By Patrick Larose
When I reviewed the first issue of Spell on Wheels, I made it clear that this was a comic clearly not aimed at me. There was a certain stylistic flair or ancestral structure to the issue that called back to predecessors that I didn’t really like or participate in.
I never got into Buffy, never even seen Charmed and that initial comic was driven by a subdued and pagan depiction of magic and a very written-style of dialog that put me off. All these trappings in the first issue would definitely appeal to someone and I could appreciate that even if I didn’t care for it.
For issue two, I’ve only partially come back to the series because I didn’t bother looking for anything else on the review schedule but instead to look at how the series structured itself after the introductory issue.
Spell on Wheels in this regard is more Supernatural than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A group of witches are on road trip to get back their stolen magic items and it’s these MacGuffins that’ll propel them from one magic scenario into the other.
In the second issue, they track their magic orb to the house of an elderly former painter—a new-age hippy now just rich guy who’s turned to magic as a way to be creative again. The cover gives away this painter’s dark intentions as he lies and hides his intentions from the witches through the means of a big party and his young, attractive children.
The monster-of-the-week format proves to be a strength for the creative team behind the book. There’s a very naturalistic and twisting rise in tension throughout the issue as they establish the mystery and let the hidden terrors and personal conflicts intersect and complicate before everything’s neatly wrapped up by the end.
The straightforward nature of the story serves the formula well and it’s like watching an episode of a tv show in the middle of its season. Yet it's this same simplicity that makes the issue troubling to talk about. I could give away the entire issue’s story in two sentences and theming can be summed up pretty quickly too. Spell on Wheels #2 is a small story about the way men and patriarchal systems can bleed and rob women of their own future potential. Even when one of the witches has their drink drugged at a party, it’s up to other women to shield each other and protect each other to keep further abuse from happening.
So with all that laid out, I’m left wondering how well the formula is serving the comic.
When a tv show uses the monster-of-the-week formula, they have around forty-five minutes to really nail and structure their story. When a comic uses the same formula in a single issue, they have maybe five. The time engagement that goes into single issues and how we tell stories through them has been a menace to the comic book industry as of late. Do they stretch out the stories and lean harder on serialization or do they truncate them?
Spell on Wheels opts for truncating, meaning that while we get an overall completed story it feels almost cramped in here. There’s a lot of exposition crammed into dialog bubbles to establish why we’re anywhere. Characters fight and then resolve themselves strangely quickly and having this formula told over 20-something pages makes the experience feel like we’re running through this world.
There’s just not the time and space to build out the conflict and the mystery in a wholly compelling way meaning that what’s left is something that’s good but not great.
When Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith started their comic Fell in 2005, they did it with a stated intention making it like a tv show. Ellis wanted each issue to tell its own contained story that felt both complete but worthwhile to the reader. They planned on doing this by making their comic in a strict 9-panel grid and that, quite frankly, was an insane idea.
But that insane idea worked. This particular format understood however that comics could only tell so much information. It’s why traditional mainstream comics are so inconsistent and baffling in internal logic when they lose every few pages to a splash page. A 9-panel grid leaves behind only strict limitations to what an artist could show and what a story could do but it was essential in building enough information to work.
A fulfilling narrative is tough to make and made even harder when limited to the page limits of a traditionally published comic. In Spells on Wheels #2 more than ever I wished this comic could have slowed down, take a few more extra pages and draw us close to these characters, have us understand their relationship while still maneuvering their crises.
But what do I know? This comic wasn’t meant for me.
Spell on Wheels #2
Writer: Kate Leth
Artist: Megan Levens
Colorist: Marissa Louise