“She’s a restless spirit on an endless flight”
Witch for Hire is much in the vein of Naifeh’s output over the last twenty years or so – it’s definitely a YA book, but Naifeh is a clever creator, so while his books are populated by odd teenagers who generally don’t fit into whatever society they live in and Naifeh examines that, there’s always a bit of a nasty streak in his comics that probably appeals to teens because teens can be kind of nasty themselves, but it also appeals to adults (well, at least this adult) because there’s a bit more meat to his stories than your typical YA book, where the bullies are mean and the good people are good. Naifeh adds depth to his characters, so no one is completely bad or completely good, and his stories, therefore, get a bit more complicated than what we often get from YA books. In this book, our central character is Cody, a geeky girl who’s new to high school but obviously not new to being socially ostracized, as her popular sister Bryce shows early on and her alpha dog father shows later on. Cody sits at the “loser table” at her new school, where she meets the losers and their queen, Faye, who wears a witch’s hat all the time. There’s also an on-line presence throughout the book, a girl called “Shy Shelbi,” who offers advice to people looking to become popular. It’s not terribly good advice if you don’t want to be awful, but people who want to be popular probably don’t care too much about not being awful. Cody finds out that Faye is an actual witch, and Faye remains unpopular by choice, as kind of a reaction against the world, but she also makes sure that her friends don’t get quite too close to her so she can remain aloof. Cody, meanwhile, gets in with Shy Shelbi, who suggests she do some terrible things to become popular. Naturally, things get pretty bad, but Naifeh does a nice job showing us what exactly is going on with Shy Shelbi and why she has the insidious power she has and what can be done about her. What makes the book nice is that while Naifeh does give us an ending that feels a bit too feel-good, at the same time, he implies that things aren’t going to be perfect right away – Cody has some work to do on herself, and her family doesn’t come out unscathed, and Faye isn’t simply a wonderful human being right away. The characters change, certainly, but they don’t become perfect. Naifeh leaves us in a good place, but there’s still some things that the characters need to work out, because they are, after all, people who grow.
Naifeh is a terrific artist, so all his books look great, and Witch for Hire is no exception. He does such a nice job with little things that reveal a lot about the characters, from Cody’s just slightly disheveled hair that is so close, yet so far from being stylish to the way her father sits at the dinner table, like someone expecting and yearning for an argument. His Faye has larger eyes than everyone else, making her trustworthy and a bit adorable, so Naifeh can use that when she becomes a slightly darker figure. Naifeh has always done a wonderful job with spooky stuff, so when that comes, we get a creature with a terrifying visage that’s also the slightest bit goofy, which makes it even more askew in this world and makes the violence it commits all the more distressing. Naifeh has always used blacks well, and he does so here, often using silhouettes to show the worst moments, blunting the violence just a bit (it’s still a YA book, after all) but making the scene feel heavier because of the blacks. His color scheme, which relies heavily on yellows, gives the book a Halloween feel, and while it’s not a Halloween book, that feeling of it gives it a creepy, autumnal feel, as if things are decaying on the edges and the people in the book are trying to hold it back and not doing too good a job at it.
I like Naifeh, so I’m inclined to like this, but I still think it’s pretty darned good. Naifeh knows how to put together a good comic, and he never takes the easy way out with his characters, even if they get to a good place at the end. It’s not exactly complex, but it is more complicated than a standard “feel-good” story, where obstacles often feel like tiny speed bumps along the way to a character’s maturation. Naifeh’s obstacles feel more real (yes, in a book with witches and monsters), and therefore the progression of the characters feels more real. It’s a neat way to tell the story, and so I’ll probably keep buying Naifeh’s comics as long as he’s willing to make them!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