I said in my 5 Worlds post that I haven’t had the best track record with Western graphic novels. But you know what, I’m still trying my best to understand the appeal of the medium. Today’s [hopefully not] victim is The Witch Boy series, written by Molly Knox Ostertag and published by Scholastic (the same publisher as Amulet… good sign already).
A boy named Aster comes from a long line of magic, demon-fighting wizards. The men of the family are good at turning into magic, the girls are good at literally everything else. Young Aster sucks at shapeshifting, but he happens to have a knack for girl magic. Too bad it’s forbidden.
The Witch Boy is an episodic trilogy where Aster hangs out until some conflict rears its ugly head, and thank goodness it is! If this was a stand-alone graphic novel, it would’ve felt rushed. While it does spend a decent amount of time setting things up, the plot suddenly kicks into high gear out of nowhere, and the entire conflict of the first book is resolved in a very anticlimactic matter.
It doesn’t get much better later on, though. The other two books, The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch, are presented in a similar manner. There isn’t enough time to really grow attached to any characters before sh** hits the fan. Each of these arcs would’ve been two or three volumes in a manga. “They would be three or four volumes in a manga, because manga suck and waste time with filler,” you point out. That’s not an inaccurate point; I hate the stupidly long cavalry battle in Prison School as much as the next guy. But a truly good manga will give you the right amount of time to get immersed in the world and the characters in a way that feels organic.
To be brutally honest, I don’t think I would’ve grown attached to the characters even if The Witch Boy was three times longer. They’re all my least favorite character trope; normal human beings. And despite the series being called The Witch Boy, the titular witch boy’s entire arc is concluded in just the first book. The second and third books tackle the character arc of Ariel Torres. She’s better than Aster, but not by a wide margin. While she’s given the most development by far, there is a disconnect because it’s all from the perspective of Aster- an observer, so you never really get to see her tragic backstory in its full crotch-kickedy-ness (professional term). Maybe the series would’ve been better if Ariel was the main character the whole way through?
If there’s any character I disliked the most, it was freaking Charlie. She’s the embodiment of that slice-of-life equivalent of wish fulfilment fantasies: the magical, down-to-earth, hyper-supportive friend who just appears to “save” the depressed main character. In this case, she saves Aster in the first book, and Ariel in the second book, by just compulsively wanting to help them for an undefined reason. While it’s certainly possible for someone this compassionate to exist, it’s not likely- given how unstable most teens are- and as indicated in my Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki post, I don’t think it’s a good element for a narrative.
I don’t feel like there’s any substance put into these characters, but that’s- again- a consequence of how short the whole series is. Also, like with the other Western comics I’ve read, you don’t get any monologue to really know how they feel. “Monologues waste time, like in those stupid battle shounen manga,” you argue. Again, in a bad manga, monologues can get excessive. But sometimes, it’s necessary in order to really get in people’s heads. “How about understanding basic human emotions and non-verbal cues?” Well, in that case, I’m sorry for not being good at social skills.
I get that there’s some underlying theme with genders, given the whole “boys do this, girls do that.” I don’t mean to sound ignorant, but as someone who had a My Little Pony doll for each of his LEGO sets, I couldn’t take such rigid labeling seriously, despite the fact that I do know it’s sadly commonplace. But due to Ariel’s priority over Aster, the series doesn’t even explore that theme in much depth to begin with.
In the end, my biggest issue- like with the other GNs I’ve read- lies in the artwork. I don’t really mind the simplistic, cartoony character designs, but I do mind the sparse use of motion lines. There are some motion lines, but they’re used for very trivial things, like hand gestures, and not during more urgent scenes, such as- you know- fighting a demon or something. “Use your imagination, you piece of crap,” you assert. Look, I read regular novels- which are almost entirely words- every day, and provided that the writing is good enough, I can paint a pretty vivid picture in my brain. The Witch Boy is targeted toward elementary schoolers, and going off of my experience as one, no kid would have the capacity to just “imagine” stuff with so little visual information.
My biggest issue with the art is how it’s used to tell the story, or lack thereof. I could’ve downed each volume in under an hour, but I took my sweet time and really tried to understand how the composition was supposed to, you know, work. But even with how much I stared at pages of this thing, I just couldn’t see it.
Like with other GNs, The Witch Boy uses half a page- or even an entire page- with a mere establishing shot. Otherwise, most panels are rectangular and arranged in uninteresting patterns. But the author at leasts goes a couple of extra miles; by changing the negative space around the panels to black when it’s dark, and by having “slime-shaped” panels whenever something eerie is occurring. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t get immersed in the story, its characters, or its world.
Final Verdict: 5.75/10
I didn’t enjoy The Witch Boy. I don’t know what it is, but trying to understand and appreciate these comics has been an absolute hassle for me. I exited my comfortable zone of Japanese culture and busty waifus, tried something unfamiliar, and it didn’t pay off. I’ll admit it, this negative review is entirely my fault. I apologize to the author for insulting something that they poured their heart into. Maybe someday, if I ever can enjoy a Western comic, I’ll come back to The Witch Boy, and realize just how great it truly was.