Top 5 Comics That Get Magic Right

Kid Eternity

Kid Eternity: Okay. So. Identity is a lie. The totality of Time is the sound of a single word. Heaven is really a stagnant Hell. Hell is a constantly shifting ideascape dictated by the combination of symbols and ideas of the inhabitants viewing and experiencing it, with a few specific horrific landmarks. Death and rebirth, in quick succession, are the entryways to the machinery of the universe which can be reconfigured, adjusted, and broken, by someone with the right tools. This is the purely open, shamanic, chaotically magical mind of Grant Morrison, as beautifully, terrifyingly illustrated by Duncan Fegredo.

In Kid Eternity we have the life and death and rebirth of comedian Jerry Sullivan, and the journey to save the entirety of humanity and every part of the universe. These two things are the same…and they have nothing to do with each other. As Jerry Dies, he finds the events of his life (all of them–all the events and all the lives) intersecting with a strange man with the ability to summon the dead. Their journey through the afterlife and the backstage areas of reality is punctuated, at every turn (R.O.T.A., T.A.R.O), by revelations about Jerry’s life and the ways in which all of the events have led him to the precise moments he inhabits. All while fighting and running from what seem to be undead historical thoughtforms, trying to reshape the nature of reality, and, unbeknownst to Jerry and the Kid, a homicidal demon-possessed preacher hunts them across the country.

[ad#longpost]It’s hard to accurately describe what makes Kid Eternity so compelling and important without simply telling what happens, but it rests somewhere in the unrelenting movement between place, memory, symbol, association, psychological breakthrough, mystical experience, and the loss of identity. This work, like Moore’s Promethea is a work of magic in itself, but it is a more visceral and immediate one. While Promethea is about the intellectual and rational basis of magical knowledge, Kid Eternity is designed to eradicate the ability to rationally dissect the experience. Every action and event is an emotion, an instinct, and a psychic emergence of both individuation and connection with the totality of existence. It’s not a thing that lends itself to being described in words, and so it is all the more important that we recognise what Morrison has done here. He has taken the dynamic process of magical action toward the goal of non-rational mystical experience and understanding, and he’s turned it into a graphic novel that is gripping to read and re-read. He’s taken a process that is all about motion and the act of making connections and translated it into a relatively static medium. And he’s done it well.

Again, it’s difficult to explain why this is as essential an example of Magic in Comics as it is without simply telling you everything that happens in the book. And even then, I’d only be telling you what I saw, what I felt and learned: my personal revelations. Really, Kid Eternity is a lot like The Matrix: You have to see it for yourself. Click here to buy it from Amazon.

John Constantine lights one up

John Constantine: Hellblazer: Honestly, I shouldn’t have to mention this. We should all simply bow our heads respectfully, as Alan Moore’s creation saunters past and flicks the butt of an expended Silk Cut at our feet. We should buy copious amounts of drinks for the men and women who have written of his exploits. We should shower them with praise and riches. And here’s why:

Brian Azzarello (“Hard Time,” “Good Intentions,” “Freezes Over,” “Highwater”), in being concerned with mystery, thrillers, and noir pulp, refined Hellblazer down to a kind of slow-burning jet fuel of intrigue, switchbacks, and betrayal. John continually tries to do the right thing, and ruins scores of lives in the bargain–some intentionally, most not. Azzarello’s Constantine is conman shaman and psychologist mage, manipulating the perceptions and expectations of everyone and everything but almost always missing how he manipulates himself. In “Hard Time,” he gathers the tokens of his enemies–cigarettes, poker cards, prison favours–and he uses sympathetic magic to turn them against those who would harm him. At the same time he keeps himself locked in what is literally a prison of his own design, trapped by his own guilt. And I can’t even describe what he does in “Freezes Over.” Even talking about it would ruin it. Just… go see. And, if you can, listen to Nick Cave‘s Murder Ballads compilation while you do. It’ll help.

Mike Carey (“All His Engines,” “Red Sepulchre,” “Black Flowers,” “Staring at the Wall,” “Stations of the Cross,” “Reasons to be Cheerful,” “Down in the Ground…,” “The Gift”) set the bar so high, they had to build a new bar next to it and leave the first one as a monument to Bar Setting. Here we have John Constantine as quintessential dilettante of the occult arts, with much more than a little knowledge of any tradition you can think of and describe, let alone actually name. He can draw a Voudon veve in salt; make a deal with the Aztec God of Death; drag the goddess Kali out of a possessed man; harness the collective unconscious of all humankind to destroy an apocryphal evil that has hunted us since the dawn of time; and he can even get magicians to work together toward a common goal. He’s like freaking Superman. It’s obvious that Carey did more than passing research into occult traditions in preparation for his run on this series, as he gets names, symbols, places, and historical contexts important to students of various traditions right, while providing new insights into them and making them understandable and (above all) entertaining to anyone who just wants a Good Comic.

