REVIEW: Wika Empowers Its Visuals But Not Its Worldbuilding

An extreme close up of a woman's face, centered in the frame. She has long, full red hair that frames her face with pointed ears sticking out from the sides of her head. She looks directly into the direction of the viewer, and tears flood out of her green colored, black-lined eyes. Butterflies fly around the frame. Dialogue over the scene reads, "Now go! It's time for me to confront my darkness."

As the last survivor in a line of a once-powerful fairy kingdom, Wika had to live her life toughening things out in the streets. While dodging suspicious characters, she tries to keep her identity a secret in a world where fairies are scrutinized and persecuted. But thanks to magical tattoos that visibly change on her body and an inescapable power that is growing stronger within her as she ages, she becomes even more vulnerable to pursuers and she can no longer continue running away from her lineage. In hopes of fulfilling a prophecy that would bring peace across the land once more, Wika finds herself eventually thrown into the forefront of a bloody war against her own family.

Wika

Jessica Burton (letterer), Thomas Day (writer), Olivier Ledroit (artist), Christopher Pope (translator)
Titan Comics
March 17, 2021


A couple with tall, slender features stand in front of an Art Nouveau-inspired wall. They both bear large wings on their backs that look similar to the patterns of butterfly wings. They are kissing: a woman with long, curly red hair holds a baby in one arm and the man has his arm on the hilt of a large sword in his own.

Content warning: This work contains descriptions of sexual violence, implied rape, incest.

Wika originated as a French multi-issue comic that circulated back in 2014. Titan Comics’ recent publication of the work is its first English-language translation in a single compiled format. Described as “a rewriting of the fairy tale genre in stunning baroque steampunk decor,” any reader that pops open Wika will immediately be struck by its loud, rich visuals filling the pages with no space left empty.

Wika’s main artist, Olivier Ledroit, was already more than familiar enough with dark fantasy work, and he is known for his artistic contributions to the Black Moon Chronicles series in the French comics scene. And the mastery of his specialty shows: Wika is very much inspired by the intricacy and floral patterns of Art Nouveau design, which serve as a contrast to the more intricately-laden, industrial elements so common and archetypal within steampunk. Ledroit makes excellent use of the juxtaposition of the organic elements of the fairy world to the harsh, more artificial elements that stand in for machine and war.

In what may even be an act of showing off, the comic is not shy about doing many horizontal page spreads, intentionally composed to hang like a neatly framed landscape on a wall if you were to rip its pages out (but don’t!). This obsession with page spreads goes even further later on in the book to at some point flip vertically (albeit, disorientedly), thus forcing the reader to rotate the work to read from up to down.

A blue tinted scene focused on the bottom of a large tree in the forest with a small airship flying near it. Various intricate and swirling designs of golden vines and gears overlay on top of the scene, framing a close up of a pair of crying eyes. Two dialogue bubbles floating over the eyes read, "You can cry for the old tree Wika, as it was unique. But know that thousands more trees will grow again, and all of them will be just as unique as you."
Turning the book around over and over again was a pain, but it sure is pretty though.

Although I grimace over some of Wika’s female character designs (of which I will go into further detail later), it is undeniable that the comic’s art is magnificent. Wika’s stronger elements do come to an end; if one were to start shaking off their art-induced daze, they would quickly discover that they are about to immerse themselves within a shaky story.

Wika can be read as a coming-of-age narrative that ends with a massive, violent struggle of literally epic proportions to culminate in the end of its female protagonist’s journey into adulthood. But it is a journey riddled with conveniences, unclear priorities, and a very confusing world. Thomas Day’s script for Wika, unfortunately, does not do Ledroit’s art justice.

To simplify things, much of the crux of Wika’s conflict stems from the unbridled, unjustified anger of one man, who just can’t seem to get over himself and get therapy to confront his baggage. Prince Oberon orchestrates the murders of Duke Grimm and his wife Titania, who presided over the Grand Fairy kingdom. But in addition to wanting to cement and increase his power, Oberon holds a grudge against Titania for leaving him with Grimm. They were not only once lovers, but she is also his twin sister (yikes!). Grimm and Titania’s deaths leave Wika orphaned, and sets off the course of events to the rest of the story.

That said, Wika is both incredibly dense in visuals and plot. The latter mostly suffers with its unclear need to speed the pacing, numerous montages, and time-skips to advance Wika’s growth quickly, muddling the details of events churning in the world around her. It is through Wika’s adolescence that she gains a friend, endures heartbreak, and builds an unlikely alliance with a group of Black Fairies throughout several years to eventually tap into her true fairy powers.

But the reader does not get to linger on these pivotal benchmarks of our protagonist’s development, and instead, many of these moments are only glossed upon a few pages each to cut to other characters for more exposition before there is time to take a breath to absorb what just happened. In one moment, we see a glimpse of a few of Oberon’s kin (who?) questioning their father’s ways, and then the next, the tree of Yggdrasil has been utterly destroyed (the what?)!

A wide, exposition shot of a fantastical castle with sharp, vertical architecture sitting on an island. A "Avalon: Capital of the Elven kingdom, and royal city of Oberon. Built from sacred rock, inside of which, since the world's beginning, the Elven kings have been laid to rest. In Avalon, all the riches of the empire converge—spices, fabric and precious metals—as well as theives and adventures in search of fortune. Thirteen years later..." Seagulls are flying from the foreground and continue through a panel sequence that slowly pans closer to the face of a young, red-haired girl with pointed ears, green eyes, and floral tattoos on her face. She turns around towards the direction of the reader in the last panel and someone yells off frame: "Hey, redhead! Where're you going like that?"
Wika’s intricate visuals can definitely stay with you, but sadly it’s difficult for the story to do just the same.

As Wika remains so preoccupied with rushing through details just to get to a nonexistent finish line, it fails to flesh out the world beyond the scope of Wika’s immediate microcosm. Why magical tattoos? What happened to the couple that fostered and raised Wika in her early childhood? Why has Megg proven herself to be so powerful and pretty much right every time yet no one listens to the wise old lady? What were the elves even doing this whole time as the world was being ravaged?! Wika would have benefited a lot more if it was stretched out as a much longer series.

Wika also suffers from dated edgy fantasy tropes, which are the very sort of elements that often render the overhype and stigmatization of “adult” work as worthy of mocking. The comic does not hold back with its blood and physical violence, but it is bewildering how far Wika goes to accentuate how much of a twisted, immoral individual Oberon is. At some point, Oberon proposes to rape Wika, his niece, so that a synthesis of their powers would bear powerful offspring. It is constantly reiterated that Oberon is truly an evil person, and his cyclic, incestuous actions and penchant for weaponizing sexual violence are the core of this.

There is a total condemnation of Oberon’s warmongering, toxic masculinity as opposed to the empowering, empathetic aspects of Wika’s femininity. Sexual violence is also never explicitly shown in Wikaonly either through description or implication—and it has never been used as a tool to advance or forward a character’s development for the sake of trauma. Although in some ways it’s impactful to have an irredeemable antagonist, how far Wika seems to enjoy pushing Oberon’s character feels like a desperate tactic to see how far it can press the readers’ buttons. They get it already! He’s eviiiiiiil.

This edginess does not stop in Wika’s portrayal of violence, whether shown or implied, and it even sees its way through the comic’s use of sex. As much as Ledroit’s work deserves to be lauded for everything else, here is where it deserves to be scrutinized. Astonishingly, the actual sex scenes of the book are respectable, if not even gracefully done. The depiction of the lovemaking scenes as warm, comforting, and beautiful serve as a contrast to Oberon’s constant suggestions of sex used as a tool to impose harm.

It is through Wika’s more mundane moments that sexualization is worthy of cringing at, from all of the bizarrely placed fanservice moments sprinkled throughout and within the context of analyzing a majority of the female character designs. From Wika’s skirt riding up during a perplexingly impossible pose in an action scene, to a character slapping her butt in the guise of a misunderstanding (it was just a foreign “custom”), the fanservice scenes are less offensive and more bafflingly funny in how hard they fail in trying to be sexy. Just as much as a page is not complete without every single incredible detail put into engraving a weapon’s hilt or every single bolt and screw accounted for the flying airship, a panty shot or two must not be forgotten! There is even a character who makes horny innuendo out of everything in the guise of sex-positivity, but it is so unfunny that even other characters are sick of her antics.

Many of the women’s designs alone are purposefully meant to look sexy, designed with the formula of each having a thin frame accentuated with a large bosom and highly emphasized curves as opposed to looking believably varied like the male characters. This was most egregious with the design of one of Oberon’s lovers, Rowena, a she-wolf, who had three pairs of breasts that required a special brasserie to fit them all in. They are never commented on directly, but they are poorly justified by the nature of her canine blood to even have them to begin with. This trait is also later inherited by one of her offspring that is part of the pack hellbent on hunting Wika throughout the book.

A young, thin woman with short red hair and pointed ears jumps over a portly, monstrous-like man with sores and boils all over his face, holding a whip in one hand. She performs an upside down split mid-air, and bright green light shoots out from her mouth and eyes, hitting the man beneath her and through the windows to the outside.
If anybody here can explain to me the science behind as to what exactly is going on here, I would appreciate it.

This pin-up style is not exclusive to the European art scene but was very much archetypal of the trending styles for adult pulp work and underground comics in the 80s to early 90s. It is undeniable that influences of this style pops up in work to this day, and even remains a problem with numerous female character designs in American superhero comics. Despite going through a lot of physically enduring events that would change one’s body in many ways—from warriors to wizards to just being, well, women!—these characters somehow emerge from all of the things they go through still looking like the same, unscathed picture perfect model.

Essentially, Wika suffers from a huge case of tonal dissonance, where on hand, it offers a rightful vilification of misogyny and sexual violence, at the same time it is still riddled with a lot of incredibly goofy and hardly empowering elements that attempt to create male gaze-targeted sexiness.

As eye-popping as it is, Wika is a comic that succeeds more in style than actual substance. It is serviceable to fans of both fantasy and steampunk who are expecting a little darkness sprinkled on their faeries, all while readying themselves up for a war that will end in an explosion of cogs and gears. But that is all there is to expect going in; although having some surprising moral takeaways, Wika does not offer much else in its world because it struggles to do give it the space it deserves to take its time and immerse the reader in proper, unable to offer a satisfying, rich exploration of a fantastical setting compared to what it can do within its artwork alone.

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie is an animator by day and tries too hard to be everything else by nightfall. Feel free to join her in screaming about anime and animals as she puts off what she should be really doing at @lvmaeparian.

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