battles against his own demons, and in Knausgaard-like levels of honesty admits to things one really wouldn’t expect someone writing in such an inherently conservative genre to admit to.
And with that comes the weird realisation that comic books really shouldn’t have the reputation and the presumed fan base that they do. Comic books are, broadly, seen as the preserve of the white, working class, male. “Young, dumb, full of come” kinda thing. But there is no reason for Alan Moore to be the constant exception: comic books claim a position as an “outsider” medium – at least in England – when in America they are the perceived bedrock of conservative, right wing, nationalist, propaganda spinning America as Hero into the eyes of prepubescent school shooter types. And this isn’t fair, and nor should it be.
This is emotionally mature writing about silly, scary, monsters. Yes, some of the ideas are tired, but ancient myths have resounded because they do have power, and the writing here is emotionally wise and terrifying. Snyder is as open in his postscripts as he probably could be.
Wytches is a great graphic novel, and Snyder comes across, on a personal level, very well. I will certainly look out for more of his original work, and I will continue to return to the publications of Image Comics, who consistently impress and surprise me with the literary value of their output.
Pretty damn good.