Witches, motorcycles, ghosts, and the best dog in town: Kat Leyh’s Snapdragon abounds with the unexpected and magical while seamlessly blending an archetypal coming of age story with an urgent, real-world tale about identity and rebirth.
Leyh is a Chicago based graphic novelist best known for her queer superhero webcomic Supercakes. This is her first published, creator-owned work, and while it’s appropriate for YA readers, it can be enjoyed by fans of all ages. She has worked as a cover artist for the comic series Lumberjanes and as a backup artist for BOOM! Studios.
Snapdragon, or “Snap,” is the bully-headbutting, animal-loving, hoodie-clad misfit heroine of the story. However, make no mistake, the characters which surround Snapdragon leap from the page to page with personalities and stories of their own. Lu, Snapdragon’s best friend, and next-door neighbor is discovering her new identity as a girl and coping with the turmoil from the roof of her trailer. Snapdragon’s hard-working mother Jessamine, takes no backseat either, with her own story of ambition, night classes, and cocktail umbrellas. Even three-legged GoodBoy (Geebie) the dog, kicks off the story by leading Snapdragon to the front yard of the enigmatic wicked witch of the small town woods, Jacks.
Unlikely friendship and even more coincidental connections run through this story, but I was happy to suspend disbelief in favor of fun. Snapdragon becomes an apprentice to Jacks, the ‘roadkill witch’ who nurses animals back to life and also maintains a lucrative side business selling the reconstructed skeletons (of the critters who didn’t make it) on the internet. It feels organic and exciting when we realize that magic and witchcraft are more than metaphors in this story, thrilled by the presence of animal ghosts possessing motorbikes and feisty Snapdragon waving a real magic wand to save a rabbit.
Throughout the twists and turns of the story, there is a conscious undercurrent of absolute honesty and dedication to depicting real life in all of its ugliness. Lu is bullied viciously for her new gender expression. And while class stays on the back burner, the struggle of Jessamine, an overworked single mom struggling to take care of Snap and fending off a shady ex-beau, brings real tension to the story. Even Snapdragon’s social status as town weirdo isn’t brushed over in favor of progressing the story. We feel Snap’s loneliness and isolation sharply even when it leads her down fantastical paths.
Witchcraft, in Snap and Jacks’s universe, is transformative, all about the shifting natural world. While full of rot and decay, the earth also plays host to exquisite rebirth and dazzling transformation that seeps into our own seemingly ‘normal’ and static lives. The story hauls us through the evolution of nearly every character; Jacks’s past as a motorcycle-racer leads to a tragic love affair that forces her deep into the forest brokenhearted.
More than anything, Snapdragon reminds us that there is good news and there is bad news. The bad news is, there is no such thing as permanence in life. The good news is, there is no such thing as permanence in life.
Leyh’s artistic style moves in perfect time with the choreography of the story. Her lines are without sharp angles and grunge, but fluid, like her characters. Dedicated to a modern aesthetic of realism mixed with softness and malleable forms, Leyh’s figures are rounded and cute without tumbling into the uncanny valley. They fit right into the realistically drawn background. Colors are splashed from page to page, keeping pace with the mood of each scene. The novel holds nothing back and is a treat for the eyes, even when we are looking at heaps of roadkill, a dusty trailer park, and a recreated rabbit skeleton.
Rock-solid background details of trailer parks, swamp lands and lucious forests remind the viewer that the story takes place here and now, maybe just a few towns over. The blending of previously separate dichotomies; magic and realism, gender binaries, and racial identities are lusciously reflected by Leyh’s capable hand. Adorable critters can be found on every other page, and while the story flirts with non-linearity, it never becomes muddled, supported powerfully by wise framing, transitions, and crystal clear lettering.
A fun addition at the very end of the story is a small walkthrough on the creation of the story. It includes initial character sketches, and a quick note about Leyh’s process from sketch to coloring and finalizing. This ode to craftsmanship is useful for anyone curious about the how-to aspect of illustrated narratives. Younger viewers will delight at a peek behind the curtains of graphic art.
Like the one-eyed ghost fox that prowls through Snapdragon, connecting one mystery to another, the novel glitters with imagination, sweetness, and grit. Giving hope to the latchkey kid, the outcast, and the weirdos of the world, Leyh offers assurance that this bizarre world we live in has more than enough space for every kind of life.