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Look Deep into Our Eyes: Behind IDW's Smoke and Mirrors with Armstrong and Costa

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No Gimmicks Allowed: Comics that perform magic tricks! For Real!

“One of the most common clichés in pop culture when it comes to magicians is a ‘real’ wizard or witch has to disguise themselves as a ‘fake’ stage magician. This always bothered me. I mean why is being just a stage magician not interesting enough. And being a magician I kinda took it personally.”

That’s Jon Armstrong. He is arguably the best close-up sleight-of-hand magician in the world. Seriously, this is a guy who consults for Disney Imagineering and TV’s The Mentalist on all things magical. He lectures around the world, using magic and humor to amaze, enlighten, and awe. When he speaks about magic, we should all listen. The man knows what he’s talking about. A lifelong comic book fan, Armstrong brings his wealth of magical knowledge to his new creator-owned IDW series Smoke and Mirrors this week. Alongside collaborators Mike Costa and Ryan Browne, in Smoke and Mirrors, Armstrong posits an alternate world where magic has long been the catalyzing force behind much of human progress.

But how do you define magic in a world where it has replaced science as the primary driver for human progress? According to Costa, this “re-definition” acts as the foundation of the series. “We want to view magic (as in supernatural magic) as simply a system of knowledge, almost exactly the same thing as science is in our world. Hence, a "wizard" of the magic-universe isn't any more dangerous or all-powerful than a scientist that might be working at the Pentagon. Certainly a scientist might have knowledge of any number of dangerous and destructive technologies, and might also have the ability to use them... but that doesn't make him as all-powerful as, say, a character like Voldemort.”

The idea in Smoke and Mirrors is to weave magic into everyday life so completely the myriad gadgets, technologies, modes of transportation and communication, the mechanics of everything we take for granted in our modern world is fueled not by mathematics as we have come to know it but by esoterics and the ephemeral. Imagine a world in which your iPod, the bus you take to work, the microwave you heat your lunch in are all powered by magic.

“We really wanted to get away from the "traditional" fantasy literature view of magic as a source of ultimate power that can potentially make a character functionally invincible,” explains Costa. “We felt that a world that ran on magic would be much more likely to resemble our own world, so in that way, magic does become like ‘science...’ with some slight, but crucial differences which will have consequences as the story plays out.”

Initially conceived as an illustrated primer teaching kids how to perform sleight-of-hand magic, Smoke and Mirrors eventually evolved into its current form, once the Costa and Armstrong decided to create a comic book that actually “performed” the tricks, rather than simply acting as a step-by-step manual. Armstrong, despite an extensive background in consultation, knew his limitations as a comic book writer and turned to good friend Costa to help him build the magical universe of Smoke and Mirrors. When it came to choosing which illusions to include in the series though, it was all up to Armstrong and artist Ryan Browne to include tricks that would work on the printed page.

“Working in print is amazingly difficult but incredibly rewarding,” says Armstrong. “Having to make the trick work on paper means that most of the tools I normally have at my disposal when creating magic are gone.  I'm left with having to take the principles left and mold them so they work on the page or come up with new ideas based on the medium of comics themselves. It's been really rewarding as a learning process for me.”

The obvious gamble creating a comic book featuring real illusions and feats of legerdemain is of course a perception of gimmickry. In a medium that’s been invaded by Hollywood in recent years, comics featuring a multitude of sales gimmicks from celebrity name association to books that actually play music create an environment of cynicism and distrust amongst the so-called “fanboy” set.  To such discerning critics, a series built upon a foundation of card tricks and mind games might seem to be nothing more than a house of cards waiting to collapse.

Enter artist Ryan Browne, the man whose clear visual storytelling and understanding of the graphic narrative prevents Smoke and Mirrors from descending into obtuse trickery. It wasn’t a process free from obstacles though, according to Costa. “Ryan doesn't actually know anything about mentalism or stage magic, though, and that was actually a huge asset to us. He was our first ‘audience’. And if the effect didn't work on him, we knew it probably wouldn't work on the reader. Jon had to be very precise on how things were designed and described, and often times, there was some trial-and-error before we got it totally right.”

       

Boasting a traditional, grounded visual tone thanks to Browne’s clean lines, Smoke and Mirrors is a book anchored in the familiar world outside of our windows. It’s a world with real people and places; a functioning universe with its own inherent social architecture and infrastructure. This was because Smoke and Mirrors was always intended to be a comic first, says Armstrong.

“I really want them [the tricks] to be woven into the story and not seem like they were just stuck in as a gimmick. The effects we do in each issue should allow the reader to experience the same sort of wonder and amazement as the characters in the story.”

For Costa, Smoke and Mirrors is as much about rediscovering and remembering that magic exists right here, right now, in the world we live in, as it is about publishing his first creator-owned comic. We only have to open ourselves to the possibility.

“I think the key to achieving "magic" is the sense of awe and wonder a thing causes you to experience, and, despite how astonishing something like a cellular phone or disposable contact-lenses might be, immersion and familiarity have made them totally banal – which, I think, is why stage magic and sleight-of-hand is still such a wonderful and necessary art-form.

“We can watch mind-boggling visuals of giant robots destroying cities in a movie, and it might look cool, but we understand that it's just done with models and computers. Whereas Jon Armstrong can pick up a deck of cards, and you legitimately have no idea how he's doing what you're eyes are seeing. THAT, more than anything, is still real magic.”

Let Jon, Mike, and Ryan know what you think of magic and comics via twitter: @smokemirrorsIDW

Smoke and Mirrors, Jon Armstrong, Mike Costa (W), Ryan Browne (A), IDW Publishing, $3.99. Released March 21, 2012.

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Comments

  • JasonClyma

    JasonClyma Mar 21, 2012 at 1:20am

    Reviewed it for this week, it's great!

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