Wytches: a comic about monsters, where the real fear is being a parent

This is the prologue of the horror comic, Wytches:

A woman is trapped inside a hollow tree, scrabbling at a knothole in its bark. We don't know how she got there, and we don't know who cut off her nose. She begs the small boy outside the tree to help widen the knothole so she can escape. He is her son, we realize, as she stammers that someone must have "pledged" her to this fate. He picks up a rock, and as he bashes her across the face with it he says:

"Pledged is pledged."

And from that opener, you probably already know whether or not you're a person who's going to enjoy Wytches, an ongoing comic series written by Scott Snyder, with art from Mark "Jock" Simpson and Matt Hollingsworth. Either that description is already more than you ever wanted to know, or you're instantly intrigued. And if that's the case, then dig in, because the first collected edition of Wytches is coming out very soon. We sat down with Scott Snyder to talk about the story so far, the story coming up, and what the success of Wytches says about the evolution of the comics industry.

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Wytches is a book of monsters in many forms, the most obvious of which are the titular wytches, who can't be defeated by anything so simple as a thrown bucket of water or a timely shove into an oven. Snyder describes the spindly, man-eating, chittering creatures as "terrifying mutations."

The wytches only have the power that humans give them, and that's the core of the horror of the book.

"They’re almost an offshoot of humanity that [...] lives underground, and they have this incredible natural science of their own that goes far beyond modern medicine. Ultimately, what they do is they make things for us that let us do things that we can’t do naturally. So they can make tinctures and rubs and all kinds of creepy things they leave in the woods for us that allow us to live beyond our years, or that make us forget things we don’t want to know, or can make people fall in love with us."

But a boon from your local Burrow of wytches comes at a cost: you have to give them the life of someone dear to you, marking the person as "pledged." The wytches only have the power that humans give them, and to Snyder, that's the core of the horror of the book. His favorite scary stories are ones in which the horrible monsters are "very clearly reflections of the darker desires and fears of the human characters. Pet Sematary is scary, but it’s only scary if we use it. And zombies are scary, but in the best zombie stories they’re scary because of what they engender in us."

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The first story arc of Wytches, collected in a trade paperback edition that hits shelves next week, follows the Rook family: Lucy, Charlie and their daughter Sailor, who've just settled in a new town. Lucy is a doctor struggling with returning to the job after a car crash left her paralyzed from the waist down. Charlie, the character whose perspective drives the series, is a recovering alcoholic who's starting work on the second installment of his bestselling young adult book series.

Despite the best efforts of Lucy and Charlie to provide a sense of security, Sailor — who has suffered from panic attacks for most of her childhood — is nervously starting a new school. The whole family is hoping that maybe, just maybe, everyone there might not know about the mysterious death of the girl who mercilessly bullied her at her last one. Mysterious in that no one believes what Sailor saw: terrible, chittering creatures who dragged her tormentor into a tree and devoured her.

In the book's second issue, Charlie describes parenting like "some vital organ of yours has been given feet and now is walking out in the world," and that's the other half of the horror of Wytches. Charlie's quest to protect his daughter — from her peers, from the world, from her past, from her own brain chemistry or from his own personal failings — is a source of much of the book's tension, and seems to have been a major point of connection for many fans.

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The collected trade edition of Wytches Vol. 1 will include more than just the pages of the comic. The book will also reprint the personal essays Snyder wrote to accompany a handful of the issues, which vary in subject from the childhood memories that inspired the design of the story's monsters, to the writer's time as a face character at Disney parks, to observations of the different ways children and parents confront and analyze their fears. Wytches speaks to aspects of parenthood that are not often brought up in media — and even then almost never ascribed to the protagonist that we're being asked to root for — and it was in those personal essays that Snyder made clear that those themes of parental horror are ones that are intensely personal to him.

"Your capacity both for joy and your capacity for frustration reach new levels as a parent... I wanted to do a book that was as raw or brutal when it came to that as possible."

"I got a few periods when my wife was first pregnant with our first kid — and then when we first had our second child too — that were very very difficult for me, and I for all of us. [...] I was very surprised by how selfish I could be about these things. And how worried, suddenly — especially as somebody in the arts — I became about whether I would have any room for myself, for my own mind, for my own work. I know those are pretty common fears when you have a kid. I just think sometimes the volume that they crank up to, and the things that they can cause for you, when it comes to the levels of anger or frustration and how badly you can act to the people around you, at least for me, was a big surprise. It was very horrifying."

"Certainly being a parent is great joy! And I love my family and my kids, I’ve always wanted that. But I think one of the things that can be very frustrating with parenting is that you’re still you, you still have the same ambitions, the same fears, and sometimes they come into conflict with that in ways that surprise you. Your capacity both for joy and your capacity for frustration reach new levels as a parent. So I wanted to do a book that was as raw or brutal when it came to that as possible."

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The creators of Wytches have already begun work on the next arc in the series, due to begin with Wytches #7 this winter. It represents a change in focus, from Charlie to Sailor; and a change in location, from a forested suburban community to the American Southwest. Sailor discovers the Irons, a group of wytch hunters only briefly seen so far in the series, and joins them.

