Hex Wives, the new Vertigo horror comic out next Wednesday, is a thinly veiled fictional depiction of what writer Ben Blacker calls an “insidious” and “patriarchal” society. And it’s no mistake that Blacker’s villain calls himself a “disruptor” of the system - a phrase the writer hates.
Featuring art by Mirka Adolfo, the new title depicts an ages-long battle between a group of men who protect humanity and calls themselves the “Architects,” and a group of about 100 powerful, immortal and female witches.
After tiring of the witches constantly returning from the dead, one of the Architects discovers a spell that will trap the witches in a society where they are controlled as suburban housewives.
The series is part of Vertigo’s recent launch of several new titles, including several that fall under the Sandman Universe umbrella (although Hex Wives does not).
Newsarama talked to Blacker to find out more about Hex Wives, the writer’s inspirations for the story, and why the fact that Andolfo is Italian was beneficial to book’s creepy tone.
Newsarama: Ben, this concept is kind of a mix between traditional witch lore, a horror story and the Stepford Wives. How did you come up with the idea?
Ben Blacker: It was a couple things. The first basic idea came from, I happened to catch an episode of Bewitched one day, which was a show I loved as a kid. I would stay home sick to watch it on syndication.
I was watching this episode which was a fairly typical episode in which Samantha Stevens is worried about getting dinner on the table because her husband is bringing the boss home from work, and of course, her mother comes over and is like, “this could all be done so quickly with magic.” But Samantha’s not allowed to use magic.
It struck me that it was just ridiculous. She’s this crazy powerful witch whose biggest concern is making dinner for her husband. And he’s forbidden her from using magic in the house. Like, that’s a crazy, controlling relationship that is not healthy. And Endora is totally right that Samantha married beneath her. These mortals are inferior to witches.
So that was kicking around in my head maybe five years ago. And around the same time, I started to have more frequent conversations with my wife and some of my female friends about the insidious ways that men try to subjugate or minimize the work of women, particularly in the workplace.
It’s a lot of stuff that maybe these men aren’t even aware that they’re doing it. It’s behavior that’s ingrained in a patriarchal society, where women are not worth as much as men, and the way that was coming out was upsetting and insidious and really made me and my friends angry. You know, this is not how it’s supposed to be. Something needs to change.
So I started to put those ideas together. I learned a lot about writing by writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I realized that sometimes the best way to talk about the stuff that you want to talk about is by using metaphors. And Get Out had come out around that time. Horror movies are a great way to talk about important things while still creating a compelling and fun and thrilling story.
Nrama: Yeah, the message is thinly veiled.
Blacker: It’s sort of a documentary.
Nrama: But let’s talk about the fictional world you’ve created. There are two factions that are fighting against each other, right?
Blacker: Yeah, you get the backstory in the first seven or so pages of the book. There are 100 actual witches in the world who practice witchcraft. They are, for all intents and purposes, immortal. They can be killed but they’re reborn in their same bodies.
Fighting against these women are a group called the Architects. The Architects have existed for generations. Every generation of Architects is born and then trained to fight the witches, because the Architects are afraid of the balance of power shifting. These women are less than human to them, and if these creatures have such enormous power, they’ll mean the destruction of the world. So the Architects see their role as keeping balance in the world and keeping these women in check.
When our story picks up, it’s a new generation of Architects, Aaron Gabriel, he sees himself as a disruptor, which is a phrase I totally hate, and there is no mistake that I put it in the mouth of a villain.
He sees himself as wanting to shake up the system.
He says, “Why do we keep killing them for hundreds of years. We’ve been killing them and they just come back. We have to do something different.”
And so they make this plan and figure out how to brainwash and basically enslave these women and make them think that they are suburban housewives.
Nrama: The first issue sets that up, and it’s this mixture of artwork depicting these battles and ancient witchcraft with the more modern scenes of a perfect-looking suburban neighborhood. What was the process of choosing the artist, and how would you describe what Mirka Brings to the title?
