Hello, hello, dear readers, and welcome. I’m sorry this post is so late, please forgive me. It’s just that I’m prone to spontaneous bouts of sudden hibernation during the winter. I’ll try increasing my caffeine doses, I promise. I’ll have to stay away from tea, too, it’s far too soothing. Especially that pernicious chamomile. Is it really any wonder why certain herbs are associated with witchcraft and magic? Even now, though we’re so deep into the holiday season, there’s still a sense of the supernatural in the air, faint traces of mischief and ill will left over from the changing weather. Witches, perhaps the most ubiquitous representations of harmful magic, are particularly infamous for using such plants as nightshade, hazel, wormwood…
Set against the dark forests of 19th century Scandinavia, the story follows Lumi, a centuries-old witch who has found herself bound, in more ways than one, to people that she’d rather avoid. After the death of her old familiar, Lumi finds herself looking for a new one, or at least a new body for the old one. When Tristan, a bookish young farmer who dreams of achieving a better life for him and his mother, suffers an unfortunate accident he winds up trapped in the body of a frog. Although it’s inconvenient for the both of them, Tristan nonetheless finds himself serving as Lumi’s new familiar. As he grows closer to Lumi, however, Tristan begins to discover that the reclusive witch hides a dark and dismal past; one that she cannot seem to escape.
The first thing the reader will most likely notice about this webcomic is the striking art style. In an FAQ, Josceline Fenton, the artist and creator of the comic, states that she draws inspiration from numerous sources ranging from comic artists and cartoonists, to Gustav Klimt, woodblock prints, dolls, and even Japanese fashion. The list goes on. Any reader familiar with those sources can see where she bases her style, but like any good artist should, she melds these myriad influences into a style entirely her own. I’m positively struck with how she manages to illustrate clothing and hair, as if they’d actually been cut from fabric and pasted onto the page. Although the comic is only in black and white for the sake of convenience, it does contribute to its wintry backdrop and she manages to use the contrast between light and dark beautifully to her advantage, both in the art and in the story.
The dialogue for the characters is good as well. Nothing stands out to me as feeling too forced or uncharacteristic. For the most part, the dialogue succeeds in conveying the tone of character in their conversation, be it haughty, nervous, or merely humorous. The plot of the story is still unfolding, but there’s already a sense of political intrigue and uncertainty that leads the readers to feel concern for the very likable characters. There are regular flashback-style segments before each chapter that portray certain episodes in Lumi’s past. These segments set up and foreshadow what happens to her later, both in the story and in her life. There’s also a segment in chapter two when Lumi tells a story depicting the history of the witches. In doing so, the writing simultaneously establishes the background events of the comic, displays a range of narrative style, and highlights the mytho-folkloric sources from which it draws.
As an 800 year old witch, Lumi has a long history of suffering and betrayal that has left her generally wary of others, most especially her “husband”, the exiled Prince Sindri, who tricked her into marrying him, and his brothers, who rule over the witches of the world. Despite her withdrawn and typically subdued behavior, Lumi has a resilient spirit. Although (or maybe because) she is constantly being pushed about by the whims of others, she can sometimes be passive-aggressive and unwilling to let others simply order her around when she can help it. There is a sense of hidden pain to her behavior, most likely the symptom of her past. So far, in the flashbacks of her life that occur between chapters, there has not been a single happy episode. This, coupled with her current situation, leaves the reader to wonder if perhaps there was ever a happy time in her life. Rather than become incurably depressed or bitter, however, Lumi manages to derive pleasure from even the smallest of things, such as her relationship with her giant snail Richmond, in whose shell she lives.
(And also saffron)
When he’s introduced, Tristan is your typical village bookworm. Born the son of a farmer, he studies in the hopes that he can one day provide a better life for his mother and himself. However, a mishap on his horse and his SMALL SPOILERS untimely death END SPOILERS, have forced him to leave his old life behind. Now uncertain of what his future holds, Tristan tries to make the most of his situation, learning to communicate with Richmond, and sending his family a message telling them to not worry about him. Naturally inquisitive and sharp, Tristan is keen to learn more about Lumi, with whom he must now spend the rest of his life. As a small three-eyed frog, a lot of the humor is derived at Tristan’s expense, usually involving him getting used to his new life and body.
Other characters of note are Lumi’s husband Sindri, who once ruled all witches. Despite being married to Lumi, he treats her rather poorly, though it could be argued that he treats her better than his younger brother, King Simo does. As the current ruler of the witches, Simo is commanding and rather paranoid, especially concerning his older brother. Although her marriage to Sindri was not voluntary, Simo still uses it as an excuse to look down on Lumi and mistreat her. The third and youngest brother, Prince Sisu, is still mostly a mystery, despite appearing in one of the flashback episodes. There are also Ulla and Keer, two other witches that serve in King Simo’s court and act as rivals of sorts to Lumi, and Kolya, Tristan’s cousin, who comes searching for answers regarding the fate of his relative.
With an elegant, haunting art style, enthralling characters, and a rich backdrop full of fantastic references, Hemlock is wonderfully melancholic tale that never truly crosses the line into depressing. There is sadness, yes, but there is also companionship and humor, tiny, glimmering gems of hope, like the frailest most beautiful snowflakes. As Shakespeare himself once wrote “A sad tale’s best for winter” and, if you’re like me you’ll really dive into this one.
Hemlock is written and drawn by Josceline Fenton. The webcomic, including all images used here, belongs to her. There is a general FAQ page located here. Every chapter is collected into separate books which can be purchased online at Lulu.com. Ms Fenton, who created the self-published print comic Circle, also has a deviantart account. Earlier this year, she won an award from the first ever British Comic Awards for Emerging Talent for her work on Hemlock. Hemlock currently updates every Friday with at least one page usually, though it’s not uncommon for there to be more due to Ms. Fenton’s productive schedule.