By Gavin RehfeldtWytches #1 has been born of truly twisted magic. Batman-scribe Scott Snyder returns to the horror genre with his latest creator owned book for Image after a popular run on Vertigo’s American Vampire, and his previous Image horror entry Severed. Wytches illustrates once again this creator has a talent for crafting spine-tingling tales with a personal touch. Just in time for Halloween, Snyder chills and thrills with an alternative take on witchcraft.

Being a fan of stories involving witches of various walks, I am pleased that my expectations were thrown and we can now add a newly developing type of occult story to the genre. I was expecting something like Roald Dahl’s The Witches (a cited influence from Snyder) or Dario Argento’s Suspiria – perhaps Snyder would draw from the Salem witches – but this is a markedly different variety of wytch’s brew.

Jock’s appealingly creepy and impressionistic cover speaks to the ambiguous and mysterious approach to witchcraft Snyder spins, with a bloodied tree hole centered in frame with a silhouette in the distance. The reader can be expected to confront nature perverted, and the fairytale-like mysteries hidden in the woods. From the opening of the book there is darkness, and a definition of witches in a scrawled typeface. There are no clichéd pentagrams or coven imagery (cauldrons, chicken feet, hooded figures, etc), but instead the next page shows the definition defaced with scratches. Right away, the mission statement is made visual: you can throw away what you have expected from traditional witchy fictions.

The opening sequence of events is completely unsettling as the reader is opened up to a society that is clearly gripped by evil forces. A mother is trapped in a tree, she has been “pledged” (a term we will see again), and her son has a chance to save her but chooses not to. His alliance is with the malevolent forces accepting his mother as a sacrifice. The withholding of knowledge is incredibly effective as an introduction, and the physical brutality of the four-page narrative is palpable and stomach churning. Anyone who is missing their nose elicits sympathy, but having their child turn against them makes the scenario devastating. It is 1919, this is the Cray family, and I want to know more. Wytches has me hooked from page 4.

We jump ahead to September 2014 and meet the Rooks family, who receive the typical charming start that families get in comics. Here we have the young daughter Sailor Rooks, and it is her first day at a new school after leaving a mess behind in her old town. A youngster starting at a new school seems like a modern mythological trope by now, and here it feels like it could be predictable terrain but it is actually a good entry point for learning about this family. Dad motivates and empowers his daughter and sends her to school knowing full well it is going to be a tough day for her, and it is, but she survives it. Meanwhile, mom gets one of the most ominous introductions a wheelchair-bound mother has ever received clueing readers in that something is not quite right with her. There are subtle visual touches like this, and juxtapositions of dialogue and visuals throughout that point toward chilling developments.

Wytches is a creepy delight boasting a disturbing setup, haunting atmosphere, and subtly constructed danger. Jock’s art perfectly compliments Snyder’s direct but understated dialogue. Snyder can get verbose at points, risking deflating his delicately developed tension, but he leaves room for Jock to take over and heighten the horror. Scares come from shadowy trees, a deer, grasping talon-like hands, and emotion. Emotional horror is arguably the most effective form of horror, and it is utilized with a personal flourish that makes me realize that Snyder really pushes himself into some ugly places and has likely experienced some true torment to make his writing real for himself and his readers. In a smart visual trick, a flashback jarringly interrupts the story mid-page (because that’s how traumatic experiences can interrupt an otherwise normal interaction), and presents a confoundingly ugly bullying scenario that will scar readers with an authenticity and vulnerability ultimately torn to bloody shreds.

The only noteworthy flaw that stands out is the final page. As soon as the malicious creature in need of sustenance begins to emerge from the shadows, taking the monster out of the fantasy world and into reality, the issue concludes on one of the cheapest cliffhanger gags we’ve seen a million times: Sailor is distraught in her room, dad shows up and sees something in her room that we do not and gasps “My god…”. Of course we want to know what’s going on in that room, but the lack of an inventive conclusion is a disappointment compared to the professional polish of the prior pages.

What’s nice as a coda, though, is Snyder’s essay citing his childhood inspirations for Wytches, including childhood adventures into the woods playing witch hunter and archaeologist. Returning to his childhood woods, he got a sense that the fantasy creatures of his childhood had been waiting for him to return and to claim him. There are many youths, myself included, who have experienced these adventures into the darkest recesses of our imaginings and dared ourselves to believe in the things we logically know to not be true. That’s what Wytches does best, it opens up one’s mind to believe the horrific fantasy of people who sacrifice their goodness just to see how far they can go to touch the power of darkness. It’s that great abyss at the center of everything that we feel we can touch but it cannot touch us. Wytches is poised to push these characters into that abyss and see if they can recover, which makes for an exciting read especially as the characters and the readers head deeper into the cold and foreboding month of October.

Image Comics/$2.99

Written by Scott Snyder.

Art by Jock.

Colored by Matt Hollingsworth.

8 out of 10