Today, Drew and Michael are discussing Black Magick 1, originally released October 28th, 2015.
Drew: Police stories tend to be more about cases than about characters. Law and Order is a prime example — the detectives and ADAs mostly serve as charismatic cogs in a machine, only hinting at “character” insofar as they have different manners of speech and dress. Sure, every once in a while you’d be asked to care about someone’s home life, but the fact that it always felt awkward and forced illustrates my point — we only cared that they got the bad guy, not that they were driven into police work by an overbearing father or whatever.
But then there are police stories that manage to make their characters’ psychology a key element of the narrative — The Wire springs immediately to mind, making the wants and habits and vices of its detectives as important to understanding the story as any piece of evidence they might find. Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker struck a similar balance in their Gotham Central, where the romantic and familial relationships of the characters played key roles. It’s no surprise, then, that Black Magick 1, Rucka’s latest police story, features a detective who is every bit as intriguing as the case she’s called to. Of course, as was often the case with Gotham Central, it may be difficult to separate the character from a case that seems so personal.
Anyway, meet Rowan Black:
That’s such a fun introduction to the character. Prior to the phone ring, there’s actually no indication of time period, which makes its interruption all the more jarring. Rucka thwarts our expectations throughout the issue — I’d argue that a detective who is secretly a witch is a macro-version of this phenomenon — but this is also a brilliantly efficient introduction to the character. By the end of the scene, we know that Rowan is a witch with a job so important she can’t ever turn her phone off. We quickly learn what that job is, even if this particular call isn’t like any she would have gotten before.
That kind of subtle exposition is key, because Rucka spends much of the rest of the issue skirting any direct explanation of her values and fears. We understand that the hostage-taker Rowan is called in to deal with knows about Rowan’s abilities, but that’s about it. Throughout the scene, Rowan and the hostage-taker refer to a “them,” but there’s no further indication of who they might be, or how they’d be capable of “riding” someone (or what that means). We can glean that “they” are some kind of ancient enemy of witches that Rowan has encountered before, but that’s about it.
Which leaves us with an intriguing mystery, a killer premise, and absolutely gorgeous art from Nicola Scott. Scott employs lush greytones, giving the art a depth and subtlety utterly unlike anything I’ve seen from her before. That subtlety is enhanced by Chiara Arena’s restrained color work, reserved mostly for magical, elemental forces, like the candlelight in the image above. That effect is at its flashiest when Rowan cuts loose with some real magic, exploding in a burst of vibrant color.
It’s hard to demonstrate how effective that spread is after 24 virtually colorless pages, but holy cow — just look at it. This thing doesn’t need any atmosphere to make it sing, but the fact that it has it anyway makes it all the more stunning.
Michael! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this issue. Are you as intrigued by this premise as I am? Do you love the art? Oh, and on a scale of 1 to 666, how clever is the connection between the Rowan’s badge and a pentagram?
Michael: I am right there with you Drew – I don’t think I’ve ever seen artwork like this from Nicola Scott. Scott is no slouch in the art department, but I honestly didn’t realize that she was the artist of the book until I took a closer look at the issue credits; being able to differentiate your style is an impressive skill. I love me some Greg Rucka, though I think this is the first time I’ve read any of his work that ventured outside of the Gotham city limits. The story of Black Magick 1 was an intriguing introduction to the world Rowan Black, but I found the “supplemental materials” that followed the main story to be even more informative of the world we are entering. One of these pages is devoted to a “family tree” of sorts for Rowan Black’s female ancestors. From 1650 – 1919 there are instances of members of the Black family being tried and executed – presumably for practicing witchcraft. Following that, there are also a couple of women in the Black family whose deaths were due to “circumstances unknown” – the most recent of which was in 2013. I assume that since public trial and execution of witches was long out of fashion, those “circumstances unknown” deaths were covert witch hunts in their own right. As evidenced by Jeanine Schaefer’s letter at the end of the issue, Rucka has notes upon notes of character histories and plans for Black Magick, so it’s no surprise that they’d want to show some of that off in one way or another. Rucka is also a novelist, so this issue gives him the chance to get the best of both worlds in a way.
The journal of Gilles Robert du Pont-L’Eveque is a substantial piece of prose from Rucka that further establishes the realm of the book. In the journal, Gilles writes about the first time that he witnessed the public burning-at-the-stake of a witch. Gilles is accompanied by his father and grandfather, and when he asks them why he must watch this terrible event unfold, they reply “To understand what we are not…to understand what we must never become.” Rucka implies that Gilles and his family are true witch hunters, not this philistine public display of scapegoating. I went back to reread the main story to see if the man who tried to burn Rowan was a descendant of Pont-L’Eveque, but he never gave his name. Nevertheless, that is some impressive world building right there, Mr. Rucka. Another thing I found particularly interesting about this journal entry and witch-burning was the way that the Inquisitor blamed all of the town’s problems on that alleged witch. The idea that we can blame one particular group or another for the major problems of society as a whole is a dangerous notion that is unfortunately too relevant for modern society. I may be getting ahead of myself here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Rucka took Black Magick in a modern allegorical direction; but we shall see.
Believe it or not, I actually did read the main story itself, so here are few more inferences I made from that. Before he tries to light Rowan on fire, the man with the gun makes a plea for help. The language he uses seems to indicate that “they” (whoever that may be) is controlling him in some way or another. In a page that is almost completely devoid of dialogue, we see Rowan try to do something (read his mind?) but it fails. Was she trying to exorcise some demon in control of his body? Instead of witch hunters, I could see this becoming a battle between witches and some other demonic force…but I’m getting ahead of myself again aren’t I?
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