An Embarrassment of Witches. Written by Jenn Jordan and Sophie Goldstein; art by Sophie Goldstein. Coloring assistance by Mike Freiheit; calligraphy by Carl Antonowicz. Top Shelf, 2020. ISBN 978-0593119273, $US19.99. 200 pages.
Lately I've been reviewing Bildungsromane about young witches in training (here, here, and here). I thought An Embarrassment of Witches would be one of those, but it really isn't. Yes, it's a coming-of-age story, but it's also a grad school comedy about the experiences of two fairly new adults (not young adults in the adolescent sense) whose loved ones are high-powered academics or wannabes living in a rarified intellectual world ripe for satire. It happens that this world is one in which magic is commonplace, one where you can go to grad school to study "metamystics," and where shopping malls include businesses like Taco Spell and Aleistercrowley & Witch. But the story does not focus on learning witchery or spellcraft. It deals with applying for jobs and school, with internships, and with tense people having relationships at a bemusing transitional moment in their lives. It reads like a Friends-style sitcom combined with an academic novel, but is not as acrid as that might sound. Tonally, it reminds me of John Allison's splendid college comedy, Giant Days; its character writing is just as adult and just as piquant, and it conveys a similar sense of benign absurdity.
Briefly, the story focuses on two best friends and roomies, Rory (Aurora) and Angela, and how their friendship is sorely tested by the moves they have to make toward autonomous adulthood: feckless Rory walks away from her supercilious boyfriend and begins looking for a new direction in life, while Angela takes an internship supervised by, of all people, Rory's mother, a famed and fearsome academic. Lies, evasions, and secrets result in a complicated tangle. Eventually, Angela and Rory have to renegotiate the terms of their friendship on a more adult basis. The plot reveals the unreliability and stumbling humanity of just about everybody, without demonizing anybody (characters who at first appear flat turn out to have depths). The book is smart, funny, and endlessly inventive, and scatters little comic jewels on almost every page. Rory and Angela are knowingly and subtly written, with great attention to their brittleness and quirks and, especially, the mostly unspoken complexities of their relationship. This is witty, human, open-hearted stuff.
Art-wise, An Embarrassment of Witches is a formally inventive knockout. The character designs are sharp and distinctive, the visual worldbuilding is a hoot, and the book looks like no other. Goldstein dispenses with gutters and borders, favoring jampacked full-bleed pages in which the panels rub right up against each other. The results are a bit overwhelming due to sheer density, but that jibes with the book's emphasis on complex social dynamics. It also makes the book a delight to page through again and again (the disorienting, Escher-like cover is just a hint of the pleasures and challenges inside). The limited color palette — two purples, a near-turquoise green, celeste blue, and a kind of mellow yellow — may sound iffy in the abstract, but works brilliantly in practice, making the book into a cohesive world of its own. All this is to say that the wittiness of the story is matched by an outpouring of visual wit. In short, An Embarrassment of Witches is a full-on delight.