Today, Drew and Ryan D. are discussing Black Magick 4, originally released January 27th, 2016.
Drew: I’ve been thinking a lot about genre lately. Specifically, how we might define genre as a concept. I tend to think of genre as a checklist of conventions; guns and horses? That’s a western. Period costumes and overly-earnest impressions? That’s a biopic. But every convention you can think of has numerous exceptions, and writers love deconstructing genres, which means there’s no one trait that would actually be true of an entire genre. Instead, “genre” is more of a cloud of possibilities, and any given story’s placement within that genre is a negotiation of the conventions that fit within that cloud and the subversions of those conventions. Why use those conventions at all? There are a number of reasons, but one of the most practical is that those conventions work as a shorthand — we don’t need the concepts of interrogation rooms or fortresses of solitude explained to us, even though we’ve never experienced them ourselves. This allows writers to skip ahead to the subversions, showing us what’s unique about this particular genre story. We all know what’s unique about Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott’s Black Magick (it’s right there in the name), but issue 4 is the first to hint at just how different that might make this story.
I don’t mean to dismiss the first three issues — they’re intriguing, well-told stories — but for all of their magical trappings, the magic didn’t actually have any consequence on the story. Rowan’s actions in the first three issues all have non-magical analogues that could reasonably fit in a police procedural. The knowledge that she’s a witch could just as easily be any other dark secret from her past; the wards she cast on her house could just as easily be locking her doors and windows; the magically mimicked lighter she swaps from the evidence bag could just as easily be conventionally mimicked. These magical elements provide texture, but don’t actually subvert the conventions of a police procedural.
I also don’t mean to dismiss “texture” as a meaningful point of distinction in and of itself — while many of the characters here might fell at home in any number of police stories, the magical ambiance (enhanced by Scott’s rich greytones) absolutely distinguishes the series. Moreover, I would gladly read a totally straight-ahead police procedural from this creative team, no magic required. But that’s not the story they’re telling, and while the adherence to conventions in the first three issues lulled me into a sense of security, the ending of this issue leaves me with no conventional handhold to cling to.
That ending comes as Alex casts a seemingly routine seeing spell.
Could not have seen that coming! If there’s a police procedural analogue to what Alex was trying to do, it would probably be running fingerprints or checking surveillance footage, which makes this turn of events like someone popping out of her computer monitor. Whatever genre groundings this scene started with, they’re utterly gone by the end.
Which means I can’t guess how this will shake out. Will Alex survive? Will this creature stick around, hunting for Rowan? Whether Alex turns up dead or just injured, it seems Morgan is poised to suspect something — check out his sideways glance as Rowan slips Alex the lighter.
I can’t see this not coming up if Alex is reported dead, missing, or just shows up with some bruises on her neck. He’ll likely suspect more genre-appropriate secrecy (maybe drugs, maybe an affair), but he’s clearly not going to forget that something’s up with these two.
Ryan! I’m curious about your feelings on the way Rucka and Scott are playing with genre here. That final scene may push the story into another genre entirely, but it’s clearly dragging a lot of conventions with it. Also, I didn’t mention the ever-nearing spectre of the Hammer agent, who has now arrived in Porsmouth, gun in hand. He isn’t yet a major player in Rowan’s story, but it also seems like whatever attacked Alex has nothing to do with him.
Ryan D: I love how your brain works, Drew; genre is a great place to dig into a series like Black Magick. The general populace consumes police procedural dramas like candy, which explains the broad pantheon of C.S.I. shows and offshoots of it, such as Brooklyn 99. Black Magick holds to the conventions of this drama to a T: the cop suffering from a service-related trauma who just wants to do good by their partner, the obligatory scenes in the morgue with the coroner, and members of the Force being thankful that street-justice took down a notorious perp despite the fact that this contradicts the very values of justice which they are sworn to serve. And while magic has been a thematic motif underpinning the series, it is only just now that we see it being exercised as a legitimate plot device integral to moving us deeper into the arc. I appreciate this slow-burn approach to the supernatural. This way, Rucka and Scott establish that magic is a small, banal thing for people like Rowan and Alex in its parlour-trick appearances, while also distinguishing the magic from the realm of what we know by imbuing these moments with flares of color. This allows for this issue’s climax to pack a punch as Rucka subverts some of the arcane genre conventions and rules he has been setting over time.
I have been delighted by Rucka and Scott’s patience and care they put into all of the scenes featuring the spells in the witches’ repertoires. Take, for example, this gorgeous two-page spread of Alex preparing for her divining rites:
The collusion between the ritual of smoking a cigarette with that of the spell preparation evokes a lovely contrast between the mundane and the magical, solidifying the fact that this witchcraft is — for these women — an insoluble part of their lives, as it should be seeing as Alex has been at this for centuries. The beautiful composition of the page comes across as meandering and relaxed by using overlapping panels and a view of Alex sauntering sans borders. All of this serves to make the final reveal Drew posted as all the more jarring. What IS that creature, which looks more like a wytch of Scott Snyder’s design than Black and Alex do? The best guess is that the feral thing is an agent of the larger conspiracy which has, since issue one, been catalyzing magical phenomenon against our good-guy magic users.
Which brings us to our — as Drew mentioned — seemingly unrelated Hammer agent Stepan Hahn. As the addendum chapters found at the end of each issue show, the witch-policing league to which Hahn belongs has a complicated relationship with its subjects, so we can not assume altogether that Hahn will be polemically aligned against Rowan and the rest of her coven; the role which the Hammer agent will play is undetermined. Let’s look at what Rucka and Scott might be telling us with Hahn’s role in this issue:
And we get some full-frontal nudity! While this series has never shied away from non-gratuitous nudity — heck, issue 1 began with such — this use of nudity here must serve one of two possible reasons: 1) to display his physical fitness in an effort to prove that, though he may not wield the dark forces of magic, he may well prove a suitable challenge to our arcane protagonists, or 2) to sexualize him for his impending erotically-charged encounter with Rowan!
I mean, maybe. But either way, Black Magick 4 takes an important step off of the cliff of the genres upon which it has rested, as the changes in status quo here bode well for a title which has already been quite a treat to read. I look forward to where Rucka will take the audience as the rising action builds on this first arc, and also how pretty Scott will make it all look.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?