How To Do Magic!
by Michael Hutchison
art by Erik Burnham and Melissa Wilson
Writing a magical character in a comic book and making him or her interesting can be quite difficult. Most people read comic books to find someone to identify with (although that need isn't spoken), and even when a character is lifting buildings or running at the speed of light, their thoughts about the world and reactions to certain stimuli will be roughly the same as the average American reader's. But magic characters are weird! Their minds are filled with spells and arcane knowledge, they look at people and see auras and vortexes, they possess the ability to look at the same thing as an average person and see something completely different. And, for that reason, the average middle class Scooby-Doo-loving, Nintendo-playing 13-year-old is not going to be able to empathize with the problems of the Phantom Stranger as he battles vast, unimaginable phenomena in the same way that they can understand Impulse's frustration at having to sit still in class.
Another problem with magic: magic powers and menaces are difficult to use in comic books. Unlike laser blasts and punches, they're hard to quantify or even define, and they tend to point out the limitations of confining the imagination to paper and ink on a page. A perfect example is the recent Genesis mini-series. In it, something called the "Godwave" that cannot be seen is rendering the heroes powerless. The heroes band together and travel to the ends of the universe to fight this thing that cannot be seen. At the end of the universe (how do you illustrate THAT, anyway?) is the Source Wall, which stretches on endlessly in every direction. On the other side of the Wall is the Source, which cannot be understood or described or illustrated. The heroes do something and they are successful, although that cannot be shown. Then they get their powers back.
Compared to a Manhunter plot to replace important people of the Earth or Khund ships filling the skies, magical menaces have got to be frustrating for the artist!
So, what DO you do to make magical characters interesting? Let's look at a few of DC's success stories.
The most obvious mainstream success of recent years has been Ostrander and Mandrake's Spectre, which is a terrific surprise. As the embodiment of the Wrath of God with fewer and fewer connections to his old human identity, the Spectre is the epitome of everything I just said about why magic characters are hard to do! I mean, how does one take a character who can do anything and somehow do story after story for half a decade? In the past, other authors had answered this by de-powering the character so that he was not god-like. But John Ostrander found another method: exploring who the Spectre is and why he does what he does.
Character exploration also played an important role in the Dr. Fate ongoing series, which delved into the new wearers of the helm of Nabu. Like many of the magic series of recent years, it involved the ongoing war between the Lords of Order and the Lords of Chaos. Dr. Fate, Hawk and Dove, the Phantom Stranger mini-series, Fate, The Book of Fate and others began developing the DC Universe's own mythology.
Character exploration and development of mythology are two elements which cannot be employed when using one of the DCU's greatest characters, The Phantom Stranger, as either of them would destroy the mystique of this enigmatic hero. Who is he? Where did he come from? What are the depths of his powers? We wonder these things, but we don't REALLY want to know; it would make him less than what he is. Getting to know a stranger is a contradiction. Thus, when Phantom Stranger appeared in Secret Origins, he was given no less than four possible origins: a fallen angel rejected by heaven and hell; a man spared by heaven who watches his city die and slays an angel in anger; a future scientist who witnesses the Great Hand forming the universe; and (in the best of the four) the possibility that Phantom Stranger is, in fact, the Wandering Jew of legend. Notice that three of them (possibly all four) focus on a man belonging to neither Heaven nor Hell. This possibility that he is an angel was also brought up in the Phantom Stranger's Vertigo Visions Special.
But Phantom Stranger is best used when he is not the focus of the story. Often, the Stranger is merely a plot device for anthology stories, focusing on normal people trapped in mystical situations. The Stranger assists, guides and sometimes interferes, but he is more often an observer. After all, interference exposes his abilities, which either tells us more about his limits or makes him a deux ex machina to cure any problem.
But what if you want to use a magical character in a traditional superhero role? That requires limitations, lest the magician hauls out some enemy-defeating spell at the last moment. This is especially true in superteams. Dr. Fate in the Justice Society of America and Zatanna in the Justice League of America both underwent periods of de-powering so that they didn't overshadow their teammates. Of course, you can always downplay a magical character by overlooking her constantly, as was the case of the JLI's Silver Sorceress. Although she had numerous abilities (according to her Who's Who file), almost none of them were displayed during her time with the team.
Raven of The New Teen Titans and Nightshade of the Suicide Squad are magical characters with powers so clearly delineated that the mystic origins of their abilities are almost of no consequences. Their abilities could almost derive scientifically.
Of course, magical characters take on a whole new aspect when they're part of a magical world such as Warlord's Skartaris, Arion's Atlantis or Amethyst's Gemworld. In such a setting, where a majority of people possess magical powers, everyone is on an even footing and the magical protagonist is, relatively, someone that the average person can identify with.
There is one last limitation which you can impose on a sorceror, and that limitation is called Johnny Thunder. Johnny Thunder of the J.S.A. has a mystic thunderbolt which can do anything he commands it to, so long as he says the magic words, "Say you", and then gives a direct order. Aside from Johnny's own incompetence when it comes to remembering to say the magic words or giving orders that can't be taken out of context, you also have sneezing, hiccupping, stuttering, shivering, laryngitis and the good ol' gag in the mouth. It just goes to show that even an all-powerful genie can work as a viable action character, so long as you give him a terrible weakness. Especially one with freckles.
All characters are DC Comics
This column is © 1998 by Michael Hutchison.
All artwork is © 1998 by their respective artists.