Monday, April 2, 2012

Comic Books You Should Be Reading: Smoke and Mirrors

When I was a kid, my family wasn’t much for going on vacation during the summer. My dad rarely got time off work, and we usually didn’t have the money for it, so my mom compensated by taking my brothers and me to the library as much as humanly possible. It was a good call; we were all avid readers, and since buying books was an activity usually restricted to birthdays, Christmas, and report cards (one book per straight-A card, as I recall), the library was the best way to feed our habits. And so every summer, after a school year spent reading fiction that took me out of my daily classroom life, I would pick a nonfiction subject that interested me and read everything the library had to say about it. One summer it was the Aztec and Maya empires; one summer it was carousel-horse carving.

One summer it was magic. 

I read all the books and did all the usual kiddie-magic tricks, and found I was pretty good at the patter but only average at misdirection and terrible at anything involving manual dexterity. I needed weeks of practice to master a simple Svengali deck, and the only trick I could reliably manage was the pin-proof balloon. But I devoured stories of famous magicians, and I treasured the copy of Houdini on Magic that I dug up in a used bookstore—not least because it was actually written by Walter Gibson, a.k.a. Maxwell Grant, creator of The Shadow. And while I admit to treasuring the grimy “lucky” quarter I got from a street magician when I was 15, it’s been a while since I’ve felt the thrill of seeing a trick I couldn’t figure out, or watching someone’s eyes widen as I did the impossible.

But now, thanks to a new comic from IDW, a bit of that magic is back.

Smoke and Mirrors is a hugely under-publicized comic that has several strikes against it, marketing-wise—no famous names attached to the writing or art, no popular franchise characters in prominent roles, no connections to the big crossover of the moment. But the story itself, and the characters it contains, make that lack of attention quite an injustice. Put simply, Smoke and Mirrors  is the ultimate magic comic, whether you like the witches-and-wizards sort of magic or the cards-and-coins variety—because it’s got both.

The premise, as much as you can pick it out from the maddeningly mysterious first issue, is that there’s a world where magic runs everything the way technology runs ours. A Steve Jobs-like magical innovator gives a presentation on the hot new gesture spells that can run everything from construction cranes to microwave ovens, and even kids can use “slates” (which look a lot like tablet computers) to perform such simple spells as seeing through a cat’s eyes. In this world we find a troubled boy named Ethan, who stumbles into something sinister on a school trip to an Apple-like facility. Ethan is fascinated by a strange man who stands in a public square in the bad part of town, seemingly performing the most advanced magic ever seen (the equal of the newest stuff from the idea factory) and dazzling audiences with his powers. Though this man goes unnamed in the first issue of the comic, publicity materials identify him as Terry Ward, and he is a totally ordinary stage magician, apparently from our world.

That’s right. A stage magician using his illusions to survive in a world full of actual magic. And it gets better, because the comic itself plays a literal magic trick on the audience.

I’m serious. Writer Mike Costa works with professional illusionist Jon Armstrong (a consultant on The Mentalist, among other things) create tricks for Terry to do, in full view of the readers—and I’ve never yet met someone who saw through the tricks on the first reading. Even me, and I was warned by the guy at the comic shop to watch Terry’s every move! IDW claims that each issue of the comic will contain such a trick, and so far Armstrong seems to know what he’s doing.

There’s plenty of mystery and excitement if you’re not a magic nerd, too, of course—including a talking cat and something hinky with those gesture-based spells. But as of Smoke and Mirrors #1, it’s Terry himself who commands most of my attention, with his suitcase full of rings and rabbits and decks of cards and at least one thing common in our world that Ethan’s never seen before. But I won’t spoil that surprise for you.

After all, I couldn’t bear to ruin the illusion.

Monthly issues of Smoke and Mirrors are $3.99 apiece, and available at your local comic shop. I encourage you to go pick one up; the more copies creator-owned comics like this sell, the greater the chance that there will be more issues to enjoy.  

Maybe I’ll finally learn to pull a quarter out of someone’s ear …

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