I built the foundations of an ongoing essay feature on my belief in the viability of knockoffs as a creative beginning. It’s not a conviction I’ve lost, but I never said that all knockoffs are good to have around or that they must be more interesting than not. The knockoff, like the fanfiction, is a creature of tension; when comparing it to its clone-mother, the difference is what talks. Or rather, the difference is the mouth and the result is what talks. And sometimes—as in the case of Witches—it doesn’t.
Marvel’s 2004 four-issue miniseries Witches is a knockoff devoid of worth or interest, I’m sad to say. Witches is one of those wildcard team-up miniseries books that Marvel took a liking to doing with whatever women they had lying around in the first decade or so of this century. Marvel Divas, Marvel Heralds, Models Inc. . . . Witches. It’s a Charmed rip, quite clearly—Charmed, which began in 1998 and was in its wilding years of age by the publication of this comic book. If you were a Charmed viewer, let me shorthand it like this: The month after Witches wrapped up, season seven began airing. Chris had already died. Ideas were waning and so was viewership.
To be fair, this wasn’t supposed to be the case. Witches was initially slated for release in 2001, an ongoing series scripted by Bronwyn Carlton, and #1 should have hit shelves the month prior to Charmed season four’s debut episode. Again, for the casual viewers among you: this book should have coincided with the introduction of Paige, the long-lost replacement sister, instead of appearing in the wake of the death of Piper and Leo’s secret half-angel time ghost son from the future.
For the blessed uninitiated, Charmed was and will be again (but gayer!) a live-action American television programme about three sisters who, upon the death of their guardian, discover they are not only witches but really powerful destined saviour witches. The “power of three” means that, while they have their own signature power moves (floating, astral projecting, time stoppage) they also have the ability to do really big magic if they all hold hands and say a poem. The power of three thing is a little contentious, and it’s best not to question it too much, but it’s what lead to the aforementioned introduction of Paige in the fourth season, after the original eldest sister Prue died from a sudden attack of Shannon Doherty being fired.
The relevant point here is that there being three of them is a really big deal in the Charmed . . . well, not mythos, but stated rules. If Witches were about any other number of midriff-baring witches, it would be a product of the late-90s Wicca pop culture boom; a companion piece to Charmed, not a brand parasite. Charmed didn’t invent the idea of three women being especially powerful, or even three witches as a dramatic motif. Thank Robert Graves, thank Shakespeare, thank the Ancient Greeks for that. But this is no maiden/mother/crone trio, no hideous coven. This is witchbabes, and Charmed really put a ring on that. Practical Magic didn’t need three. The Craft didn’t need three. Neither did Sabrina. There was no insistent cultural narrative that would fool the unsuspecting into expecting three hot young witches, other than Charmed.
Once the Charmed sisters, in whichever formation, discover their magical natures, they also have to deal with boyfriends and careers and demons all at once, whilst keeping their supernatural nature secret from the real world, although mostly, to be honest, from the police. It was your classic millennial girl power show, kind of—Buffy’s “I’m still cool!” aunt who liked to “experiment” with her wardrobe and could never keep her story straight about where she’d been last night. Marvel saw its opening: “We have a bunch of magic girl-women! They’ve dealt with demons and social prejudice! We made them in the Bronze Age so we’re probably not using them now! They could wear midriff tops! Are they free?” Nobody answered. “But this is a good idea, right??”
It could have been! Maybe in 2001 it almost was. But pages were turned in, and rejected (history is silent on why), and creative teams turned over and over. By 2004 what saw print was a sad chimera: three issues were drawn from Carlton’s scripts by Mike Deodato back in 2001, but something about that draft had been deemed unacceptable. So in 2004 Brian Walsh was hired to overlay a four-part script onto Will Conrad’s “salvaging” of those Deodato x Carlton pages. This is what is known as “throwing bad money after good.”
There’s nothing wrong with a knockoff, no, but there’s something wrong with a bad product. Witches is boring. It doesn’t happen. It’s full of bitchery and unkindness. It’s sexist, obviously, and thinks that it coolly isn’t. It’s credited in the Marvel Handbook as featuring textual discussion of Jennifer’s bisexuality, which is a misleading farce. It begins with eight pages of men; the thrust of the story is controlled by men; it revolves around men. It’s a bit racist. Despite their disparate, established use of magic, the total magical-girl content is: for a page or two at the end, all three women shoot a differently coloured beam out of their hands at an uninteresting monster.
