In 'Widdershins,' bustin' makes you feel good

The female heroes of Kate Ashwin's Widdershins share a lot of personality traits. Harriet "Harry" Barber, for example, is a cool, collected bounty hunter of the pre-Victorian era who's often shown pondering a mystery while puffing smoke from her pipe. She's also a bit of a loner; her face is frequently twisted in a tired scowl, and there's a slight bags under her eyes. There's a little bit of Rorschach in her, too, as interesting clues are greeted with a "hrm." She's definitely the smartest person in the room, but she's also proud. Her reluctance to accept any help is driven, partially, by her need to prove that she and she alone solved the case.

Her sister, Nicola Barber, is a no-nonsense police captain. She also looks permanently grumpy, although it's less a matter of irritation than it is an inability to suffer fools (including, I imagine, her own relations). Harry's inquisitive energy is tempered by her mellowness, but Nicola practices no such restraint, and she's often seen with a sneer. Her sour attitude may be the reason Ashwin doesn't write much about her. Harry, along with her magician friend Sidney Malik, is the focus of her own storylines. Nicola, however, is a side character for stories about two vagrants named Jack O'Malley and Heinrich Wolfe. (There's a third sister, incidentally, but so far she only serves as comic relief in Harry's stories.)

It's interesting that these stories about strong-willed career women are set in an era where I'm certain such opportunities wouldn't exist. A quick Google search shows, for example, that the first female British officer began serving in 1917, almost a century after the Widdershins' setting of 1833. Not to mention that it was probably scandalous for ladies of that era to wear pants. (Both Harry and Nicola are avid pants-wearers.) Playing around with the societal norms is a fairly common practice among fantasy writers, and Widdershins certainly applies. After all, this is a comic in which ghosts and magic are well known by society and generally accepted as being real.

And what do you do when you run into a malevolent spirit? Why, you bust them, of course! Harry and Sidney's adventures take on a crime-solving approach. Sidney, for example, is an accidental pickpocket who attracts magical artifacts and can execute a few spells, which, in turn, gets the team closer to discovering spirits that need to be freed.

Meanwhile, Nicola tasks Jack, Heinrich and nebbish accountant-type Ben Thackerey with a far more direct approach. They're going to be using their innate, paranormal gifts to get out there and bust some ghosts. Jack has the keen ability to see and communicate with malforms, half-created invisible spirits who have been causing a lot of chaos recently. (Oddly, they see Jack as something of a savior who can release them from the servitude of this world). Heinrich uses his gentle, innocent soul to calm particularly rambunctious spirits. Ben, meanwhile, has the power to dismiss these malforms. The true purpose of the formation of these malform-busters, however, may be bigger than what these three schlubs can handle.

The bottom line, Widdershins is a fun little adventure comic. It's full of creative creature designs, stylish period details, and ladies who look like they've had to drink disgusting coffee because they've been working for a few days without sleep.

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