Fall is here, and you know what that means.
Well, yes, those things are here too, but I was going to talk about witches and magic, actually.
In honor of our resident witches, this month’s column features lots and lots of witchy comics. ‘Tis the season.
Witch Hat Atelier, Volume 1
Witch Hat Atelier, an award winning manga that came to the US last year, is about a girl thrust into a world of magic and secrecy. On the personal level, it’s about an overly curious, excitable, talkative girl who stumbles into a world she does not belong to. On a more thematic level, it’s about the responsibility and reality of power.
Witch Hat Atelier stars Coco, our aforementioned excitable pre-teen who works as a tailor with her mother in their humble village. While she is excellent with cloth, Coco’s real obsession is magic. The glowing cobblestones streets of the city, the ever-pure spring in the neighboring forest, the flying carriages ridden by nobles, Coco lives for such sights. But in a world where magic is everywhere, it is only understood by witches.
Witches are the keepers of magic in the world. You are either born a witch or you are not. Most people are not. How witches cast their spells is a deeply guarded secret.
Or at least, that’s what the witches have told everyone.
The set up and reversal of this initial world building is what makes Witch Hat Atelier immediately gripping. Within the first two chapters, we discover the truth: that magic can be cast by anyone because magic is cast by simply drawing special symbols. A total novice can cast the world’s most powerful spells, even by tracing.
According to the witches, once upon a time, everyone was casting magic. Because of magic’s power and ubiquity, the world was locked in endless war. A select few witches took extreme measures to create a new status quo, one where magic knowledge and power are obsessively guarded. Only then did the world find peace.
How much of that is true remains to be seen…
After Coco learns these secrets, her magical experimentation goes horribly awry, and she is quickly taken in by a teacher named Qifrey. At his atelier, Coco dives into the world of witches, and finds out how much of an outsider she truly is.
Coco serves as a great surrogate for the audience: enough of her own person with her own motives, but also a child outsider, meaning we get to learn most things alongside her. Her reactions are comedic and heartfelt, keeping this tale of magic, witches, and secrets personal. Qifrey, on the other hand, serves as our key to the larger world. His scenes reveal his own outsider status within the institutions of the witching world, and the impact of Coco’s presence upon their society.
While the story is fun and fascinating, author Kamome Shirahama’s amazing artwork puts Witch Hat Atelier above and beyond its contemporaries. A cover artist for DC and Marvel comics, as well as a burgeoning author, Witch Hat Atelier is her first manga to be translated into English, and by far her longest running. Shirahama’s character designs are incredibly appealing, her depiction of clothes and fabric beautiful, and her encyclopedia-esk entries regarding creatures and items picture-book-esqu. Through Shirahama’s art, Witch Hat Atelier feels like an old fairy tale. Influences from older illustrators, like John Tenniel (Alice in Wonderland), and older media, like book plate etchings, are abundant.
Witch Hat Atelier feels honest and exciting. Its world is full of mystery, both enchanting and horrifying. The themes of power, secrecy, and trust are strong. If the next four volumes are anything like this one, I think we have the makings of a truly magical series.
Harry Recommends: Witch Hat Atelier Volume 1. By Kamome Shirahama. Translated by Stephen Kohler
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Magic
Rating: 12 and up (fear, peril)
Info: Published by Kodansha Comics. 208pp.
Read the first chapter free at Kodansha Comics.
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Black Magick Volume 1: Awakening I
Detective Rowan Black has a problem: she got a call from work while in the middle of an evening ritual with her coven. Everyone is a bit pissed at her, but more importantly, the work business she needs to attend to is a gun-toting man with hostages threatening to shoot until the cops bring him detective Rowan Black.
After a tense encounter, it becomes clear that someone is on to Rowan’s detective-witch dual identity. Someone who seems to want her dead.
Black Magick is a slow burn, sharing many concepts with shows like Dexter and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, but focusing much harder on the central mystery of who knows Rowan’s identity. We spend much of the first volume seeing pieces fall into place: allies, romances, clues, motives, and secret organizations. The key question is: who would know Rowan is a witch, and who would want her dead?
Greg Rucka (The Old Guard, Lazarus, Batman) is a veteran comics writer, and it shows in Black Magick. Mysteries are not easy to write, but Rucka balances detective work and character relationships excellently. The story feels mature, with characters never devolving into clearly-for-the-audience dialogue. Adding to that feeling is the fact that everyone seems to have secrets, and no one is eager to spill their hearts out to each other. This is a mystery with, and for, adults.
Nicola Scott (Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman) compounds this with a black and white, painterly style focused on realism. While stiffer than what I usually go for, the detail on anatomy and body proportions really solidifies the gritty detective feel the series is going for. And when magic finally does come into play, Scott depicts it with splashes of vibrant color that make it feel properly otherworldly.
For mysteries in particular, it is hard to judge based off of a first volume. But Rucka and Scott have created a strong start to what is hopefully an excellent dark magical mystery.
Harry Recommends: Black Magick Volume 1: Awakening I. Written by Greg Rucka. Illustrated by Nicola Scott
Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Supernatural
Rating: Mature (nudity, violence, blood, gore, language)
Info: Published by Image Comics. 128pp.
Read the first issue free at Image Comics.
Witchlight is the story of an unlikely duo: a witch named Lelek who is not whole and her hostage turned traveling companion/knight Sanja. The story is a focused, simple tale of love, trust, family, and what it means to change for the better.
But it’s author Jessi Zabarsky’s art that makes this book shine. Her characters feel straight out of an animated show, with clean and minimal line work that makes for readable, expressive characters. Similarly, Zabarsky uses tiny sequential frames to show small moments I am not used to seeing in comics; the bend of a sword as it flies into a tree truck, someone’s face changing as they start to cry, the hesitation in someone’s fingers before finally reaching out to hold someone’s hand. These micro panels add detail to Sanja and Lelek characters that might have been missing otherwise. Zabarsky’s sequencing is something more illustration-heavy artists should take note of.
Also, Lelek, the witch, casts magic from her fingertips. Literally. She brews magic potions, dips her fingertips in them, and when the potion dries, she has magical fingertips. It’s pretty cool.
Harry Recommends: Witchlight. By Jessi Zabarsky. Color by Geov Chouteau.
Genre: Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult
Rating: 12 and up (violence)
Info: Published by Random House Graphic. 208pp.