Witches have come in all shapes, sizes and powers over the centuries, but there's one thing they usually have in common: They're women. Image's powerful series Redlands highlights the link between womanhood and witchcraft, showing the misogyny behind the mythology.
Image: Image Comics
It is impossible to talk about witchcraft without unpacking how fears about witches have been used as shorthand for real sexism. These parallels go back hundreds of years, targeting midwives, widows, and other women who existed outside of accepted norms of their time periods. It's an issue that's been explored in countless stories about witches, from Arthur Miller's critically acclaimed play The Crucible to the 1996 teenaged/supernatural horror movie The Craft. Robert Egger's 2015 The Witch, for example, is both literally a film about a family being terrorised by an actual witch and about how, when faced with being labelled as "different" by conventional standards, there was a point in time when women were summarily accused of witchcraft.
In a disturbing, beautiful way, co-creators Jordie Bellaire and Vanesa Del Rey's Redlands revels in the idea that magic is born from unholy contracts between the devil and clever women. But it's noticeably careful about making sure you understand that the terror and fear on the page is entirely subjective, and coming from the non-witches' perspective.
A tree engulfed in flames with three nooses swinging from its branches in the roaring fire stands at the center of Redlands' first panel. Somewhere off in the distance, an unseen man huddled in a police station curses to himself (and everyone around him) that the lynching and burning at the stake they'd attempted has failed. The witches have escaped, the humans are fucked, and everyone knows it.
There's little in the way of explanation as to exactly what happened in the scenes leading up to the book's opening, but there's enough to convey strong emotions in the absence of specific details. A group of local men — the town's police force — are holed up in the police department as the witches move through the shadowy forest, daring them to step out into the light of the fire.
In another story, you might feel sympathy for the men and be able to see them as the unlucky victims of Redlands' demons, were it not for the handful of simple but heavy bits of character detail that co-creators Bellaire and Del Rey carefully place into each panel. Both we and these men know that they're dealing with the supernatural, but to them, their adversaries are "bitches" before they're witches, establishing one of the key elements of Redlands' world-building.
You get the distinct sense that the people of Redlands, Florida, fear the trio of witches for their magic, but they hate them because they're women — exercising a sort of power that the men of the town are not prepared to handle.
As the policemen cower in their Confederate flag-lined station, the witches tease and play them from the outside, casting illusions to trick the men into repeatedly opening the door and even leaving, only to be promptly eviscerated by the literal demons waiting for them.
While Redlands may initially lull you into seeing the witches as the book's ultimate threat, Bellaire and Del Ray have the policemen turn inward on themselves. Their reflections deftly gesture to the fact that evil lived in the town long before the witches showed up. In the darkness of their building where they assume they're safe, the policemen butt up against the prisoners lucky enough to be locked up that night and, in their interactions, you see that the lawmen aren't exactly friendly with the locals. Racially-charged tension crackles between an imprisoned black man and the white officer on the other side of the bars. The officer goads the prisoner with a flippant remark about being named after his absentee father. The prisoner responds by reminding the officer that his father's only missing because the officer's father killed him.
Whatever horrors the witches may have brought to their town, the comic makes it clear it's bound to be no worse than Redlands' status quo.
Women like the witches, one of the police men spits, are begging for it. And in a way he's right, the witches are eagerly awaiting for him and all of his friends to just come outside and talk things over — to clear up any and all misunderstandings between their respective parties.
But when the town sheriff does ultimately come forward to confront the witches and drive them away with his shotgun, there's a subtle shift in Redlands' tone that sets the stage for what the rest of the series holds. The witches haven't just descended upon Redlands for their own amusement, or even to scare its citizens. Redlands was sick and bloated with evil and rot before the witches set foot in the town.
Del Rey's kinetic illustrations and the shadowy, bloody shades of red Bellaire fills the page with are meant to make you feel the fear surging through the non-witches.
But beneath that fear is a deeper understanding that, sometimes, this is what change for the better looks and feels like when you're a part of the problem. Seen from another perspective using a little imagination, the witches' impending massacre of the police isn't something to fear — it's an attempt at healing the town.
Almost every story about the persecution of women suspected of witchcraft is also a story about a society unable or unwilling to accept women as competent, powerful people. Darker, more psychological witch tales sometimes tease us as to whether the suspected witchcraft is actually real. Redlands manages to be both kinds of stories while leaving you with the distinct feeling that it's less of a gritty children's story retooled for adults and more of a cautionary tale about what happens when you run afoul of the wrong women.