And with that, I have introduced what may be the least creepy title for an article about a horror comic ever.
Hopefully the creators of Wytches, Scott Snyder and Jock, will forgive that aspect of this piece. I'm sure a large number, maybe even a majority, of reviewers, having read Wytches #1 from Image Comics will talk about its horror aspects and try to pin down just how terrifying the comic is in terms of reading experience. And it is. And trying to pin that down in clear language is going to be a challenge. I will applaud their efforts.
But, naturally, I want to talk about something else and I'll leave describing blood spatter turned psychedelic ink-splatter and the way that distorting straight-on views of things induces paranoia in the comic (whoops) for others. I want to talk about genre, or rather the increasingly obvious limitations that it imposes on comics creators. Even I have a hard time typing that because I've witnessed, in the past few years the high-altitude wings that genre exploration has given to creators working through horror, mystery, detective, fantasy, sci-fi and other categories. Mash-ups have become delightful, the imagination has been set loose in comics on all the pulp-origin varieties of writing that have brought so much energy to modern storytelling. And in many ways this velocity through genres has created a renaissance in comics.
And yet, as Alan Moore has famously said on quite a few occasions, genres are something more invented than organic, a categorization that helps us find what we want to read in bookstores and allows us carve out niches in our own passions that extend even to clothing, merchandise, heck, even interior décor. We fly our genre flags madly these days. We can't get enough of identification. These are boundaries we impose as a kind of common language to communicate with like-minded fans. What happens when they become too rigid and too petrifying? Mausoleum-like qualities set in and we begin to worship at the shrine of Sherlock Holmes, or HP Lovecraft, or even modern-day heroes like Neil Gaiman, and if we aren't careful, that's where we'll stay in a tomb of our own making.
So, maybe if we were used to paying homage at the shrine of horror, or science fiction, or exploration stories, reading Snyder and Sean Murphy's work on The Wake might have at first seemed like comfortable territory and then become uncomfortable as the Eisner-winning series crashed through genre boundaries repeatedly, determinedly, as if through so many panes of glass. But hopefully, looking back from the series' conclusion, readers were able to see a far different vista than they expected, one that encouraged creators and readers to be brave and face the unexpected, to allow for stories that could not be predicted according to the genre-maps we've come to rely too heavily on, in this case even having broken that cardinal rule of failing to return to the status quo.
Now, Wytches has been underway for some time, long before the final issues of The Wake were released, but The Wake, too, however much it morphed and developed as it was created, had set its trajectory early on. There is a degree of overlap in Scott Snyder's experimentation as a writer on the two series, but I suggest that Wytches operates in the aftermath of the genre-breaking Wake.
Because in The Wake, readers moved swiftly through genre expectations whereas in Wytches, it all goes up in smoke within the first couple of pages. What I mean by that is probably best explained by recounting my own reading experience. I started reading the comic, slowed down and fixated by individual panels of Jock's outstanding and mood-altering artwork as one might expect, and about a third of the way through the comic, I stopped and remembered to ask myself, "Wait, what is this?"
The fact that I asked myself this question knowing that Image describes the comic as "fantasy horror" and that I have repeatedly heard the comic about supernatural occult happenings described as "horror" by others should speak for itself. And I'll admit I had a kind of epiphany of an unsettling variety. It was unsettling because it took away my analytical tools and the language I've tried to build up in order to talk about comics over the past few years. The epiphany went something like this, "Oh, this isn't a genre. This is a Story". And the word "Story" took on quite a different meaning for me in that context than it ever has before. We talk a lot about "storytelling" in comics, and to some extent there's a kind of sacred weight to the term. If things serve the story, they are done right. If everything in a comic serves the story, then nothing is gratuitous or flippant and any extremes can be excused in that worthy pursuit. Nothing in Wytches #1 serves the story. Everything in Wytches #1 is the Story.
This probably sounds like an outrageous claim, and because this is an advance review, not many people will have seen the comic yet to judge what on earth I might be talking about here. So, I'll try to explain a little further. Wytches sets off as a comic focusing on a family, and a girl named Sailor, who are more or less trying to "start over" in a new home and location and settling into their new lives. Weird things start happening, and the reader learns more about the past of this family and the past of the weird happenings. That's issue #1. If you consider the description I just gave, you'll see, generally, the way in which this story does not serve genre in any immediate way.
The tone and attitude of the comic as established by both Jock and Snyder are firmly focused on characters, laced with "real life" conflicts and elements we can all recognize, and then when horror drifts in an out, we don't even blink. We accept those elements on a far more alarmingly credulous level, actually, than if we were tripping over genre cues or over the seams of genre-splicing at every turn. We don't ask ourselves, "Is this a drama to be taken seriously? Doesn't the fantasy detract from that?", nor do we ask ourselves, "Isn't all this dramatic dialogue distracting from the horror atmosphere?" I'm citing those examples based on my own skeptical reactions to some genre-combining comics I've read in the past year.
It just doesn't happen when you read Wytches. Why it doesn't happen I'll leave to others to try to explore further, but the starting point seems to be in recognizing that these categories we know as genres can be highly entertaining and a source of great creative energy, but when we become too self-consciously aware of their dominant traits, we lose Story. And I suggest that having written The Wake, and thereby wrestling with multiple genres on a daily basis, Snyder eventually reached a point few may realize we need to reach for—the breaking down of all those unnecessary signs and flags creators set up for readers to help them orient themselves in the familiar.
Comics are growing up. Comics readers are growing up. Maybe it's time to take off the training wheels and trust readers to find their own way through unknown territory for a more personalized experience of Story. And by the way, that's also how to create a truly memorable horror comic that the readers actually help construct as an experience for themselves.
Wytches #1 hit FOC today, Monday, September 15th, so it might be an idea to make sure you have enough copies on hand for its release in October.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter