In this column, I feature comic book reviews written by my students at Oxford College of Emory University. Oxford College is a small liberal arts school just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I challenge students to read and interpret comics because I believe sequential art and visual literacy are essential parts of education at any level (see my Manifesto!). I post the best of my students’ reviews in this column. Today, I am proud to present a review by Mandy Sun.

Mandy Sun is a first-year student at Emory Oxford University and is considering majoring in Computer Science. Her home is Starkville, Mississippi, where she attended the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. Her favorite book is City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. She has many hobbies related to creating art, such as crocheting, drawing, painting, jewelry-making, and hopes to deepen her relationship to artwork through personal commissions.

Witch Hat Alelier (Volumes 1-3) by Kamome ShirahamaWitch Hat Atelier (Volumes 1-3) by Kamome Shirahama (writing and art)

Witch Hat Alelier, written and illustrated by Kamome Shirahama, has become a staple name in the fantasy genre of manga since its first volume release in 2017 in both Eastern and Western fanbases. Kamome Shirahama, a Japanese freelance and manga illustrator, has become best known for the series, alongside her work creating gorgeous variant covers and illustrations for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and stories within the Star Wars franchise. Witch Hat Atelier is saturated from cover to cover with beautiful illustrations and high-quality artwork that has since caused the series to gain traction. Not only has its art caught the eyes of many readers, but the storyline and world building of witches and magic so full of life and innovation has managed to capture the curiosity of readers of all ages, its detail reminiscent of larger fantasy series like that of Harry Potter. Currently, Witch Hat Atelier has accumulated 12 published volumes and around 65 total chapters.

The story follows Coco, a young girl fascinated with the beauty and wonder of magic; however, as an “unknowing” and a non-blood-born witch, she is unable to perform magic. When a visiting witch by the name of Qifrey comes by, she secretly watches as he casts a spell. Ecstatic with the knowledge of how to perform magic, she unknowingly casts forbidden magic, turning her mother to stone. To fix the damage she’s done, she becomes a witch, following in the tutelage of Qifrey the Witch, to find the spell to save her mother. Newly thrust into the world of magic, she has much to learn, and Witch Hat Atelier follows her on her journey into the society of witches, the history of magic, and the secrets that it all holds.

Throughout the first volume, Coco meets her fellow apprentices Agott, Tetia, and Richeh, young and budding witches also learning under Qifrey. Tetia — the cheerful, optimistic, and peppy witch of the four — along with Richeh — mild-mannered and reserved — welcome Coco as a newly appointed apprentice. Agott, cold, driven, and unapproachable, meets Coco by bluntly blaming her ignorance for the trouble she has caused. She wants nothing to do with Coco, nor her presence and status as an Unknowing to be anywhere near her or the atelier. Qifrey, the first full-fledged, adult witch the audience gets to meet, serves as the girls’ educator. Despite his well-mannered and charismatic demeanor, he harbors a secret, for reasons yet unbeknownst to the audience or his disciples.

Amongst the vast world of witches, an evil lurks in the shadows: an organization of witches called the Brimmed Caps. Visually notable by their witch hats, which feature a brim like those of typical Western depictions of witches, the group stands against the current laws and systems by which the society of witches stand by today. Mysterious and always watching, Coco and her friends work against their interventions in their studies, seemingly small ripples in the balance of their society. Their ethics and morals as of the first three volumes are rather vague, but as we begin to understand the fundamental nature of forbidden magic, the ideals they stand by forces even the audience to question the purpose and nature of our protagonists’ society.

Thematically, the story of Witch Hat Atelier hinges on the idea of childlike wonder and when such wonder is confronted by reality. Touching upon subjects of ableism and socioeconomic inequality, Kamome Shirahama openly acknowledges nuances within the society of witches. If I were to reveal the conventions by which the magic in Witch Hat Atelier takes form, it would spoil the fundamental surprise and complexity that stems from it in later volumes. But in its essence, these characteristics of magic make it more consumable and relatable to the audience and reality. Such relatability lends itself to the audience’s ability to connect and contemplate moral nuances within the story.

Not only are social injustices touched upon, but the nature of education and innovation become a crucial point in understanding such injustices. Throughout the story, Qifrey’s thought process as an educator is explained and laid out for the audience to understand, emphasizing how to nurture a will to learn and how to foster innovation and creativity. Overcoming obstacles at an early age, such as learning a new skill, healthily putting such knowledge into practice, or confronting certain practices that you might dislike, are taught not only to the young protagonists within the story but the audience as well. I think especially by some current education systems today, where the process of learning has become so standardized, Witch Hat Atelier offers some refreshing insight as to how to view education in its entirety.

As for the illustrations, Witch Hat Atelier is overflowing with gorgeous artwork reminiscent of Christian oil paintings and the Art Nouveau style. With individually illustrated strands of hair, flowing cloaks, cascading water, Kamome Shirahama demonstrates her masterful understanding of both anatomy and movement. The artwork lends itself to the elegance and vastness of the world that Shirahama portrays, and the casting of spells seems as if the characters are bringing magic to life. The paneling alone has marked Shirahama as one of the most talented and innovative manga artists to date; with panels bearing intricate accents and unique layouts that turn individual panels into unified paintings, the entirety of Witch Hat Atelier has shattered its restrictions of its characters to the space within the panel, creating a visually flowing and dynamic story that stands alone as a masterful work of art. Shirahama manages to innovatively use the borders, characters, settings, and gutter space within each page to creatively unify the story and the visuals.

Witch Hat Atelier, although aimed towards a younger audience, still manages to tackle darker and more complex themes — amongst them being social inequity, ableism, and more. Regardless, it still does a wonderful job at establishing such serious topics in a respectful manner while remaining nuanced enough that the reader can understand the reasons as to why such problems can exist in even a fictional society. As for magic, its conventions have managed to transpire physically past its pages, inspiring online circles around the world to formulate and create their own innovations of magic. The first, second, and third volumes are a slow introduction to the rest of Witch Hat Atelier, but I am sure you will want to stay on board to learn the rest. As one of my first ever long-term manga, Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier is a five-star story as one of the most gorgeous depictions of magic and learning in media to date.

-Mandy Sun


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

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