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Three Characteristics Every Mage Should Have

It's time to delve into the realm of magic, mystery and mayhem.

With the last Harry Potter movie coming out, it's important to think about the mages who make up our day-to-day reading in comics. Magic's always been one of those finicky subjects for me: it can either be done really well, or really horribly.

This week in my column exploring comic genres, I'm going to explore magic-based heroes and books, pointing out what makes them great. Read on, true believers!

Boundaries

When magic is undefined in a setting, it can allow for wondrous things: characters (and the writers who craft them) are allowed a lot of creative freedom in how they escape from their problems. Facing an electrified villain? Conjure up a rain storm to short them out. Falling off a building? Cast a levitation spell on yourself and enjoy the view.

However, this lack of definition has caused many a Mage to fall into the realm of mediocrity, simply because when their powers are undefined and all-powerful, it becomes difficult to throw threats at them that can't be dispelled (heh, no pun intended) by the wave of a hand and a flick of the wrist.

This is primarily the reason why Doctor Strange can't hold down a solo book: as Sorceror Supreme, his title gives him access to untold amounts of power that the reader can't come close to comprehending. With that power, he can't exactly go after common bank robbers: that would be too easy. Instead, his threats include powerful demons and demigods, like Shuma-Gorath and Dormammu. These threats have to walk a fine line, as they can't be so powerful that they threaten all of reality, yet they can't be so weak that any schmo with superpowers can take them on.

So Strange is pigeon-holed into a niche that hovers around Deus Ex Machina. With a lack of concrete threats to face, he is usually called in when there is a problem that needs to be fixed with a lot of flair and little explanation; after all, it's magic, right?

Lets take a look back to World War Hulk. Hulk is tearing apart New York, and Earth's heroes are looking a little powerless to stop him. At this point in the story, we need something to come in that might be a threat to Hulk, but not in the sense that he would have fought him/her/it before.

Enter Doctor Strange.

== TEASER ==

As Strange invokes the essence of the Zom demon, he becomes incredibly powerful in the span of a panel. We, as readers, do not know the back-story, and we don't need to. All we know is that we're being shown a threat that looks scary and is mysteriously magical - role fulfilled.

Contemporaries

This ties into the above point: while not every magical hero needs to be defined down to the detail, it's important to show that they are not a metaphorical island. In order for a character to succeed, they need to have a supporting cast that makes their world seem plausible to the reader, and provide support for their suspension of disbelief.

Again, this doesn't have to be formulaic; not every wizard needs a ginger best friend and know-it-all female colleague to complete the trio. The character can be accompanied by mentors, students, friends, business partners, or even people that they don't know that well - the important thing is that someone needs to be let into "the game."

"The game," is the world where the Mage does his/her business. It carries a set of rules and boundaries (see above) and may or may not differ greatly from the world we live in. "The game" is where the fantastical begins and the real world stops. The entire comic does not have to take place in "the game," nor does it have to be completely absent. It's as flexible as the setting that the book is taking place in.

However, it needs to be acknowledged: after all, magic is not something that adheres to a particular theme. As noted above, its boundaries are often loose; the reader should at least have a way of easing into this wild frontier. These contemporaries, whether they be reader analogues ("muggles") or a more confidant mentor, help them do that.

Creativity

Like I said in my column regarding interstellar characters, the beauty of certain settings is that writers have an awful lot of leeway when it comes to the unknown. This is no different with magic, as you can literally make something out of nothing. Nearly everything a writer can come up with can be explained with magic in some way, and it's up to him/her to explain it.

This might seem a bit conflicting with my first point, but hear me out.

Hellblazer #276

While magic is essentially a wide open space in which writers can experiment, it should also have a theme to ground it: Doctor Strange's magic is much different from John Constantine's. That should not stop writers from using that theme to their advantage, and getting a little creative with it.

Take Fables, for instance: in that series, magic is regarded as a part of the characters' daily lives. As many of the Fables are witches, wizards, warlocks and the like, their powers are available at a (costly) fee, and can power a number of objects, like the deadly wooden soldiers. These powers may not have the boundaries that I'm looking for, but they fit the theme of the story and are well-thought-out by writer Bill Willingham.

The magic is actually a product of the fiction these characters are based off of; throwing little caveats into the mix (like the strength of a Fable being proportionate to the amount that "regular" people believe in them) make sense instead of diluting the setting.

Wrapping it up

Ultimately, magic is volatile, both practically and in story terms; it's very easy to use it as a band-aid to bad storytelling, which is ultimately its greatest flaw. Perhaps its use should be regulated to writers who can actually use it right; if only there was a spell to make that happen.

Abracadabra?

---

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40 Comments
Posted by Alfiebo

A pointy hat!

