Title: Wytches Volume 1
Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Scott Snyder
Colorist: Matt Hollingsworth
Letters: Clem Robins
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
Wytches is a collection of some of comics’ top talent at the height of their powers. Scott Snyder’s writing is horror at its best. Jock’s linework and Matt Hollingsworth’s colors work together in a beautiful symphony of mood and atmosphere. And Clem Robins delivers nontraditional lettering that can’t be ignored. This book is compelling from beginning to end, and not even reading it in late-morning sunlight could chase away the deep, primal dread it made me feel.
The first story arc of Wytches follows the Rooks family: Charles, a writer/illustrator of a popular youth fantasy series; his wife Lucy, a nurse confined to a wheelchair after a car crash; and their teenage daughter Sail, short for Sailor, who has anxiety. After the sudden, mysterious disappearance of a girl who relentlessly bullied Sail, the family moves to a small town in New Hampshire for a fresh start. Sail thought she saw pale arms pull the girl into a tree, and she soon begins to see strange creatures following her. Emaciated, unnatural, human-like creatures with bulging blank eyes set off-center of their jaws in one side of their skulls. These are the Wytches, and if you pay the price of pledging someone to them, they can give you what you desire. They can make you healthy. They can make you forget. They can make you invincible. And they won’t be denied. “Pledged is pledged.”
I called the writing “horror at its best.” Everyone knows that the best horror is scary because it’s about us. Humans and the horrific things we do, in particular to each other. Even when we project monstrosity onto a zombie, werewolf, or vampire, horror is about the inhumanity that lurks in all of us. Snyder knows that, and he knows how to employ it. Wytches is about a lot of things. It has ancient, terrifying creatures that stalk the forests, but it’s not really about them. More primarily, it’s about family. It’s about selfishness and what people will do to get what they want. It’s about knowing how to trust yourself and your reality.
Wytches spends the most time with Charlie and Sail, so they’re particularly well-developed. Charlie is a good man and a good father. He and Lucy do everything they can to help Sail with her anxiety by trying to create safe spaces for her. Charlie in particular finds ways to gradually push Sail a little bit further out of her comfort zone so she can be more prepared to face her anxiety. In one incident, he pushed a little too far, and it almost led to tragedy, but he never let himself forget it. So there’s another good character point for Charlie: he’s flawed. He isn’t a perfect parent, but nobody is. He’s human. He makes mistakes.
The exploration of Sailor’s psychological state is also top-notch. A lesser writer might define her by her illness, but her anxiety, while certainly present, is less important than her ability. She doesn’t want to believe what happened to Annie, her bully, but the police found Sail alone and unconscious, so the official story is that she was knocked unconscious before the other girl’s disappearance. But she knows what she saw, and because she can’t explain what happened to Annie, Sail believes she was somehow responsible. She can’t deny the existence of the Wytches when she continues to see them, and she seeks them out to demand answers. She has agency in the face of these horrifying, inexplicable events.
Wytches is scary because it’s so disturbingly human. Nothing jumps out at you. There’s no slasher on the campground. There are people, everyday people, your friends and neighbors, who enter this Faustian bargain with the Wytches to fulfill their own selfish desires. The fear I felt was primal. It made me want to curl up. The story pulled me in by force and didn’t let go, chilling me to the bone. And as strong as the writing is, the art team really makes Wytches something special.
I’m familiar with Jock from The Losers and his other collaboration with Snyder, Batman: The Black Mirror. This is a slightly different flavor of Jock. The Losers was smooth and The Black Mirror had a certain amount of noir grit. Here, there’s a slightly uneven quality to the lines. Where appropriate, Jock uses distortion and exaggerated anatomy for a little extra creep factor. Layouts “float,” either in negative space of mostly-solid color or in actual environments. There are uneven, claustrophobic panels in issue 4 that put me on edge. He draws body horror and blood as well as anyone else in the business. The Wytches look disturbing on a profound level, whether they’re chasing prey or merely leaning their heads out from behind trees to observe (which is even scarier than the chases, if you can believe it). Snyder says the Wytches are based on the monsters he and a friend imagined to exist in the forests of rural Pennsylvania. As a Pennsylvania native, I can say that I understand Snyder’s fears, and Jock brought them to life exquisitely.
That said, Hollingsworth’s colors add something visceral to Jock’s work. Uneven, conflicting colors splash every page like watermarks. Light and shadow dance nimbly through the panels. One flashback is mostly shades of gray with select colors chosen to remain as they are, seeming brighter against the drab surroundings. Even though I used the term “negative space” earlier, it all feels filled because it knows the touch of Hollingsworth’s brush. Robins’ letters are distinctive, and he really shines when people yell. A single word can take up the left side of a balloon’s top two lines, and the rest of their dialogue can continue on the right side of the balloon. It’s unorthodox, but it really brought my attention to the letters.
Wytches is not a happy story. There is no feel-good-warm-fuzzy ending, for all that the first arc tries to close on a somewhat positive note (and it doesn’t ring false). Nor is Wytches fun. It will frighten you. It will disturb you. But if you’re okay with that, you’re in for one amazing story.