SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Often when reading a writer’s collection of novels or viewing an artist’s collection of paintings, the audience can see how the creator progressed and how their style developed. It is rare to see all of that in just one creation, but South Orange native William Roth delivers just that with his graphic novel, “Witch Heart.”
Roth began writing and illustrating the 240-page book, which was released in September 2022, when he was a 16-year-old student at Columbia High School. When completing and publishing his book at age 21, Roth decided not to redo the earlier sections of the book, choosing to let his art show his improvement and stylistic evolution. Seeing his development as an artist throughout the course of the book is fun, Roth said.
“Looking at it shows me how I’ve improved in the years since, and it reminds me of the artist I was in high school. Of course, it’s a bit hard to reconcile the old parts of the story with the current story, just because the artwork and writing have changed in some ways,” Roth told the News-Record about keeping the early parts unrevised. “This is because I wanted to remember where the story, and my writing, began — it’s a sentimental thing for me.”
Roth, who is finishing his last year at Rhode Island School of Design, joked that he also didn’t want to take the time to revise it. Nevertheless, he thinks the end result holds up.
“I think the biggest changes were in my sense of comics as a medium, and writing quality,” Roth said about comparing the beginning and end of his book. “I learned about ‘flow’ in comics, which is the principle that art and paneling should deliberately guide a reader’s eye through the page. I also became more confident in creating page-turner, action-packed sequences. In terms of writing, more and more things fell into place, maybe as a consequence of working so long on it. At the beginning, when I thought it’d be 30 pages, the story had a much lighter tone. As the book goes on, I’d like to think that symbolism, setup and payoff, and character depth all get more refined.”
And it does. The beginning of the story features a meek teen witch, Rhea Batwattle, struggling to express her feelings to her crush, Yineshe. While fun, the early pages read like a teen rom-com with magic. However, as the plot — and Roth — develop, the story becomes more resonant. Rhea — who has accidentally gotten herself into a duel with an ultra-powerful third-generation vampire, Ilya Nosferai — must learn to trust herself; rely on her friends, such as Lefi, a kelpie; and lean into her strengths. What begins as a story about a crush evolves into a story about self-esteem, confidence and friendship.
Though “Witch Heart” is Roth’s first solo publication, he was already a published illustrator. At age 13, he illustrated MJ Gottlieb’s “How to Ruin a Business Without Really Trying,” and, at age 18, he illustrated Maplewood resident Adrianna Ahern Donat’s “The Mustache Fairy.” Both books are available through Amazon.
“I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember,” Roth said. “As a kid, I’d draw whenever I could. I would sketch on the paper placemats in diners. Through the years I’ve taken art classes and am lucky enough to go to RISD, where I’ve learned a great deal. In terms of writing, I’ve had little experience. In fact, ‘Witch Heart’ is my first novel. However, I loved my literature classes in high school, and I think I grew a lot as a writer thanks to them.”
It wasn’t just his classes at Columbia High School that gave Roth the push he needed to write “Witch Heart.” The more he worked on his graphic novel, the more ideas he had and the longer it became.
“I’d originally planned to make a 30-page comic within the month of October as a drawing challenge, but the story quickly ballooned into something longer and more compelling for me,” Roth said.
The urge to continue writing was so intense that, even after the main story ends, Roth includes some short comic strips at the end of the novel, featuring silly encounters between the book’s characters. These last few pages are an utter delight, with the entire book prompting rave reviews from readers.
“The most rewarding part by far has been the reception. I posted ‘Witch Heart’ online for years as a webcomic, and through the years I’ve had consistent readers, and even fans,” Roth said. “Reading their comments as I updated the pages let me know that my story existed in the lives of other people. Drawing comics is a long, tedious process, but having that base of enthusiasm made it feel less arduous. People online even took photos with their copies of the book once I published it — how fun is that!”
In the few months that “Witch Heart” has been on the shelves, Roth has received positive feedback from teachers, who recommend the book to their students.
“The cover art really attracted my students and the story kept them reading. Praise has spread by word of mouth and now this book is always checked out — my students beg to read it. They say they like the school setting, variety of mythical characters and the action,” L.H., a middle grades teacher in Westminster, Vt., said about the book. “I even had a student reference ‘Witch Heart’ as we discussed a different class text. There are positive messages about loyalty to friends and the importance of believing in yourself. I really think this could be a middle grades hit, especially with any children for whom reading is a challenge. These wonderfully expressive illustrations will entice them to read.”
For K.M., a retired English teacher from Los Angeles, “Witch Heart” was the first graphic novel he had ever experienced and he loved it.
“I say ‘watch’ rather than ‘read,’ because these drawings project such a range of movement, sound and emotion, so dynamic they leave you breathless and at the same time energized to keep on board. I am amazed at how such strong passions can be conveyed with the few lines that make up the human face,” K.M. said. “What William does with eyes alone is astonishing. Add that to his understanding of the pain and paradoxes of the human condition, of coming of age specifically, as in Rhea’s discovery of ‘the strength that comes from weakness,’ and you have a writer/artist and a new medium.”
“Witch Heart” is available for purchase at Words bookstore in Maplewood and by online order at tinyurl.com/2p935ka9. For more information about Roth and to view more of his work, visit williamrothart.com.
As a young writer and illustrator himself, Roth offered the following advice to young artists like himself: “My primary advice is something that I realized when I was a couple years deep into drawing ‘Witch Heart.’ I’d tried making long comics before, and none of them panned out. I think the problem often is that a writer is too focused on the later parts of the story, the long-term goals. The trick is to enjoy the increments, because stories are written incrementally. For me, even though some pages were a slog to draw, each included a bit of humor, or a cool sequence, or a moment of character development. Those little things kept me invested. If they keep you invested, they’ll keep your readers invested as well. So, keep writing and drawing!”