The Funnies Ain't So Funny Anymore

By Omri 

Issue #5 

      I was watching the new Legion of Superheroes on TV this morning, and I saw Brainiac 5 finally concede that magic does exist and some things are simply beyond the realm of physics.  Oddly enough, the issue that I picked up when I sat down to write this column was a Day of Vengeance one, so it looks like magic is just screaming at me that it wants some spotlight too. 

      So what exactly is magic? Before we get too carried away, let’s refine that question a little: what’s the role of magic in the DCU?  It all began, as most things did in this medium, as a tool of bringing in the fantastic elements to simply provide entertainment.  Why don’t we bring in a wizard that is so powerful even Batman goes insane by all that’s happening around him?  Remember, this is the golden age and even before it, so the silliness is purposeful, and the more spectacular or unbelievable the magic tricks the bad men pull off, the better.  But slowly thereafter, fandom and writers got a little bit more serious.  Not as much in terms of the content of stories or themes used, but more in terms of continuity, cohesiveness and realism.  People wanted to know why stuff happened, where certain characters got their powers, and how come this other guy can’t do the stuff he used to anymore.  Laziness can be to blame here, but I’m sure there were plenty of other factors, but magic soon picked up a more important role: that of a scapegoat.  Whenever a character’s origins could not be explained, it was a wizard who made him such way.  Whenever the entire city was destroyed in a fight, a magic wielder would magically restore it all to exactly the way it was before (and why not better, like cleaner streets, I’ll never know…)  Whenever Batman forgot that only two months ago he had walked into an identical trap, it was because his memories were magically erased.  Does this sound like a cheesy cop-out?  It definitely was. Until the deconstruction era, that is. 

      As we all know, the deconstruction era, heralded by Alan Moore and Frank Miller propelled us into the modern age of comics where stuff all of a sudden had gained a whole new level of seriousness.  Some changes were more gradual than others, but the element of magic was one of the first casualties of this change.  Almost all the magical origins and explanations were scrapped for more “realistic” explanations, or at least ones that to an untrained ear, might sound part of the realm of science.  That was the core of it: Magic being replaced by Science.  Fantasy clearing the way for Technology.  Yes, many elements survived this, but at its core, magic was being erased from the DCU in the late 80’s.  One of the flash rogues, Abra Kadabra I think, embodied this shift by calling himself the greatest sorcerer to ever live, and creating truly magical feats, yet his origins, comments, gloatings and editorial notes constantly reminded readers that he was really from some far flung century in the future, and it was just technology that we simply cannot comprehend yet.  The DC universe started being peppered with the phrase “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Indistinguishable, but not necessarily “is the source of all”.  DC still went to great lengths to show that magic still existed, albeit in a changed, more controlled form.  Zatanna now could not conjure anything she wanted, but instead she needed a conduit.  Some sorcerers could not affect metals anymore, and others were suddenly bound by strict codes, whether these be ethics or of their respective orders.  Magic still existed, but it stopped being the answer to everything.  Instead, they began making magic more realistic, if that makes any sense at all. 

      And so we arrive to this date.  Magic is now a well established force to be reckoned with in the DCU, but it is still bound by many (self-imposed) restrictions.  Zatanna still requires something to focus her powers on.  Doctor Fate (at least the old one) has a higher authority controlling his actions.  Faust is still a loser that would do anything for more power, though it is impossible for him to get it.  The Joker during his “Emperor Joker” and “With a Vengeance” arcs remade the world in his image, but was still bound by certain limitations.  Ralph’s story through 52 kept reminding us that all magic, no matter how big or small, has a price.  A sacrifice has to be made for every magical channel used.  No more unexplained resurrections or miraculous healings (yeah, let’s ignore Superboy Prime, that’s a different story).  No more random events that make absolutely no sense and have no purpose but to fill some pages.  Magic definitely exists, and is powerful – The Trials of Shazam is a trip down one such avenue, Shadowpact explores a different lane, but in its underlying principle, it is now controlled.  Well, that’s not so true now either…  After Day of Vengeance, the Spectre converted all magic in the world to “wild magic,” a raw ‘building-block’ form of magic that is the mortar of this domain.  “The rules of magic have been rewritten,” claim several characters, having to re-learn how to use their abilities under this new rulebook.  Such binding laws that do not need an agency to enforce. Wouldn’t that be nice to have? 

      With this we have come a full circle.  We have traveled the history of magic in the DCU through its various incarnations, and the answer to our original question is closer now than we think.  I believe the answer we seek lies in the concept of diversity: If all our comic books were about white, male superheroes that got their powers by being exposed to some form of radiation, the medium would have died out a long time ago.  It is diversity that makes it interesting and keeps it from being stagnant.  Yes, we still have repetitions and similarities, but for every alien origin we have a scientific one.  For every non-meta with a death-wish we have a magician.  The list goes on through origins, races, genders (yeah, apparently there’s more than two, don’t ask…) and whatnot.  Magic is simply another variation on this, adding yet another flavor to the already flavorful mix.  It used to be more (or less, depending on your point of view) prominent, but magic is here to stay, whether you like it or not.  Let’s just be glad that there is no way some random never-before-heard-of guy would show up and make a city disappear with a snap of his fingers.  Fans just don’t go with that anymore.  We have become too critical and evolved into creatures that feed on rational explanations.  We don’t let things that bother us fly by, and instead run to message boards to complain.  The community has become much more vocal, and so the magic genre simply had no choice but to keep up with us. 

      For next week I’m cheating a little: I’m actually picking the subject ahead of time.  Sorry, can’t help it, but I’m currently reading Steve Darnall and Alex Ross’ take on Uncle Sam, and their political views which pushed this book into the Vertigo imprint have to be discussed while I’m still reading it. 

      So until Uncle Sam says hi, and don’t let Zatanna turn you into a ‘gorf’ while you sleep,