“Principles of Magic” is a long-running webcomic about Avery, a new student in a restrictive school for girls who can do magic, and her fast friends Pepper and Charlie. Together, they navigate a fraught world with humor and heartbreak.
I recently chatted with Sarah Hopkins about how “Principles of Magic” came to be. We cover how Hopkins developed the comic idea and the characters, institutional hierarchies and how welcoming the webcomics audience can be. Read on!
First off, thanks for your time! Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired the characters and world of “Principles of Magic?”
Sarah Hopkins: Thanks for having me! The idea for “Principles of Magic” hit me really quickly – a story about how the unique things about women are often seen as a liability. I thought it would be interesting to flip the magic school trope on its head. I had also been struggling with my feelings about Harry Potter (this was when J.K. Rowling was starting to reveal herself as a TERF, but wasn’t completely mask-off yet). The concept of “Hogwarts but shitty” was something I wanted to explore, since Hogwarts didn’t feel like home to me anymore.
We enter the school alongside Avery, a new student who quickly links up with Pepper and Charlie, two of the “troublemakers.” Was it important for you to take us through this world from Avery’s perspective? If so, why?
SH: The three girls came into my mind almost fully-formed, and Avery was always the shy one. I thought it would make the most sense for her to be the newcomer, and for her to slowly come out of her shell as she and the reader get more comfortable in the setting, and with Pepper and Charlie.
There’s a lot of nuance in the world of “Principles of Magic” when it comes to toxic femininity (as inspired and controlled by patriarchal standards, yes, but enforced by women,) and the school’s hierarchy is especially familiar and heartbreaking. What inspired you to dig deep into this kind of “proper school for proper girls” vibe?
SH: A lot of toxic elements of patriarchal societies are perpetuated by women who have grown up in those societies and have internalized misogyny. Women who hate themselves and in turn, hate the little girls who remind them of themselves. A lot of readers are sympathetic to Aurelie because she’s sort of a pathetic character. She doesn’t take pleasure in being cruel like Miss Page does. But she’s cruel anyway. True, she’s part of this system because she has nowhere else to go, but she’s been harming children for years. Her class is the centerpiece of their curriculum. Hyacinth doesn’t usually live at Signet because he doesn’t have to – these women regulate themselves, they’re completely devoted to the program. Signet is based on a lot of different types of schools, including finishing schools for girls. And that’s because it’s a very feminine environment that’s still really drenched in misogyny.
That dynamic is lived-in but bearable because of Charlie, Pepper and Avery’s defiance of the school’s restrictive norms, and because of their ability to forge real friendship and connection throughout the comic. Their characters are distinct, and their dialogue feels real and expressive. How’d you go about developing their voices?
SH: Writing dialogue is one of the easiest parts of making a comic for me, and these three girls are so close to my heart that it’s really easy to slip into their voices. Part of me is in all of them, so I think about how I spoke when I was a teenager, how I thought about the world and how I clung to female friendships like a raft.
“Principles of Magic” features a lovely spare cartooning style, but you experiment with panel structure, layout and texture as the comic progresses. How did you refine the art style you wanted to tell this story? Did your work dial in over time?
SH: When I started “Principles of Magic,” I hadn’t really made comics. I did a few short comics beforehand, to see if I could do it, and then I just jumped into POM with both feet. That’s why the art and the panel structures change so much, because I’m learning and growing as an artist as I make the comic. A lot of “Principles of Magic” is about exploring what I can do with this medium.
What made you decide to release “Principles of Magic” as a webcomic? What do you like about this particular medium, and what’s challenging about it?
SH: Growing up as a girl, I didn’t really feel comfortable going into comic shops. So I didn’t read a lot of floppy comics or graphic novels – but I did read webcomics. I read as many as I could get my hands on. Specific comics that really drew me in were stuff like “The Meek,” “Namesake,” and “String Theory.” They just captured my imagination. As soon as I found webcomics, I thought to myself “this is something I could do.”
The best thing about webcomics is the freedom – there’s no oversight, you can do whatever you want with your own story. And the worst part, to me, is that you’re publishing basically page by page – so you can’t go back and edit in details in the earlier pages to make the story more cohesive. It’s an unfinished product – it always will be, in some way. But that’s part of it.
I’d love to hear how you go about making connections, building buzz and getting your audience for your work. What’s worked for you? What’s still challenging about this kind of marketing or awareness-building? What do you enjoy about being in the webcomics sphere?
SH: I really only use Twitter. I’m not on the comics sites like tapas or webtoon, because I’m very protective of “Principles of Magic,” and I’d rather have full control over it on my own website. But Twitter has been great – I can find comics friends and peers, and I can find readers who are looking for new webcomics. Webcomic readers are so nice to me, I never get any mean comments about my posting schedule or my drawing style. I just feel really welcomed by them.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you’d gotten when you started making comics? Or, if you got a great piece of advice at the outset, please share it with the rest of us!
SH: My advice is that the only way to get better at comics is by making comics. Definitely start with shorter comics, short stories, so you can experiment with different styles. I would not have made “Principles of Magic” in full color if I knew then what I know now – it takes FOREVER!
What else are you working on that you can share about?
SH: I’m working on a graphic novel length version of a short comic I published on Twitter last October, The Sea Maid. It’s about sapphic Irish seals – what could be better?
Do you listen to any particular kinds of music, read anything or watch anything specific that informs Principles of Magic, or your other work?
SH: I’m a podcast listener – I listen to podcasts while drawing, doing chores, showering, sleeping. The media that inspired POM is media about magic girls who are shamed for their powers – Matilda, Frozen, even Carrie. During the early phases of the comic I drew a lot of inspiration from this old Philosophy Tube video about witchcraft and politics.
Where can we find you online? Links, plugs, etc. more than welcome.
Anything else you want to add?
SH: Just that I think anybody can make comics if they want to. I think comics are for everyone.