The fashion is atrocious and untimely. It’s very obvious that the art was “salvaged” (it wasn’t salvaged, it was misappropriated—hats don’t make physical sense, the colouring/inks combination is hazy and blown-out, and the flow is just wrong enough that the reader feels tipsy or as if something has been mechanically translated away from helpful accuracy). The covers misrepresent the characters individually and present a “sudsy,” sleepovery unity that is absent within. Internal art regularly deals in dull surprise (for the young women, not the men) with widely opened mouths and inexpressive eyes. It is very clearly intended to be a “prelude” to an ongoing team-up, even in its form as a rescued, cancelled project put out god knows why—it ends with Jennifer, Satana, and Topaz abandoning Doctor Strange together, as if on a whim, after sniping at each other for four issues.
It’s nasty and poor, and not for girls. Not for girls at all. Charmed was not progressive, and Charmed was tacky, and Charmed was often just rubbish, stupid rubbish. But Charmed was for women. It was for women when the sisters wore bikini cosplay and it was for women when they made AWFUL decisions about men and it was for women when it let them be just terrible, unpleasant people! There was escapism and petty catharsis and intentional sisterhood in Charmed, but all of that is absent from Witches. Witches, quite shockingly, is not enough like Charmed to be fun.
Marvel’s Witches shouldn’t have been able to add up to a negative. Jennifer Kale, Satana Hellstrom, and Topaz (no last name) were all invented for horror-themed books in the 1970s. In fact they debuted in quick succession, in that order, ‘72 through ‘74. Jennifer came from Adventure into Fear With the Man-Thing, Satana from Vampire Tales, and Topaz from Werewolf by Night. While the X-Men were experiencing a five year publication drought Marvel was shining in the spooky and the monstrous, and plenty of female characters were being introduced. They tended to have fairly expectable visual roles—”sexy virgin,” “sexy whore,” and occasionally “pretty child” or “ancient hag”—but their characters were appreciable, they had large networks of relevance, and they came in various flavours of power-reclamation and loss. The Jennifer, Satana, and Topaz of the 70s all have their own world views, and a certain amount of their own complexity; visited in their original books, they’re diverting and enjoyable. They would have agreements and disagreements, should they be forced to come together. But these ones? I don’t think so. Not like this. What this comic felt was disempowering.
When a product is narratively flaccid, absent of character, contextually perplexing, and in other ways displeasing, the core premise can be a saving grace. Sure, it came out poorly, but at least the creative spark was there! Not so in a knockoff that fails: all that burns at the centre is a hunger for borrowed glory. If nothing interesting is made of the tension innate in being a secondary version, then what’s implicit is a lack of identity, a jealousy. Something ugly that’s surrounded by ugliness. A book of comparable quality that didn’t adhere to a zeitgeist template would receive less of my attention because it wouldn’t pretend to matter, or have something to say about a moment in pop history.
None of these chosen charmed ones have seen a tremendous amount of use since their original period of relevancy. Going by ComicVine numbers, counting those on-page appearances which happened both before and after Witches, Jennifer, Satana, and Topaz have around four hundred issue appearances between them. For comparison Cable and Deadpool have almost 2900 and 2500 respectively, while Cyclops and Iron Man have racked up just over 9000 apiece. This means that the trio’s characters are both more and less flexible: there’s more you can reveal or invent about them, as they’ve been “offscreen” so much in that shared universe with its shared space and time, but there’s also less established material to lean on to get their voices and their context right, and nobody’s been putting in the work to transition a persona defined by one era into another. Imagine the It Girl of 1974 and the It Girl of 2004. Are they the same person? Do they seem interchangeable? It’s possible to bring a character through the changes of the years and the passings of the trends if you do it by degrees but it’s hard to create a character with the same premise in a new context and pass them both off as one individual, instead of an original and a reboot or reimagining. This is a problem with the fabled notion of “continuity.”
