In her ongoing webcomic Witchy (2014-present), Ariel Ries brings to life an Asian kingdom of witches whose powers are determined by the length of their hair, and where she explores the complexities of living under an authoritarian regime in peacetime. Protagonist Nyneve (pronounced Nin-eev) faces an isolating young adulthood in a world where she has to conceal her long hair or risk either conscription or death at the hands of the Witch Guard. She must dig into the history of her kingdom and of magic itself, and to understand the many forms resistance can take if she’s going to protect the people she cares about. Ries’ deceptively simple concept and writing style builds into an unusual and emotionally affecting story that’s willing to complicate black-and-white perspectives and to head in unexpected directions.
As of this article’s publication, Witchy currently stands at 4 chapters (and 215 pages), and continues to update. This review will contain some spoilers through chapter 3, but no further, and I will avoid revealing later major plot points.
Ries begins Witchy with a short, sharp introductory chapter depicting the moment where Nyneve’s father is taken away by members of the Witch Guard (led by someone he calls an “old friend”). In a sequence of building dread and horror, we learn alongside young Nyneve that her father is never coming back. Black captions above the scene dispassionately intone the rules of Hyalin, where “those with hair judged too long are pronounced enemies of the kingdom, and annihilated,” and conclude over smoky skies with the simple, brutal statement, “this is called a witch burning.” This compact opening efficiently sets the stage for the “present day” narrative of Witchy, establishing this pivotal loss in Nyneve’s family and the high stakes of life under the military regime, without wallowing in the moment of trauma.
Ries prepares us with this introduction to view the comparatively lighthearted Chapter 2 with wariness, as a now 18-year-old Nyneve rushes off to school. The lovely twinkling moment here Nyneve magically disguises her long mane of hair into a short braid is undercut with our knowledge of what could happen if she did not do so. The dark truth of witch burnings prevents the reader from getting entirely carried away with the pleasant “adventures at magic school” tropes at play as we’re introduced to key classmates. Once their teacher Idra announces their upcoming conscription tests for the Witch Guard and starts running them through magic drills, Nyneve’s subtle expressions and posture describe her ever-mounting anxiety for what the future holds.
Witchy’s core metaphor of magical abilities linked to hair length can be read not just as about the degree of control and impact a person can have on the world around them, but how society commodifies power and skills. Nyneve’s disguise of short hair – and therefore assumed low magical ability – exposes her to bullying and disdain from nearly all her classmates and greatly isolates her. But, as we soon learn, her magical abilities themselves are truly sporadic and uncontrollable, not as “strong” as her real hair supposedly indicates. “My hair’s just as much of a burden,” as she puts it, “as it is useless.”
In such a society like Hyalin that is so focused so strictly on a person’s “use” for their kingdom, the treatment of “useless” witches like Nyneve also demonstrates how such systems often view disability and difference. After Nyneve accidentally destroys the practice arena, Idra takes her aside in a conversation that might feel all too familiar to those with disabilities who’ve tried to voice their need for accommodations at school or work. When Nyneve describes how the school’s equipment makes it harder to control her magic, Idra scolds her for making excuses, and tells her that the sooner she accepts her limited abilities the sooner she can “find her place.” While facing and accepting limitations can often be constructive, the context of this advice is crucial – her teacher is denying the possibility that the current system of magical use could impose any of these limits on Nyneve, refuses to find alternative methods to make focusing easier for her, and essentially counsels her to accept being a person unworthy of conscription.
Idra does not seem to intend to be unkind here, and indeed offers to recommend Nyneve for the career in magical study she desires, once (Idra assumes) she fails to pass conscription. But we are led to wonder how differently this conversation might have gone if Idra recognized Nyneve’s true hair length, even though her magical abilities would have been exactly the same – would she even consider letting her study academic magic? She may sincerely want to find the best path for her students where their talents can flourish. But when their society exploits people’s skills in order to perpetuate the power of the authoritarian government, and as Idra seems to completely buy into that structure of power, then even her best intentions towards her students will further their exploitation.
