Wow! Webcomics! is a review column dedicated to exploring the vast world of independent comics published online. There’s so much amazing art out there being made by so many incredibly talented people that it sometimes feels overwhelming to try to keep up. Let’s tackle the overwhelm together by reading some great stuff and talking to each other about it! If you know of or create a webcomic that you’d like to see reviewed here, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Our first webcomic up for review is the Ignatz, DINKy, and Autostraddle award-nominated Witchy by Ariel Ries.
Set in the magical world of Hyalin, where the length of your hair is believed to determine the strength of your magic, Witchy is more than your average coming-of-age-at-wizard-school tale. It’s also a story about what it means to be a target of a dangerously biased system. Hyalin conscripts the most powerful and long-haired witches into the Witch Guard, a military force that protects the kingdom. But if your hair is too long, you could be pronounced a threat to Hyalin, and targeted for execution. The webcomic is ongoing, and so far it has followed its protagonist, Nyneve, at school, through the trials that determine her future place in society, and after she commits a dangerous act of sacrilege in an attempt to take control of her fate.
The story begins with a brief but deeply traumatic episode in Nyneve’s childhood, steeped in foreboding from the very first page. Through her childlike perspective – eavesdropping with mixed success after being told to go to her room, being given cryptic messages by her parents – we witness her father, Jaga, getting taken away from their home and murdered by the Witch Guard. It seems that Jaga was once a long-haired and powerful member of the Witch Guard himself, but for reasons still unknown to us, they identify him as a threat that must be eliminated.
The effect on Nyneve’s family is profound: when the story picks up a decade or so later, Nyneve’s mother, a charming and outgoing woman named Veda, has thrown herself into the work of caring not only for her remaining family, but her community. While she prioritizes nurturing and protecting her daughter, she also makes a living as a skilled apothecary. Nyneve herself is indelibly marked: fearing the scrutiny of the Witch Guard, she hides the length of her hair to prevent herself from being targeted by them.
As we follow Nyneve’s schooling, we see how effective that ruse is – for a time. She is near the bottom of her class, despite her secretly long locks, and hopes fervently to escape the guard’s notice and live a quiet, unobtrusive life studying magical theory. How that works out for her is something I’ll let you readers find out for yourselves.
Throughout the story, Ries slyly challenges the recurring central myth of hair length – and the way it orders social and political relationships in Hyalin – by showing us just how frequently its importance is contradicted. Nyneve’s experiences inherently make the correlation of hair length to magical power suspicious: if it’s true, then why is she so bad at magic? Are her failures psychosomatic in origin? There is clearly something fishy going on here; recent updates have alluded that the government may be deliberately hiding some important and subversive elements of Hyalin’s magical history. As a queer woman with Cuban heritage, this hits me right in the feels. With each update, I’m desperately eager to learn more about these hidden histories, manipulated and erased by a ruling class fearful of their power.
Ries is an excellent worldbuilder, skilled at giving us information about Hyalin without a single word of dialogue. Some of my favorite moments in Witchy are its quietest ones, such as a scene near the end of chapter two, where Nyneve walks home from an epically bad day at school.
In one panel, we get a feel for Hyalin’s culture as Nyneve walks through a beautiful and bustling oceanside market. The next panel undercuts this vibrant mood, where Nyneve walks alone through a clean but shadowed alley plastered in WANTED posters. When she arrives home, the scene is pastoral and serene (unlike the market) and warm (in contrast to the alley), lit by the glow of lanterns at dusk. In just three panels, we are treated to the variety of Hyalin’s charms at the same time that we’re warned of its ever-present dangers.
Like the relationship of hair length to magical ability, I get the sense that Ries is waiting to reveal the secrets that surround the Witch Guard and power structures in Hyalin in general. Who, for example, are the Witch Guard meant to defend Hyalin against? At this point in the story, they have only killed citizens of Hyalin itself. Does that make Hyalin a kind of police state, or are these killings carried out in the name of defending the kingdom against an outside enemy?
We may still have a long way to go before getting answers to those questions, as far as I know. Fortunately, there is plenty of character development to enjoy even as the plot thickens.
Witchy’s characters are a vital element of the comic, and they are charming and carefully crafted. Importantly, every single one is a person of color, living in “a melting pot of Asian and Oceanic cultures,” according to the Witchy FAQ page. Ries seems to enjoy playing with the reader’s expectations by imbuing her characters with interesting contradictions and foibles: Batu, Nyneve’s closest friend, seems like a big teddy bear, gentle, kind, and eager for everyone to get along, but as we discover soon, he is also very talented and has powerful magic at his disposal. Prill is confidently rebellious, living authentically as a young trans woman despite her wealthy elite parents’ regressive attitudes, yet she is also (so far) unswervingly loyal to Hyalin and has set her sights on rising to the highest heights of its Witch Guard. Viceroy Jung, poised to be a main villain in the comic, appears wise and reverential at first, but also acts with great vindictiveness and viciousness. Veda excels at the healing and defensive arts so often associated with femininity, but she can also throw the fuck down with inspiring ferocity when called for – defying those who underestimate her abilities because of her short-ish hair. And those are just some of the already established characters! Right now, Nyneve is exploring a whole new part of Hyalin, giving Ries the opportunity to introduce a host of new characters that I’m excited to get to know better.
While I’ve focused a lot on the story and characters, Witchy’s art is just as rich and compelling as its narrative. I love the way Ries deploys colors in different ways, using them to communicate a certain mood, or to indicate the passage of time.
Also enjoyable is watching the style of the comic change in subtle ways over its lifespan. The prologue displays a more expressionistic style, with lots of thick dark lines and heavy shadows, but by chapter four, the style has become a lot more fluid and weightless. Most notably, though, Ries is skilled at using light to her advantage: so many of Witchy’s pages seem to glow from within in a distinctly magical way.
I look forward to reading Witchy as it continues to unfold; it’s certainly a bright spot in my week (both metaphorically and semi-literally: those colors, I swear!). I can’t wait to learn more about Hyalin and its histories – both those the People In Charge want us to believe, and the hidden ones they’ve tried to erase – as well as the people struggling to live within in. At its heart, Witchy is a story about resistance and finding your power in a world seemingly hellbent on taking it from you. If that’s something you need more of – and I know I do – do yourself a favor and support this fantastic webcomic.
Support Ariel Ries on Patreon here!
If you prefer to read in chapters rather than single-page updates, subscribe to Witchy on Tapastic here!