Black Magick is about to receive the highest accolade any comic book can receive: becoming a television show or movie. In this case, it’s a television show on cable or streaming and that makes sense. The writing is quality, the focus is on characters far more than on action, and things are restrained. By that I mean the art emphasizes events rather than splash panels which are just abstractions.
The main character is Detective Black, who practices magic. So there is a pun in the title. But also it’s ‘magick’ which is an obsolete spelling for magic. It was revived by Aleister Crowley to indicate his particular form of magic. It has since been used to mean serious occult magic, not stage magic, and still refers to magic used for evil purposes.
And Detective Black’s full name is Rowan Black. Rowan is an old Germanic term for secret. It also gave rise to the word ‘rune’.
So, yes, Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott have given Image comics a title that should be a hit. Maybe not a big hit, possibly a cult hit, but if that is unfair to the title, it is kind of appropriate. Heh heh, cult hit.
Unlike Drs Fate and Strange, Detective Rowan Black is part of a branded form of magic. She is a Wiccan, not only a witch but a member of the religion of witchcraft. Look at the opening of the first volume of the collected comics. I quote, “Now the world is in balance. At this moment, in this Age, in this place. Day and night equal in each others’ sight…” A full moon, a forest of birch trees, the tableau is correct.
Day and night are equal means its an equinox, in March or September. That’s a holy night for witches. Another holy night, one for lesser festivals, is the full moon. When the two coincide it’s time for an extra big effort. The birch trees are a symbol of immortality.
This is very tight writing, showing economy of expression because even background elements carry weight of meaning. It shows the scale of what will come. Something important, life changing, is about happen.
It also shows writer Greg Rucka and artist Nicola Scott know the details of what they’re working with and very often that is far from the norm. For many writers, witchcraft and devil worship are one and the same.
It helps that Scott’s art is a delight to look at. All too often a decent story has spoiled by bad art, with comic books hitting well known nadirs in the seventies and nineties. On the other hand, the story is good so it is not pretty pictures looking for something to do, not unlike Heavy Metal on many occasions.
Detective Black is pulled from the coven, angering other members. She goes to a stakeout, where there is a hostage situation. She gets no fellow-feeling from other cops. And we now have the two worlds Rowan has to navigate.
Black Magic as a title is innovative, looking at new ways how a person can navigate in the world. How do I find harmony in myself when there is so much discord around me? How can I express myself to others when I have to divide myself? How do I say who I am when I have to keep secrets?
When Rowan goes into the building on behalf of the hostages, she not only shows her courage, she shows her limits. She fears dying, which is an important and usually overlooked aspects of magical characters. They see the other side so they are meant to be comfortable with it. This moment of fear makes Rowan human.
It is then that Rowan is told by a gunman that he knows who she is, and what she is. He says he can’t help himself, and he is killed. Rowan makes a quick call, saying only it’s happening again.
And in a few pages, which I have only glossed over in fact, there are a series of complex set-ups in terms of character and plot. There are questions raised and mysteries which tie directly to those set-ups. This is excellent writing not only in terms of plot but characterization.
The story is about division, of two worlds. It’s being spiritual and practical at once. If there is a spiritual dimension in this world, what does it mean for me? And how far do with give up the practical to be spiritual? That is the secret at the heart of this story.
If you go through the story you will not find things raised which then just get dropped. Everything gets advanced (though not necessarily resolved, it’s a continuing series, after all). Some of it is advanced in very subtle ways, and more knowledge improves the way you see the story.
The story is about facing the world, where the material is dominant. As always, the spiritual remains the hidden. And everybody has to be hard, driven, determined to overcome problems. Cops being only one example. It’s about showing you can handle new and unexpected things. Be practical enough to exercise that peculiar diplomacy that is the materialist meaning of the word spiritual: spirit of the place. Fit in.
Express yourself when you’re given permission to, as a reward for loyalty.
Rowan carves a run into a lighter. Which rune? Boerc, which is the yew tree. Exactly the kind of trees she was passing at the story’s opening. Throughout the story you have to pay attention. It is almost a cluttered panel technique in which images and symbols tie things together adding another significant layer of meaning to the story. A tattoo, something carved into a standing stone, the chance shape of something, it can all be called into this level of meaning instantly.
Rowan carves protective sigils in the door because someone’s coming after her. The sigil she uses is not random. Magick is very real, here. It follows rules and those rules aren’t changed just to make the scene easier to write. I note Fate and Strange, here, magic is often taken as so convenient that it loses any tension whatsoever. Whatever specifically needs to be done can be done with a quick gesture and some convoluted words.
Magic protects Rowan but it also threatens her. She draws on the other members of her coven and on her police partner. But in both cases, the people involved are not mere backdrops. They exist with their own attitudes.
