Publisher: Widdershins Comics
Writer: Kate Ashwin
Artist: Kate Ashwin
Price: £2.50 per volume from Kate’s Gumroad store of £12 for all 5 volumes as digital download
Our rating: [star rating=”4.5″]
In the first volume Sleight of Hand, we meet Sidney Malik, a failed wizard who has been thrown out of university because he inadvertently steals things from people instead of conjuring spells. This leads to him accidentally becoming the King of Thieves, much to his annoyance, but also leads to him crossing paths with pipe-smoking, bounty hunter and magical items acquirer Harry Barber (that’s Harry as in Harriet in case you were wondering) and sets the whole Widdershins world in motion.
Rather than continue the story of Harry and Sid, Ashwin keeps us on our toes, as second volume No Rest For The Wicked sees us introduced to the pairing of Wolfe and O’Malley, who we initially meet on a train journey in Sleight of Hand, but without realising it! After a night in jail, O’Malley is co-opted into hunting down half-formed spirits known as malforms (or buggerups if you’re common!) as it turns out he can see people’s auras and it is just the skill they need to become Widdershins answer to the Ghostbusters. Along with Wolfe and struggling magician and council worker Benjamin Thackery, they also have to solve the mystery of why wizards are passing out throughout the town, but of course it’s not as easy as it first seems!
Volume 3 Vanishing Act, sees the return of Malik and Barber for a case involving a missing magicians assistant and is a classic piece of Holmesian sleuthing. While volume 4 A Piece Of Cake veers off into Dr Who/Stephen King territory to tell the story of a possessed hotel who magically transports the best chefs from throughout time to work in its kitchen, including Alexa King who is transported from the present day, back to Victorian times. Finally, volume 5 Green Eyed Monster, sees the return of O’Malley and Wolfe for a case that sees us learn more about the origins of their friendship and also sees Wolfe’s old army pal Voss arrive in Widdershins to wreak havoc after being possessed by the malevolent spirit of Envy.
As you might guess, Widdershins, is a little bit Harry Potter, (magicians living the real world) a little bit Philip Pullman (strong female characters), a little bit Terry Pratchett (a dry sense of humour) and a little bit Arthur Conan Doyle (the Victorian setting and cases to solve). Although being a bit of all those things may sound awfully derivative, it actually feels much more fresh and original than that might seem.
Widdershins starts off feeling like a very nice gentle, magic-filled webcomic, about a loveable goof and a bolshy bounty hunter, but as you continue reading you soon begin to realise there is much more to it. As well as getting to know these wonderfully crafted characters you begin to learn how they are all inter-connected and their stories begin to cross over and interact. In particular you notice the Barber family at the centre as they appear in all the volumes from Harry in A Sleight of Hand, to police Captain Nicola who interrogates O Malley in No Rest For The Wicked, to Nora who pops up in A Piece of Cake, not to mention social climber Florrie of course!
As well as being a really entertaining bunch, the Barbers are clearly integral to a larger, longer running plot arc that involves various spirits being invoked that match up with the seven deadly sins, but this only really begins to make sense once you get to the end of volume 5. As well as making for a great reveal (sorry if that’s too spoiler-iffic!), it also gives you one heck of a reason to keep on reading and is a fantastic piece of long-term planning from Ashwin that separates Widdershins from your common or garden webcomic.
Even without this over-arching story, Widdershins would still be utterly wonderful and a fantastic read. Ashwin’s writing is just sublime and her knack for creating interesting and compelling characters is really something. The main characters like Harry, Sidney and O’Malley will inevitably draw you in and deserve many of the plaudits (especially Harry who is both a really great female lead character but also subverts a lot of the traditional male Victorian sleuth stereotypes without being too in-your-face about it). But also with secondary characters like Thackery or Florrie and even smaller characters like 50s chef Rosie or the flapper sisters who end up in the Hotel Gula in Piece of Cake (which makes it feel more like an Agatha Christie book than a Penny Dreadful pulp.) there is never a dull moment in the world of Widdershins!
It is perhaps testament to the well-rounded nature of these characters that you don’t mind when the action shifts from one set to the next as they are all just as fun to read as the others. (However we won’t lie, there is an element of wanting to find out what happens next with your favourite characters at the end of each volume, especially with Harry and Sidney after Vanishing Act!)
Visually Ashwin has created a distinctive world for Widdershins that matches her excellent story-telling with a well-structured layout and a very animation-like style full of cartoonish facial expressions that makes the book feel like it could come to life at any moment. Plaudits should especially go to her character designs of the malforms in book 5, and in particular the foxy looking Envy which is just superb – especially the extra touches she adds to the lettering that makes it really hang together and feel extra lupine!
With a great all-ages tone, Widdershins is not only perfect for kids looking for something other than superheroes, but also is ideal for adults looking for something other than the grim and grittiness of the mainstream. It’s a book you could happily give to a non-comics fan to show them what they’re missing, while also being a wonderful calling card for indie comics to show the world just what can be produced with some great characters and a desire to tell great stories.