One of my few criticisms for Witchy is that while it’s possible to read an exploration of ableism in these thoughtful scenes on Hyalin culture’s treatment of variations in magical ability, it’s hard to tell if this is intentional on Ries’ part. After all, Hyalin magic can be viewed simply as a kind of nebulous “talent,” with most people being more or less “talented” in different areas. And while I’d argue that Nyneve could be described as a disabled witch due to her erratic magic skills, nothing has been stated in the narrative, and there has yet to be any characters introduced with non-magical disabilities either. As it stands, there’s plenty of story left for Ries to tell, and Nyneve is just beginning to explore the fundamental relationship of humans to the spirit world that “lends” them their magic. I’d love to see disability continue to be explored alongside it in more concrete way, as well as the question of what “normal” people’s lives are like if they’re aren’t powerful enough to qualify for either conscription or execution – I think both could potentially enrich Witchy’s themes of how a person’s perceived “strength” and “usefulness” are treated by society.
Nyneve’s experiences at the academy with “useless” hair are set in stark relief against those of her classmate Prill, the haughty star pupil who whole-heartedly buys into this system where magical strength rules over all. She’s “been dying to join the Guard” since she was five, and passionately describes how being conscripted into military servitude is an honor and protecting their kingdom “a privilege.” Not knowing Nyneve’s family history, and not seeing her pain, she perceives her as simply unworthy of this honor and accordingly treats her with condescension. So when Nyneve reveals her true hair to Prill and their mutual friend Batu, Prill gasps in awe and declares it to be the answer to all of her classmate’s fears. “If everyone knew they wouldn’t even think about–“ she exclaims, then stumbles as she finishes her thought, “Uh…bullying…you…” Perhaps she realizes the cruelty in her essentially saying “weak” witches deserve bullying, or perhaps she only feels ashamed for contributing to the class-wide bullying of Nyneve. Either way, she still asks Nyneve, “why would you hide it?” – from her position at the pinnacle of recognized magical potential, Nyneve’s rejection of her ideals are utterly baffling. She can’t understand why someone who could have power and use in the military would want to opt out of it, just as she can’t yet see that she herself is being exploited by that same system.
Later on in Chapter 3 we witness Prill in a sudden, very public moment of vulnerability, that reveals the coldness beneath the Knight Guard that she holds so dear. As the students wait for medical exams prior to their conscription exam, a medical soldier thoughtlessly outs Prill as a trans girl and denies her entry to the correct medmage. Though Prill is a young woman, administrators categorized her as a man because of her “official documentation,” and so the soldier skeptically refuses to deviate from her list regardless of what the flesh and blood human in front of her says. While their teacher Idra steps in quickly to pull rank, support Prill, and punish the soldier, we can see from Prill’s expression that damage has been done.
The soldier’s concession that “maybe the third gender doctor can see you. They’re better equipped for this sort of thing,” suggests even further limits of trans rights and acceptance under Hyalin military culture. While it may seem good that the government recognizes a third gender, the way in which it’s brought up reveals an underlying oppression against people who fall out of a strict system of categories. To this presumably cis soldier, Prill expressing anything that deviates from her documents makes her a troublesome disruption of categories, and so should be shunted into what she sees as general miscellaneous group for “this sort of thing.” It does not matter that Prill is neither a boy or a third gender person but a young woman; according to the official system she is denied the reality of her gender – that is, until a suitably higher ranked person like her teacher steps in to grant her an exception to the rules. And while Idra seems to genuinely care for Prill’s wellbeing, her concern can’t be divorced from the fact that she sees Prill as a powerful asset to the empire.
