What would you do if you were all you had in a world that felt at odds against you, if the expectations placed on you diminished your ability to live life on your terms? That is the question asked of Lelek and Sanja, the protagonists of the upcoming graphic novel Witchlight.
Written and illustrated by Jessi Zabarsky, this comic details the journey of a young witch and a young villager as the former seeks answers regarding the lost half of her power. As they traverse through many lands, we learn about them as they learn about each other, finding how they create a bond through their own experiences of loss and trauma, and ultimately how they forge a love for each other and many different others.
This time in Health and Inclusivity, we had the honor of speaking with Zabarsky about her graphic novel and the value we see in it through the lens of this column.
Allen Thomas: Witchlight is an experience, one that has made a wordless and lasting impression on me. What was it like for you to craft this story?
Jessi Zabarsky: First off, thank you, I’m flattered! Witchlight was my first comic longer than 40 pages or so, and I had to trick myself into making it. Originally, I planned for it to be 18 pages total — just enough to have a new thing to sell at a big show. The story kept growing as I made each chapter. It was first published as single issues, which I made start to finish one at a time, so I didn’t get too overwhelmed. Then I had a 200-page book, and I couldn’t tell myself I couldn’t do it anymore!
One of the immediate things that stood out to me was how many different cultures were represented through Witchlight. Though fictional in nature, each different society feels fully realized, fleshed out as though we could read about them in history books. I love not only this representation of different traditions and ways of being, but also how current issues are reflected in the pages of the comic.
Especially after the loss of her mother, Sanja has to deal with the repressive views of her father in comparison to her brothers, though she also demonstrates just what she picked up from living in a patriarchal family unit. Her ability to fight draws Lelek to her, and, though with a rocky beginning, we understand how Sanja has found a way to keep pushing through a life which is not always affirming of her.
Lelek also holds the power of tradition in her, though it is one that is lost. Her dealings with grief color her interaction with others. Just as in real life, where it is certainly common for trauma to create responses towards others which cast us against them, Lelek feels as though she must deal with most, if not all things, alone. The reason she lost half her power is also affected by a complicated connection to her family’s power and customs, driving her further and further away from home almost out of necessity.
To this effect, Zabarsky has crafted a story that touches on many important subjects, providing a thought-provoking framework for Witchlight.
AT: You tackle a lot of different topics, from queerness to tradition to isolation and grief. Why did you want these aspects to be a part of your story and how was it to bring them into being?
JZ: For me, themes tend to emerge naturally as I write, and then I can look back and see what I was struggling with in my life at the time. At the start, I knew I wanted to write a queer story, mostly because I wanted more variety in the queer comics I was seeing, and partially to dip a toe into my own queerness, which I wasn’t ready to acknowledge yet.
The bit where Sanja’s grandma says that prejudice against witches is new and silly was similarly a conscious choice- I wanted to push back in a small way against the idea that bigotry is somehow “traditional”. Other themes in Witchlight — complicated parental relationships, isolation, depression, and finding joy in food, nature, and community — all formed the emotional stew that I was in for most of my time making Witchlight. Finishing the book chapter by chapter let me look back after each one, notice those topics, and build on them.
Borrowing from how these broad themes connect to Lelek and Sanja, they each present their own issues to overcome. They both navigate what their lives mean, first in the context of others, and later within a framework of them uncovering themselves. For these reasons, I appreciate Witchlight as a story of self-discovery, challenging feminine norms and developing autonomy in which ones Sanja and Lelek claim, and developing a true family of choice, the last of which is evident in the closing pages of the comic.
Lelek and Sanja’s paths converge, but this does not override the fact that they are on their own journey. While a chance meeting brought them together, they must still navigate their own pasts and specific issues as they move forward. The beautiful thing about this story is that we see how these characters and their stories unfold. We see them soften in some respects, while harden in others, both in ways that make them stronger.
These elements of Witchlight contribute to a narrative that exposes the complexities of how we relate to each other, how we come to understand each other and what that means for us. Watching Lelek and Sanja grow over the course of the story is a remarkable experience, guided by Zabarsky’s initial and evolving creation of the both of them and the world they exist in.
AT: Why did you choose Lelek and Sanja to be your protagonists? What is it about them that made you want to tell their story?
JZ: Lelek was originally from an art test illustration, and I liked her so much that I wanted to know more about her. I polished her design up a bit (she used to have chain mail under her tunic, and antlers!) and sketched a cute, soft, sleepy looking girl to contrast against her, and she became Sanja. At the start, I knew I wanted two girls with very different strengths and life experiences to travel together, fall in love, and ultimately save each other, and that was about it.
