Baba Yaga is a popular and enduring character from Slavic and Russian folklore, distinguished from her fellow witches by both her unique mode of conveyance (a flying mortar and pestle) and home (a semi-sentient cottage perched atop a pair of chicken legs). Undoubtedly a creature created in oral tradition, like most folkloric heroes and villains she’s appeared in every media as its been invented.
In comics, she’s had recurring roles in Bill Willingham and company’s Fables and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. The Marvel Universe has its own Baba Yaga, and naturally Zenescope’s Grimm Fairy Tales has a “sexy” Baba Yaga among its sprawling cast. But if you want to know what the best Baba Yaga comic is, I would say it’s 1992’s The Sandman #38, by Neil Gaiman and artists Duncan Eagleson and Vince Locke.
Or at least I would’ve said that if you asked me a few weeks ago. Now that I’ve read Baba Yaga’s Assistant, a new graphic novel by first-time writer Marika McCoola and artist Emily Carroll, I’m not so sure.
Carroll’s design for one of the most famous of witches is perfect, finding a sweet spot between “hag” and “monster” while maintaining an appropriate air of cartoonishness, so that this Baba Yaga is scary without becoming an object of horror.
Carroll likewise nails the most recognizable elements of the character, her house and her ride, and some rather complex world-building that’s called on by McCoola’s story. There are multiple Baba Yaga’s in this narrative, the “real” one that our heroine Masha meets, the real-er one that she comes to know by the end of the story, and the versions of Baba Yaga that exist in the stories that Masha has been told her entire life, mostly by her late grandmother. In a sense, McCoola and Carroll’s Baba Yaga is like a Russian nesting doll, with versions within versions; perhaps not so coincidentally, a magic Russian nesting doll is another character in the book.
Masha is a lonely young girl who has lost her mother at a very young age (as so many fairy tale heroines do), and then lost her grandmother, too. Her father is about to remarry, giving Masha a stepmother and a stepsister, another typical event in the life of a fairy tale character.
Masha decides to run away, answering a help-wanted ad for an assistant placed in the newspaper by none other than Baba Yaga. Once Masha finds Baba Yaga’s house, and finds her way into it, she must pass three tests in order to get the job. With some magical help and her knowledge of Baba Yaga stories, she manages to do rather nicely … up until the point where she’s tasked with cooking a handful of naughty children, her stepsister-to-be included.
McCoola’s story is very matter-of-fact in its telling, with a presentation of the fantastic as ordinary. Here, stories and folklore are things that happened in “the past,” but not a specific part of the past — a generation or two ago or 250 years ago, the past is the past.
Despite having such a renowned villain as one of the main characters, Baba Yaga’s Assistant finds the humanity in the witch, as Masha discovers that she’s just another grandmother of sorts, and the witch provides a living connection to her late grandmother, who they both knew in different ways, and who they know one another through. It’s a modern fairy tale of sorts, but more so in its deconstruction of older fairy tales, and its meta-fictional references to them. It’s a modern fairy tale in that it’s of the sort that could be told today rather than in the 18th or 19th centuries; that is, the story itself and its telling are updated, not its trappings.
Is it the best Baba Yaga comic, then? Well, I’d have to re-read that issue of Sandman before I chose one over the other. But then, thinking of Baba Yaga’s Assistant as a Baba Yaga comic sure is a limiting way to look at it. It’s a damn good comic, whether compared to other comics with Baba Yaga in them or without Baba Yaga. It’s also another example of why Carroll is an artist worthy of attention, and a hell of a debut from McCoola.
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