It’s easy for adults to forget the magic of art when they’re constantly being bombarded by media from every direction. But for kids discovering the world for the first time, a picture book or a cartoon or a song is extraordinary, something conjured from nothing that evokes an emotional response they cannot explain. This is the magic of Witch Hat Atelier Vol. 1 (Kodansha), Kamome Shirahama’s radiant, exuberant fantasy manga about a girl who uncovers the secrets of spell-casting and becomes a witch’s apprentice. Shirahama establishes early on that the real magic tome is the one the reader is holding, starting the book with a page showing the young Coco sitting with a book that mystically projects images of a ballerina, track runner, astronaut, and whale. All of these things live inside those glowing pages, and Shirahama connects herself to that magic with the image that follows, revealing a hand drawing the first panel of the proper narrative.
Drawing and magic are intrinsically connected in Witch Hat Atelier, with witches performing spells by drawing sigils and signs in specific arrangements to achieve desired results. Shirahama makes Coco’s magic education engaging by creating a clear process for spell casting that includes a specific set of tools and design principles. Shirahama is very detail-oriented, and a chapter illustration showing Coco surrounded by all of her magic equipment showcases how much thought the creator has put into defining the work of being a witch, making it a practical, creative, and mystical trade.
Being a witch is also very cool, and Shirahama has some very imaginative applications of magic: Witches draw half a levitation spell on each shoe and click their feet together to complete the circle, activating the magic and sending them flying through the air. They carry floating pools of water that replenish with moisture from the air and have toilets that drops their waste into the void of space. When Coco first imagines her future mentor performing a spell, Shirahama presents the image with a combination of elemental power and spectacular grace, fully capturing the excitement Coco feels as she lets her mind run wild with the possibilities. This is only a vision, but Shirahama brings that same level of gasp-worthy splendor the page when Coco taps into her own personal brand of magic.
Witch Hat Atelier blends the playful charm and lively visuals of Kiki’s Delivery Service with the academic elements and chosen one narrative of Harry Potter, delivering a coming-of-age tale with significant all-ages, mainstream appeal. There’s something special about Coco, but it’s not that she can tap into magic. It’s that she brings a new perspective to the art of spell-casting. She unlocks her potential when she breaks from the traditional spell structure, starting by ditching a wand in favor of a pigment stone like the one she would use to mark patterns on cloth in her mother’s shop. She’s able to do unbelievable things when she takes the pieces of a spell and interprets them in her own way, adding an extra layer to the magic as art metaphor.