Horror and comic books (graphic novels, if you like) go together about as seamlessly as you could imagine. After all, there’s something perfect about the idea of marrying the unease of a horror tale with the unsettling, nightmarish imagery that a great comic artist is capable of – and that tradition goes back for generations. So whether you’re reading classic issues of Tales from the Crypt or Joe Hill’s masterful Locke and Key, you’re getting a marvelous union – horrific tales, and nightmarish art. A win-win for any real horror fan.
Which brings us to Wytches, which burst onto the scene with no small amount of hype. After all, when you earn a quote from Stephen King (not that he’s super shy about helping to promote things he loves), or get a pull quote from MTV calling you “terrifying,” you’re getting to get noticed. And having finally caught up with the first volume of Wytches, which collects the first – and so far, only – seven issues of the comic, it’s not hard to understand the praise. Wytches is a pulpy, nasty little tale, one that trades on ancient traditions, primal forces, and unsettling creatures, and mixes all that with some rich subtext involving parental failings, modern bullying, and more.
But what really sold me on Wytches was that opening prologue, a nasty little tale of a woman imprisoned in a tree, begging for freedom, and seemingly rescued by her child…before he bashes her face with a rock and reminds her that “Pledged is pledged,” and leaves her for…well, for what, exactly? Don’t worry – author Scott Snyder and artist Jock aren’t going to keep you waiting for long for answers, and their version of what a “wytch” is – well, it’s worth the wait, as they take the concept of witches and turn it into something primal, animalistic, and deeply horrifying.
But if “wytches” are basically these nightmarish creatures, where does all the tradition of magic and spell-casting come from? That’s where Snyder comes into play, slowly unraveling a complicated story that spans generations, dives into the deep history that he’s conceived, and the darkness in men’s souls. At its core, Wytches is a pretty traditional, familiar story, one where people may be the true evil, and they’re using this ancient evil to better themselves – and, hey, if some people get hurt, well, too bad for them.
And yet, even with that familiar shape to the story, none of it keeps Wytches from being engrossing, through and through. Much of that comes down to Jock’s art and the ink-splattered color style of Matt Hollingsworth, which combine nicely to make Wytches often feel more surreal and stark than it might have managed otherwise. (The way the color splatters often undermine the tension and unease of scenes is a thing of beauty, for instance.) It’s a strange art style for a book, and apparently has its share of detractors, but I loved it – it gives the book a chaotic, violent feel that befits the shadows at its core.
There’s also Snyder’s rich family portrait he’s spinning here. Although I have my issues with a shift in the family dynamic near the end of the series, the relationship between a flawed father working on repairing his old mistakes and an anxiety-ridden daughter is remarkably rich and rewarding, and invests you in these characters, even before we see the incident that caused it all to really break down. They draw you in with their vulnerabilities and worries of acceptance and failure, both of which bring out the subtext that only barely underlies the material (and which Snyder explains nicely in some notes in the back of the collection).
For all of that, Wytches is good, but never quite great; the plot gets awfully heavy in the back half, and there’s a long stretch that becomes a bit incoherent along the way, as though we were missing some details. And while it can be wonderfully creepy at times, and viscerally disturbing at others, the familiarity of it dulls some of the impact. Nonetheless, it’s well worth a read, especially for horror fans; the sharp art, the great creature design, and the strong character work all go a long way. What’s more, while the general shape may be familiar, Snyder makes it work in interesting ways, setting up a future arc (theoretically; the wait has been going on for a while as I write this) that seems awfully interesting. No, it may not be the Next Great Horror Comic…but it’s still a pretty creepy little read.