Long Hair, Do Care: Ariel Ries Unravels ‘Witchy’ [Webcomic Q&A]
Hair has meant many things across many stories — for Samson, strength; for Rapunzel, escape; for Gretchen Wieners, secrets.
In the world of Ariel Ries' Witchy, hair represents magical potential and, for its lead hero Nyneve, family trauma. ComicsAlliance spoke with Ries about magic, the sociopolitical ramifications of hair in her comic and the real world, and subverting genre expectations.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Witchy? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Ariel Ries: I started developing Witchy towards the end of high school and in my first year of university. I was Skyping with my friend Vivian at the time, and I was bouncing ideas off of her about an outcast witch in a small village where hair was central to the power structure. A few months later we were talking again, and she said something like, “What was that idea you had? Witches where their hair length determines the strength of their magic?” and I was like, “Nope, but that’s a much better idea!” So really all credit for the idea goes to her.
Witchy was originally meant to be much smaller in scale, but the implications of such a world ended up being too juicy for me to keep to such a small story!
Despite Witchy being a fantasy comic, I’m actually not really a fan of the western fantasy genre. But, I think anyone familiar with Ghibli will recognise the influence it’s had on me and Witchy. In the early days Witchy was also heavily influenced by shonen manga, even if it’s probably strayed a bit from that path since. When it comes down to the fights and some of the cheesy sincerity of the dialogue, I think that’s when my shonen roots are most clear.
Media influences aside, it’s pretty clear that different Asian cultures inform the design of Witchy. Half of my family is Muslim Indonesian, so Southeast Asian and Islamic design is a big part of the visuals in Witchy. Hyalin, the setting of Witchy, is a melting pot of Asian cultures though, so I cast my net as wide as possible when looking for design solutions. Most of my audience lives in the west, and I think it’s important to emphasize to my readers that Asia is so much more than just East Asia.
CA: What’s it about?
AR: Witchy is set in the aforementioned hair-powered magic land, where young witches considered strong enough are conscripted into the Witch Guard, an army-cum-police-force with a lot of long-term social benefits. However, if your hair is too long, you’re pronounced an enemy of the kingdom and killed. (Also known as a witch burning.)
Nyneve, our protagonist, lost her father to a witch burning and, afraid that she’ll inherit his fate, she hides her hair from everyone but her mother Veda. To give you a taste of the first arc without spoiling anything, Nyneve has trouble fitting in at school, conscription looms around the corner, and Nyneve’s mum has some explaining to do.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
AR: Witchy is for anyone who’s interested --- I’m not really making it for a specific audience in mind, I’m just making what I’d like to read. Whether you like straight fantasy, slice-of-life, action, or politics, all with women of colour at the helm, there’s probably something in Witchy for you.
I’d recommend Witchy for ages 10 and up, if you’re fine with mild swears and mild violence. Also, towards the end of chapter three, there’s some suicidal ideation, if that’s upsetting to any potential readers.
CA: What about eastern fantasy were you specifically hoping to embrace and what about western fantasy have you been aiming to avoid?
AR: More than avoiding aspects of western fantasy, I want to surprise my readers by subverting their expectations of your typical fantasy plot. Honestly, mainstream fantasy isn’t a genre that’s particularly welcoming to people from most marginalized groups, and I want Witchy to be a place for those people to feel included. I’d say Witchy has a lot of familiar elements, but I try to shuffle them around enough to keep the story feeling fresh.
Likewise, I wouldn’t necessarily say giving Witchy an Asian setting was an attempt at emulating Asian fantasy stories. Being a mixed race kid in a mostly white neighbourhood, I mostly felt alienated from my heritage, or considered it embarrassing, so I ended up disregarding a lot of it growing up. Witchy has been an exercise for me to engage with the cultures I come from in a way that I never was really able to as a kid. There’s obviously cultures I’m not a part of that influence Witchy, but a lot of it is me trying to learn more about my roots. I talked a bit about the Asian influence on Witchy from a design perspective before, but I want to stress that I consider the cultural aspect of it to be just as important.
CA: What's your approach to utilizing or synthesizing Witchy's various Asian culture inspirations?