Blacker: Mirka is incredible. She was the only choice going in. I had seen her work because I was reading Shade: The Changing Girl, and I think she did an annual, which our colorist Marissa Louise colored. When I saw that, and we were just starting to talk about all this, Molly Mahan, the editor, happened to send me that right after I had read it. And she was like, "We really love Mirka. We’d love to put her on a regular book." And I said, "Yes, absolutely."
She has this incredible design sense where she’s not just drawing the characters. She’s not just bringing life to the characters. But she’s designing this world. She and I had a lot of conversations early on about first, what the women should look like. I mean, I had sort of rough ideas about, I wanted a multi-cultural cast. I wanted them to have different profiles. You know, if you saw them in silhouette, I wanted you to be able to pick out who each character was.
And then Mika talked about how she wanted all the clothing to be very practical so that people could cosplay it, but also because the women would be finding clothing from the circumstances they were in and appropriating those clothes to sort of be their witch costumes. So we had these in-depth discussions about the design.
I knew she could do the blood and violence part that opens the book. And for a lot of that, I think my script was like, “violence ensues for four panels; go crazy.” And boy did she. There’s some amazing looking stuff in there. Even when we just saw them in the pencil sketch phase, they were so alarming and cool-looking, with angles I’d never seen in depicting this sort of fighting and violence.
What was really neat was when it came time to do the suburbia part, because Mirka’s Italian. So she doesn’t have the same frames of references that I do or that Molly or Maggie Howell, the editors, do. So when we first got the sketches from her for the suburbs, there were very short lawns. There were a lot of smaller roads, because this is what Italian suburbs look like.
So we found references from Mad Men and from The Brady Bunch and Bewitched and Leave It To Beaver and all kinds of classic American suburb references. And when they came back, they were 95% right, which was exactly perfect. Something really cool happened in the translation, which was, because she was unfamiliar with the references, she had to translate them into what they meant to her. And what came out of it was the exact feeling of horror that we wanted to evoke with the book. Everything seems right, but it’s just a little bit off. I don’t think we could have gotten that from an American artist. It would have been too perfect. But because Mirka had to translate these images and put them into the context she knew, you get a creepy, uneasy feeling from all the suburbia scenes.
It’s like the stuff from Get Out, or the stuff from Rosemary’s Baby - you know, a lot of the inspirations for this book have that same feeling. It think we stumbled into it in a really lucky way.
That’s only compounded by the colors. I’ve written a fair amount of comic books, but I don’t think I ever understood (because I haven’t been that involved in the process and I haven’t had a colorist as good as Marissa Louise is) that you can evoke so much tone but also so much emotion just from the colors. Like, we have that one page where the women are all sort of looking out at the fires that surround their neighborhood and is the reason they can’t leave the neighborhood, and people have remarked to me how sad that panels is and how it sort of brings a sadness across the rest of the book. And I really attribute that all to Marissa.
Nrama: Then to finish up, what do you think of being part of the new launch of titles at Vertigo?
Blacker: Oh, it’s unbelievably intimidating. Vertigo’s 25 years old this year. And Vertigo changed comics with Swamp Thing, with Sandman. Vertigo showed the industry that you can write sophisticated comics for adults. You can write in genres that are not just people in capes. You can write horror and fantasy and sci-fi.
Some of my favorite comics — Animal Man and Fables and Y: The Last Man — have been Vertigo comics. So to be a part of this relaunch, to be one-seventh of the voices that are hopefully bringing back what classic Vertigo can be and was, is incredibly intimidating, especially looking at all the other book. They’re all so good. And they’re stories that the writers are passionate about telling, and I think that really comes through in every single book. I’m holding on for dear life.
I care so deeply about Hex Wives, and I care so much about telling the story, that I feel like Vertigo is the right place for it. But I’m in such elevated company that I can’t help but feel intimidated.