Posted by Amegashita

  Another great article.  I agree with all points.

Posted by Billy Batson

It's always three characteristics for some reason :p 

BB

Posted by leokearon

A good article
Posted by jubilee042

nice article

Posted by Emperormeister734

knowledge of every spells, wizards, witches, demons, mythical creatures, etc

Posted by RedheadedAtrocitus

"Perhaps its use should be regulated to writers who can actually use it right; if only there was a spell to make that happen." My only question about that is, how many writers actually can use it right?  Obviously writers are not mages, sorcerers or wizards so I think it would be hard period for them to try and write in a fashion that would rub off the right way on readers.  I mean we could have J. K. Rowling perhaps attempt  to write Kent Nelson or Steven Strange but who knows how that would turn out?  And the dean of sword and sorcery (J. R. R. Tolkien) has been dead for almost 38 years now so not exactly as if we could bring him back from the grave.  So it really comes back to who would be an excellent modern candidate to write magic, and I tell you its a hard thing to find.  But I say as long as they stick to these three things (boundaries, creativity, contemporary) then perhaps current writers can do a worthy job.  Good stuff!

Posted by The Stegman

the main problem with magic users IS the over powered aspect of them, the Deus Ex Machina aspect, people like Dr. Strange, Dr. Fate, even to a lesser extent Zatanna and Scarlet Witch both can just stop crime with a flick of their wrist

Posted by saturnssailor

Zatana does pretty well. She has a weakness: she can't use her magic without speaking. Another easy weakness to add would be if they got tired after using their magic too much. It would add a limit and maybe even like in Eragon how after someone commits to a spell they have to see it through even if it kills them or will have an undesirable effect.

Posted by ninjadude853

I'm really starting to like these articles. They're fun to read and they tend to be right.  \
 
My favorite magic book is the Dresden Files. Which i can mention here because the first two books have been adapted into comics!

Posted by LB70145
@mattdemers: What do you think about what Marvel did to Dr. Strange? Do you think his role as a support character may one day lead him to becoming a solo character again or at least have a book centered on him?
Posted by GraveSp

Every magic user needs to have enemies who also use magic users.  I always liked the age old battles of magic users vs demons

Posted by The Impersonator

A magical article!

Posted by QuantomMan

I liked the point with WWH, because if you go one arc before that, you have Civil War. And even Wong was like "you could just wave your hand and all would be undone" and he totally could, but writers only have him do that when they get themselves into a corner. So lame 
 
Great article 
 
I'm really enjoying this series

Posted by NightFang
@leokearon said:
A good article
Posted by midnightmare

Think that the main characteristic magic characters need is study it like a sciense, if someone gets what he/she wants saying okus pokus, and doesn't fase any conscecuenses is just boring. And Harry Potter is lame.
Edited by _Zombie_

You see, this is why I LOVE Doctor Voodoo, and greatly prefer him as Sorcerer Supreme.  He has constraints to his power, he's got supporting characters such as his brother(and even the former sorcerer supreme himself), and he's generally very well written and has a relatively creative concept.  Don't get me wrong, I like Stephen, and he was a good SS, but he was too powerful.  He could, like Wong said during Civil War, just put a halt to entire events.  Heck, he sent Hulk to an alternate dimension once to stop a rampage if I remember correctly.  Jericho doesn't have all of that power.  Whereas Strange knew general sorcery, Jericho knows maybe one or two spells that aren't Voodoo.  His powers heavily rely on Voodoo magic.  He can't just wave his hands, say an incantation, and make a problem disappear.   
 
But, rant/unnecessarily long response aside, great article.  You bring up great points that couldn't be truer.

Edited by JonesDeini

Another superb write up, folk. Really been enjoyin' these man. Dr. Strange is the perfect example of what can go wrong with a mage character. I LOVE strange and his detailed mythology but it's a task and a half to write an effective, lasting ongoing with him as the star. As you pointed out, coming up with viable threats becomes harder and harder. I think the book that totally nails down all the parameters you mentioned is Hellblazer.   
 
@ZombieBigfoot said:

You see, this is why I LOVE Doctor Voodoo, and greatly prefer him as Sorcerer Supreme.  He has constraints to his power, he's got supporting characters such as his brother(and even the former sorcerer supreme himself), and he's generally very well written and has a relatively creative concept.  Don't get me wrong, I like Stephen, and he was a good SS, but he was too powerful.  He could, like Wong said during Civil War, just put a halt to entire events.  Heck, he sent Hulk to an alternate dimension once to stop a rampage if I remember correctly.  Jericho doesn't have all of that power.  Whereas Strange knew general sorcery, Jericho knows maybe one or two spells that aren't Voodoo.  His powers heavily rely on Voodoo magic.  He can't just wave his hands, say an incantation, and make a problem disappear.    But, rant/unnecessarily long response aside, great article.  You bring up great points that couldn't be truer.
Tabernacle, preach, folk!!!! Who's the SS these days anyways?
Posted by greenenvy

Never got into the world of magic stuff or High fantasy I guess but I am trying somewhat to like some. Does any body recommend lady death to get into this genre perhaps? I am sorta liking her in a small way right now. 