AR: While I spend quite a bit of time doing research and actually finding reference material for the kinds of things I’m trying to write or draw, actually combining elements from different Asian cultures isn’t the difficult part of the process. There’s no such a thing as a monolithic “Asian” culture by any means, but historically, there’s been trade and conquest all across Asia for thousands of years: different Asian countries have their own individual cultural identities and sets of aesthetics, but there’s already a lot of intersect there.
I’m also pretty intentional about which characters/places have which real-world cultural equivalent, even if it’s a fusion of sorts, so I have a place to start research from. I’m far from perfect though, and sometimes when my research turns up blank I’ll have to compromise and make an educated guess, or use references from different cultures. That’s the luxury of writing a fantasy, I guess.
I do my best to research and be respectful as someone writing from a western perspective, but I know I’m fallible and am always open to critique with regards to my writing and design choices.
CA: Hair, in fiction, has a long symbolic history with regards to power and, in comics, it can also a really arresting visual design element. Could you talk about why you centered hair as a key element within Witchy?
AR: Being a woman in our society means that there’s always a significant relationship with you and your hair. What you choose to do with your hair as a woman is politicised, everywhere, though to differing degrees depending on who you are.
Black women get denied jobs for wearing their hair naturally; Muslim women get attacked in the street for choosing to hide theirs; there are a lot of parallels between the politics of hair in our world and those in Hyalin. Hyalin’s situation is a lot more extreme though, obviously.
I’ve always been fascinated with how my hair affects people's perception of me, and I think that’s ultimately where the premise for Witchy came about. I think the politics surrounding hair in Witchy are pretty surface level right now, but I dive a lot deeper into them in later chapters. It’s also cool to explore a culture where there’s no feminine or masculine connotations to hair length!
CA: Magic is a really complicated, sometimes unwieldy element to develop in a story. Can you talk about how you developed magic — in terms of its rules, uses, visual design, etc. — in Hyalin?
AR: Honestly, there are a lot of things I didn’t properly plan before diving into Witchy, and I think the structuring and design of the magic system is probably the most apparent one, ha ha.
The look of magic as you see it in the comic has evolved now into something I’m happy with, but I definitely remember getting to a page with magic in it for the first time and being like, “Oh s---, how do i draw this?” Since then I’ve figured out more where I want to go with it. Magic in Hyalin is very much drawn from the natural world, in the same way that a lot of pattern and textile design work is. So to me, at least, it made sense to incorporate that pattern work into the magic design.
For the magic system I looked into different Asian religions, particularly animistic ones like Shintoism and Mun, and also into the rules and techniques of several different dance styles and martial arts. Magic in Hyalin is a source of energy and a replacement for some forms of technology, so its uses come up pretty apparently as I’m writing.
I think the rule system of magic in Witchy is still pretty messy, though! I have a lot of ideas that I want to incorporate, but I really need to organize those into something more concise. I mean, I know the parts that are most important for the story, at least!
I’m flying by the seat of my pants with a lot of aspects of Witchy honestly… I’m just lucky I haven’t written myself into a corner yet, ha ha.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
AR: It’s changed a lot! Both in approach and story. On the technical side of things, over the years I’ve switched from traditional inks, to Photoshop, and now to Clip Studio Paint, although I still use Photoshop for lettering.
The style has shifted around a lot too. Being my first comic project, when I started Witchy I told myself that I’d always let myself be open to experimentation, and I think I’ve kept that promise to myself. Looking back at the pages and seeing the art style and my methods gradually shift, I think it’s cool to see my evolution as an artist. I started animation school halfway into chapter two, so rereading Witchy for me is like looking at a graph for how worthwhile my schooling has been, ha ha.
