It's a KIND of Magic...

I like mystical comic book characters, including such notables as Zatanna, Hellstorm, and (of course) the Doctors Fate & Strange.

The problem is, too few writers actually have a feel for magic. They either go overboard, using magic as a "Get out of plot free" card, or go the other way, and turn the mage into just another energy manipulator, with hard-light blasts & shields.

DC has a (slightly) easier time of it, as many of their magical characters emigrated to Vertigo, and lost their superheroic trappings. But even they've had missteps (primarily due to an over-reliance on things like the Lords of Order & Chaos).

Tonight, though, I'd like to talk about Marvel. Specifically, the Sorcerors Supreme, Stephen Strange and Jericho Drumm. Many years ago, an uncredited writer (probably Peter Sanderson or the legendary Mark Gruenwald) came up with a rather nifty description of the three kinds of magic:

  • Personal Energies (astral projection, mindreading)
  • Universal Energies (bolts, shields)
  • Extradimensional Energies (i.e. spells)

with a side note about black magic. And, while it was never stated in a comic, it worked as a general framework. Over time, however, it was either expanded or ignored, with the creation of things like the Gaian aura and "coincidence magic". And somewhere along the way, it was almost forgotten.

In 2007, as part of his Mystic Arcana event, writer and Tarot designer David Sexton dusted off the four kinds of magic (including black), and added a whole bunch of correspondences (and gave the Vishanti some intriguing backstory). It was coherent, realistic... and completely ignored.

Then came Brian Michael Bendis, who cast Strange in his New Avengers, and spent most of his time downplaying Strange's abilities, culminating in the Eye of Agamotto choosing to leave Strange, and somehow taking the title of Sorceror Supreme with it.

Now, I've gone on record as disliking this, more than once, because it takes the complex structure of magic laid down by Sexton and others, and replaces it with what I call "Gadget Magic". The power isn't in people, but things. If you get the things, you get the power.

But the story was written, for good or ill, and the mantle esoteric passed to Jericho Drumm, a.k.a. Brother (now Doctor) Voodoo. Unlike many fans, I saw this as a positive step, as Voodoo is a fascinating form of mysticism, and I've read several stories (ranging from Count Zero to Turok/Shadowman) where it was used to great effect.

In the hands of Rick Remender, however, Jericho also fell prey to the gadget school, being given a more superheroic costume, and having all his skill and ability tied to the newly-created Staff of Legba. For 6 issues he was beaten up and consumed with self-doubt. Finally, mercifully, the mini ended.

(Meanwhile, Strange seemed as powerful and effective as ever, except in his own mini. Go figure)

And now, both characters are back in BMB's tender hands, in New Avengers v2. And while he has added a rather nifty bit of flavor to magic (replacing glossalia with bibliographical spellbook references) the characters themselves are still being ill-served, having to flee mystical menaces so that the Avengers can punch them. The Eye is once again the McGuffin of choice, a mystical hot potato that, when taken from Earth, dooms reality. Because you have to have a gadget to master magic...

Normally, I would consider this just another bad story... but Mr. Bendis has stated that he is defining magic for the Heroic Age. And his kind of magic does not lend itself to good storytelling.

Ah well, there's always Triumph & Torment.

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