INTERVIEW: Jessi Zabarsky Conjures Magic with Adventure-Fantasy Witchlight

"Witchlight" is Jessi Zabarsky’s debut graphic novel, though she first serialized the story in multiple chapters. She describes the book as a “shojo-adventure” comic -- referencing the manga genre that focuses on personal relationships -- because it's a variation on high fantasy, with, as she puts it, "a lot of tender feelings and soft moments."

There’s a witch and a fighter, there’s a quest, but the ultimate object of the quest is not exactly what is presented at the outset. What makes "Witchlight" not only work but shine is how Zabarsky manages to use those elements and craft a very personal story of two characters, whose lives and experiences and reactions are ultimately more important than the quest.

The collected “Witchlight” is out now from Czap Books, and Zabarsky was kind enough to talk with CBR about the book, its character-driven fight scenes and the book's place in the small-but-mighty witch comics sub-community.

CBR: Jessi, for the uninitiated, what is “Witchlight?”

Jessi Zabarsky: “Witchlight” is what I've been calling a “shojo-adventure” comic, by which I mean it's a fantasy story with magic and swords, but also a lot of tender feelings and soft moments. It follows Lelek, a witch, and Sanja, as they travel, learn to take care of themselves and each other, and figure out what they want, what they're missing, and what kind of life they want to build.

Where did the idea for this story begin?

Lelek started as a character design I used for an art test for a job, and I liked her so much I wanted to get to know her better. The story was originally supposed to be an 18 page mini for TCAF [Toronto Comic Arts Festival] a few years ago, but it kept growing and I love slow pacing too much to have condensed it.

At that time, I was also becoming familiar with the work of people like Victoria Elliott and Britt Sabo, and was discovering this tiny sub-community of witch comics, which felt very singular and special to me.

The story is also very much about being in your early 20s and not knowing what the heck you're doing, but also feeling very sure of what you're doing (but you're probably wrong). I had just experienced that phase of my life, and that crept in whether I realized it at the time or not.

Wait, there’s a sub-community of witch comics? Tell me more about this!

I might be the only one who thinks of it as a community, but there are several comic creators I'm aware of making various kinds of witch comics. Some (like mine) are mainly print, some are webcomics, some go both routes! To me, though they often differ greatly in tone and setting, they all give me a feeling of support, inclusion, and taking familiar tropes and freshening them up a bit. Some examples are “Balderdash!” by Victoria Elliott, “All Night” by Britt Sabo, “Witch Trade” by Isaac Robin, some of Carey Pietsch's short comics -- and probably a lot of others which I'm forgetting!

I think witches and worlds that include witches are attractive to a lot of people because they allow investigation into some darker ideas with an equal balance of very comforting themes. It's a place where you can acknowledge and embrace messiness without being overwhelmed.

You were serializing chapters of the story. Did that serialization and the feedback you got affect the shape of the book or the choices you made as you worked?

Honestly, not much. I don't think I got a lot of specific feedback, but also I tend to be very inwardly focused when I make things. I heard somewhere that if you want to make something good, make it for one person only, don't try to please a bunch of people -- so I made “Witchlight” pretty much for myself. I've never felt guilty about that approach, because the things that tend to resonate with me most are ones that are very self-indulgent, where you can feel how important it is to the creator or how much fun they had making it.

The story did get longer as I serialized it, though! The longer I worked with the characters, the more I wanted them to meander instead of going straight for the goals of the plot. The initial version of the story was much more plot and action driven, but Lelek and Sanja didn't get to really be seen as people.

You mentioned that the story was initially going to be an 18-page comic. Has the plot changed much since that initial idea? Or is the difference between 18 pages and the book you discovering how the story needed to be told?

Both! Like I mentioned, it was initially much more action driven, it was basically just a string of important events with nothing much holding them together. The plot stayed essentially the same, I just fleshed it out a lot more and made the people/situations/world more specific and interesting. Before “Witchlight,” the longest comic I'd done was maybe 40 pages, so it made sense that I was trying to write something short, since it was what I was accustomed to. Luckily, I realized that the story I had in mind would just be bad if I tried to make it that brief.