Without Idra’s protection, what would have happened to Prill? As she reveals to Nyneve afterwards, her parents have refused to change her documents due to their clan traditions of property inheritance, so she has to enlist in the guard to use their transition program when she comes of age. If she was not seen as worth looking out for at school and of conscription into the military system, what would happen to Prill? Would she have ended up shunted into another category she didn’t belong in, or even be punished for her anger towards the soldier denying her gender? What kind of future would she have? After Nyneve muses,“I never thought that the guard might actually be good for someone,” and attempts to apologize, Prill immediately admonishes her: “Don’t start throwing away your ideals because you suddenly empathize with me …There’s a legitimate reason you feel the way you do about the Witch Guard.” This moment of mutual empathy both brings a great deal of nuance to Prill’s character and her idolization of the guard over all else, and suggests increasing layers of complexity to the empire they both live in. Ries uses the conclusion of this scene, where Prill swallows her pride and apologizes for the past, to show how Nyneve’s risky decision to reveal her hair to Prill has already changed the both of them for the better and brought them closer.
Ries’ deft writing skills are one of the many great joys of Witchy, and her willingness to use the full language of comics is a big reason why. Ries builds her scenes on the bones of well-crafted page layouts, each one dynamic and inventive without becoming flashy. Her cohesive coloring style joins realistic lighting with thrilling bursts of magical powers and jolts of emotion expressionism. Riel stages her scenes smoothly as well, balancing simple, clean panels of character expression and quick action with beautifully depicted settings rich in detail. Her pleasingly rough, curvy lines vibrate with an energy that erupts in moments of action and emotion, but becomes delicate in moments of quiet. Ries’ efforts create a world for Witchy that feels very real and lived in, and makes for a fluid reading experience.
Ries uses the language of her pages this way to express not only the actions taking place but impact of those moments on the characters. The above page 60, where Nyneve prepares to leave her mother Veda on the fateful morning of her conscription exam, is an excellent example of this. We move from a tight image of Nyeve’s finished breakfast plate (big enough to not even need panel borders) to three panels in the warm, close intimacy of Veda’s embrace (her mother’s dress matching the plate these panels overlaps almost exactly), which together evoke a final lingering feeling of safety. But the moment of their parting happens in a single, distant panel nearly surrounded by cold white space. The previous green backgrounds spill into a cloudy sky that frames their figures as they clasp each other’s hands, the distance between their bodies making them seem suddenly fragile. Ries ends this emotional sequence not on Nyneve, as you may expect, but on a single, wordless panel of Veda watching her go while she bites her knuckle in uncertainty, framed in a muted but deepening green. We sense her limitations as she floats isolated in the whiteness of the page, and her worry that she won’t be able to protect her daughter as she has promised her. This page succeeds in getting across the complexity and depth of their relationship from both sides, and shows how much each of them need and love the other.
Ultimately, Ariel Ries’ Witchy is far more than a story about a one true hero needed to defeat the Dark Evil Empire and its heartless stooges. People hurt each other and look out for each other in many intersecting ways, and everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing from where they stand in Hyalin. Nyneve is not a savior the ancient prophecies spoke of, though her story has that familiar and eternally compelling narrative of being a special person who has to hide their specialness and powers from those who want to destroy them (I ate those tropes up as a child and still do!). Instead, it’s her position as an extreme outlier from the system in two seemingly conflicting ways (long “strong” hair combined with unfocused “weak” magic) along with her father’s murder that puts her in a unique position to analyze how the Hyalin government functions, and why it’s hurting both humanity and the spirit world that lends them magic. If Nyneve can survive her adolescence, she may become a person whose insights and sense of justice can help find a way to make things right – but only if she’s willing to see past the limits of her own experiences, and reach out to connect to people both inside and outside of the corrupt system. I look forward with great interest to where Ries will take Witchy next and how she will continue to question the ideas of “strength” and “uselessness”, and highly recommend giving it a read.
Laurel Lynn Leake is a white, queer, and mentally ill artist who makes comics and believes in the subversive power of empathy. She graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2013 with her MFA, and lives in Providence, RI. Her work has appeared in Velour: The Drag Magazine, INK BRICK, Maple Key BRICK, Maple Key Comics, and Inaction Comics, and she’s been self-publishing for over a decade. She’s taking care of herself even though it’s hard! You can find her at http://counterintuitivecomics.tumblr.com/