This week’s installment of Webcomics Wednesday features Ariel Ries’ Witchy, a comic combining so many of the things I adore in webcomics—beautiful art, a carefully chosen color palette, dynamic characters, rich world building, and smart pacing. With a series of cleverly delivered reveals, Reis unspools a story of hidden power, corrupt government, and long-held secrets, all centering on a hero who’d much rather keep out of the spotlight.
Nyneve lives in a Hyalin, a magical kingdom where hair length determines a witch’s strength, and of all the witches her age, her hair is the longest. But Nyneve is in a unique position to understand how long hair can also be a curse: her father, a powerful magician, was executed by the Witch Guard because his hair was too long, and his power was seen as a threat to the kingdom. Now, Nyneve transforms her very long hair with a glamour every morning to hide her magic potential.
Nyneve is helped in her deception by the fact that, while she’s a brilliant student, she’s clumsy at best (and destructive at worst) when performing actual magic. She hopes the combination of her cosmetically short hair and ineptitude will help her avoid conscription into the Witch Guard, but with the assessment test—a requirement for all witches her age—only days away, she’s not only anxious about facing extra scrutiny; she’s also not looking forward to encountering the organization that killed her father, let alone the prospect of being recruited to their ranks.
While Nyneve is the heart of the story, Reis fills it out with some fascinating supporting characters, like Prill, the girl at the top of their class, who sees the Witch Guard as way out of her restrictive village, and Nyneve’s mother, Veda, who seems to be merely a popular, talented apothecary, but when Nyneve is in danger, she reveals the immense strength of her powers. The Witch Guard, too, takes on new dimension when Nyneve—on the run after cutting off all her magical hair—finds that she’s not as abandoned by the spirit world as she thought she’d be.
With such gorgeous colors, enthralling story, and magic-tinged artwork, it might seem easy to peg this as simply enjoyable fantasy and move on, but Reis inflects the characters and universe of Hyalin with issues and concerns that will resonate with contemporary readers. Witches are recruited by the kingdom to use their powers, but too much is threatening to the rulers—questions of who truly holds power and how leaders gain authority are key to everyday politics the world over. On a smaller scale, Prill, Nyneve’s classmate, encounters trouble when she’s assigned to a doctor based on the sex on her birth certificate rather than her gender. Most of Prill’s classmates are unfazed by her gender, but it’s a problem among her family, and she hopes that the power and authority she will gain in the Witch Guard will free her from their backward ideas.
Reis weaves all these elements together rather deftly, and keeps the pace at a tidy clip with lots of magical action scenes. At this point in the story, Nyneve is off on her own in a secluded corner of the kingdom, and it seems clear that she’s about to uncover some powerful secrets about Hyalin’s rulers, the spirit world that imbues witches with their powers, and perhaps her own family. It’s an enticing point in the story, and one with particularly lush, jewel-toned artwork, as Nyneve explores the forest and its mystical places. Witchy updates once a week, on Mondays (or Tuesdays, depending on which side of the international date line you’re on, since Reis lives in Australia).