--The hippogriffs...must die. So, how?
--Mmmm. Death by explosion.
--Okay, okay. Like, spontaneous combustion?
--Nah, dynamite. Let’s go old school, too. Like Chuck Jones, Wile E. Coyote hot dog dynamite.
--Niiiccce. In their butts?
--You made it up, sicko.
--I did not! I was going to say MOUTHS.
--All right then, butts AND mouths.
In the small, sleepy town of Litchfield, New Hampshire, the Rook family tries to make a fresh start. For 13-year-old Sailor Rook, a new town means that hopefully she can escape the memories of violence and scathing judgment of others—hopefully no one in this new, remote town has any knowledge of her and the terrible thing that happened to her. Sail’s father, Charlie, is dead-set on making this new start work—he settles in as soon as he can, writing the latest volume in his bestselling children’s book series, and trying not to worry too much about how his only child is faring on her own. Sail’s mother, Lucy, has her own reasons for wanting to move, having just been in a violent car accident that rendered her unable to walk again. She, too, tries to get back into her work routine as a registered nurse, fighting off the bad, terrifying memories of that ill-fated drive.
But the Rook family quickly discovers that there is no fresh start. The woods outside their new home crackle and chit and creep with monsters made flesh, ancient and waiting and hungry. There is no escape from the shadows of their past, and the monsters in the dark. Pledged is pledged.
Collecting issues #1-6, Wytches is a powerful, allegorical horror graphic novel from the powerful creative team of Scott Snyder with art by Jock and colorist Matt Hollingsworth. From the first pages, Wytches makes it very clear that it is not messing around—something very, very bad is happening in the woods, and there are people who will protect that Bad Thing with violence and conviction. At its core, Wytches is a story about monsters—some that are actual wytch monsters that live in tree boroughs and emerge to capture and eat children who are pledged to them; some (arguably the more frightening of the monsters) who wear the bodies of humans but have sacrificed their friends, neighbors and family out of greed or desperation. I love the dual concept of monsters in this book and the underlying idea being that those who used to fight against small towns like Litchfield were burned and persecuted as “witches,” but that the true wytches are out there in the woods, ravenous but patiently waiting for their prey. The horror element here is graphic and violent, with wytches are depicted as long-limbed, sharp-toothed humanoid monsters through Jock’s powerful artistic interpretation (reminiscent, at least to me, of the cave dwelling monsters in Descent and Mother at the end of Dead Alive). The art is evocative and dark, the atmosphere thick, dreamlike and heavy thanks to the combination of Jock’s bold, feature-framing ink and Hollingsworth’s spattered, moody colors.
As good as the monsters are, however, Wytches is really a story about the relationship between parent and child—the things a parent will do (or the lengths they will go to) for their child, the crippling fear a parent feels that they’ve ruined their kid, or that they can’t protect them. Wytches truly shines in this regard, through the powerful father-daughter relationship between Charlie and Sail. Charlie desperately tries to ease his daughter’s anxiety, giving her tips and playing small inside-games—the book opens with Charlie and Sail discussing how best to slay a mythological creature (TNT in the mouths and butts) as a concentration technique, and initially one thinks it’s just because of the problem Sail had at her last school. But over the course of the book told through awesomely integrated flashbacks, we learn that Sail’s anxiety is a part of her and always has been; just as we learn Charlie’s desperate hovering and obsessing is his own flaw. More importantly, we learn that despite (or even because of) these flaws, the relationship between Sail and her dad is a powerful, formidable, awesome thing—and that bond, more than any other in the story, is what saves both Charlie and Sail.
On the negative side, Wytches is not without its missteps. On the parental relationship front, the story is one-sided in its stacking of Charlie and Sail against mother Lucy, who is defaulted to a horror cliche (no spoilers, but you get the sinking feeling you know what’s happening around Issue 4). Also, a lot of stuff just happens in Wytches for no explained reason: why does the deer throw up guts in the first issue? What’s with Clara, the Wytch hunter, going about her warning to Charlie in the most cliched and ineffective way possible? Further speaking of cliches, Wytches plays with several familiar horror and storytelling tropes: it’s very Stephen King–esque, with the small Maine New Hampshire town full of people protecting a dark secret—Pledged is PLEDGED (in that last kickass scene with Sail, it’s a little hard not to think of Pledge the cleaning product)—and the alcoholic writer father figure absolved by his love for his daughter….If I tend to the more jaded interpretation, I would say that it’s Hollywood-ready (and the fact that Plan B has optioned the book for film makes all the sense in the world to me; I can see Brad Pitt in scraggly-Ethan-Hawke-mode as the traditional, tragic white-dude hero figure, bent on saving his daughter no matter what on the big screen).
But you know what? I love Stephen King, and these familiar tropes when written well are powerful and effective storytelling techniques. In Wytches, it works. I finished the book feeling a little teary (on the L train during rush hour—I don’t recommend it), and thoroughly, emotionally wrung-out. In a good way.
In other words: Wytches is utterly fantastic, and on my long-list of notable books in 2015.
In Book Smugglerish, 8 and a half TNT-butt-and-mouth-exploded hippogriffs out of 10.