Will O' the Wisp - Tom Hammock & Megan Hutchinson

Will O' the Wisp is the tale of Aurora Grimeon, a recently-orphaned girl sent to live in a swamp. It's a Southern Gothic occult mystery, and a fine one. Will 'O the Wisp

Aurora's parents die suddenly. They made pasta sauce with poisonous mushrooms, and the narrative takes a Roald Dahl-ish relish in this piece of high grotesque adult folly. After being callously handed through a similarly gleeful macabre sketch of child protection services, Aurora is packed off to Ossuary Isle to live with her grandfather Silver in a swamp thick with gravestones and Hoodoo folklore.

If you're not hooked already, I'm worried about you.

My partner picked out Will O' the Wisp from a display table at Dave's Comics in Brighton,where it caught his eye by being a genuinely gorgeous piece of publishing design. It's a neat little hardback with a diary clasp, a high quality finish, and these beautiful marbled endpapers.

You can see a few of the early pages on Comics Alliance, which is enough to give you a feel for the style, and the article calls out some of the cultural touchstones. There's Gaiman, and Burton, and  world of spooky synthetic folklore in the mix. Locke and Key, as they say, has some significant narrative and tonal similarities, although both are drawing from a wide pool of tropes. There are echoes of some of the short stories in Hellboy, too. The Baba Yaga stuff that starts in Wake the Devil, perhaps, although I don't have a copy to hand.

Will 'O the WispBut I also think there's more than a little Lemony Snicket, and from Gaiman in particular, that feeling of childhood's relation to the adult world that a friend of mine described as something like "living in a land under an occupying force whose rules you can't quite understand". There's a whole thesis on children's literature there that I've not read enough to unpack, but it resonates massively, particularly with something like The Ocean at the End of the Laneor early Harry Potter, I guess.

In Aurora's world, those rules are a blend of the intractable adult mores that she can only somewhat scratch at, and the practical rules of Hoodoo that influence the life of the isle.

The Hoodoo tradition in the book ranges from casual custom to full-blooded religion. Silver observes details, in part to fit in. From time to time he'll correct wearily with scientific detail, but his heart isn't in sneering. This fits rather neatly with his early description as "the nicest sinister man I ever met". Others take the Hoodoo details as simple factual truth. There are things you must do and not do, there is bad luck to be risked, and the dead to anger. Mama Nonnie, the "local Hoodoo woman" introduces Aurora to the tradition more fully, and as they become friends, Aurora comes to occupy a kind of empirical/mystical middle ground. It's reasonably standard child protagonist stuff that her disruptive enquiring streak and cavalier attitude to received boundaries lets her investigate the mystery of the piece. But to do so she combines Mama Nonnie's wisdom with Silver's gentleman-scientist arcana, and the more workaday Hoodoo and swamp folklore of the people she befriends.

Will 'O the WispPausing to be critical, we might suggest that structurally this is the story of a little privileged urban white girl learning and appropriating African-American folk spirituality to eventually triumph and save a comically backward rural community. That reading is available, but I'd argue it's a stretch. Will O' the Wisp's Hoodoo trappings are sketched out as pretty inclusive. I just can't see it in the tone, either, and Aurora's experience of both Hoodoo and the life of the isle are far more participatory and warm. You could also argue that the book's message is that not heeding your elders and religion will get you killed, but I don't quite buy that either. Ultimately, if anything - if - she is assimilated by the swamp, synthesising its magic and her grandfather's rather arcane "science" into something that gives her more belonging and understanding than before.

Ossuary Isle  is exactly what the name implies, and Aurora's story is of exploring it, mythically and geographically. Doing so, she is fascinated by the will o' the wisps that burn around it. Physically, these are pockets of marsh gas that have caught light. Mythically, they are little pieces of hell, carried with him by a man it rejected as too evil. As people begin disappearing and charred corpses are found, it becomes clear that the flickering lights are more than just marsh gas, and something powerful and sinister has returned.

Will 'O the WispIt's charming in places (Missy the pet raccoon is a particular delight, as is the exploration of Hoodoo), moving to the sinister and the acutely sad. People die, and for its nominal "young adult" label, Will O' the Wisp does not pull its punches over this. The death of Aurora's fledgeling sweetheart is particularly cruel.

