How might the course of history have changed if magic and mysticism, rather than scientific discovery, had been the driving force behind innovation and new technology? Cars run on gestures, computers run on spells, and the organizations and companies who craft new ways of manipulating the forces of the universe develop the products of modern life. "Smoke and Mirrors," debuting this week from IDW Publishing, sets this world on its guard as new yet familiar form of magic enters the picture. Written by "Transformers" and "Blackhawks" scribe Mike Costa with sleight-of-hand artist Jon Armstrong and illustrated by Ryan Browne, the series explores magic as technology and reveals a few tricks of the trade. Comic Book Resources spoke with Costa about the five-issue miniseries.
The world of "Smoke and Mirrors" is interesting in that it operates a lot like our own, except that magic has replaced science -- as Costa explained. "Instead of the world working on science and electricity, it works on supernatural magic and occult technology." The writer added that, in establishing such a universe, "it was very important to us to work out how this world would operate."
"One of the things that has always galled me about stories that involve contemporary worlds where magic exists is that the concept tends to become incoherent if you put it under a little scrutiny," Costa said. "The aesthetic usually tends toward medieval-looking clothing, people writing on parchment, etc. It seems to me that, if it were magic and not hard science that underpinned society, there's no reason why the world wouldn't eventually organize themselves into something recognizably similar to our own.
"It's a standard trope of fantasy literature that the more magic you learn, the more powerful you become, which leads to the existence of characters who are essentially demigods capable of doing almost everything. That just seems a little too easy to me," the writer continued. "Consider the corollary -- in the real world, you could be an expert surgeon, with a vast knowledge of medicine and the human body. Or you could be an engineer capable of building a jet-engine, but you probably couldn't be both. Each one takes a lifetime of study. That's how we wanted to approach the 'magic' world -- you have magicians who are experts at cars, or plumbing, or transportation, just as we do in our world."
With magic taking over the role of science in the world of the series, the tension rises not from one man amassing too much mystical might, but rather from the arrival of one man with a different sort of power. "The serious implications that raises in our story is that there occur when a stage magician named Terry Ward is transported to this magical world from our own, more mundane reality. Which of course means he doesn't understand how anything in this world works but, more importantly, he has a tremendous amount of knowledge that everyone around him has never even dreamed of," Costa explained. "That leads to some complications..."
Much as a company like GE operates in our world, an organization called the Trade Circle develops new magic in "Smoke and Mirrors," with a sense of innovation and style to rival Apple's. Of course, there are rival firms, not all of them with society's best interests at heart. "Despite the fact that most magic is used for more prosaic stuff like making lights burn and cooking food, just like electricity in our world, there are definitely some things that more traditionally resemble the kind of shenanigans you think of when you hear the word 'magic' -- mind-reading, transformations, creating animal familiars, things of that nature," Costa told CBR. "But, as we see, those kinds of things are outlawed as they are considered destructive to society. They are, however, still out there, just like illegal technologies exist in our world. But it's not like someone would risk using illegal technology (or magic) for personal gain -- right?"
Perhaps at just the right age to guide readers through the magic-dominated world of this series, "Smoke and Mirrors" stars teenagers Simon and Ethan, who very quickly get in over their heads, a situation that is only exasperated when they encounter the sleight-of-hand magician from another world. "Ethan is a young, precocious boy who lost his dad a few years ago, and is now, well, 'troubled' is too harsh a word. But put it this way: Ethan is really smart, and he suffered a really big loss. That's not a recipe for a super-popular, well-adjusted kid," Costa said.
"Similarly, Simon is a precocious boy whose dad is the famous head of a massive technology company, which creates its own kind of weird social isolation. They're not close friends, but they're both comrades in that neither of them actually has any close friends at all," he continued. "And their relationship, which is based on their similarities, is going to have some serious consequences due to their differences."
The action kicks off when Ethan, inspired by a street performer's seemingly new magic techniques in seedy part of town, asks some questions and tinkers with powers he can't control. In addition to mesmerizing card tricks, the stage magician Terry Ward carries something in his trunk with the potential to change the world. "He's hanging out in a seedy place and performing on the street because it's the only way he can use his special skills to make a living and not raise suspicion," Costa said of Ward's current station. The disguise of using sleight-of-hand rather than the world's more standard magic works on everyone but Simon. "No one in this world has ever seen stage magic or deceptive sleights before, and if they knew what he was actually doing they would be amazed -- but in a bad way," Costa said. "It would be like watching a movie about aliens, and then discovering that the aliens weren't special effects, but were actually real.
"Luckily, most people just assume what they're seeing has a 'logical' explanation like special effects. It's Ethan who actually makes the shocking discovery that Terry is much more than he seems."
Costa is working with magician Jon Armstrong on this series, who provides background to make Terry Ward's tricks authentic and his character believable. "Without Jon, this comic couldn't exist," Costa said. "I'm a big fan of magic, and I practice sleight-of-hand as well, but Jon is a true expert and I rely on him for dozens of details in every script to create verisimilitude in Terry's back story and character. Jon and I also developed the broad-strokes of the story together, and a lot of the more complicated logistics of the magical world were worked out over several long conversations and meetings over the months.
"But more importantly, Jon is providing the elements that make this series truly unique. Each issue of this five-issue miniseries is going to have a magic effect that actually works, on the page, for the reader. We're doing everything from mind-reading to psychological forces, and Jon's job is to design these things," Costa revealed. "Along with being a magician, he's also worked as an Imagineer for Walt Disney theme parks, so he has just the right kind of peculiar expertise and deranged, fevered brain to conceptualize this kind of stuff."
Ryan Browne is tackling the art for "Smoke and Mirrors," and he and Costa have a long history of working together. "Ryan and I actually first met when we were assigned to work together on a story in the fifth grade, so our entire history began with a collaboration," Costa said. "I used to want to be an artist as well, but by the time he and I got to high school, he started to really significantly pull ahead of me in terms of fine-arts talent. And I, for lack of a better term, totally gave up. I decided to focus on writing instead. So by senior year of high school, we settled into our current roles with me scripting and him drawing. In the years since then, we've probably collaborated on -- maybe fifteen different ideas? Some of which produced a full issue. One, in fact, produced two. But we've never had a professional publisher pick one up until now.
"I'm really exited for 'Smoke and Mirrors' to come out and enter into the pantheon of seminal works of genius within the art form, so all those self-published issues I have in my garage with print-runs of 15 will be worth billions. Billions, I say!"
Aside from continuing a collaborative process between writer and artist that goes back to childhood, Costa said that Browne's style is also a keen fit for the particular story of "Smoke and Mirrors." "Ryan has a very visually dense style, very graphic and detailed," Costa said. "Jon and I left it up to him to basically design every aspect of this world. Mostly because we are lazy and our visual imaginations are pretty frail compared to what Ryan can come up with. He had a stunningly huge job to do here, designing everything from clothes to hairstyles and our only direction was something along the lines of 'make it look sorta the same as the real world, but different.'
"In a way, we're all heroes. But in another, more accurate way, Ryan is the hero. He worked harder than all of us on this thing. He colors his own art too, the maniac."
"Smoke and Mirrors" #1 is on sale Wednesday, March 21.