When I was younger, probably around ten or eleven, a very strange thought lodged itself inside my head. I was in my bed, my blanket up to my neck, and my Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal next to me. A light was on, I often kept one on when I was that age, so the room was not dark, but plenty of shadows lingered in the corners.
My bed was up against a wall that held two large windows. There was a tiny space between my wall and the bed due to the baseboard heater. Sometimes I would wake up to find Pooh Bear had slipped between the bed and the wall and I would have to fish him out.
On that special night, I wondered what would happen if something slithered up between the wall and the bed. This “something” became immediately apparent to me, as if it’d always been in my mind, waiting for an excuse to come forward. It had a long neck, at least a foot long, and an oval head. Its skin was the color of vomit and its eyes were two dark orbs. Its mouth was curled into a smile, but an ironic one, one that said, Isn’t it funny that I’m so horrifying to you, little boy?
I didn’t jump out of bed when this thought came to me. I even managed to go to sleep eventually. What hit me more than anything else was how fascinating the thought was and how fully formed it was. Halfway between a kid and an adolescent, I was torn between terror and wondering what prompted this strange vision.
I was close enough to adolescence to be able to assure myself that this idea could not become a reality. No demonic being of the night would pop up. Yet the thought has stuck with me and now, at 25, I still occasionally look between my bed and wall, thinking, “Huh, there’s that… thing I once thought of. That thing between the bed and the wall.”
This experience of images haunting us is prevalent in Scott Snyder’s new comic series, Wytches. Snyder has been a revolutionary presence in the comic world over the past five years. His works have ranged from American Vampire to Swamp Thing to Iron Man Noir. His most popular book has been Batman, which he’s been writing since DC relaunched its comic line in 2011. Snyder’s Batman has landed on the New York Times’ bestsellers list when collected in graphic novel form and it has received rave reviews from critics both inside and outside the comic book world.
Despite being known primarily for his work on Batman, Snyder is a horror writer at heart. After reading a few issues of Batman, it becomes apparent that Snyder has a dark touch to his writing. It’s not a surprise that Stephen King shortlisted two of Snyder’s short stories in 2007 for The Best American Short Stories anthology. In 2007 he also published a collection of strange stories titled Voodoo Heart.
Thanks to this history, when Image Comics announced that Snyder would be writing a horror comic for them titled Wytches, expectations were set very high. Improbably, Snyder managed to meet them. Comic Book Resources’ Meagan Damore gave the first issue four and a half out of five stars, saying, “Snyder and Jock's Wytches is at once outlandish and grotesque and alarmingly intimate in the way it dishes out horror.” The AV Club’s Oliver Sava similarly praised it by saying, “…writer Scott Snyder, artist Jock, and color artist Matt Hollingsworth deliver with a frightening first issue that casts wytches as a primal force of evil deeply ingrained in nature.”
I read these reviews before I read the first issue and my anticipation for Wytches grew; I’m a horror fan and I’m always ready for quality work in the genre. When I opened the first issue of Wytches what first hit me was the very evocative and unique art done by artist Jock and colorist Matt Hollingsworth. Together, the two created an effect that causes the comic to feel as if it’s water-colored with blood, the images sometimes seeping into one another, although never too much that the reader cannot understand what is going on (the third issue of Wytches has an excellent addendum where the artists explain how they create this effect- even if you’re not into horror, it’s worth picking up if you’re into seeing how comics are illustrated). Because this is so different from what you normally see in comic art, the book immediately stands out; whether you love it or hate it, it demands to be remembered, a quality that almost all great horror stories have. For instance, someone once told me she read ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and hated it. But she ended up sleeping with her rosary beads that night.
The story of Wytches begins with a prologue set in 1919. Snyder starts us off with a woman trapped inside of a tree, begging for help from her young son before a hand comes up from behind her, pulling her into some netherworld, and we cut away to the current day and to our main character: Sailor Rooks. Sailor’s family has just moved because of an incident in their previous town: Sailor was being picked on by a classmate named Annie who one day vanished, prompting the other schoolchildren to gossip that Sailor killed her (this is the only false note I’ve found in the series so far- I’m not convinced the other students would believe Sailor killed her because Sailor comes across as very timid).