Their designs helped me build their world and stories — Lelek was on her own from a young age because we first see her in a dress that’s worn and too small on her. Sanja feels constricted by the narrow life her parents have allowed her because she wears several layers of clothing in the beginning, and I kept drawing her with her shoulders scrunched to appear smaller. The more details like this I unlocked, the more I was excited to discover!
As we see where our protagonists come from, in the meta/narrative sense and as they exist in the story, we get a much better understanding of what it means to connect with people and the difficulty that can be inherent in that process. It is easy for us to take for granted what it means to get to know someone, while missing the reality that we can never truly take their perspective. As such, that means that we end up having to do more heavy lifting than expected in fostering a sense of empathy for others.
Yet, despite this human limitation, we see this dynamic play out through each page of Witchlight. Sanja in particular meets many moments where she has to figure out how to manage their predicament. Since much of the story revolves around Lelek’s journey to reclaim her power, it is surprising to see how Sanja reacts at each turn, how she processes each development, particularly during a pivotal moment when she has to embark on her own journey alone, paralleling Lelek’s experiences prior to meeting her.
These emotional aspects of the comic shine a light on the fact that, even if we are with or around someone for an extensive amount of time, there can be so much we miss. Zabarsky’s own perspective on this dynamic between Lelek and Sanja, or really just even everyday human beings, shows one of the ways we can evolve to a point of better understanding, better connection, with those who enter our lives.
AT: One of my favorite things about Witchlight is that you were able to properly address the fact that we have varying perspectives and experiences that influence who we are, but that, unless we ask, we can’t know what that looks like for others. How did you craft that particular aspect of this narrative?
JZ: At first, I was just writing ways for Sanja and Lelek to fight and then make up, which was my main frame of reference at the time for how people grow closer! As the story progressed, I was also learning more about the world and other people, and confronting a lot of things inside myself. It was humbling, but also really wonderful to be able to understand other people better.
In order for them to have a truly happy ending, Sanja and Lelek had to experience a similar transition. Most of my knowledge has come from getting comfortable with not knowing everything, listening, reading, and quietly being there when people ask for help, so those were the kind of scenes I gave the characters. They’re not at the end of that process, and poor Lin, who I have so much genuine love for, is just beginning, but I’m confident they’ll all get there.
Ultimately, I find Witchlight to be an illuminating story about what drives us, what pushes us toward and away from people, and how we don’t have to accept the stories that have been told to us or for us. Whether through the protagonists or the various characters they meet, we find messages of the power of acceptance and the cost of fitting into others’ expectations.
The representation of different people, different bodies, different loves and different families speak to the necessity of honoring the distinctions that make us who we are while also being careful not to subject people to who we think they should be. The story reveals that, while breaking these psychological chains is not necessarily an easy process, it is one that can lead us to a place where we can affirm not just ourselves, but get better at affirming those around us in a genuine way.
AT: Since this is for Health and Inclusivity, how do you feel your story contributes to well-being and helping people feel seen and included?
JZ: I hope people read Witchlight and feel how natural it is to see crowds of all different kinds of people! I had to be intentional about some of the inclusion, because I’m a thin white woman from rural Ohio, but mostly it just came from the boredom of drawing the same face and body shapes all the time, and from seeing so many kinds of people in my real life.
I hope people who struggle with mental illness, or just things they don’t like about themselves, can see that they’re worthy of kindness and care, exactly as they are, and that even very small steps toward a more kind and understanding version of themselves can help build connections and relationships.
As I reflect on this story, I’m reminded that it really was a profound experience. The concept was enough to draw me in, but the execution was something to behold. Messages of love and acceptance, autonomy and independence, culture and tradition dot each page, creating a lasting impression and a meditation on how to take the things we cherish from places we love and make them our own rather than being forced to accept them, or ourselves, on others’ terms.
Witchlight is Lelek and Sanja’s journey, but it mirrors the same treks many of us have had to embark on, whether based on family, gender, sexual orientation, tradition, love, trauma, and acceptance. It shows us what moving forward can look like, and it shows us how to do that using the things within us that make us shine.
AT: What do you hope people get from reading your story?
JZ: I hope they have fun! I hope I make them cry, because a good cry feels amazing. I hope it broadens their idea of what a fantasy story or a romance story is allowed to look like!
Witchlight is now available through Penguin Random House!