Posted by Yumulu

Three characteristics mages need
1- Trenchcoat
2- Creativity
3- Attitude

Posted by JonesDeini
@greenenvy said:
Never got into the world of magic stuff or High fantasy I guess but I am trying somewhat to like some. Does any body recommend lady death to get into this genre perhaps? I am sorta liking her in a small way right now. 
As far as magic/fantasy stuff goes Hellblazer, The Unwritten, Sandman,& Fables are all things I'd very much so recommend.   
Posted by Ruvik_

great article
Posted by Charmix

Amazing article! And I see my Traci Thirteen image being used! Ahhh! 

Posted by Sobe Cin
@RedheadedAtrocitus
John Ostrander would write some pretty wicked mages- from what I've heard he did a hell of job with the Spectre during the 80's. Outside of that, maybe Jason Aaron.
Posted by RedheadedAtrocitus
@Sobe Cin said:
@RedheadedAtrocitus: John Ostrander would write some pretty wicked mages- from what I've heard he did a hell of job with the Spectre during the 80's. Outside of that, maybe Jason Aaron.
Ah yes, those two would be worthy mage writers.  Excellent observation!
Posted by frozenedge

cool article. never really thought about it like this

Posted by BoOMbOoMpOw

I really LOVE magic in comics !!! From Zatanna to Hellblazer to Buffy , I just LOVE it !!! I really liked it when Dr. Strange was in the new avengers team . it was great to have a little magic in this book ( as Scarlet Witch was kinda lost ) . But it really depends on the writer of the books if the magic stuff makes sense and makes the story thrilling or just boring because the characters get too powerfull .

Posted by The Mighty Monarch
@saturnssailor said:
Zatana does pretty well. She has a weakness: she can't use her magic without speaking. Another easy weakness to add would be if they got tired after using their magic too much. It would add a limit and maybe even like in Eragon how after someone commits to a spell they have to see it through even if it kills them or will have an undesirable effect.
She can write her spells if she has to.
Posted by difficlus

Nice article. 

Posted by Migz13

Three Things: 
 
Pointy Hat, Flying Broomstick, Wand. 
 
Nuff said.

Posted by Dro

The Dungeons and Dragons universe has a very interesting way of limiting the power of mages: a mage can only cast a certain number of spells per day before the mage's power is drained, and the mage needs to rest. Even the most powerful wizards follow that limit, although their ceiling is higher.

Posted by LP

Magic stories are the hardest for me to enjoy, understand and write - it definitely not as obvious as a sci-fi story.
 
I'm printing this.

Posted by cosmo111687

Some flare for the theatrical, as well.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

I don't think it's a necessity, but in comics and literature, I think my favorite mages and their powers come with consequences and (usually) a varying degree of madness. I think having that connection to the arcane should touch the individual's mind, which could and should be great fun to explore as a writer and a reader.

Posted by CodeSaint

This is one of the types of Power that I like more.Before reading comics I read a lot of magic based manga like Negima and Slayers and other with encatations and spell names just like Doctor Strange.I love sword and sorcery stories as much as mythological ones,so this have a big influence on my taste.It sure is boring when one mage can do everything so they should be limited to just one type of magic and that's not only the problem of mage characters but people like Doctor Solar and Sentry.And still are many characters with power depending of the occasion that don't use magic 
 
Great article.

Posted by ntlsibo
@The Impersonator said:
A magical article!
Posted by Roninidas




I like Madame Xanadu.  She is very grounded and a fun read.  I recommend this book to anyone that likes Magic.  
Posted by Eyz

Well said!
Perfect listing.

Posted by xybernauts
  @mattdemers said: 

This ties into the above point: while not every magical hero needs to be defined down to the detail, it's important to show that they are not a metaphorical island. In order for a character to succeed, they need to have a supporting cast that makes their world seem plausible to the reader, and provide support for their suspension of disbelief.

 
Interesting article. One part I wasn't sure about, by "metaphorical island" you mean the character shouldn't isolate him or herself?  
 
Personally I think one other competent a successful story about a mage should have is metaphorical depth. 
 

Posted by Shipwreck

I like Gail Z. Martin's mages the best.The each have a specialty and relay on one magic source.