"A lot of the action actually takes place in the desert landscapes, which I’m really thrilled to use with Jock, because he does that kind of mood and texture of those places so well. He can make them gorgeous and grand and also incredibly creepy all at once," says Synder. The monsters of this arc will not, however, be referred to as "sand wytches," even if it wasn't until he mentioned the phrase to Jock that he realized what it sounded like.

"If the first arc was really about the terror of being a parent [...] and Sailor’s origin story, than this one has a lot to do with the fears that come with growing up. With being a teenager — or being somebody closer to my own age, too — where both times in your life you’re moving away from your parents, in different ways. You’re letting them go for different reasons. The pain of that — or the longing that you have sometimes to go back or to say things to them that you wish you had — is a big emotional end game for this arc."

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The fact that Wytches is even getting a second arc comes as a big shock to Snyder, who, though he obviously believed in the project, didn't have high hopes that it'd appeal to a large audience. The messy, complicated inner life of the comic's protagonist, combined with the intimate, autobiographical nature of its themes, all led him to assume it wouldn't sell. He even confessed to Jock, in one of their earliest conversations about the series, that they should look into hiring a publicist to make sure that the book didn't disappear entirely.

"The fact that, when those first numbers came in, it was selling better than some of the superhero comics that I've been involved in, and has found this kind of very robust readership, was just totally shocking. What I realized, as we went forward, is that the stuff they were responding to is the very stuff that I thought would push them out; all the confessional material, that stuff that's a little more problematic or complicated when it comes to the protagonist, Charlie's, psychology, his moral compass. All the things that I guess you get nervous will push people out of the story, if they're not maybe quite as clear cut as they are in superhero comics, drew them in, and one of the best parts of the series was getting letters from people or seeing them at conventions."

Those letters came from parents relating to Charlie, and from teenagers and adults who saw themselves in Sailor's anxiety and her experience with being bullied, all topics that Snyder shared his personal experience with in his essays. "The book suddenly became a place through which we could have these conversations with readers that were so personal," Snyder said. "It really was a very, very new experience for me, I really don't know how to thank the readership enough for being supportive in that way."

Snyder has been one of the star creators of DC Comics' the New 52, with a blockbuster run on the Batman title that's crafted a new history of Gotham City, and a new status quo for the Caped Crusader, from its beginning. He says that while he and his collaborators have tried to be "pretty uncompromising" in their willingness to take risks with the character, ultimately, superheroes require something of the opposite of the approach that created Wytches.

In hero comics, "you’re opening your arms to this giant audience which you know is there partly because they love the character, but also because you’re designing stories that are supposed to be wildly inclusive." The trick is to try to "find ways to open as many doors to people as possible, and then draw [readers] in and trojan horse in all of the stuff that you are working through yourself — your anxieties, your fantasies and all that stuff — through these iconic characters."

Snyder says that the positive response to Wytches has genuinely changed how he considers the current market for comics, in a very good way.

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From the cover of Batman #1, by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo

"It didn't just point, I think, to the fact that a book like this could find an audience with that particular subject matter, that they related to even when I thought they wouldn't rate to it. I started looking around at books like The Wicked + The Divine, and Bitch Planet and Lazarus, [...] horror books like Nailbiter, [...] Descender, sci-fi books. These books are passion projects by their creators. [Creators] go to these independent companies like Image — they never went there because they thought they would make their living there, they go there because they have books that they have really wanted to do and that are personal to them and that are pure distillations of the things they write about.

"But right now those folks are thriving. And the fact that all of us could live on our Image work, even sometimes to a greater degree than we could in our superhero work, is stunning. And it's a complete reversal, I think, of the way that the system has worked before."

It really is the best time to be involved in comics ever right now.

Snyder chalks all of this up to the swiftly changing readership for comics. And while the influx of a generation of new, younger readers to comics is vital and obvious to him, he's insistent that there's also been a change in the tastes of the comics fans who've been buying for years. "They're more willing, I think, to have some elasticity in what they want, and what they'll tolerate from a creator."

Readers are showing an obvious enjoyment of the "singularity of vision" that writers and artists exhibit in their work outside superhero comics, he says, and that trend is not lost on DC and Marvel, the titans of licensed comics characters. He cites Spider-Gwen, Batgirl and Midnighter as examples of the companies bowing to a clear desire for books that break the usual superhero mold with fresh art and a bold tone, and selecting creative teams that can deliver on such a demand.

"It really is the best time to be involved in comics ever right now," he tells me towards the end of the interview, "I think both as a reader and fan of the medium and as a creator working in that medium. Just how vibrant the landscape is, the number of new voices that are coming in, new kinds of stories, the diversity of the readership, the diversity of the creative community, is just really unparalleled right now." And frankly, when I look at my pull list every week, I can't disagree.

Image Comics' Wytches, Vol. 1 will hit physical and digital shelves in one week, on June 24th. The first six issues are also available digital on Comixology.com.