Will 'O the WispVisually, Will O' the Wisp is as splendid inside as out. There are shades of a gentler, more cartoonish version of Kevin O'Neill's work on League of Extraordinary Gentlemenbut that's not quite it. It's scratchy in places, and the figures are gaunt, partially distorted, playing neatly into the Gothic vibe. It bolts the "Southern" onto that "Gothic" with the closeness of it, the way it has the swamp press in with panel composition. With a writer from the film industry, and an artist with a production design background, it would be lazy to call Will O' the Wisp filmic or cinematic, but there are places where that applies. Will 'O the WispThe whole thing has a wonderful sense of light; vital as fire becomes a recurring trope. Shafts of daylight nudge their way through the swamp foliage, mist drifts across the pages, trees press in close. Then suddenly, occasionally, it expands to give us a whole page, like a suddenly-discovered clearing.

Will O' the Wisp has one of the tightest matches of art and tone I've seen in a while. Right now, Gillen and McKelvie are doing it better, but that's not playing fair. Change maybe, pulls some of this off too. Although there the real fireworks are the colouring.

Particularly to savour are the visual tone shifts with the recollection of Silver's childhood, the discovery of the deserted paddle steamer, the ongoing eerie play of blue marsh fire, and Mama Nonnie's vision journey into hell.

Will O' the Wisp is subtitled "An Aurora Grimeon Story", and the creators have said they'd like to do more. I'm so up for that. Ossuary Isle and the mysteries of the swamp are a rich setting, and exploring it is great fun. This is a prime slice of curl-up-on-the-sofa reading, and I'd strongly suggest you pick up a copy and do just that.

Cartozia Tales: A Great Kids Comic

As I was just recently bemoaning the state of kids’ comics, it would be remiss of me not to draw your eye to this Kickstarter for Cartozia Tales, a new compendium comic featuring a raft of new artists and writers, as well as guest indie superstars like Dylan Horrocks and James Kochalka each month.

Each artist has a section of the map of Cartozia to cover, and Editor Isaac Cates rotates artists through each section month by moth like a sort of comics exquisite corpse, with artists continuing previous stories or starting new ones. In this way the world gets filled out; built as its written from a set of shared stories. There are also activities skewed at kids, like map drawing and paper dolls. My copy came with a luchador sticker on the envelope. This pleased me more than perhaps it should.

As with any anthology, some things will be more to your taste than others. I particularly enjoyed Shawn Cheng’s, as well as Lucy Bellwood’s and Dylan Horrocks’ (a neat little tale about a girl and a robot that will almost certainly appeal to Studio Ghibli fans).

Cartozia Cloud Herders

If you want comics for your kids’, to read something all-ages, or just to be introduced to a bunch of great artists each month for not too much cash, consider investing. The Kickstarter should guarantee the first ten issues, and it will be interesting for kids and adults alike to see how this world gets built. There are some samples up at the Cartozia Tales site if you need convincing.

Comics for Kids

Somewhere between the well-worn “comics are for kids” trope and the strident call and response of “Watchmen!”, “Dark Knight Returns!” and “They’ve got boobs and swearing now!” an important fact seems to have slipped, namely that comics really don’t seem to be for children any longer - and not in the way anyone would have hoped. For a lot of the time they’ve existed comics have largely been aimed at children. But the medium has matured and broadened, and it’s important to remember that it’s exactly that - a medium. And just like any other medium, it should be able to support as broad a range of ‘stuff’ as possible. Booker Prize nominees surely don’t feel threatened by the contents of the children’s book section of their local store, similarly comics fans should learn to appreciate that a broader range of titles is a sign of a thriving industry, not a threat to what they want to read. I digress. As the market has become more mature (older, not necessarily wiser), the bigger publishers have moved away from the all-ages fare they previously published, and started producing books that target the 25 - 35 age group that pays their bills. I was dimly aware of this, but I was reminded starkly when two friends independently asked for recommendations for comics for kids and, despite being a fairly voracious reader of comics (as was one of those asking), I struggled to come up with suggestions. There are good titles out there, but they definitely seem marginalised at the moment. Licensed comics have done OK - Boom! Studios had a broad range of Disney and Pixar titles before Marvel was bought by Disney, and The Simpsons comics have always sold steadily, but there’s definitely room on the shelves for more kid-friendly fare. After all - children are our future. We need them to grow up and pay taxes to fix our hideous future diseases, as well as buying comics to make sure we have a thriving selection of comics to read when we’re in Hideous Future Disease Hospital.

I’m looking at relatively new stuff here - reading the Beano, The Dandy (now reborn as a website rather than a physical comic), Asterix and Tintin is a given. You should be prodding your kids with a sharp stick until they read those (Disclaimer: I am not a childcare professional). So, in alphabetical order so as not to play favourites (Atomic Robo! Atomic Robo!), here is a by no means exhaustive list of recent comics for kids and teenagers.

