Mystik U’s Alisa Kwitney Talks Campus Magic & Female Friendship

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<i>Mystik U</i>&#8217;s Alisa Kwitney Talks Campus Magic & Female Friendship

It’s difficult for any new story about a magical school to avoid comparisons to Harry Potter, no matter the medium or focus, but DC ComicsMystik U did an admirable job breaking away from J.K. Rowling’s tropes. Rather than focusing on young children, the three-issue, self-contained Mystik U features an incoming class of freshman at the titular university, staffed by several familiar faces. The story follows a young Zatanna Zatara as she enrolls after accidentally unleashing her true powers during a stage-magic act, with serious negative consequences for her father. Writer (and former Vertigo editor) Alisa Kwitney and artist Mike Norton created the setting from scratch, and even if many of the faces on the page are familiar from other iterations, they’ve been updated and re-imagined, and the whole book is a refreshing and invigorating take on the long-underused magical side of the DC universe.

Dean Rose Psychic and her staff are struggling to identify an oncoming threat and nip it in the bud, but that conflict plays second fiddle to Zatanna’s social and academic issues. Even though many of the challenges she faces are specific to the magical nature of her education, Mystik U’s trials should feel familiar and relatable to readers who fumbled through their own transitions into adulthood. The series doesn’t shy away from tough subjects, and focuses on building strong relationships between female characters in a way that feels rewarding and all-too-rare. With the first arc collected in a trade out now in comic shops, Mystik U is an excellent great gateway comic for new readers who love shows like Shadowhunters (and of course Harry Potter), but it’s also perfect for veteran fans who miss Books of Magic and enthusiastically await the return of the Sandman universe this fall. To commemorate the trade collection, Paste exchanged emails with Kwitney to find out more about her “syllabus” for the series.

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Mystik U Cover Art by Julian Totino Tedesco

Paste: Books like Mystik U provide a great chance to revisit characters that haven’t been seen in main continuity for a while, but it’s difficult to balance cameos and Easter eggs with the needs of new readers who might not familiar with them. How did you approach that challenge?

Alisa Kwitney: My main focus is always on writing a strong, character-based story, and in the case of Mystik U, I was approaching it as an ensemble piece, which meant making sure that each student had a clear arc. And I wanted Rose Psychic, the dean, to have an arc as well. So Easter eggs (or as I like to call them, Passover Afikomens) and cameos only get included when they don’t interfere with character development and conflict.

Actually, my favorite moments are the ones in which the cameos or Easter eggs actually complement the story arcs. That’s the Holy Grail of storytelling—when your fun moments are layered with something deeper than just the “a-ha” of recognizing an old character or callback.

Paste: Speaking of all those familiar faces, how did you choose which characters to include? The story may star Zatanna, but it features members of the Trenchcoat Brigade, Frankenstein, Xanadu and more.

Kwitney: With the exception of Enchantress, I tried to choose characters who have not appeared too recently in tons of books, so that there was some freedom to do a fresh take. And in the case of Enchantress, I was told that I could ignore the recent film version and go my own way. So I reread the older comic book bios and storylines, and then re-imagined each character.

When it came to Sebastian Faust, I was looking for a conflicted bad boy, because they are so much fun to write. Like Constantine, he has demon issues, but unlike Constantine, Faust’s past is relatively unexplored. There’s a lot to mine there. Also, he shared famous father issues with Zatanna.

Paste: Shifting a character that’s been portrayed as an adult to a younger version of themselves can be tough. With most of the core cast freshman in college, did you spend a lot of time thinking about their visual design? Did you and Mike Norton talk about outfits and how to leverage Zatanna’s classic costume for casual wear?

Kwitney: I think I had some initial notes about giving each character a look rather than a costume, and about incorporating Zatanna’s tuxedo-motif into her clothes, but Mike really went to town. I loved his ingenuity and the way he made Zee look. She’s never cheesecake-y. Faust, on the other hand, gets a few beefcake moments I called for in the script—you know, whoops, I had my shirt off, whoops, you caught me in the shower—and then Mike went and added another all on his own.

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Mystik U Interior Art by Mike Norton & Jordie Bellaire

Paste: Especially in the case of the second issue, there’s a lot going on with what people wear. The residents of Thriae House and Enchantress in particular have distinct styles that tell readers a lot about each character. How did those come about?

