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The lasting history of the witch in comics

Contributed by
Jun 27, 2018

Of all the myths and monsters of the world, witches are one of the most enduring. The true history of real-life witches is varied based on region, but they all share one commonality: their beliefs and practices are often kept highly secret, as they have suffered attacks from authoritarians consistently in most recorded civilizations. It might be a little unfair to classify what is often an unfairly persecuted group as monsters, but, as they say, history is told through the eyes of the oppressor.

Meanwhile, the myth of the twisted, evil old witch living alone in the woods and snatching wayward children for nefarious spells has prevailed and thrived across books, movies, and, you guessed it, even comic books.

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The first witch I remember regularly reading in comics was The Old Witch of Haunt of Fear fame. I found horror comics slightly before I found superhero comics, and reprints of the EC line of horror comics from the early 1950s sparked my interest in the medium. Along with Vault of Horror and Tales From the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear revolutionized comics by creating an anthology that told gruesome morality tales. But it was doomed from the start when the U.S. government cracked down on graphic violence in comics, causing EC to ultimately go out of business entirely.

Besides The Cryptkeeper and The Vault-Keeper, The Old Witch was one of the storytellers of these series, often penned by the same group of writers who rotated these three monstrous narrators across different issues. Often, the Old Witch would show up in Tales From The Crypt, which would upset the Cryptkeeper, who would, in turn, show up in Haunt of Fear. This group of narrators, charmingly referred to as the GhouLunatics, were more or less indecipherable from one another, although each of them got brief origin stories. For The Old Witch, the story went that a werewolf and a witch fell in love, but were murdered by townsfolk. Despite being dead, they sometimes rose from the grave, and one day, the undead woman gave birth to The Old Witch. The Old Witch is said to be based on a character from an old radio drama called The Witch's Tale.

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In her original incarnation, the Wonder Woman villain Circe actually predates The Old Witch, although only by a year or so. Circe's appearance has changed often since her introduction, keeping in line with her background as a trickster with a knack for glamour spells, but her character has stayed largely the same in that she typically uses her magic to cause chaos in the life of one Diana Prince.

Unique among Wonder Woman's rogues' gallery of the time, Circe does not repent and delights in her mischief even after she's been foiled. Circe goes on to be a primary foe of Wonder Woman's, troubling her with long-game trickery that often defies logic in its meticulousness. For many fans, myself included, that makes her a perfect villain.

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Other supervillain witches are likewise powerful and intimidating, yet with very little distinctive characterization of their own. Usually, they focus on a single hero and go forth attempting to cause their demise. There are versions of the Arthurian witch Morgan Le Fay in both Marvel and DC Comics. The Marvel version is a villain for Avengers characters, primarily Iron Man. The Morgan Le Fay of DC appears primarily as a villain to The Demon, a yellow-skinned knight of Merlin who shares a body with Jason Blood, a modern-day occultist.

The original Jack Kirby Demon series also introduces us to Klarion the Witch-boy, an evil, prankish young villain who attempts to gain control of The Demon in hopes of using him for his own schemes. Klarion travels with a sometimes-human, sometimes-cat creature named Teekl, and they both delight in tormenting Jason Blood, or “Uncle Jason,” as Klarion snidely refers to him. Later, Klarion was redefined by Grant Morrison in his epic Seven Soldiers of Victory, in which Klarion exists in a small village seemingly based somewhat in Puritanical societies of early America, which he must escape in order to survive.

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Fictional comic witches aren't always so serious, though. In the '50s, Harvey Publishing introduced Wendy the Good Little Witch as a friend for Casper the Friendly Ghost. Wendy showed up in back-up stories, but was soon popular enough to have her own series—although she and Casper often appeared in each other's comics, not to mention teaming up a Wendy & Casper series for some time.

It wasn't long after Wendy's introduction that Carl Barks created the villain Magica De Spell for his Scrooge McDuck line of comics. A vindictive talking duck in a black dress that constantly tried to steal Scrooge's fabled Number One Dime, Magica was portrayed as clever and conniving, a trope readers had seen before in characters like Circe. For the Scrooge McDuck Universe, she was perfect, antagonizing the boys' club and outsmarting them at every turn.

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Sabrina the Teenage Witch was introduced in the early '60s and apparently caught her creators by surprise by being an enormously popular character. She became one of the staples of Archie Comics, and perhaps their most singularly successful character, going on to have a TV series and several one-off made-for-TV movies. In the comics, she underwent many changes, appearing first as a side character, then as the star, and even, in one very strange moment in comics history, undergoing a Manga makeover.

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There are a few superhero witches as well, although these are often more disputed. One of DC's Zatanna Zatara's first appearances is as a green-skinned, cave-dwelling witch, although readers of the time didn't know it to be her. It was actually one of DC's early retcons, helping to link an otherwise scattered story together. Since then, her powers have been primarily based in magic, but she is defined more as a magician than a witch.

On the other hand, Marvel's Scarlet Witch's hex powers come exclusively from her inherent abilities as a mutant, but she later went on to study for years under Agatha Harkness, a genuine witch of Salem. Gaining magical abilities in addition to her natural powers, the Scarlet Witch often lost her hold on reality and failed to be there for those that cared for her. Madame Xanadu is one of the more popular “hero” witches in comics, but one of the lesser known characters, appearing for a time in her own series, but seldom besides that. She, Zatanna, and Scarlet Witch all share a common theme: their power often threatens to overwhelm them, and they occasionally lose control or overstep boundaries.

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As for independent stories, in the comic Love & Rockets Izzy Ruebens is referred to as a witch by neighborhood children. Haunted by forces unseen throughout her life, Izzy alienates the people around her by refusing to play by society's rules, hiding away in her house and suffering alone through night terrors and panic attacks. Her grip on reality loosens over time, but her writing does well. Protagonist Maggie comes to check on her regularly, often regretting that she does so, and has a haunting encounter with a demonic dog. Izzy might be a witch and she might not, but either way she is pursued by demons throughout the series.

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In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, he revitalized a trio of witches that had initially appeared in a line of horror comics through DC in the 1970s. Initially referred to as The Weird Sisters, these three were intertwined with Greek mythology and became ultimately known as The Furies, the three women that destroy the troubled god Dream.

Based on the trope of a young woman, a mother, and a crone, the three appear throughout the series and into current stories, even starring in their own one-shot. Usually terrorizing the unfortunate anti-hero Lyta Hall, they are true to their original incarnations as being cold, cruel, and impossible to reason with. Also appearing in The Sandman was Thessaly, a scorned girlfriend of the Dream God that teams with forces against him to assist the Furies. Quiet, determined, and terrifying, Thessaly is a sympathetic monster, and an all-new kind of witch. Stories about her are always a lot of fun.

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Sometimes, comic book witches don't get their their due. Marvel's 2004 Witches is one such example, featuring a trio of unexplored characters named Topaz, Satana, and Jennifer Kale. The witches are oversexualized, the characterization is non-existent, and none of their three equally fascinating pasts even really come up much.

Enough time has passed that it'd be interesting to read a new take on this story, preferably with women comprising the creative team—because part of the glaring problem of the original series was a team that had little respect or understanding of these three incredible characters.

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Recently, we've seen a return to the horror genre for witches in comics. Sabrina the Teenage Witch, once played exclusively for comedy, was recently revised for Archie Comics' Afterlife With Archie stories. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina were darker tales, focusing in on necromancy and the undead, and renewed interest in the character enough to adapt the short-lived series for Netflix.

Besides that, there's Scott Snyder & Jock's Wytches, which doesn't particularly tie into witch myths or feature any interesting witch characters, and the wytches are portrayed as a somewhat zombie-like child-snatching horde of monsters. These monsters hearken back to old legends more than to current understanding of witchcraft as being significantly nuanced and often benevolent. The comic was a surprising success for a horror comic in recent years, and is due for a movie adaptation soon.

Comic book witches have come a long way from their initial one-dimensional archetype, and they still have a long way to go. With increased public interest in witches, a Sabrina relaunch on the horizon, and a new generation of independent creators bringing us fresh new takes on the old form, comic book witches may not always fare well, but they almost always make for interesting reading.