All to often, a magical group in stories is taken as a license to have a bunch of people standing together in a group with one person giving the collective opinion. I really don’t like that and you won’t find it here.
Compare this to Rowan Black, who has to gather the right herbs, mix them, crush them, add blood, invoke the Goddess, and say the magic words. I take time to describe this because it’s great to finally see magic done right, it’s great to see Wicca treated with some respect, and to have a character whose magical interests increases, not decreases their humanity.
Rowan as a character lives up to the story, which is something too often avoided these days. She is practical, dealing with what’s at hand. What does this clue mean now? What does this friend need now? But in dealing with others that driven aspect is rarely concealed. Not simply a tough cop but someone who spends immense amounts of time with the material side of things, clues only being one part of that. But occasionally, usually at turns of the plot, she turns to the spiritual.
So is the police side of the story a let down? No. It is a murder mystery in which the officer involved has to keep secrets from her superior officer. In this case, Rowan has to keep secret her own magical involvement. Without ever having to put on a mask, all the suspense of a secret or secret identity can be added to the story. But it’s done so in a way that avoids being a trope.
The characterization, as I’ve touched on, is excellent. We get to know these characters who have their agendas which they may or may not agree with. Rowan is honest (bad career move), religious, and has close relationships with those around here. This is a very rare case of a woman in a story who can form a positive relationship with someone who they’re not having sex with. Seriously, do most characters have any other way to be friendly?
That driven side conceals an inner need to deal with others. It a desire for harmony with others which must go unfulfilled while she must drive to solve the crime and not get killed. Usually the emotional baggage of, like, friends you don’t have sex with, gets shunted to one side. Dirty Harry gets asked what a girl has to do to get in bed with him, none of that awkward first date nonsense in Dirty Harry movies. And none of those manikin roles for characters done in Black Magic.
The characters in Rowan’s world form a significant network who will not disappear because Rowan makes a deal with Mephisto. Rowan has to navigate her way through her friendships, her religious duties, and the murder mystery which slowly draws her into a bigger mystery which becomes a crisis.
So when the crisis comes, you care what will happen to the characters. And as it comes, it is the same problem of different worlds that Rowan has been facing since the opening pages. The whole is a fractal plot. Principles repeat, plot elements do not. That is very unusual in comics, movies, TV, or literature. But every time it happens, it’s good.
Obviously, I recommend this title wholeheartedly. I am sure Michael London of Groundswell Productions would recommend it, too. He’s the guy who decided to put it on television as a series with hour long episodes placed on cable or streaming.
He has a fairly long c.v. as a producer, and has worked with some significant actors like Ed Norton, Jessica Biel, and Michael Douglas. He has generally gone with romances, which might actually suit here. This story is very much a character study. But he has done only one supernatural, Nightlight, but that is more of a horror and his wheelhouse is comedy-dramas. However, he has done some erotic comedies and the books opens with a Wiccan coven, which is to say they’re naked. But sex and nudity is not the focus of the story.
I’m not sure that the series will come to screen, that is always a dicey proposition. I suspect the comic will have to sell better if the series is to be sold to television, but that may not be the case. Still, the fact that it’s not the producer’s usual fair may be a concern. Part of it will be who signs up for it and there’s been no indication of that. I certainly have my ideas but let’s not bore each other with them.
I did not say Mara. No, seriously, I did not say Mara at any time.
Image, the publisher, is the third biggest comic book publisher in the United States. They have about 10% of the market with number of units just exceeding the share of the market in monetary terms. So their profit is slightly down per unit when compared to, say, Marvel, which isn’t good in this case.
The greatest hurdle, though, is that Black Magic itself does not sell brilliantly as a title in its own right. A check of Diamond Comics reveals that this is not the top 100 of comics titles. It was not in the top 100 any month of 2016. Image gets Walking Dead onto those lists, not Black Magic. Possibly they have moved too quickly and the title is yet to build its fan base.
Wicca itself isn’t a very large group. So it can’t provide a large audience for the comic or the series. Had the basis been Catholicism, as with Dan Brown’s books, there would have been a wider readership base. Better quality, smaller built-in fan base equals disappointing results financially, but it is a path to a cult hit.
Rucka and Scott say they are using the mythology of Wicca. I take it they are not dealing with the organization of Wicca in any way. Since there is only one coven in the story, that is easy to do. But the upshot is the focus is on the mythology and the relationships in the coven. It’s subtle but it is a focus in the story which is consistent with the plot and the characterization.
If the television show matches the quality of the comic, it should be a hit. If the comic’s audience is equal to it’s quality, same thing. This is a gem.
I would suggest you get Black Magick, volume 001, Awakening. It may be your last chance to buy this comic so you can say you were a fan before it became really popular.