Fantasy storytelling often engages with a dark/light struggle, and as writers it’s tempting to portray this on a grand scale to establish a sense of threat and character motivation. It’s far harder to write a nuanced take on this. Izzi Ward’s webcomic Sephie sidesteps potential issues by closely following a protagonist’s journey in the aftermath of a seismic decision. Tracing the consequences of their actions, tension is gradually developed as the world expands further and these decisions are scrutinized in more detail.
Characterised by natural magic, warm hues and wildly overgrown foliage, Sephie follows the titular character, a gifted springmage, through her escape from her home in the Godspring into the forest, a re-imaging of Greek mythology in a lush watercolour style. The settings are dense and abundant, and the Grecian architecture and clothing are charming style points throughout. Artistically, the natural, autumnal hues are divided by soft white lines, which in combination with the watercolour style lends a gentle, natural effect. There’s a heavy use of space, and sizable sections will pass by without any dialogue. Fantasy webcomics can vary wildly from bright colours to grim, austere greys and blacks; it’s gratifying to find a comic with a consistent autumnal palette.
The plot concerns Sephie’s escape from her home and responsibilities, allowing her relationships with other characters to unfold as the story develops. Sephie’s actions have an impishness, such as her parting gift of an enormous tree in a city otherwise largely devoid of foliage, but there’s a darkness too – a moment of indecision triggers an uncomfortable, intimate flashback of Sephie’s archery instructor, Artie. Sephie’s darkness comes from a struggle between expectations and individualism, best characterized by a literal imprint of Sephie’s personality onto the landscape. This accentuates the close focus, going against the grain of fantasy narratives that draw their darkness and tension from dramatic, larger-scale events.
The soft watercolour aesthetic is evident in Izzi’s two print comics, Nino and The Ink Witch. Nino features a richer, warmer palette and is aimed at a much younger audience, whilst The Ink Witch is monochrome and features a burgeoning queer relationship. Both comics fuse her developed style with darker plotlines; the stakes are a little lower in Nino, featuring a young mage trying to prove herself, but tension is laced throughout The Ink Witch, which frequently discuses dire consequences for characters exploring queer relationships. Izzi’s aesthetic and strong pro-LGBT attitude unite her comics; the drama of the comics can be linked to the active decisions of the headstrong protagonists and, lovely though the illustrations are, there’s real weight behind the decisions the characters undertake.
Sephie‘s light/dark dynamic is the most developed of all Izzi’s work. It’s rewarding as a fantasy reader to find darkness in unexpected places, and though these are ultimately bright stories it’s engaging to see characters challenged and stretched. The fantasy works especially well as a background for LGBT-friendly relationships; characters dance around romantic relationships in worlds that don’t seem fully accepting of them, adjusting the world to suit them. Much of the tension of the texts comes as a consequence of this; the darkness and veiled threats are a low hiss that haunt much of the plot and lend a sense of the potential for disaster whilst keeping plot lines focussed. Ultimately Sephie is affirming and lovely, but with deceptively high stakes centred around a nuanced struggle.