Spell on Wheels is like a dream for girls who grew up on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It works especially well for girls like me who moved on to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Regardless of the difference in tone and intention, both shows feature girls who suddenly find themselves with powers they don’t expect and are too young to fully understand and appreciate; the themes of each show, while approached vastly differently, deal heavily with being young and trying to handle the responsibilities they now have. Spell on Wheels feels like a graduation from those themes, with older characters and a fuller understanding of how to use the powers they have. Colorful and cartoony, the characters are vibrant and distinct, their powers neatly outlined, their livelihoods as witches functional within the story and also conceivable in our world without magic.
The story begins with an intruder breaking into someone’s house. We learn quickly that this house belongs to our heroines Jolene, Claire, and Andy. They discover that the intruder has stolen, among other things, an item that helps them track down other people with magical potential, which ultimately allows them to keep their kind from going extinct. The witches decide they need to set off on a road trip to track down their missing stuff and find the person who stole it all.
The story sets a fast pace right off the bat. The very first page sees a fist smashing through a glass window; there is no time wasted in getting us right to the point. This also suits the introduction of the witches very well. The story could have easily opened with the Sister Witches in their tent, selling their wares and their skills, which would have been fine, but to see them react in their first few panels to the realization (which they have magically, of course) that someone has broken into their home gives us a greater sense of who they are as characters without slowing down the action. It’s a refreshing change of pace for Kate Leth, who sometimes, as with Girl Over Paris, spends enough time introducing the characters and their motivations that we lose the urgency of the story.
Part of the reason the pacing works so well is that we get that aforementioned difference in tone that sets the comic apart from other magical girl comics and shows and cartoons. These witches spend no time putting together a plan of action and enacting it. The moment they figure out what the problem is, they are in motion to set it right. There’s a confidence in their abilities, even if not wholly in themselves as people, that other girls and women in similar stories tend to lack. While we learn right away that none of these women are perfect, none of them are helpless either, and they are also clearly stronger as a team than they are apart. We have only had one issue of their story, and they are distinct characters with focused relationships to each other and to their world already.
Megan Levens, who previously worked on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic, so maybe this was meant to be for her, does an excellent job creating a look for her characters that is both fun and attractive. With distinct, varied facial expressions and body shapes, the witches call to mind characters from Scooby Doo but also from Totally Spies. It would have been easy for the aesthetic of a book about witches to fall into the sullen goth girl look The Craft gave us, but instead the colors are vibrant, the characters supportive of each other and uncynical in a way that is very refreshing.
The greatest strength of the issue is that it manages to be a comic about girls without being a comic about girls. Outside of a couple of gross dude boyfriends, it avoids the pitfall of trying to be every Tumblr feminist’s dream comic. It’s engaging and satisfying to read just because it’s a comic about women created by women, and it therefore feels like there’s a fuller understanding of its potential audience, that maybe we just want to read a fun road trip comic about witches and don’t necessarily need an extra agenda. Then again, this is only the first issue; there’s plenty of time to dive into other themes.
For now, I’m perfectly happy to take the comic at face value and to be delighted by it. It’s attractive, well-written and well-paced, a comic that its creators are clearly enjoying creating. And I’m certainly not going to sneeze at a trio of cool-looking women driving around in a black convertible.
Spell on Wheels is available now from Dark Horse.
Elizabeth Brei grew up in Chicagoland, once worked at Disney World and has a cat named Moo. She holds an MFA from San Diego State University and can sometimes be found on Twitter @peachchild grumbling about kids these days or talking about Sailor Moon.