All-Star Superman

Grant Morrison (Writer) and Frank Quitely (Artist)

All Star SupermanMaybe one for the slightly older kids. Grant Morrison tells a standalone Superman story that may well be the definitive take on the character, blending mythology with a 50s-style forward-looking, ultimately optimistic sci fi tale. Modeled after the 12 tasks of Hercules, it takes Superman back to the roots of the character before he got bogged down in 70 years of continuity, as a renaissance man, embodying many goods. It’s so gloriously uncynical that it’s worth reading just for that, but it’s also an excellent book in its own right.

Atomic Robo

Brian Clevinger (Writer) and Scott Wegener (Artist)

Atomic Robo

Nikola Tesla built a robot assistant. 100 years later, having battled the forces of wrong science across the 20th Century, Atomic Robo leads a team of ‘Action Scientists’ against ambulatory pyramids, Nazi cyborgs, and all sorts of dubious sorts. His Wile E. Coyote-alike sometime nemesis is Doctor Dinosaur, some sort of time-travelling imbecile. Incredibly funny, well-written, and featuring top-notch cartoony artwork, Atomic Robo is the comics equivalent of a Pixar movie. It works for kids and adults equally well, with some jokes that will go straight over kids’ heads (unless they know a lot more about H.P. Lovecraft’s racist tendencies than I did at that age).


Atomic Robo is much easier to get digitally than it is physically, but let’s face it, you’ve got a tablet. In the last few years tablets have replaced fire (0 -1900) and crushing poverty (1901 - present) as the premium junior-distraction during mummy and daddy’s special gin time. Comixology has it all for very little cash. If you do want to get physical copies, there’s no pressing need to read them in order. The series jumps around in time, so each trade is a self-contained story that doesn’t require knowledge of the others to get onboard. If you want a taster, the Free Comic Book Day editions are available on Comixology for no cash.


Paul Tobin (Writer) and Colleen Coover (Artist)


Bandette is glorious wish-fulfillment stuff for kids. A young sneakthief in a non-specific Franco-Belgian city (it has elements of Paris, but is also decidedly Not Paris) constantly outsmarts the adults around her and is often the only person the police can turn to to solve other, worse crimes. It’s fast-paced and beautifully illustrated, with both art and writing drawing from European kids comics (although you sometimes get the sense it’s being written for a young Audrey Hepburn).

It’s part of Chris Robeson and Allison Baker’s Monkeybrain Comics line, which is digital-only at the moment (via Comixology). They’re listing it as 15+, which seems incredibly conservative. Younger children should have no trouble with this. As with other Monkeybrain titles, it’s 69p / 99 cents an issue, so there are no excuses not to try it.


David Peterson (Writer and Artist)


First things first - there are talking mice with swords, so yes - it is a bit like Brian Jacques’ Redwall series in that regard. Mouseguard is set at a very different scale though, with the tales being small and character-driven, rather than the Tolkien-esque high fantasy of Jacques’ stories. The artwork is the main draw though, with precise linework and watercolour-esque colouring that makes Mouseguard look like nothing else on the shelves.

New Brighton Archaeological Society

Mark Andrew Smith (Writer) and Matthew Weldon (Artist)

New Brighton Archaeological Society

More wish-fulfillment stuff. Here a gang of kids take up their parents’ mantles as the New Brighton Archaeological Society, and head off on an adventure with goblins to find out what happened to their parents. It’s slightly knowing, but has plenty of humour and faintly unthreatening adventure aimed at kids. There are dead parents involved, and the possibility of some villainous relatives, but it never strays into particularly dark territory.

You can read the first volume online - a second volume was funded last year and is currently being finished up. There’s a trade paperback of the first volume available as well.

The Phoenix

Various writers and artists

The Cover of The Phoenix Comic Issue 1

This new British comic only launched properly in 2012, but it’s already starting to pick up a fairly sizable audience. There are strips from well-known indie comics creators like Simone Lia and Paul Duffield, as well as a range of up and coming artists. It rotates new stories in amongst recurring strips, so there’s a lot to see. One highlight is Adam Murphy’s Corpse Talk strip, where the author digs up historical figures and interviews them. Just macabre enough for kids.

There’s a fairly content-light website here, but you’ll need to pick up a physical copy to see much of the strips (a bold idea!). There’s a map of bookshops that stock it on the site, and it’s also available from Waitrose supermarkets. No further comment on that.

That’s all folks

There’s always more that I could recommend, but I’d encourage anyone who reads comics with their kids to chime in and let us know what they’re reading at the minute. There seem to be so many good writers and artists working in kids’ comics at the moment that it would be a shame to see their work continue to be pushed off shelves to make space for recycled ideas.