After a bit of technical trouble, Sarah Gaydos (Editor-in-Chief at Oni Press) introduced her panelists for a look at magic at Oni Press and Lion Forge: Jasmine Amiri (Editor at Oni Press), DJ Kirkland and Daniel Barnes (the artist and writer of The Black Mage), Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu (writer and artist of Mooncakes) and Sarah Graley (Kim Reaper)
Gaydos’ began by noticing that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is 21 years old. That means that it is solidly baked into the culture of magical stories. So, with that in mind Gaydos asked for other magical stories that were formative for them.
Jasmine Amiri’s awakening to witches, spookyness, and queerness was a book at the library called Kissing the Witch, a queer romance anthology. The Black Mage crew were big anime guys and the magic of anime influenced them, particularly No Need For Tenchi, Cardcaptor Sakura, Sailor Moon, these were basic ideas of magic. Kirkland also pointed to less explicitly magical series like Dragonball Z or Street Fighter. Barnes specifically pointed to the magic systems of Fullmetal Alchemist and Naruto. Walker pointed to the Chronicles of Prydain, specifically because the magic is so secondary and in the background, and Halloween Town. Walker was still excited by Halloween Town on the panel. Xu also loved Halloween Town, but for different reasons. In Halloween Town, she saw the outline of a diasporic story, a girl’s weird grandma comes to town from a strange land to bring her into her heritage. Xu also cited Practical Magic, The Worst Witch, the work of Tamora Pierce, and especially the visuals of Clamp manga. Graley had Cirque du Freak and Sonic the Comic helping to define magic to her.
Barnes called The Black Mage “Harry Potter if Harry Potter was the only black kid going to Hogwarts and Hogwarts was run by the KKK and also he had to team up with Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, and John Henry”.
The origins of Mooncakes were slow and fun and personal. Walker wrote Avatar: The Last Airbender fan fiction that Xu wanted to illustrate, but, as time went by, Xu brought forward an idea she had had for a paranormal romance story between a vampire and a werewolf and it took off with the two of them. Neither one knew where to take the story at first, but Walker said that one of the moments that defined the series was realizing that she could have one of her characters have hearing loss. Based on her own disability, she spoke about how this was a chance to undo her childhood desire to go to Hogwarts and have them erase her disability. “That’s not a very healthy way to approach imagining disability”. From there, she set about designing a magic system that doesn’t erase or ignore the difficulties that come with that but also finds unique ways that magic and technology mix and how disability can become powerful.
Barnes added that loving a genre often doesn’t mean overlooking its flaws, in fact it often makes him acutely aware of the absence of important elements. Watching Harry Potter, for instance, immediately stood out for the lack of people of color.
Graley said that Kim Reaper came out of her childhood fears of a single Goosebumps book, compounded by moving next to a cemetery. Terrified that zombies would come for her like in the book, she dreamed that she was the Grim Reaper, reasoning that death cannot die. This led her to a story about Kim, a part-time Grim Reaper who doesn’t really love her job, and Becca the girl who’s hopelessly in love with her.
Magic systems were obviously important to Barnes and Kirkland and they strove to have those systems differ and represent different cultures while making sense together. Of course, there are magic systems, but there are also systems of magic: who is allowed to use magic, how do people react to people using magic. “It’s a story about access.”
A far cry from The Black Mages‘ lengthy text messages, Walker and Xu did not want to talk about magic systems, but Walker always wanted to have a moment where Nova’s hearing aids became a potent magic tool and built the magic out from there. She also wanted to make sure that non-magical characters could contribute using potions and other non-inherent spellcraft.
Mooncakes represents Xu’s first time coloring a full book and she dove into that role, finding ways to visualize magic through color. For instance, Nova’s power is often depicted in the same color as her hearing aids, which are brightly colored to make sure that they are visible.
Graley pointed out the fun of getting magic systems in chunks, the excitement of wondering how something happens and the satisfaction of being answered.
Amiri is currently working on a secret supernatural series with Leah Williams. Asked about interrogating and exploring its magic system, Amiri says that there isn’t much trouble because Williams is so meticulous. It also became part of the story because it features a main character on trial who needs to prove that her magic is real.
Neither of the writers needed to spell out what magic looked like for their story. In both cases, they were on very similar pages because of friendship, trust, or shared inspiration. Xu called out a particular line from Walker’s notes, “The horse lady conjures up a pair of opera glasses because she’s an asshole”. It caused her to laugh out loud, but it also communicated something important that wasn’t necessarily in the script.
Asked about writing about serious topics for young readers, specifically without forgetting that they are intelligent readers. Barnes said that talking about race is something that can often make you laugh at how ridiculous it all is but that laughter can be uncomfortable. They embraced that discomfort and trusted that kids can handle that discomfort.
Xu and Walker have both worked with kids and learned immediately that they are smarter than they thought and that they hate being talked down to. They both remember being that age and they have found that their experiences are still fundamentally relatable.
Kirkland specifically praised Stephen Universe as a masterclass in addressing real issues in a way that is sincere, direct, and appropriate. Graley agreed, saying that stories that are appropriate for her young cousin are often the same series she seeks out, proving that its not a matter of toning anything down but of telling stories truthfully.
The panelists agreed that the only thing they really have to remove for young audiences are swears.
Gaydos ended by asking for something special about each book’s main character. Barnes chose self-confidence and self-belief. For Graley it was that Kim Reaper is flawed and imperfect. Walker said that Nova is scared and its rare and valuable to see a YA character who recognizes that they don’t have to go it alone and Xu added that Nova is not afraid to cry or show her emotions.