ECCC 2019: Magic Systems, Systems Of Oppression, And How To Manage Both At Reimagining Fantasy Comics
by Noah Sharma
Big conventions can fall into a habit of having their high profile creators stuck purely on company panels, while specific and interesting topics want for star power. So when I saw that Juliet Capra (editor on Crowded) had assembled a fantastic array of major and indie writers to talk about the ins and outs of fantasy comics, I knew this would be a must see. The panel included Magdalene Visaggio (writer of Sex, Death, Revolution and Calamity Kate), Brian Schirmer (Writer of upcoming Fairlady), Dani Colman (Editor of Black Jack Ketchum, essayist for Ody-C, and writer of the upcoming Unfinished Corner, a launch title for Vault Comics’ Myriad imprint), Daniel Barnes (writer of The Black Mage), and Kieron Gillen (writer of The Wicked and the Divine, Journey into Mystery, Die, and the newly announced Once and Future).
Capra opened the panel by asking how the creators determined which types of fantasy fit into their stories.
Unfinished Corner is specifically a Jewish fantasy, and that is more complicated than it sounds because the Jewish diaspora is so old and so vast that crafting a coherent magic system was difficult. However, Coleman was able to create consistency by finding the common thread: that all magic comes from HaShem. Once she locked in on that core theme it began to clarify how magic could be consistently channeled.
For Sex Death Revolution, Vissagio, by her own admission not traditionally a fantasy reader, focused on the subjectivity of magic. Inspired by a line from Gillen’s Phonogram, that “it only has to make sense to you”, Visaggio not only took that advice as a writer but expanded it to encompass how the characters interact with magic.
Black Mage is super anime inspired and so its magic system is really whatever you can yell as an attack name and looks badass works. Barnes loves using magic because you can do anything you want as long as you set precedent.
Schirmer compared magic to cell phones in detective fiction. It’s immediately difficult to avoid easy answers once you can go ask a scrier. This comparison was made very literal, as Fair Lady is a high fantasy detective story, or at least a low fantasy detective story in a high fantasy world. To deal with this issue, Schirmer decided to lean on the common trope of magic having faded from the world with only a few practicioners able to summon some part of what remains. It was important that mysteries be solved via detective work, not magic, even in a setting where both are an option.
“How can you ask me this? The next fifty minutes is Kieron Gillen giving a speech,” Gillen joked. Both because he’s written so many magical worlds and because the nature of magic is so fundamental to many of those stories, Gillen took a minute to find the core of his belief, however, after a moment he settled on an answer: “magic is the thing that is, by definition, impossible.” When magic becomes fully understood it is now science. Magic has to speak to your story, but Gillen specifically highlighted a line by Ares both as an example of what magic is and how the caster’s bias and belief can change how magic is perceived.
Once and Future came from wondering if magic is real why don’t we see it. For this series he decided that magic halts reality, inspired by English ideas of the Otherworld. Die, on the other hand, is a maximalist view of magic, anything goes.
Colman admitted that she has recently read a number of fantasy stories, specifically in prose, where you can feel how in love the author is with their magic system and it is explored in exhaustive detail. She said that it often can feel as though these kinds of magic systems are trying to cross from magic into science. “I don’t care precisely what combination of hand movements you have to do to do the thing, I care that it makes that thing explode.” Gillen countered that there are ways in which that can work, comparing it to the deep dive one takes into the life of a whaler when reading Moby Dick, but even he acknowledged that he’s not especially fond of this approach usually.
SDR is a very personal comic, driven by who the protagonist is and could be. Despite this, it enumerates the rules of black magic. Capra asked if the transition from science fiction to fantasy was difficult for Visaggio. The simple answer is no. The more detailed answer is that it made inherent sense for her thanks to her experience in philosophy. Visaggio says that much of the book came out of the realization that if magic existed there would be insufferably intellectual sorcerers. Visaggio promises that the rules of magic and the theories that Esperanza devises will not save her and that its fundamentally about the inexplicably of magic and how it affects her personal growth.
Gillen immediately asked if Visaggio had read much about chaos magicians. He found that its a belief that appears through osmosis in many works and is taken very seriously by its practitioners. One fan even approached him at some convention after Phonogram came out to thank him for putting his magic system out there, eventually making it clear that he thought that Gillen was a magician who truly believed what he was writing in a literal sense.
The Black Mage is a “broad satire”: the story of Tom Token who is accepted to St. Ivory Academy. Barnes is kind of tired of the imprecise partial allegories for race and class and privilege in fantasy so he just made it direct. Barnes says that parody came naturally, a story where the text is funny but the implications are kind of horrifying. You can make it work if you just commit. Coleman compared that to Michael Caine, who, upon being offered the role of Scrouge in The Muppets Christmas Carol, insisted that he be able to play the role as if this was King Lear.