Andy Diggle (“Joyride,” “The Laughing Magician,” “The Roots of Coincidence”) is, as of this writing, the most recent Hellblazer author to have a graphic novel/collection see print. To put Diggle’s run in perspective I’ll say that if Alan Moore knows the score, then Andy Diggle knows who he owes. His appropriation of John Constantine (“Rhymes with Fine.”) begins with our eponymous hero returning to the place that shaped him, in all ways: Newcastle, and the recently repurposed Ravenscar Sanatorium. Everything that happens from that point is directly designed to redefine absolutely everything we think we know about Constantine, including where he came from and the purpose and provenance of his fabled walks along the “Synchronicity Highway.” From the first page to the last, Diggle makes reference and pays homage to over twenty years of Hellblazer history, while writing the world of a magician who drags himself forward by the only thing that’s ever mattered to him in the end: his own choices and wits. Every spell, every trap, every invocation and reprogramming of the self and others is driven and enacted by the willpower of John himself. And the Devil and the abyss take anything that gets in the way of that.

For my money, no one has yet drawn the world of Constantine and brought it to visual life better than Leonardo Manco and Lee Loughridge. Manco’s pencils and inks combined with Loughridge’s colours provide a world that is dark, sooty, and blurry around all the right edges, while remaining as sharp as a knife at all the others. Their talents perfectly capture the images and feelings of the type of intuitive occult world John inhabits. On the other hand, throughout his run, Marcelo Frusin’s illustrations fit both Azzarello and Carey’s writing perfectly, and capture the more feral, dangerous side of our John, showing that he is, above all, not someone with whom you want to be fucking around. The simple act of smiling, in Frusin’s style, makes John someone you want to back away from, either very slowly or very, very quickly. It’s hard to pin down which artists got it “better,” because they all capture different aspects of the man, and his world. But, if I had to narrow it down to two sets, these would be the two. (Click here to buy Hellblazer stuff from Amazon.)

So. This article is pretty long and, if you made it to the end, here, you’re to be commended. At this point, however, some of you are probably asking, “What about Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic?” or, “But what about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman?” or, “but what about… but what about…?” And I’ll tell you the same thing I told the intergalactic courts: it is not that the materials in question are inconsequential, nor is it true that they don’t portray what could be called “magic;” it’s simply that I feel the above-mentioned series do it better. For instance, The Books of Magic contains the poem “Invisible Labyrinth,” which is perhaps one of the most viscerally masterful spells I have ever encountered, and the whole work has several areas of overlap with the other books, described here. But that’s the thing: the areas overlap. While Gaiman is a celebrated craftsman of story, symbol, meaning, and depiction, each of the types of magic he discusses is meant as a piece of a tour of what magic can do for you, and what it can do to you. While The Books of Magic provides the introductory corner pieces of a very complex puzzle, I think the edges and fiddly middle bits are more fully connected in the five works listed above.

As for The Sandman, this epic work deals less in magic and more in “weird shit,” to quote one of its own characters. There are gods and there are devils and there are anthropomorphic personifications, but they aren’t “performing magic,” so much as they’re simply Existing, and weird stuff happens around and because of them. There are, at points both random and key, humans who do magic–in “A Game of You,” the witch Thessaly literally draws down the physical and metaphorical moon to provide safe passage from one realm to another–and the depiction and description of this magic is impeccable, but they and their actions are rarely the focus of the story. It’s a wonderful guide for the kinds of things one might encounter, in a life of magic and whatever, and when it does do magic, it does it very well. But please see point three, above.

Now, we’re done here. I eagerly await the flood of comments about how magic is bullshit, and how I should have talked about such-and-such, and other displays of people either not reading instructions, or not taking them to heart. Or some thoughtful discussion could ensue, which would be magical in and of itself.

Go back to Part 1. Or back to Part 2.
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Wolven

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  • That was awesome, Wolven. As always, very nicely put. I look forward to more of your writing ;)

  • Solid, solid list. But I’ve got to at least mention Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. While stylistically dated, it’s right up there with liber null or book iv on my bookshelf. Pop Magic was, unfortunately, a letdown, but his disinfo speech is still great listen.

    Be Good,
    Ronin

  • Ronin, gods only know if you’re still getting alerts for this, but I was thinking about your comment, now that I’m re-reading The Invisibles, again. My reasoning for not including it was that it does a lot of the same thing Promethea does, but from the other end of the spectrum.

    Moore’s idea is to guide you step by step through a very particular and prescribed process of initiation and education. He was immersing you in a psychadelic river of mind and magic, yes, but one with definite rules and actions. Morrison’s goal was chaos magic and psychadelia to it’s full extent, erasing the self/other illusion, utterly annihilating any vestige of mind/body, us/them, yes/no, this/that dualism. The rules are there, but they are fluid, and they can be bent, changed, erased, with the right bargain.

    Now, though these seem to be different goals, they both go about it in the exact same way: Using the Comic Medium as a Trance-Inducing Immersive Litany to transform the mind of the reader, as she reads, thus both teaching and initiating the subject, at the same time.

    And I didn’t want to repeat myself :)

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