REVIEW: Gutter Magic #1

A while back I reviewed Gutter Magic #0, a collection of short stories written by Rich Douek and drawn by a variety of artists.  The book introduced an intriguing mythology, an alternate history of post-war America reshaped by the presence of magic.  It was a fascinating idea, filled with quirks and characters that gave it life, and all it was lacking was a concrete story to build it all around.  That #0 issue shared the problem I have with many #0 issues, in that it’s not really an issue #1, and so it can’t actually start anything.  But I did leave Gutter Magic #0 sold on the concept, and eager to check out the story once it began in earnest.

Thankfully, thinks get moving at a merry pace with Gutter Magic #1.  Rich Douek concisely re-introduces the concept and a couple of the key characters introduced in the preview book, and from there we are propelled forward into a larger narrative. Here, our roguish protagonist Cinder and his goblin ally Blacktooth are on the hunt for a wizard that will help them unlock a powerful spell.  When that wizard is revealed to be an important historical figure (I won’t reveal who, but will say this won’t be the first comic he’s appeared in recently), it adds whole new wrinkles into this compelling mythology Douek has crafted, and brings up questions about the relationship between science and magic in this steampunk-tinged world.

One of the primary joys of this first issue is seeing how well-realised this world Douek has created is.  There are various small scenes or offhand references that hint at a rich, dense mythology, one probably mapped out in far more detail than what we’ll see within the confines of this particular story.  These pages are also richly populated with supporting characters beyond our likeable leads, be it friends and foes who show up here or others who remain off-panel while being ominously referred to, already imbuing them with presence before their likely appearance later on in the story.  There’s also an interesting element of class warfare worked into the division between the elite master mages in the skyscrapers and the practitioners of “gutter magic” on the streets that feels quite pertinent in the wake of all this 99%/1% economic talk.

I should also mention the classy work of artist Brett Barkley.  The #0 issue had a variety of artists, some a better fit than others, but in Barkley it is apparent that Douek has settled on the ideal collaborator.  He helps breathe life into Douek’s diverse concepts and characters, and it’s in the little details – most notably the top half of the Empire State Building floating in the air above the bottom half – where Gutter Magic really establishes its own distinctive identity.  Perhaps Barkley’s biggest triumph is a complicated double-page spread featuring a chase through a goblin market, where the scenery warps and twists around the page, leading us through the characters’ journey.  It’s a sequence that in lesser hands could have gone wrong, but Barkley pulls it off with panache.  It helps that Donna Gregory’s bright color pallette helps to keep everything clear and prevents things from becoming too murky.

Gutter Magic always presented a highly promising, original concept.  Now, issue #1 fulfils that promises, giving us a brisk, exciting caper brimming with clever ideas and supported by slick visuals.  Once again, Rich Douek has impressed me, and left me keen to read what comes next.

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Gutter Magic #1 is available to buy at DriveThruComics.

REVIEW: Gutter Magic

One of the best things about going to New York Comic Con was getting to meet up with fellow creators, and one such person I met was Rich Douek.  We got to talk about comics, writing and other stuff, and he shared with me a copy of his debut comic, Gutter Magic.  The comic book I received was in fact a preview of the upcoming series proper, giving us a trio of brief shorts to introduce us to this magic-dominated alternate world that Douek has created.

Of course, the problem with little teaser comics like this is that, the better they are, the more frustrating a reading experience they become.  While a poor one can be easily discarded, one that shows as much promise like this leaves us, as a reader, keen to read more and agrivated about only being given a brief taste.  I can’t help but feel like the story recounted in prose on the inside front cover of the book – about how the history of this world deviates from our own, and the role magic played in winning World War 2 and shifting the course of society in the decades that followed – may have made for a compelling introductory comic in its own right, and it’s almost a waste glossing over it in three paragraphs.

As for what we do get, the first story of the three, called “Gutter Magic”, feels like the most compelling, and the most relevant.  It lays out some of Douek’s mythology, and makes it tangible by approaching it through the perspective of Cinder Byrnes, a man without natural magical talent who has been fighting tooth and nail  to nevertheless become the world’s greatest sorceror.  The “gutter magic” of the title refers to the sleight of hand and card tricks that lesser magicians rely on to get by, while the magical elite can use more grandiose wizard spells.  It’s a really intriguing premise for a character and a story, with udnertones of class division that could give the book added edge in our current economic climate.  Again, I could have read a whole issue just introducing us to Cinder and his daily struggles.

But instead, the remaining two thirds of the book are taken up by another pair of shorts – “Nice Work” and “Havoc’s Hand” –  which instead shed light on characters who I imagine will make up the supporting cast of the series itself.  These are certainly interesting enough, but they feel more peripheral than the opening Cinder story, and when you’re working to grab a reader’s attention with your comic, you’re making it harder for yourself asking them to start from scratch twice over the course of the comic.  I’d have preferred to see the first story expanded into one longer tale, or even had three shorts each revolving around Cinder.

On the plus side, Douek is clearly a talented writer.  His dialogue flows quickly and naturally, with the necessary world-building exposition delivered to us unobtrusively.  And though we only get glimpses of it, it’s clear that Douek has crafted a deep, immersive mythology here, primed for further exploration.  I for one would certainly be keen to see where he’s going with these story threads.

Each of the three shorts is handled by a different artist.  The first story is drawn by the talented Jason Baroody.  I’m a real fan of Baroody’s talent for “camera” placement in a panel, knowing just the angle to get the most dramatic image.  His faces occasionally come across as a bit staid, but his bodies are well proportioned, and his pages look slick and dramatic.  The understated colors of Paul Little are a nice match for Baroody’s work.

J.C. Grande, whose work I’ve commented on a few times in my reviews, handles the art on the second story, which is possibly the best-looking of the three.  The loose, almost cartoony style gives the pages a real sense of energy and excitement, and Little’s precise coloring ensures there are no issues with clarity that have occasionally popped up in Grande’s other work.

I’d say the work of Craig S. Yeung on the third short is the least successful of the three.  I can understand where he was going, with a rough, muddy aesthetic to compliment the more horror-tinged vibe of this particular tale.  But the result is that some of the storytelling is hard to follow.  Furthermore, some of the facial expressions and body shapes feel awkward and unnatural, which took me out of the reading experience.  The coloring of Scott Lemien is pretty good, however, with a pastel-like appearance that’s a match for the moody artwork.

There are a couple of nitpicks here and there, but overall this is a very solid debut for Rich Douek.  If the goal of this collection of tales was to generate interest in an upcoming Gutter Magic series, then I would say this comic was most definitely a success.  Hopefully, if I meet Rich in New York next year, he’ll have some more chapters to share.

Gutter Magic is available to buy from DriveThruComics.