Welcome to Queerness in Comics, a bi-weekly column by Avery Kaplan, which will explore queer representation and themes in comics. This week, Avery is exploring Witchlight, originally published in 2020.
Coloring by: Geov Chouteau
Publisher: RH Graphic
In Witchlight by Jessi Zarbarsky, Sanja and Lalek don’t have a traditional meet-cute moment. When they run into each other in the market, Lalek has cheated a customer with a faulty spell and is fleeing the scene. When a sword-wielding Sanja comes face-to-face with Lalek, Sanja insists that she doesn’t want to fight. In response, Lalek casts a spell that causes Sanja to fall unconscious.
But while it may not be a traditional meet-cute, the two characters nevertheless fall for one another. Although it may not be unprecedented for a queer YA romance to begin with a kidnapping, it is still an unusual start to a relationship – but as Shakespeare said, the course of true love never did run smooth.
This little light of mine
And there’s a lot of not smooth running for the characters in Witchlight. It isn’t just their romance story conventions that don’t quite fit the expected frame. In the world of Witchlight, those who practice witchcraft keep a lit candle hovering above their head at all times.
As Lalek explains to Sanja shortly after they’ve met, outsiders fabricated the commonly known story that a witch’s soul is kept in their candle. However, Lalek says that in her case, the story is actually true, due to a confluence of tragic circumstances that took place in her past.
Expectations from childhood
Sanja has experience with tradition that didn’t quite work out for her, too. A dream sequence reveals that girls and women in Sanja’s community are expected to wear a particular type of headgear. While Sanja does not want to wear the headgear, her mother uses malicious social pressure to insist she dress as prescribed.
When Sanja awakes from the dream, however, her mother is not around – only Lalek, who has no expectations that Sanja will wear any particular headgear.
Although Sanja does not wish to comply with the sartorial expectations of her childhood, Lalek has a different relationship with the clothing of the community from which she originates. When Sanja and Lalek enter a clothing shop, Lalek explains that when they reach a certain age, people in her village begin wearing white robes.
Lalek tells Sanja that children wear dark-colored robes so that they can be easily located among the fields, while the white robes worn by adults represent such autonomy so as to render such safeguards unnecessarily. Furthermore, the greater degree of responsibility required to keep such garments clean demonstrates that a person can take care of themselves.
Going through the motions
Lalek explains to Sanja that when a person graduates from dark-colored robes to light-colored robes, they take part in a ceremony that commemorates their maturity. However, due to the circumstances, Lalek will never get that experience.
The makeover is completed, and when Lalek appears in the next scene wearing her new outfit and freshly trimmed hair, she embodies the role of witch in a way that she hadn’t quite been able to manage in the preceding pages.
Sanja comes up with a plan to challenge other witches to duels, which is legal – unlike cheating people using potions, which had been how Lalek was getting by before she and Sanja met one another.
Soon, Lalek faces off against another witch. While the older, more experienced witch does manage to best Lalek in the duel, she nevertheless invites Lalek to dinner afterward. While the older witch does not use a candle in order to perform magic, explaining to Lalek that floating a candle is just one method of learning the balance required to cast spells, the rest of her family is nevertheless fascinated by Lalek’s “candle-magic.”
While this detail may seem slight, it is meaningful, demonstrating that there is no universal way to achieve a goal: witchcraft is witchcraft even when it’s accomplished via a different method than one’s one traditions.
Dancing in the Witchlight
Witchlight is a charming romance with beautiful art and breathtaking coloring. While Lalek and Sanja both come from different backgrounds, neither one is able to move beyond the limitations imposed upon them by their backgrounds until they meet one another. Through the balance they achieve together, however, they are able to leave the damaging parts of their history behind while preserving the elements that still prove beneficial.
Witchlight is available now, and you can learn more about the author at her website.