Gunpowder Witch, written and drawn by Jordan Williams, attempts to follow in the tradition of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It aims to fuse a traditional superhero comic with historical fiction and moral allegory. Unfortunately, it does not succeed.
The book tells the story of Rebekah Bell, a young Puritan woman in 17th century New England. At a young age, Rebekah discovers that she possesses special powers. Unfortunately for her, the Puritan community distrusts these powers, and Rebekah and those like her are subjected to Salem Witch Trial-like persecution and execution. Rebekah flees her village and hones her powers with the aid of two other similarly powered boys. It’s X-Men meets The Crucible. It makes for an interesting story, but the narrative is marred by choppy dialogue, wooden art, and a problematic portrayal of the sole American Indian character.
The dialogue of this comic, while it has high aspirations, is choppy, and almost robotic. Most characters bounce back and forth between two voices. Sometimes they speak in a modern, colloquial dialogue, and sometimes they speak how we imagine (or Jordan Williams imagines) straight-laced, 17th century Puritans spoke. It would be one thing if Rebekah and her compatriots, Corey and John, spoke like modern teenagers, while their oppressors spoke in the “thees” and “thous” of 17th century English. A choice like that might have furthered Williams’ moral allegory. However, all characters jump back and forth between these two voices with no rhyme or reason, and it detracts from the story Williams is trying to tell.
One thing Williams does do well is his panel composition. His characters are not bound by boxes. There’s a particularly memorable page towards the end of the book where a tornado swirls over all of the page’s panels, engulfing everything and thrusting the reader into the whirlwind. This kind of dynamic paneling is refreshing, and is the high point of the book. The rest of the art is less appealing. It’s very stylized and heavily distorted, and most of the characters lack proper proportions. In some instances the distortion in downright jarring, but never at particularly dramatic or important moments.
If this book’s problems just centered around the writing and art not quite living up to the story, the review would end here. However, Williams’ treatment of John Bison, the sole American Indian character in this book, is worth examining. John, “the native with the strength of a buffalo” (a direct quote from the book’s bonus material), works in Dover Village, Rebekah Bell’s town, doing odd jobs that require great strength. He saves Rebekah from an angry mob, and reveals to her that he, too, is gifted with super powers.
John Bison’s characterization relies on old, tired, and discriminatory tropes. He comes to Rebekah’s rescue, saving her from an angry mob. When she awakens in his woodland cabin, it quickly becomes clear that John, unlike most other characters in this graphic novel, has only one voice. Instead of modern teen or somber Puritan, he’s written as a spaghetti Western Indian (tvtropes.org lists this as “Tonto Talk”). He never, ever uses contractions. There are nearly two pages devoted to him spouting sentences like “White man has no tolerance for those who are different… But white man’s narrow minds are like narrow paths on mountainsides. Very dangerous.”
In fact, Jordan Williams hits many of the “don’ts” for white creators writing Native American characters. Beverly Slapin’s “How To Write A Historical Young Adult Novel With An Indian Theme (For Fun And Profit)” on the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature is a great starter resource for identifying problematic tropes. Out of the 20 “dont’s” on the list, John Bison hits nine of them. These range from the lack of contractions, complicated nature-based metaphors, improper naming conventions (there’s no evidence bison ever inhabited New England when modern humans did, for a start), and he seems to exist solely to save young white children from the clutches of the Puritan mob.
Because of this problematic (to say the least) portrayal, plus the mediocre quality of the rest of the work, I can’t recommend that anyone purchase Gunpowder Witch for their library’s collection. There are plenty of other titles out there that deal with similar themes of acceptance, tolerance, and non-discrimination.
by Jordan Williams
Art by Jordan Williams
Stache Publishing, 2018