Sailor is an interesting character to anchor this story with. Unlike many other women in comics, Sailor is not sexualized by the art in any way. As a matter of fact, none of the art in this comic is overtly sexual (the same goes for Snyder’s Batman, oddly enough), a strong contrast to the over the top outfits of many superheroes and anti-heroes in comics such as Catwoman, Power Girl, and even Nightwing, on occasion. Sailor’s fears are haunting her, and that makes her interesting, but she isn’t a character that immediately stands out as a lead when you hear her described. This is a smart move as it does not anchor the story in a consistent character trope and we feel even more off balance.
Snyder sketches out the family dynamics pretty quickly, setting up a touching, intimate relationship between Sailor and her father. Her father is an artist who illustrates stories of a young boy who routinely goes on strange adventures. It’s foreshadowing, but it also brings the issue of childhood adventures and childhood fears to the forefront, a topic that will soon prove vital to the story.
Before long, we get a flashback that shows us what happened to Annie, Sailor’s bully. Sailor and Annie were in the woods; Annie threatened Sailor with a gun, but before she could do much, a being came out of a nearby tree and bashed Annie up against it and dragged her through the bark while Sailor watched in shock.
This scene shows Snyder’s approach to horror in Wytches. He’s using childhood fears, be it of a bully or of something strange in the nearby forest, and suddenly making it adult- the bully has a gun and the strangeness in the forest turns out to be horrific, yes, but something that forces you to radically change your social life because everyone blames the incident on you. The fears of childhood are being matched with the fears of adolescence (the social life) and the fears of adulthood (a violent death).
Snyder doesn’t just stop there, though. He also reverses this scenario. Sailor’s father, Charlie Rooks, plays a large part in the story and his arc begins with a very natural fear: fear for his daughter’s mental health. This fear eventually turns into a more primal, almost childlike fear, as bizarre events follow him around over the first couple of issues. He witnesses a deer vomiting blood, an emaciated creature jumps him, and, at the end of issue three, sees part of his own body rotting, with the word “here” written in blood. These supernatural hauntings are the type you’d expect a young child in the night to bring up, not an adult.
The third issue revolves mostly around Charlie and it begins with a scene where he spooks a younger Sailor as a joke and she runs off, either scared or excited, and he is forced to deal with the fact that he has a very anxious, wired daughter. There is a bookend to this scene near the conclusion of the issue where Charlie discusses this with his wife. In between these scenes is the current story, where Charlie is exposed to the supernatural. Unlike the normal progression, Charlie goes from having adult fears to having very childlike fears. We see his past judgment of such fears and we see him now forced to tackle them on his own.
The evolution of fears throughout Wytches comes back to the very first sequence in the series: the one in 1919. This sequence, despite taking place a century earlier, will have an important impact on the present. Why? Because fears wait. They change shape depending on what you’re going through in life, but they still wait. Sailor’s fears about Annie morph throughout the book, but they all go back to the image of a bully she can’t escape. Charlie’s fears always return to his fear of being helpless, whether it be over his wife’s accident, his daughter’s disappearance, or being unable to combat the wytches’ hold on his life.
The creatures in the trees and those that capture are there for the long haul. Their appearances might change, but they’re always going to be waiting for Sailor and Charlie. It doesn’t matter if they move, it doesn’t matter if they prepare- the wytches are always there.
The Rooks moved to escape what they saw as too difficult a situation for Sailor to deal with. Wytches laughs at the attempt, telling them fears follow you, that it’ll climb up your back, and it will never let you go. Sometimes the fear is rational; sometimes the fear is ludicrous; either way, it’ll be nestled in the back of your mind and you never know how it’ll present itself.
Which brings me back to my own fear.
I don’t consciously worry about a monster between my bed and my window anymore. I worry about whether I’m eating too much, whether my career is on the right track, whether I put in a quality effort at work and so on. But these fears still come from the same source inside my head. Behind my current fears is the monster beside my bed, the one with the long neck who just wants to watch me while I sleep. No matter where I go, who I’m with, or what I’m doing, some form of fear will manifest and it’ll be from the same source that whispered in my ear about the monster one late night.