New To You Comics: Mobsters, Magic, And Mayhem In ‘Machine Gun Wizards’

by Brendan M. Allen

When COVID-19 brought the comics industry to a screeching halt, my colleague Tony Thornley and I dove deep into our longboxes and collections to bring you New To You Comics. 

Comics made their way back, but we had so much fun with the thing, we decided to keep going. 

Tony and I have very different tastes in comics. 

Tony loves his shiny spandex, super powers, and sci-fi. I tend to stick to horror, noir, and weird indies. Occasionally, our paths cross, but we, like most readers, tend to stay in our lanes.

We’re here to break up the pattern a little. Tony’s throwing some of his favorites my way, and I’m sending him some of mine. Every title we cover is brand new to one of us, and every stinking one of them is available on digital and mail order platforms, in case your local shop is still closed.

This week, I’m introducing Tony to Dark Horse Comics’ Machine Gun Wizards, by Christian Ward and Sami Kivelä. Here’s what Dark Horse says about the book:

‘Eliot Ness and his team of Untouchables work overtime taking on dangerous criminals that hide in the seedy underbelly of 1930s Chicago. Except in this world, Al Capone isn’t dealing in alcohol, but in magic. 

With Lick, a drug that grants magical powers to anyone who ingests it, mobsters become wizards, ordinary men become monsters, and darker secrets than Ness can imagine lie at the heart of it all.’

Brendan Allen: This is a fun little revisionist history/gangster/urban fantasy joint. In Machine Gun Wizards, the Chicago Outfit rose to power in the roaring 20’s, not by dealing bootleg liquor, but illicit magic instead. Instead of smashing barrels of hooch and shutting down speakeasies, Eliot Ness and his Untouchables kicked down the doors of Lick dens. Places where Joe Lunchbucket could go to indulge in a little harmless magic. Make himself slightly better looking, slightly more talented, slightly more badass.

Tony Thornley: I love alternate histories and urban fantasy both. This is the sort of story that I’m surprised hasn’t really happened before. Ness and the Untouchables facing wizards? It just makes a lot sense.

Brendan: Christian Ward deftly sidesteps the need for exhaustive exposition by drawing from the deep well of public knowledge (and assumptions) of this period in Chicago history. The popular view on magic use in MGW is almost identical to the attitudes on alcohol during the actual historical Prohibition. 

Most folks publicly decried the use of alcohol, while privately imbibing. Alphonse Capone was seen as an almost sympathetic figure in the press. Take all that, strip away (most of) the liquor, swap in magic, and we’ve got the basic setup for MGW.

Tony: This was a lot of fun from a plot perspective. Ward took the basic historic knowledge and crafted an action movie around it. There’s a lot of very fun world building here. Lick, what it can do, where it comes from? It’s all an essential part of the story, and builds it up to a crescendo. This is a fun, quick read, and would be a blast to see adapted for the big screen.

Brendan: Of course, there are some historical liberties taken. Detectives Wilson, Smith, Mayflower, and Lombard never existed. Not in any way associated with Ness and the Untouchables, anyway. Not sure where the inspiration comes from for these four guys, except that it’s probably easier to distill fourteen major players down to five.

Tony: Yeah, of course, and I think that’s where the story falls a bit short for me. While the plot is great, I don’t feel like we’re ever given a reason to care about the characters, even for Ness or Capone. They’re sort of pieces in a chess game, and they need to be in the right place at the right time.

However, considering this is one of Ward’s first writing credits, I think he did a killer job overall.

Brendan: Sami Kivelä’s linework is a great fit for this story. Depression-era Chicago blends seamlessly with the urban fantasy elements in Ward’s script. The mystical aspects are just a few degrees to the left of mundane, until all hell breaks loose in the first raid. 

Tony: I was also really impressed with Kivelä’s work here. There’s a lot of detail and he makes sure that the world feels like the actual 1930’s. This isn’t heightened in the same way that, say, Dick Tracy is. It’s our world, the actual real world, and then a magical sheen is added over it.

His action is clear and easy to follow. His layouts are interesting enough to draw the reader in. His character work is great. He adds a lot of personality to the characters, just in how they dress or stand, how they talk to each other.

Brendan: Christian Ward and Dee Cunniffe are both credited for the color. Their gritty, grounded palette makes the art feel right at home with other period gangster pieces, right up to the point where it breaks from reality with magically enhanced finger lasers. 

Tony: Wow, the color art on the series is so great. Ward is known for his highly stylized painted art. He makes sure to use that sense of color direction in his work on the pages. It adds this really interesting fantastical touch over the line art, giving the pages a very distinct style that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other book.

Brendan: When this series was in my review queue, it was called “Tommy Gun Wizards,” and then suddenly when I was trying to find my review copy for chapter three, I couldn’t find it anywhere. It had been completely scrubbed off the Dark Horse site and from ComiXology. I was so frustrated, thinking it had gotten canned or something. Turns out, the folks over at Dark Horse had to do a quick rebranding that was never really addressed by the publisher. 

I’ll bet it had something to do with Saeilo Enterprises, the current owners of the M1921 Thompson machine gun trademarks. Mind you, Saeilo isn’t Thompson, the original manufacturer. They just happen to have purchased the rights to a historic, iconic piece of American history, and exercise those rights with impunity. I’m not even sure they are allowed to manufacture the things. They may have only picked up the marks so they could sue people for using the name/likeness. They’ve actually done it a bunch of times. 

It’s that same kind of nonsense where Delaware North snuck in and bought up all the trademarks of historical place names in Yosemite and then tried to extort the National Park Service for millions of dollars to get them back. Or where that bar in NY forced Image Comics to recall and rebrand Dead Rabbit, because… I don’t know, brand confusion? 

It’s not too big of a stretch to assume something similar happened here, but we’ll never know the full details. It did lead to some very interesting imagery on the covers of chapter four and the reprints of chapters 1-3, where Dark Horse nailed rough planks over the offensive “Tommy Gun” bit of the cover. I thought it was a really cool look, and personally, I would have kept it, but they ultimately decided to change the name over.

Tony: Good grief, history on this stuff is so interesting to me. This is just one of the most fascinating periods in American history down to the littlest of details. Ward and Kivelä don’t spend a lot of time with those parts of their world but they ensure to capture that feel for it.

Brendan: Where’d you land on Machine Gun Wizards?

Tony: I liked it. It’s a fun ‘action movie’ of a read. Ward has a lot of promise as a writer, and I really hope he does a follow-up (whether a sequel or something else entirely) very soon. Kivelä’s got a great visual style, and the book really stands out from a lot of its peers.

Brendan: Word. What’s up next from your queue?

Tony: We’re going to dive back into one of Valiant’s greatest and look at the future of that universe with Rai Volume 1: Welcome to New Japan.

Some of your local shops have re-opened. As always, we’d like to ask that you first try to get these books at your local shop. This is a very uncertain time for owners, employees, and their families. Show some love for your community and friends by buying from your regular shop when possible and safe.

If your local comic store is still closed, not offering safe curbside pick up or mail order, or is out of stock on this title, you can find a digital copy on sale right now for $6 (half off the regular price of $12) at Comixology right here.

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