The panel was then asked about the responsibility of discussing issues of social justice in fantasy. Coleman acknowledged that Jewish history includes some really horrible things, “we’ve had some times”. She felt that a huge part of writing a YA Jewish fantasy story was wanting to have something fun to appear alongside, and without ignoring, all of the horror that is part and parcel of the Jewish experience. At the same time, she wanted it to be accessible to non-Jewish readers and to communicate the fundamental centrality of that history to both groups without just writing about the Holocaust and antisemitism. It was a deeply difficult line to tow, but it also was already baked in to Jewish culture, where “so much of […] what gives us power, what gives us magic, what gives us wonder comes from having survived oppression.” That difficulty and responsibility of acknowledging evil and oppression is therefore inherently a part of the Jewish experience of writing stories of hope.
Barnes didn’t want magic to be the root of racism, the opposite actually. Racism exists and informs how people use magic. Vissagio agreed, wanting magic and misogyny to exist independently of eachother.
Gillen argued that “The easiest hole to fall down is not realizing what the story actually says”. It’s essential, in his view, for creators to look carefully at how a magical effect can be interpreted in what it says about reality and the ethos of the work. Even a bad reading or a bad faith reading needs to be considered, regardless of authorial intent. Gillen then spoke about a friend who theorizes that Tolkien never finished his Legendarium because he realized that the orcs were incompatible with the world view he wanted to advance in his work. It was an interesting thought, though Capra, probably rightly, deemed it “a very generous reading.”
Schirmer didn’t want to tell a story about sexism, but he acknowledged that it was an undeniable part of his protagonist’s life. It also informed the scale of the series. His protagonist, Jenner, is the first fairlady among the order of fairmen and doesn’t particularly care about that milestone, but it does mean that she is a woman in a 99.9% male dominated field, and one that is essentially a freelance position. That means that she doesn’t get the big or prestigious assignments and makes due with the cases that essentially no one else cares about. It’s a challenge for her, but it’s a gift for Schirmer, who relishes the. chance to tell different stories. One case, he teased, has her searching for a missing page from an old book. Not a spellbook or an ancient tome, mind you, just a pulpy novel that the owner desperately wants to know the end of.
An inescapable question for Colman was ‘if magic of this power exists why haven’t the Jews used it to protect themselves.’ Partially to answer this, Colman wanted to explicitly include the legend of the golem of Prague and investigate where it was during the Shoah. The famous legend is one of Colman’s favorites, but this question couldn’t be sidestepped in Jewish fantasy, even in a YA series: Where were you? “I don’t know that I have the right answer to it, but it was something that I really really wanted to put [in the book]. I like to be subtle – I like to be subliminal – but this one I wanted to ask one-hundred percent directly because I think its a question that everyone has had at some point.”
There are a number of books represented on the panel that focus on monster hunting. Asked about writing monsters and faceless enemies, Gillen considered how to have the classic adventure story without the colonial underpinnings. Gillen said that he feels that Scooby Doo broke the moment they had an actual ghost in it, Once and Future is kind of the opposite, where all magic is hostile, “we live in a world that’s haunted and these aggressive stories want to kill us. It therefore falls to Gillen’s protagonist to protect us. He summarized the book in a simple exchange between a grandson and his grandmother. “Vampires don’t exist.” “I know, I killed them all”. Gillen obviously enjoys the dynamic of a jaded monster hunter and the summer child she’s raised in a time after monsters.
Colman says that she always intended to have bombastic action sequences, fighting demons and battling evil, but she “shot herself in the foot” by reading a book called Journey to the End of the Earth. It’s about a Rabbi who stows away on a ship, beginning a fantastical voyage. At one point the Rabbi finds himself trapped on an island of demons. Eventually he is brought before the demon king of the island and determines to plead for his life, only to be rebuked by the king. “Why would we hurt you? We’re Jewish, we need a rabbi.” Colman loved the story and how that idea fit into the cosmology of Jewish mysticism and it changed her perspective on how to deal with problems. There’s not a problem in the current version that gets solved by killing something evil, except perhaps her darlings, as bringing the story into line with this idea required significant rewrites.
The panel was then asked about communicating with an artist and particularly how to do that when you’re inventing something completely new. Visaggio worried that her answer was a cop-out, but the artist is the one who has to draw it, so she really strives to trust the artist to create and let them decide. Schirmer agrees. Caludia Balboni, the artist on Fair Lady lives in Rome and is very (Schirmer would say excessively) self conscious about her English, so Schirmer has to be especially clear. He tries to send reference images whenever possible but, honestly, he says, every one of his scripts is presented to the artists as a blueprint. He also specifically cited the series’ place at Image as a reason that he should be hands off. It belongs to both of them and the artist should be equally involved in its creation and able to be proud of her input.
Barnes is fortunate that D.J. Kirkland is just as much of a weeb as he is and they have that shared frame of reference. They’ve literally argued about which scene from Sailor Moon to base a panel on.
Gillen is currently working with very different artists and he believes that you have to know your artist as best you can and write for them. Jamie McKelvie, for instance, is deeply interested in the internal lives of his characters and wants to know what will be revealed forty issues down the line so he can draw them consistently now. Die is much more focused on worldbuilding and Stephanie Hans is, in Gillen’s words, uncontrollable. “You collaborate with the sea,” he said of working with her. He gives her ideas to riff on alongside the plot essential details, but ultimately “the universe needed a Stephanie Hans fantasy world” and he just seeks to aim her and let her loose to create one.
The first questioner asked about keeping urban fantasy grounded and real. Barnes likened the primary philosophy of The Black Mage to that of Marvel, it’s additive to the world that already exists. It’s a series that places its protagonist in a massive floating castle, but he’s on his cell phone, because the addition of the castle doesn’t change the world its taking place in. Coleman also pointed out that it differs wildly between stories, with some benefiting from really thinking through the changes and others barreling through and trusting the emotion over thoughtfulness. Ultimately, she said, its down to how the characters react rather than the mechanics. Gillen added that Urban fantasy, in particular, differs on this subject depending on whether its a secret or open world.
Asked about what corners of fantasy they would like to see explored, Visaggio wanted to see a fantasy world that achieves Star Trek level technology. Gillen offered a fusion of Jane Austen and Lord of the Rings, noting that people forget Jane Austen’s works were published against the background of the Napoleonic wars. What, he wondered, would a social novel look like against the barely mentioned backdrop of the final war against evil?
Schirner said that he’s currently writing the niche fantasy that he wants to see, explaining that Fairlady, to him, is Mike Hammer and Magnum P.I.-style street level fantasy set in and around a giant mecha that fell to earth so long ago that no one even remembers the technology.
The panel was generally in agreement that mundane fantasy is seriously underrated. Colman said that when people first dive into fantasy they often try to go as big as they can, but there’s wonderful things that the genre does at a micro level. She cited one of her favorite fantasy moments as a quick sight gag from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, during Willow’s early struggles with magic. After a long, tiring day, Willow flops down on her bed and, ready for the day to be over, waves at her curtains to close them for the night. But nothing happens. That frustration of something you depend on not working being applied to magic has stayed with Colman. In fact, she stated that one of her biggest career goals in comics is to write Zatanna and do kind of a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice-type thing” with her, really playing with the idea “that magic is so natural to her that she uses it for things that really don’t need magic and it might be better is she didn’t use magic for them.” I’d read the crud out of that!
Barnes cited Undertale as a fantastic example of fantasy from the monsters point of view. He’d love to see more of that, for instance, the (sometimes literal) daily grind of a group of skeletons guarding a dungeon. That got Colman’s attention again, reminding her of a concept she’s been working on called Archetypes for Hire. The concept is a bunch of second string adventurers working at an agency that sell their services to fellowships who don’t have good party balance. I barely knew about Colman when I entered this panel, but by the end she’d pitched me three comics that I’d love to read!
One questioner sought help on a story concept about a shopkeeper in a fantasy world. Gillen and Barnes suggested that if you’re having trouble conceptualizing a fantasy story, look to non-genre stories and see how they create intrigue and drama without grand stakes.
Before ending, the panel returned to the question of finding balance between formalizing magic systems and leaving wonder in the execution of magic. Visaggio set the party line, declaring that the rules are only important if they have thematic weight. The entire panel agreed, with Gillen adding that, even if you need readers to understand how something works, you should never explain how magic works to give them that information, it has to serve its own purpose as a scene for readers to care about the system. Barnes saw Naruto as a perfect, simple example of this set up. In Naruto you learn a lot about chakra and the mechanics of jutsus, however it’s always introduced as a challenge or a puzzle. The characters know part of the magic system and either reveal what they know or learn what they don’t by encountering a problem that utilizes those principles, allowing the story to introduce large amounts of exposition in a way that excites the reader.
Likewise, Colman looked to manga to show how you can avoid magic becoming a panacea, in her case particularly pointing to Fullmetal Alchemist. In that series the magic system has many small rules but, effectively, runs on a single principle, the Law of Equivalent Exchange. This law is not only the core of the series but a way to encourage both wonder and engagement, with a wide array of possibilities that don’t interfere with the belief that the characters are truly in danger because there are both limits and costs built in. They don’t always have to be known in advance, but it’s clear that, in one way or another, the bill will eventually come due. Barnes also pointed out that FMA tends to deal with expert practitioners of alchemy, meaning that the same wide ranging possibilities that allow Ed and Al to get out of trouble are generally available to the majority of the cast, presenting equal opportunities for alchemy to cause problems for them.
Gillen had a unique situation in writing Die because it will actually be turned into a functional RPG. That means that he has had to mechanize everything he writes, saying that comics are a literary device that he has to translate into a gaming device and considering the differences has been an interesting and difficult part of working on that series.