The way the story has changed is something that will never be seen by the audience, but trust me when I say it’s evolved a lot. The bare bones of it are still there, and there are still major plot points that I’m aiming toward, but what happens in between those, and the priority i’ve given to character growth are very different. And, I can say with certainty that the plot of Witchy that I have in my head right now is going to be different to how it turns out in the end. That’s part of why I love doing a weekly webcomic, fan feedback and my own growth constantly improves Witchy as a story.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
AR: I’ve been reading webcomics since I was about eight or nine years old, so I’ve grown up with more awareness of them than probably most people. A lot of my art idols growing up were publishing webcomics on the platform Smackjeeves when I was barely a teen, and basically since that time I’d always been interested in making a webcomic. There’s not much of a print comics culture in Australia actually, so probably I spent more time reading webcomics than print comics as a kid. (Also, my parents wouldn’t let me buy manga.)
Ultimately, I decided it was a good idea to make a webcomic because (having a story to tell aside) I wanted people to be looking at my art, and I always found it easier to draw original content rather than fanart. I wanted to break into some sort of creative industry, and this was the best way I could think of to get eyes on my work, and improve a lot in the process.
CA: What’s your process like?
AR: I don’t really have a clear outline of the whole story of Witchy written down. I have lots of disordered notes lying around but nothing chronological, and then the rest of it is just tumbling around in my head. When starting a new chapter however, I do write an outline. Because Witchy has a lot of lore that I want to spread out through the comic as much as possible, when writing an outline I have to be like, “OK, what important world building/exposition points do I have to include in this chapter for the rest of the story to make sense?” and I’ll sprinkle those elements throughout the chapter in a natural way that doesn’t feel like you’re constantly reading a wall of exposition.
Another benefit of working so damn slowly on a story is that my brain has time to work out plot holes or improve plot points kind of in the background. I’ll notice a problem in the plot, and then a couple of months later as I’m falling asleep or trying to do some school work my brain will just be like “click! I solved it.” When I’m a bit more under the crunch, I like to take walks and listen to music --- most of the story bones of Witchy came up while I was walking and listening to more of the How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack than I’d like to admit.
Other than that, I don’t think my drawing process is particularly exciting to read about in written form, It’s mostly just inks, flats, and a few gradients!
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
AR: Absolutely! I think the comics industry is resistant to change and risk, and I feel like on paper Witchy --- paired with a teen with no experience writing or drawing comics, probably would have been too big of a risk to take for any publisher.
On top of that, I’ve been in animation school the whole time I’ve been making Witchy, so I really can’t do more than one or two pages a week, but at least I’m still chipping away at it, you know? I’m in my final year of school, and it’s been great to have the flexibility this past month to take a short hiatus and just get important deadlines met.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
AR: There’s a lot of really lovely webcomics that I read that can be found on my website in the links section, but here are three webcomics that I’ve been keeping up to date with lately despite my busy year:
Cucumber Quest by Gigi D.G. is a wonderful all ages comic about a young (rabbit) boy who gets caught up in a thousand-year-old legend, and has to save the world despite his wishes and despite the fact that his sister is a lot more suited to the job. (Fortunately, she tags along for the ride.) It plays a lot on video game tropes in a way that’s way more fresh than what anyone else is doing, and has really wonderful and nuanced character dynamics!
Peritale by Mari Costa is similar to Cucumber Quest in that it aims to deconstruct the very thing it pays homage to, and in Peritale’s case that thing is fairy tales. It follows a magic-less fairy godmother who, despite the objections of fairy society, goes out into the human world to fulfill the fairytale she’s been given... regardless of whether or not the humans want her help. If the plot summary doesn’t make it clear, Peritale is super charming and super funny, and I’m interested to see where it goes!
Mare Internum by Der-Shing Helmer is one of the most engaging sci-fi comics I’ve read. It’s about a depressed scientist on Mars who, while searching for a lost survey drone, ends up in Mars’s underground sea, and let’s just say he finds a lot more than he bargained for. Der-Shing’s passion for research and attention to character really makes Mare Internum stand out from other sci-fi comics.
You can follow Witchy on its website and support it on Patreon. Find more from Ariel Ries at her art blog and Twitter. If you have a webcomic you’d like to suggest for an upcoming Webcomic Q&A, send a tip to jonerikchristianson[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line “Webcomic Q&A.”
Throughout Women’s History Month we’re putting the spotlight on some of the best comics by and about women. Check out more articles at our Women In Comics page.
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