Late in Scott Snyder and Jock’s new Image series Wytches, a character casually states “the woods are full of horrors,” which serves as a pretty handy summary of the debut’s theme. Though the series is ostensibly about Sailor, an eccentric young girl who joins a long line of Snyder protagonists on the run from darkness, the real main character is the shadowy, forboding woods surrounding early American colonial settlements and the innate fear our culture still has of them. Snyder makes that even clearer in the issue’s backmatter, where he talks about his childhood past with those woods and the “witch hunting” he and a friend used to partake in, before something they thought they saw scared them away indefinitely. So it’s to Snyder’s benefit that he is partnered with an artist as gifted at making shadows come to sinister life as Jock.
Fans of Jock’s work might initially be a little taken aback by the artist’s work in Wytches, particularly since for much of this first issue it’s the most colorful thing he’s done since The Losers. That may seem contradictory given all that talk of shadows, but colorist Matt Hollingsworth’s bold style does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to balancing that fear of the woods with the naturally vivid expressiveness of childhood, especially in the sections of the comic where Jock has to switch out his own abstract style in favor of something more whimsical to fit Sailor’s dad’s own children’s story art. The story begins in typical Snyder fashion with a flashback to a gruesome event nearly a century ago, and the collision of Jock and Hollingsworth’s styles make the flashback all the more shocking– Jock’s barely human shapes and frenzied ink blotches are given sickening green, yellow and purple hues by Hollingsworth, each panel threatening vertigo. Then the art team shifts again, the shapes stabilizing and becoming more human as Snyder introduces our current cast of characters and setting. Here the art and the coloring are in harmony, Jock softening his shapes and abiding to the panel structure more rigorously as Hollingsworth brings the vibrancy of childhood to life, even as darkness and horror peak around the corners.
The confusion and lack of aesthetic stability suits what Snyder is trying to convey with Sailor’s identity crisis, a form follows function utilitarianism that lets the story breathe before the true terrors emerge. The facts are that Sailor and her family have relocated to a small, rural town where they’re hoping word of a mystery Sailor was at the heart of hasn’t spread. The love between Sailor and her parents is abundantly clear in the issue’s first half, most notably in an introductory sequence featuring Sailor and her storyteller father discussing the best way to kill a hypothetical herd of hippogriffs, which is actually an exercise to soothe Sailor’s worries about her first day at a new school. But Sailor is a character flush with anxiety, fully aware that people know about her past and want answers from her even though she can’t begin to understand what really happened. We’re a country full of woods based mysteries like Roanoke, and there are plenty of real and fictional horrors in those trees to keep anyone spooked, but Sailor’s true fear isn’t for what lurks within the shadows, but how she’s connected to it and her involvement in whatever evil they’re looking to do. Put differently, the woods are indeed full of horrors, but Sailor is troubled by the notion that she might be one of those horrors.
Fittingly, the vividness of the story contracts and expands depending on which part of Sailor’s past we’re looking at. In the present, the color is there trying to block out the dark, but when the story shifts back to the incident that has given Sailor a reputation, everything moves closer to grayscale. The shapes likewise become more abstract, backgrounds morphing into explosions of select colors and shading, bodies and trees behaving in ways they shouldn’t. Snyder’s backmatter discusses the way a freakishly human looking tree scared the shit out of him and his friend when they were kids, and then did so again when he returned to his childhood haunt as an adult, and that’s the primal fear he’s looking to convey here, with the notable difference of course being that in Wytches, the horrors don’t reveal themselves to just be a trick of light and shadow and they don’t necessarily stay within the realm of the woods, in fact, they might even be coming from within you.
You can of course connect that fear of the beast within to Snyder’s American Vampire, but that series’ time and states spanning grandeur and its devotion to a kind of highway driven nomadic identity makes it a more modern kind of folklore, whereas Wytches appears to be aiming for that middleground where the Old World superstitions collided with the New World fear of the alien, right down to its Olde English hybrid title (which seems ancient in its spelling, except witch’s etymology reveals the true spelling would be wicces, making it more accurately a modern interpretation of the ancient). Much has been made of Snyder’s potential status as a successor to his sometime collaborator Stephen King, and that seems especially on point here, with Wytches elevator pitch going something like Firestarter meets The Blair Witch, but it’s been quite some time since even King had this much of a handle on the anxiety of adolescence. That Sailor’s anxieties are well founded is certain, but Snyder, Jock and Hollingsworth have crafted a horror story that makes it impossible to turn away from the terror on the horizon.
Wytches #1 comes out tomorrow, October 8th, through Image Comics.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover