Magic, by its very nature, is a force which can be infinitely variable when used in fiction. So it’s remarkable how often we come across the same recycled tropes over and over again: wizards with wands or staves, sorcerers weaving magic out of thin air, latin incantations or innate magical abilities like flight, strength, etc. So when something comes along that is a little out of the ordinary – like bargaining with a spirit to imbue magical properties on an object – it’s worth a closer look. Welcome to the world of Kate Ashwin’s Widdershins.
Widdershins is a webcomic set in a fictional West Yorkshire city, which grew up around the town’s natural resource: magic. Specifically, the city is located at an anchor – or, a place where the veil is stretched thin between our reality and the reality inhabited by spirits and the personifications of the seven deadly sins. All beings which, through the use of a wizard’s summoning circle, can be dragged into our reality and persuaded to lend their power to an object of the wizards will. This can be anything from stunningly powerful magical artefacts, to simple, seemingly innocuous, lamp oil. The power of the infusion relies on the power of the spirit summoned, ranging from small independent spirits all the way up to the almost deific powers of the Sins. Get it right, with an intriguing proposal and an appropriate offering, and you can share in that power. Get it wrong, and… that doesn’t always end well. Even when mistakes are less catastrophic, they can still lead to the creation of malforms (or, as the only protagonist who can see these calls them, “buggerups”) – rogue spirits partly trapped in the mortal plane.
Although Widdershins shines in a lot of respects: the art, the writing, and the strength of the setting and characters, it’s this treatment of magic that really comes through as something special. Whilst the concept itself is not new – Faustian bargains have a proud history in western literature, and the value of captured Djinni goes back even further in middle eastern folklore – it is less utilised in the modern era of storytelling. Perhaps this is due to the more regulated form of magic this entails – we’re more used to seeing the simple, streamlined version of magic in pop culture literature and movies: think of how the relatively complex spellweaving (“swish and flick!”) of the early Harry Potter novels/movies was moulded through the series until the wizards were essentially using their wands to shoot magic bullets at the series’ end. By contrast, one cannot access even the simplest forms of magic in Widdershins without a maximum of effort – the inconvenience of which is subtly noted by an in-universe character from the 20th century, where modern technology has therefore superceded magical approaches to most things.
What makes this labour-intensive magic even more fascinating is the association of the spirits which power the magic, to the emotions and characteristics of humanity in general: if you want to imbue train tracks with extra speed, for instance, you need to summon a spirit of impatience to hurry things along; if you live your life consumed by jealousy, you might just find yourself being visited by the Sin of envy, and so on. The association is so strong, that the magical aura exuded by all living things in the comic reflects the emotions, virtues or vices of their owners (note even the cat’s aura going from sloth to curiosity in the first and fourth panels of this example). It is a fresh and interesting twist on the Faustian idea of magic and the attainment of power, and one that brings in a whole swathe of concepts for Ashwin to play around with – which she does to excellent effect. With the comic nearing the end of its most recent chapter it’s a perfect time to jump in and read through this unique and well explored perspective on magic, standing apart from a flooded genre.
What do you think about the magic system in Widdershins? Do you like the complex nature of it, or feel that it slows down the pace of the comic? Let us know in the comments below or over on Twitter, and until next time remember: don’t eat the clickbait!