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‘Black Magick: The First Book of Shadows’ review: Double trouble

Rucka knows what he’s doing.

2015 was a great year for debuting beloved, excellent Image Comics, as it gave us Paper Girls, The Goddamned, Monstress, Headlopper, and Black Magick.

Greg Rucka, in terms of writing crime comics, is second only to Ed Brubaker. With Black Magick, he teamed up with artist Nicola Scott to meld the occult with the police procedural. If that sounds fun, that’s because it is — especially getting to read all of it in one large hardcover collecting two arcs.

Our story concerns Rowan Black, a detective who’s secretly a witch! But a gasoline-soaked hostage situation reveals a plot to destroy Rowan and everyone she loves.

Image Comics

Rucka pens a mystery/crime/horror/thriller akin to Dexter in the sense that these stories meld many genres to tell the story of a mysterious yet deadly antihero fighting evil from within the justice system. We get familiar beats where the protagonist struggles to hide their true identity from peers and reluctantly tamper with evidence. Admittedly it’s not all that original, but I have a particular affinity for “secret identity” stories since there’s always so much juicy conflict that can arise in every aspect of the heroes’ life (private, personal, professional).

Being a procedural, we get even more clichés, but there are just as many tropes that are avoided. It’s genuinely hard to keep ahead of this series, especially since it sucks you in, exacerbated by all 11 issues bound together, which makes for a truly page turning experience.

What helps set this series apart is its mostly domestic and even breezy approach to the occult. In fact, it shares a similar tone with The Wicked + The Divine. The occult has its terrifying edges, but witches and even witch hunters are portrayed as fairly ordinary people who try to make the world a safer place from truly demonic forces. The cast banter and argue, relieving this series from any pompous self-seriousness. There’s a larger world hinted at, yet the focus is firmly on how Rowan and her immediate circle are affected. I kept expecting the series to explode into something unwieldy, but it never came, even in the second arc. Rucka knows what he’s doing.

Another fantastic element is how mysteries are revealed. Characters will stumble upon clues but not say their relevance immediately, which builds suspense and feels far more natural than cramming in exposition. Best of all, it’s confident storytelling.

Rowan Black is the strongest and most well defined of the cast. I mean, she’s the protagonist, so she’d better be. And while some other characters fall by the periphery as one-note, there’s enough personality elsewhere, like with Rowan’s detective partner and the witch hunters. Weakest of the bunch are the villains, who are indeed creepy in their appearance and actions, but are ill served by the plot and don’t rise above their hair-twirling theatrics.

Image Comics

Admittedly Nicola Scott’s work took me some time getting used to. Most of that comes down to her use of what I’ll call “selective realism.” Usually characters’ faces are incredibly detailed and realistic, yet the backgrounds can fall into a sludgy mist of implications. More off-putting is when a character’s face is adequately detailed, but the rest of their body isn’t. Nicola Scott’s art comes across very much as tracing photographs, so you get a strong black outlines and grey paints within.

It’s not at all bad and this is clearly her chosen aesthetic. The facial expressions and figure work are downright beautiful. However, it’s not for everybody. But hey, what artist is? Scott was an inspired choice, since it goes back to Rucka’s attempts at grounding the supernatural in modern life. If you want to highlight the paradox of boundless mysticism confined to the domestic, why not grab an artist that uses photo reference like nobody’s business?

Black Magick: The First Book of Shadows
Is it good?
Rucka and Scott build a world of both the mundane and sacrilegious with strong pacing, plotting, and personality. If you’ve held off on this series until now, this hefty, attractive hardcover is the ideal jumping on point.
Great addition to "secret identity" cannon.
Memorable main characters with personality.
Inventive approach to the supernatural.
Clever, tight storytelling and pacing.
Underwhelming villains.
8
GOOD
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