Pullbox Reviews: The Last Witch #1 – On Imbolc Day, don’t go into the woods… the Cailleach is hungry

On the day of an annual festival, young Saoirse’s father and entire village are destroyed by the vengeful Cailleach. Now, on the run with her mysterious Nan and her younger brother Brahm, Saoirse discovers that the blue-black birthmark across her shoulder that has always made her an object of teasing is actually a powerful witchmark, which allows her to resist dark magick…and take it for herself.

Nan must teach Saoirse to control her powers so that she can combat the dreaded Cailleach and her devious handmaidens, before they can release the terrifying Eater of Worlds from the faerie lands — and destroy all living things!

During the yearly festival of Imbolc Day, children know to stay out of the forest. On that day, the Cailleach leaves her tower in search of a meal… and her favorite dish is wayward little girls and boys. Despite that whispered bit of lore, 12 year old Saoirse & her friend Padraig have laid out a dare, proving to one and all who is the most courageous in the land. They’re going into the forest, where they’ll slip through the hedge marking the boundary of their village, and make their way to the Cailleach’s tower. Whoever gets there first will find a piece of the tower to bring back, thus earning eternal bragging rights as the bravest of the brave.

The Last Witch might not have been my first pick of upcoming titles from Boom! Studios, but this review copy came straight from writer Conor McCreery (Kill Shakespeare… click here for a couple reviews from myself & Susan, of thePullbox fame) & that’s a little tougher to ignore. Add to that the fact that I seem to have been getting a lot of heavy comics, with darker & deeper stories, and I kinda needed a palette cleanser to help shove 2020 out the door. It makes perfect sense that I pick the one about a child eating hag of Gaelic myth to lighten things up a little.

It worked out because Conor McCreery has crafted a pretty darn good tale of young bravery & ancient horrors in search of the unwary, populating it with a great assortment of characters. Take Saoirse, the heroine of the tale, touched by destiny and very literally marked for great things. But first, she has to navigate tween life, doing kid stuff despite her widower father’s best intentions. As a protagonist, Saoirse would be worthy of the very best the likes of Disney & the Brothers Grimm have to offer. She’s headstrong, fierce in her loyalty to family, and determined to prove everyone wrong about her even though they could very well be right. Helping her along in the tale, young brother Brahm plays the role of foil, a loadstone that pushes her forward and keeps her grounded in equal measure. By way of encouragement, the too-wise Nan is the keeper of secrets and the purveyor of knowledge, trying to protect her granddaughter from the shadows while preparing her to face them when the time comes. Finally, McCreery doesn’t waste any of the dark mystery around the wicked Cailleach. Like Spielberg’s shark, her presence is a whisper in the opening issue of The Last Witch, just a flicker of malevolence glimpsed from the corner of the reader’s eye but never fully revealed.

These characters & their environment have benefitted immensely from the efforts of this artistic team. V. V. Glass creates the lines, showing the grit & determination behind Saoirse’s eyes as she makes her way through her enclosed world. Natalia Nesterneko fills that world in with color, giving it depth and deep shadows in which the likes of the Cailleach can lurk & plot. Together, the two have done something bordering on mythological in their own right, crafting a piece of work that holds up pretty favorably in comparisons to the Disney style of animation. There’s a lot of cartoon-like quality that doesn’t quite diffuse the story’s darker aspects, putting them through a filter that helps to make this book a great choice for readers aged 12 & up.

Finally, letterer Jim Campbell deserves some praise, if for no other reason than his ability to consistently spell Gaelic names like Saoirse, Padraig, & Cailleach. On top of that, Campbell manages to give everyone in the book a “voice”, tailoring the letters to suit the characters speaking the words. From the wispy tone of Saoirse’s sick mother in a flashback, to the strong baritone I could swear I heard in her father. That all might just be a trick being played on me in my own mind, but Campbell’s work is an unqualified success in that it weaves through the panels without crowding them or interfering with the art.

As a story that takes a deep dive into Gaelic myth, The Last Witch is a great example of what can be done when a creative team goes into it with a high regard for the source. All the way through the first issue (and the second, of which I’ve gotten a peek at an uncompleted draft… shh, don’t tell), it’s obvious that everyone involved is determined to put out a fantastic piece of story telling, suitable for most ages (parents, check with your kids). If you’re worried about any G rated Disney comparisons, rest assured that this one is leaning a bit closer to the Brothers Grim, and is never boring or simplistic.

Final Score: 12/13

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