Introducing Witchlight Creator: Jessi Zabarsky

We are so excited for the release of Witchlight! For readers who don’t know, can you tell us what it’s about?

Witchlight is a fantasy adventure story about two young women whose lives become jumbled together. Sanja is a farmer’s daughter who is kidnapped by Lelek, a bold and mysterious witch. They come to an agreement to travel together in search of Lelek’s missing soul fragment, learning from each other and earning money from witch fights. Through their travels, Sanja’s curiosity blossoms and Lelek’s inner softness- and secret past- are revealed.

 

What inspired this wonderful tale? 

Lelek was originally part of an art test illustration for a job, and then I just kept thinking about her and wondering who she was! I made the first issue for the first TCAF (Toronto Comics Art Festival) I tabled at, intending 18 pages to contain the whole story. I quickly realized that the emotional journey wouldn’t feel satisfying without more build up, and the story kept growing from there. To flesh it out, I drew on what I was feeling and experiencing, and little things that are meaningful to me.

At the time, I was living in Akron, Ohio, near to where I grew up, and I was spending a lot of time walking in the forest and thinking. I was becoming more introspective, learning to build better relationships, and also having a lot of conflict with people close to me, navigating that with varying degrees of competence. I strung those feelings together with things I was excited to draw- different biomes, lots of kinds of people, a bunch of breads and stews. Most of my stories develop organically like this, with a kernel of an idea or picture, which I stick other things I like onto until it’s big enough.

 

One aspect we love is that the relationship between Sanja and Lelek doesn’t seem to fall into usual tropes seen in some YA romance stories. Was this a conscious effort to portray a healthy romance and why do you think this is an important message?

At the time I was starting Witchlight, I was a little frustrated with the queer comics I was seeing- there weren’t enough of them being made for there to be the kind of romance I related to, or the tone or aesthetic I like. I also wanted to dip my toe into a queer identity I didn’t yet feel comfortable acknowledging in myself. So, I wanted to make a very quiet romance, without big declarations of love or earth-shattering consequences. I wanted it to have heartbreak (because I love to cry), and also hope. I just wrote the story I wanted and needed.

Back then, the “healthy romance” discourse wasn’t as nuanced or as loud as it is today, so it wasn’t something that I gave much conscious thought to. Generally, I tend to err on the side of trusting younger readers- I think they can handle complex characters, challenging stories, and keeping fiction and reality separate. More so, my goal was to honestly portray two girls who were doing their best, while not knowing very much about the world or other people. I think it’s important to show young readers that they can be selfish, ignorant, messy, mean, imperfect- and still be worthy of love and care. That as long as they’re learning and trying to become kinder people, they can build relationships and open up to others.

Less seriously, what I actually worried about at the time was that Witchlight wasn’t romantic enough! Discussions at the time focused more on queer-baiting, and I was concerned that my quiet slow story would be seen as not taking a strong stance. I really wanted to write the kind of tiny moments that I love and relate to in shojo manga, so I was very relieved that people readily accepted my kind of story!

 

With regard to your art, what are your influences/ inspiration? Do you have any tips/advice for readers who are eager to be artists as well?

One of my main influences, unsurprisingly, are Miyazaki movies. I love textile crafts and folk art, and I think they relate very strongly to cartooning, and provide wonderful detail and texture to imaginary spaces. I’ve always loved plants and forests and stories about people living closely with the natural world. I grew up with a bunch of picture books and folk tales, which are great studies in economical storytelling and how words and pictures work together (hit me up for my very long list of recommended picture books for adults to read). I think I probably owe my sense of visual humor to Rumiko Takahashi, and my pacing of dramatic moments to Kaori Ozaki. I also pull a lot of inspiration from YA prose novels- Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, most of Diana Wynn Jones’ work, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials are probably at the top.

My best advice to young artists is that drawing and writing don’t have to be scary! From a young age, I made up collaborative stories with my mom, so I’ve always approached storytelling as fun and low pressure. I find that same freedom and joy now in listening to roleplaying podcasts and playing in a group of my own. Appreciating folk art and exploring the non-European parts of art museums can show you how many other ways there are to represent the world, besides the narrow focus of realism. The most important thing is just to learn how to communicate what you want to say clearly, and to develop a style that doesn’t make you dread sitting down to work! Everything in your life can be fuel for ideas, so try to branch out from your instinctive interests. That way, when you ask yourself, “What happens next?”, you’ll have a full toolbox to turn to.

 

This story has evolved from its initial conception (especially in regards to length). As it evolved, did you feel like your original concept and motive for the story changed? Is this the ending you had always intended?

Witchlight’s ending is essentially how I intended it from the beginning. I think the biggest difference is that as I grew to know the characters better, the emotional tone of the ending changed. Originally, after Lelek woke up, it felt much bleaker and colder. They were both still having trouble trusting each other and being honest about their feelings. By the time I actually got to writing the last chapter, I knew that they’d grown much more than that as people, that they cared so much for each other that they’d naturally be open and vulnerable. I also wasn’t sure if Lelek would still have her magic, but I decided she should, because the theme of the magic in Witchlight is that there isn’t only one right way to do it, and that you don’t have to be perfect to be whole.

 

What are some of your favorite graphic novels that readers should be checking out?

I love Peter Wartman’s Stonebreaker series; his fantasy world building and inking are great! Most of the other comics I read right now are manga- Delicious in Dungeon, Hakumei and Mikochi, Ran and the Gray World. This is an old favorite, but not enough people have read the manga version of Naussica of the Valley of the Wind, and it puts the movie to shame. I’m biased, but I’m also really excited for upcoming releases from RHG, The Magic Fish and Seance Tea Party especially!

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