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!
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.
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.
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.
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.