Kwitney: I think this was one of those cases where there was really good chemistry between myself and Mike and the editors, Alex Antone and Brittany Holzherr. I have a theme in my writing about how college is a sort of theater where people go to improvise themselves, and wanted Enchantress to have agency over her change. So the idea is that initially, June Moon uses makeup and clothing to express her inner, rebellious, magickal Enchantress side…and then, as her persona and power develop, she is able to access it without using props.

As for the Thriae, well, part of the fun of doing a comic is picking stuff that has a strong visual component and is pleasurable for an artist to draw.

Paste: One of the things that’s most striking about Mystik U is how focused it is on relationships between women, both friendships and mentoring. Was that an intentional choice for the book?

Kwitney: Absolutely. Years and years ago, I wrote an introduction to Terry Moore’s first Strangers in Paradise trade paperback in which I talked about how little attention female friendship gets in comics. But female friendships are powerful and important and can be every bit as intense as romance, so they deserve attention.

As for female mentors, I was lucky enough to be mentored by Karen Berger, and want to reflect strong, positive female mentors in my writing. All too often, women are put in stories where their main interaction is competitive rather than collaborative.

Paste: Mystik U being set on a college campus, it tackles some timely issues that a lot of college students confront like addiction and consent. Was that part of the plan all along?

Kwitney: Is there a way to write authentically about college experience without tackling those issues? Mystik U is informed by my memories of college and by the experiences my kids relate (my daughter is in college now, and my son just graduated). I think issues of Addiction, Consent and Grinding Sense of Inferiority are the three arch-demons of college.

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Mystik U Interior Art by Mike Norton & Jordie Bellaire

Paste: When it comes to consent, it seemed like you leveraged some of the characters dual personalities to drive home questions about agency and control. The dichotomies of June Moon/Enchantress and Rose Psychic/Doctor Occult were really fascinating—what made you want to use those two characters?

Kwitney: I remember reading Books of Magic and being fascinated by the relationship between Doctor Occult and Rose Psychic. It seemed so seamless and conflict-free in Gaiman’s story—animus and anima, two aspects of one self—but then, there are many marriages that appear to be perfect, and later turn out to be built over fault lines.

As for Enchantress, I think the old take on her has some serious baggage. The idea that Enchantress’ power comes from some outside demonic force, and that she’s a sweet good girl blonde until she’s taken over by a powerful, ruthless, dark or red-haired bad-girl persona seems like another way of saying, “Girls, you can be powerful and sexual, or you can be good.” Have we not moved beyond the “One That I Want” finale from Grease?

Paste: There were also some interesting, subtle conversations about gender going on. When Rose and Doctor Occult switched who was in control, characters made gendered references, and Rose herself specifically states she can’t tell if a new presence is male, female or non-binary. Why did you want to include those elements?

Kwitney: I think gender and sexuality are issues that everyone is more aware of on college campuses these days, so it seemed natural that at Mystik U, they would explore the magickal aspects of those issues. Also, everyone always assumes that unless gender is specified, it’s male. You know that raccoon that scaled a 25-story building in Minnesota? Female. So part of a college education is learning that when you are confronted by a giant blob creature, you should not go assuming that it’s a dude.

Paste: There are several characters, most notably Zatanna and Sebastian, who struggle with a range of issues about legacy and family. What made you want to tackle that subject?

Kwitney: Zatanna has always come with some father issues, I think, and I wanted to explore the feeling of coming to college with a certain sense of yourself—as a star, as a rebel, as studious, as an outcast—and then having that image challenged in good ways and bad.

The fact that Zatanna idolizes her famous magician father and Faust despises his infamous sorcerer dad made them absolutely perfect and perfectly wrong for each other, too.

Paste: Especially with the announcements around the new Sandman Universe books, many of these characters will be back in the spotlight shortly, and the ending of Mystik U leaves things very open for Zatanna. Do you have plans for what she does next?

Kwitney: I would love, love, love to do a lovers on the lam story with Zatanna and Faust searching for her father and getting caught up in an infernal underworld caper involving Nebiros and Felix Faust and a whole bunch of magickal baddies. So I hope Mystik U does well enough that they let me write some more!

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Mystik U Interior Art by Mike Norton & Jordie Bellaire

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