The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
What do most standard comic-book heroes have in common? Whatever their differences, most crusaders for justice share two aspects: supernatural powers; costumes, or at least distinctive clothing. Now who on Earth has supernatural powers? No need to invent back-stories or rationales about abandoned babies from outer space, or magic powers derived from scientific experiments gone awry: witches, sorcerers, and magicians come by their supernatural powers naturally or through education—or at least they do according to some definitions of witchcraft.
The first superheroes were occult practitioners. After all, who else has supernatural powers if not a witch? As for that distinctive clothing, in a sense, one can trace the roots of comic-book villains back to witch-hunt era woodcuts and illustrations created for penny-dreadfuls, intended to entertain, titillate, shock, and enthrall their audiences as much as to offer “moral instruction.” (See page 314, Visual Arts: Woodcuts.) How would you identify the witch in those popular illustrations? Easy. By her distinctive clothing or, conversely, her total lack thereof. Those imaginary witches may be considered among the first cartoon villains or anti-heroes.
Exactly what are comics? At their most basic, comics are defined as an art form consisting of multiple sequential images that usually form a narrative or tell a story and that usually, but not always, incorporate written text. A single image or “panel” is defined as a cartoon, not as a comic. Those medieval woodcuts featuring images of witches cavorting with Satan may be understood as “cartoons.”
Comics in the form they exist today blossomed as a phenomenon in the twentieth century. What is now nostalgically remembered as the Golden Age of Comics is usually dated as occurring between 1930 and 1951. Superman first appeared in 1938. (His creators were influenced by magical stories of the Golem of Prague. Mandrake the Magician had already appeared four years earlier.
In the United States, comic books were eventually marketed exclusively to children and adolescents (this was not originally the case, nor was it the case elsewhere in the world, most notably in Japan; see Manga, page 297). On the one hand this added to the aura of worthlessness surrounding comics; on the other it also stimulated a powerful desire in some people to sanitize the genre so that it would be truly suitable for children, similar to the desire some have to clean up and child-proof fairy tales.
This was taken very seriously: in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s comics were popularly blamed for juvenile delinquency and “moral degradation.” They were accused of glorifying crime and making heroes of seedy, shadowy, disreputable, morally ambiguous characters, occult practitioners not least among these (see The Black Widow). The United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigated the influence of comic books. Schools and parental organizations held public comic-book burnings. Comic books were banned in some cities. Circulation of comic books declined sharply; only the tamest of comic books thrived in what may be considered the comic books’ Dark Ages. They have never entirely regained their mass popularity although newer comics, which once again address metaphysical issues, feature occult practitioners and are frequently targeted to a mature audience, are now appreciated as an art form.
By definition, “comic-book witches,” past or present, are not realistic. The entire genre of comic books is typically not a realistic medium but one devoted to fantasy and fun.
A major comic-book theme focuses on illusionists who, as the witch-finders feared, only pretend to be mere illusionists. Their sleight-of-hand only serves as a cover for true supernatural powers and/or magical skills. The very first superhero’s uniform was a stage magician’s costume. (See Mandrake the Magician, Vampirella, Zatanna, Zatara.)
Changes in the last 50 years of metaphysical history may be tracked through comic-book heroes:
During the Golden Age of Comics, magicians invariably studied with ascended masters in Tibet. Frequently they had magical partners, disguised as valets or servants, who were really adepts from Africa or China.
Modern comics, on the other hand, frequently feature what at least appear to be youthful female witches, flexing their magical muscles (some are secretly thousands of years old). These witches are often drawn to resemble a fantasy of what a modern practitioner of Wicca might look like, even though, again, be cautioned, this is not a reality-based genre.
The following are but a sampling of the most popular and most significant comics incorporating witchcraft and the magical arts as major themes. There are many more. (If characters are identified as witches or as practitioners of the magical arts, I’ve included them, regardless which definition of “witch” the character fulfills.) I have also attempted to impose a semblance of consistency over the genre and to note the first appearance of the magical character, not necessarily of the comic book with which they are now most popularly associated. (Records are not always clear.)