by James Robinson, various artists
(DC/Vertigo, 1996)

Ursula was a priestess to the triple goddess in the early days of Roman Britain. When she and her pagan sisters are raped and murdered by a band of massive and brutish Picts (by all reports a race of small people), Ursula cries for vengeance against her killer in a future life.

The triple goddess Hecate, here portrayed along the lines of Neil Gaiman's take on the Fates, complies -- but she/they take their time in doing so. Because of some vague "rules" (which are poorly explained even by the goddesses themselves), Ursula must take revenge on Cooth herself, and the deed must occur in Londinium (London), where the initial rape and murder took place. Never mind that Cooth, in his future incarnations, might be a completely different, decent person; this book makes the assumption that a brute in one life is a brute eternally -- so much for learning as you go.

Witchcraft is an obvious attempt to cash in on the success and popularity of Neil Gaiman's Sandman and related series, but James Robinson lacks Gaiman's deft hand at characterization. At the same time, Robinson's message here is highly questionable.

Ursula and Cooth are rarely reborn at the same time in London, so centuries pass as Ursula awaits her opportunity for some righteous smiting. She muffs her chance in 1342 -- so badly that she causes another slaughter of her fellow coven members -- and again in 1842, when she's reborn as a man, the adventurer Richard Burton, and chooses to forgo revenge for another turn of the wheel. The Fates, meanwhile, hem and natter, but do little to move the story along.

Finally in the 1990s does Ursula get her chance. Cooth has been reborn as another scoundrel, this one perhaps the worst of the lot, and only after Cooth/Ursula, now a grandmother named Irene, and her daughter in this life, Gaynor, have suffered mightily at his hands do the Fates get involved and kickstart some divine retribution. Oddly, unable to get their hands dirty for the past two millennia, they seem to have no qualms about getting involved now.

Witchcraft, first printed in 1994 and collected in 1996, attempts to be a story about strong feminine spirit, but I think Robinson should have talked with a few women before writing his plot. The story seems to suggest that women are pretty much always victims (with an occasional rape thrown in to titillate the boys) unless some divine beings come along to save the day. That -- along with the blatant man-as-savage overtones -- is hardly a message of gender equality. Robinson's book is sexism of a different color.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 8 November 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.