I kept gradually increasing how many chapters I thought it would end up being as I went (one, three, five, then finally the correct number, six). At the beginning of “Witchlight,” I was very intimidated by any project that would take me longer than a month, so I think this was the only way I could get myself to actually do it. The change was probably equally me learning to be a better writer and also just getting too excited about new bits I wanted to include.

You have a line in your bio that your comics “are generally about very small spaces and moments in very big worlds,” and I’m curious whether you think that applies to “Witchlight” and how.

“Witchlight” is actually what made me realize this about my comics! I grew up reading a lot of fantasy and adventure stories, watching a lot of shonen anime. I still love those genres, but they do have a disconnect between the “one person saving the world” vibe and the average person's life. These days, I tend to love stories about everyday life and the details of specific relationships, but those stories have limitations too, they don't usually tend to acknowledge a larger world. With “Witchlight,” I wanted to make a story where there's tension and drama and high stakes, but only for a very few people. Not to minimize those struggles, but to show how important and precious they are instead. Also, I tried to include hints of the world that these people inhabit, that there are social issues and prejudices going on, that there's an economy and history, and changing ideas, and that the main characters might not confront those things directly, but they're still affected by them.

Can you talk a little about the fight scenes? Especially the magic battles, because there are some beautiful designs and layouts in those scenes, and each fight is depicted differently.

I'm glad the fight scenes came out well! Honestly, I realized around issue 2 that I didn't really know how to plot fights at all. [Laughs] Luckily, the way Lelek's magic works and the kind of person she is put an automatic framework in place for me. She's extremely limited in what she can do, so she has to be very creative in her ideas. She can't just throw force or power at someone, she has to shape it very deliberately and respond to her opponent and surroundings. Basically, what I mean is, I figured out I was better at character writing than action, so I wrote all the action as character choices. So, for example, instead of asking myself, “What would look cool here?” I'd ask, “What would Lelek think would look cool here?” All the fights look different because Lelek doesn't like to repeat herself, she doesn't want to be boring. She's a person who very much could have been the “one person saving the world” type from above, but she's heavily restricted and frustrated, so she expresses that side of herself however she can.

Having said all that about the fight scenes, the story really is about the dynamic between Lelek and Sanja. Was their characters and their relationship something you knew from the beginning?

I knew the basic arc from the very beginning, but the specifics of the entire middle were basically a mush. When it was supposed to be much shorter, all their travels and bonding were going to be a couple pages of montage, but I realized it had zero emotional punch that way. All those quiet moments came out of me thinking of little vignettes that I loved but didn't know quite where they fit, and then kind of jigsawing them together as I went. The bulk of their lives is made up of walking, sleeping, eating, and talking, so it felt dishonest to ignore those parts in favor of the “interesting” bits. In my own life, I find a lot of meaning and value in simple restful times, and I think those are the kind of experiences that have built the best relationships for me. Plus, I just wanted to draw a lot of plants.

Did you make any changes for the collection? Will your devoted readers see anything new or different?

Yes! Most significantly, the final chapter is not being released outside of the collection. I also redrew some of the art in the first couple issues, and standardized how the grey tones were used. There are a few instances where pacing was changed, I think universally to make it slower and gentler. There are also a few places where my publisher, Kevin Czapiewski, helped me to make the panel flow read a bit clearer.

I do not want to spoil anything -- I loathe spoilers -- but you leave the penultimate chapter on something of a nail-biting cliffhanger. I’m curious if that was always the plan?

Pretty much, yes! When it was supposed to be much shorter I didn't know it'd be a cliffhanger, but I did always want it to be as much of a gut-punch as I could manage, and having it be the end to a chapter was, I felt, the most effective way to do that. I think it also gives the reader time and space for whatever emotions they have about what happened, instead of immediately giving them more to process.

Was this the ending you had in mind from the beginning?

For the most part. I was a little iffy on the details, and originally it was written much cheesier, but I was always generally sure that it had to end that way. There are, however, a couple panels on the third-to-last page which I'm incredibly proud of and I didn't figure them out until nearly the last second. [Laughs] I had to erase some work I'd already done, but I was just too pleased with myself not to.

Jessi Zabarsky's collected "Witchlight" is on sale now from Czap Books.

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