As you may have guessed, I’m something of a bibliophile. On a recent shopping trip, I picked up no less than six books at multiple witchy shops. Even a trip to the science museum with my kids found me grabbing a pair of small field guides to plant identification.
This is not a phenomenon limited to print books of academic density or in the “non-fiction” category. I love my e-books, fictional stories, and graphic novels immensely. Which is what brings me around to this post today. One of the “texts” that I’ve really enjoyed in the past decade or so was the web graphic known as the “Psychonaut Field Manual: A Cartoon Guide to Chaos Magick,” by Bluefluke. I’m not a Chaos magician myself, but I appreciate some of the methods involved, and the way the graphic work condenses down and streamlines some of the concepts found in more extensive works by Peter Caroll, Austin Osman Spare, or Robert Anton Wilson (and in latter days by the droll and delightful Gordon White of Rune Soup). That’s not to say it’s the definitive last word on the topic, but it provides a wonderful portal of entry for newcomers or a good thumbnail index of the field for the more experienced.
I love graphic materials because they can sometimes hit us in ways that the written word alone cannot (it’s also why I think that hearing lessons or seeing a teacher can sometimes be much more valuable than just reading something from a book, no matter how much I love books). I thought that today I’d offer my thoughts on a selection of graphical representations of witchcraft and folk magic. The prolific reader/reviewer Mat Auryn has already compiled a great list of graphic novels with witchy themes over at his blog, culled from a number of esoteric and occult authors and featuring titles like the Psychonaut Field Manual listed above, as well as works by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series, the Hellblazer series featuring chaotic mage John Constantine by Garth Ennis, and Grant Morrison (and a tip of the pointy hat to Chas Bogan and Natalie Zaman, who mention slightly outside-the-field authors like Edward Gorey and Nick Bantock (Griffin & Sabine) as well as a graphic novelization of historical witch hunts). I will largely be avoiding those titles in favor of ones that I don’t see mentioned as often elsewhere, and which seem to be rooted in branches or streams of North American or folkloric magic and witchcraft instead. So, on to the list!
1. Witchbody, by Sabrina Scott. This is an excellent graphic novelization of Scott’s personal reflections on witchcraft, particularly as connected to the female body (or any physical body). It embraces the sheer mortality of our corporeal forms and asks that those who walk with magic in their fingers recognize the bones and earth they will become. This is not a morbid fascination, but a beautiful feminist philosophical meditation that puts power in the act of natural communion. Cooking, walking among trees, padding along a city sidewalk–all of these activities invite connection, or as Scott puts it, “Witchcraft is the act of saying hello, speaking back to ones who speak with us.” Breathing is a long funerary rite with immense potential, and decentering our human perspective allows us an access to shapeshifting as we learn to listen to how the living and dying world observes us. It’s gorgeous, a rich memoir of magical physicality.
2. Belladonna Magic, by Christine Sloan Stoddard. Similarly to Witchbody, Stoddard is using her personal experiences and art to enhance the words and create a sense of enchantment. She turns each poem into both a memorial to her own life’s path and manages to wedge in potential spells among the words and images. In this case, the images are not a “graphic novel” format, per se, but artistic photographic compositions paired to the poems. These are not easy or simple poems. “Mary in Wyoming” asks questions about the lingering effects of pain and violation, such as “I wonder if my rapist flips his pillow/ to the cool side in the middle of the night,” which feels almost like a curse, but blends in with words that attempt to provide some kind of peace as well. Some poems are rituals, as when she says “I am naked in the window/ when I wish on a star./ But as a wilderness-dweller,/ I have no neighbors.” The themes and images here are not always as precise and clear as in the more cohesive Witchbody, but should still resonate with those seeking a contemporary feminist version of witchcraft that fuses art and words.
3. Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch, by Molly Ostertag. These are–ostensibly–children’s graphic novels telling the story of a thirteen-year-old boy named Aster who belongs to a family of magical folk. However, the rules of the family state that all the girls can learn witchcraft, and the boys must learn shapeshifting. Aster, it turns out, has no desire to shapeshift but has a natural knack for witchery. The book unfolds as Aster develops his skills, and Ostertag uses these books to explore issues of gender and identity, friendship (especially in the second book, The Hidden Witch, when jealousy becomes a powerful egragore for a young witch who can’t control her power), and prejudice. At the same time, a tremendous amount of North American folklore appears here, including Native American shapeshifting lore, discussions of tulpas and egragores, and healing spells and herbs. The concept of using sigils to “speak” to the plants is marvelous, and the sweet stories in each book are tender, occasionally funny, and frequently a little heartbreaking. If you have children (tween and up, most likely) who have even a slight interest in folklore or magic, these are good books to use to introduce them to witchery (and some of the issues they will face growing up). My own ten-year-old loves them, and I highly recommend these.
4. The Lost Words: A Spell Book, by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. As the digital age progresses, dictionary makers frequently find themselves facing a problem: they need to add new words that are crucial to living in modern society (such as “blog” or “voicemail”), but they must also take into account page totals. Thus, some words get dropped. When the Oxford Junior Dictionary had to cut around forty words, including “willow” and “heron” among many others, author Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris came together to save those words, almost all of which had to do with the natural world. What they put together was a “spell book,” a play on the idea of a spelling primer and a book of magic. This book is both of those and something more. Poems and letters dance across pages with gorgeously painted images that conjure to life these lost words. In some ways, they act as spells of resurrection for language and nature. This is an eerily synchronous book taken with Ostertag’s Witch Boy series and Scott’s Witchbody, because all of these texts seem to be about the conversation with the natural world that is born from our bodies, our breath, our tongues (at least in part). The book is absolutely stunning, and huge, and unwieldy, and all the more wonderful for it. Keep watching our sites (especially YouTube) as I got an extra copy of this one that I will likely be giving away sometime in the future.
5. Finally, I’m offering a few graphic novels in a more “adult” vein of storytelling: Wytches, by Scott Snyder/Jock; Harrow County, by Cullen Bunn/Tyler Crook; The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, by Robert Aguirre Sacasa; and Locke & Key, by Joe Hill/Gabriel Rodriguez. Each of these has a lot to offer in terms of storytelling and the occult, but also take a very scary bent when looking at those topics. Wytches is a fiercely gritty tale about a young family moving to rural New Hampshire after a tragedy, only to discover they are haunted by a dark and occult past and hunted by a tribe of forest beings–the titular “wytches.” Harrow County is situated in a rural community (which bears some hallmarks of both Appalachia and places like the Upland South), and tells the story of Emmy Crawford, a young woman who finds she has occult powers blooming in her as the reincarnation of a…well, you’ll have to read to find out. The story features a variety of North American lore, including the “haints” who roam the area around Emmy’s home, such as her (sort-of familiar) the Skinless Boy. This one is a potent, gut-gripping series with a lot of good suspense and plot twists. Almost everyone has heard of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Netflix show, but I love the comic series that birthed it even more. Set in the “Archie Afterlife” universe (and more integrated with Riverdale and its inhabitants than the TV show), Sabrina slowly uncovers her family’s twisted and witchy history as well as its involvement in the Satanic Church of Night. It’s set in the 1960s and has a much darker tone than the long-running and glib Archie series upon which it is based, and the differences between the show and the comic are pronounced but not distracting. Author Aguirre-Sacasa also helms the show, so if you like one you may very well like the other. Finally, Locke & Key is by American horror master Joe Hill and tells the story of a family tormented by an unseen evil force who is slowly unpacking all sorts of occult mysteries for them, providing the family children both tools of resistance and traps into which they often fall. It’s Lovecraftian by nature (they even live in the town of Lovecraft), and there are some truly brutal moments in the story, but if you’re a fan of folk horror you will likely enjoy this.
That’s more than enough from me for now, but if you’ve got good suggestions of graphic works that show folklore and the occult playing well together, I’d love to hear them in the comments below (or feel free to drop us an email or voicemail as well…or send us a heron if you are displeased about the whole “voicemail” thing I mentioned above in Lost Words).
Thanks for reading!