Good hair days

I keep threatening to cut my hair short. Spouse forbids it. Sometimes though, it feels like such a hassle wearing it long, and trying to make myself look presentable in public when bits and tufts are flying in all directions, sticking out from under whatever headgear I’m sporting, feels impossible. Historically I’ve not had much truck with looking presentable, but I do actually quite enjoy dressing in nice, smart clothes—never your standard suit and tie, you understand, but something non-scruffy. It’s not really a big deal, but it is illustrative of the extent to which hair, as an aspect of appearance, has a number of social expectations elaborated around it. You can look at my hair and know that I’m not in the police, I’m not a military officer, that I’m probably not a stock-broker, and so forth.

The protagonist of Ariel Slamet Ries’s Witchy has unusually long hair, which she conceals. Long hair is a mark of status in her society, but as such it can also be interpreted as a threat to power, and she lost her father to this interpretation—he was executed for having excessively long locks. Cutting it short is not an option—it’s the ultimate heresy, and also attracts a capital sanction. The specific reason for this association of power and hair, is that hair length, in Ries’s world, is directly proportional to magical ability: hair seems to act as a sort of cosmic aerial, as once postulated by Presumin’ Ed in Withnail and I.

Nyneve isn’t actually very good at magic in a practical way, so it’s easy enough for her to get away with concealing the length of her hair. She’s approaching the end of her schooling when we first meet her, and like most of her friends, she’s consumed with anxiety about conscription, when they’ll be tested for aptitude in the ‘martial magics’, and the most able will be drafted into the Witch Guard. Nyneve doesn’t want to join the Guard, and would prefer to spend her life studying magic theoretically, at which she’s extremely talented. Without wishing to drop any spoilers, it would be difficult to say anything else about this book without at least mentioning that she takes drastic action to forestall her conscription, and ends up on the run.

Fantasies about magic are fun, which is enough reason to write/draw one, but constructing a secondary world also permits the writer/cartoonist to explore certain aspects of the primary world that aren’t necessarily foregrounded in a conventional narrative. Ries postulates a society which is hierarchical and coercive, oppressive even, but which also embraces diversity. Race is not mentioned, but the characters display a wide range of skin tones, and although Nyneve doesn’t mention her sexual preferences until after the end of this first volume (Witchy is an ongoing webcomic), the vibe seems to be one of openness to sexual diversity. Gender is not without its problems—one trans character is male on her documentation because her clan’s traditions would forbid her to inherit as a woman, but she’s planning to take advantage of the Witch Guard’s transition programme. All of this is an effective way of highlighting and reflecting on the treatment of race, gender and sexuality in our primary world, without requiring the narrative to confront those issues in an obvious or heavy-handed manner.

Of course all of this business about hair is an exploration of difference, and of the arbitrary visual cues that can determine relative status and privilege in the majority of contemporary societies. But it’s mainly an interesting and entertaining fantasy conceit, that helps to define the comic’s visual vocabulary, and adds a layer of social meaning to every panel that features people. The characters are drawn with a very sure hand, in quite a gestural style, that puts a lot of information about personality and emotion into relatively few lines. This is very much cartooning, cutting straight to the narrative information without bothering to represent the body mimetically: this is in contrast to the later short, Cry Wolf Girl, which was my introduction to Ries’s work, in which the characters’ bodies feel very present in each panel. This is a very different sort of story, of course, and the drawing style isn’t separable from Ries’s narrative priorities.

We do have a clear sense of the characters’ physicality, from Nyneve’s small, solid form, through Prill’s angular elegance, to Batu’s bulk, but this sense emerges organically, and it isn’t distinct from our sense of them as people. The scenery is similarly dynamic and schematic, but whether it is interior or exterior, rural or urban, it is very clearly visualised, and imagined as a three-dimensional space, in which the characters take specific positions. In fact, if there is a defining characteristic to Ries’s work as a draftsperson across the two quite different comics from which I know her, I would suggest it’s that she always thinks in three dimensions. Each character is drawn in a distinct manner, although Ries’s style is clear and fully realised throughout, which produces a narrative clarity that can sometimes be missing from more cartoony comics. This is abetted by her skilful layouts, which employ a wide vocabulary of effects, most notably her propensity to give panels oblique and dynamic shapes when the action is hotting up.

Witchy is a fully realised work of fiction, in which no character feels like a symbol or a stock figure. It’s an exciting adventure story, about a young woman trying to find her way in the world, and as such it dramatises a process that everyone has to endure—in a sense its central conceit is similar to that of Charles Burns’s Black Hole, which I read recently, externalising an aspect of the experience of adolescence as a speculative conjecture. Of course the speculation is more wide-ranging here, as this is an immersive secondary-world fantasy, while Burns’s book is set in 1970s Seattle. The great strength of Burns’s version of coming-of-age is the recognisability of the situations in which his characters find themselves. Although that is also a virtue of Ries’s story, for me Witchy’s strongest asset is its characters, and the affection that Ries as a consummate storyteller is able to elicit for them in the reader.

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