Another is that when growth by degrees, or even reimagining by degrees, is done in cameo or support roles over decades in books other than the original, it’s very hard for a reader to know what they’re missed. Jennifer Kale was teaching Tai Chi to X-Force in the 90s, apparently, and maybe that transitions easily into the rather aggressive, obnoxious Terry Bogard cosplayer of Witches where the 1970s Jennifer Hale who wore a neat red shirtdress and cried for the man inside Man-Thing doesn’t. But how is anyone to know where these characters have been, or to catch up with their evolutions? Why use an existing character if there’s nothing to tell the reader how to identify them as having previously existed? This comic relies on the recognition of older characters, even expecting the reader to know a misspelt, six-issue character last seen in Vision and the Scarlet Witch—neither of whom feature in this comic—in 1986. It doesn’t explain her relevance or her husband’s at all, just relies presumably, presumably, on a reader’s innate familiarity with every movement and moment of the Marvel Universe. There’s a problem from every possible reader’s perspective—whether you’ve read everything, whether you’ve read first appearances or whether you’ve read nothing, these characters fail to feel actualised. I couldn’t describe to you what they are like, beyond “mean, obnoxious and doormat.”
That’s the third problem with extended continuity: sometimes men don’t understand what an It Girl of any era is really like. They just see an attractive image on network television, try to copy it down and add sex jokes to imply “liberation.” There may not be any more authenticity to the Bronze Age versions of these characters than there is to the cardboard women of Witches—I wasn’t there, I can’t know. They are at least warmer. But I know that in 2004, wide-legged jeans were out and brittle rudeness was a false face. Presented by a living human, it might mean they have painful depths. Presented by a comic book as an entire character, it means that multiple levels of men at Marvel were failing to imagine women wholly. The power of three can set you free: add up those problems, and don’t read this shitty comic book. It isn’t even fun-bad. Unless you’re a professional, in which case do, and then steer your career and ideas firmly in the opposite direction.
But, like Patty Halliwell, I have a fourth concern: which came first? The decision to make Topaz the butt of her teammates bullying over that sudden meek-mouse subservience, or the—decision? Mistake? Hard to say—for the previously white, blonde Topaz appear in this mini, unexplainedly, as a black haired, brown skinned woman wearing bangles and head jewelry and very revealing drapery? Topaz’ origin is not a proud piece of Marvel’s horrorsploitation output: a blonde, blue-eyed girl with “the power of empathy” and a blank history who was “found” in India, in a prison camp, by a cruel sorcerer. Your basic white purity occultic fantasy: nice pretty helpless white girl used for rituals by horrid foreign man. She escapes him and uses her magic for good, reclaiming herself and her magic power and getting a cute Californian werewolf boyfriend.
In a reboot, Topaz would probably be an Indian girl with the same backstory. Was this book intended to be a soft reboot? A racial retcon? Was her inclusion based on a textual description that left out the “blonde Caucasian” detail but kept “found in India”? Was an Indian woman included in the original pitch, but emergency-retooled into “Topaz”? She appears to be a part of Deodato’s original work, appearing on pages full of Strange’s furiously whipping cloak and experiencing some quite violent garment uplift of her own. It’s not completely unrealistic to imagine a call of “hey, we got any girls from India? Do magic?” and the response “Yeah, Topaz!”
We know this is a band-aid book. In fact, some helpful Wikipedia editor points out a similar game-of-telephone mistake:
“Though the high-level [Marvel] demon Lilith was officially used in the title, in one scene she is referred to as a common vampire. This is a mistaken reference to [Marvel’s] Lilith, the daughter of Dracula.”
Topaz’s alleged demurity is mocked by Jennifer and used to wound by Satana. Her church service is mentioned. Her nipples are delineated and the shapes of her breasts are given plenty of definition. She has dialogue in which she behaves like a conditioned submissive—Topaz calls Doctor Strange “Master” in this girl-power book despite calling him “Steven” as a supporting character in his own books for years and years. The provocative smile of the issue covers is about as deep of a mislead as it’s possible to get. Topaz’ presence in Witches is an unforgiving mixture of degradation, invalidation, and sexualisation that feel really gross in combination with her newfound status as a woman of colour . . . or, as Satana has it, the “token ethnic friend.”
That’s probably the nearest it comes to being Charmed, actually. All of the bad! None of the “Well, if it’s on… okay.”