Written by Rich Douek and illustrated by Brett Barkley, with colours by Jules Rivera and letters by Nic Shaw, Gutter Magic – a four-issue miniseries from IDW Publishing and Comics Experience – intriguingly mixes urban fantasy realism, steampunk, and science fiction. Its sense of worldbuilding is astounding, rife with curiosities and details that add dimension to the story and setting, tantalizing audiences to read ahead and learn more.
Gutter Magic takes place in New York City a century after a World War II that where magic was wielded alongside more modern technology. The world is now subjected to a society ruled by a council of mages and divides between those who can do magic and those who cannot. Cinder Byrnes, the hero, is the heir to a magical family legacy who doesn’t seem to actually possess a knack for their supernatural gifts. He sets out on a personal quest, accompanied by his goblin sidekick Blacktooth, to find every shred of magic he can that might help him become a wizard… or die trying. In the beginning, Cinder has finally found the last piece of a spell that should fix his problem.
He just has to figure out how to successfully cast it before the people he initially stole the spell from find him first.
Dork Shelf: How did you originally come up with this concept? Any particular inspirations behind it?
Rich Douek: Part of the inspiration for Gutter Magic was a lifelong love of fantasy. I grew up reading Tolkien, Moorcock, Lieber, and a lot of other great writers – but it wasn’t until I injected something personal into the story that I really got fired up. The idea of Cinder going after this power, and being told at every turn he just can’t do it, mirrors many of the struggles I’ve been through myself in terms of working as a writer. I took a lot of the frustrations I encountered building a career and made them part of Cinder’s character; from there, the rest of the story just unfolded.
I think the rest of the creative team – our artist Brett Barkley, colourist Jules Rivera and letterer Nic Shaw – connected immediately with the world and the story, which contributed to them all putting out great work.
DS: When you go about setting the stage for an epic story like this in just a handful of issues while simultaneously folding in a heavy backstory, how are you approaching this brand of mythology and worldbuilding in a mundane setting? Do you find any specific challenges in working within the fantasy realism genre?
RD: The world of Gutter Magic is indeed a huge setting, with a fairly detailed backstory, and I have spent a lot of time figuring out how it all fits together, and building it up. But most of the work I’ve done will not come out in this story. It’s a universe I intend to revisit as time and money allows, and one of the things I love about it is that there are so many places I could take it. It might seem like a bit of a waste, doing all the worldbuilding without bringing it all into the story, but I’m of the belief that focusing too much on the setting draws the story away from the characters,and drags the whole thing down.
So my aim is just to present the world in a way where the reader gets a sense that it’s built on a solid foundation, and give them just what they need to understand the story. There will be mysteries, and intriguing things that may not be directly answered, but I think giving readers room to speculate about those kinds of things helps draw them in to the world they’re reading – if you give away all the answers up front, there’s no mystique!
DS: The story is set a century after a World War II. Was the central conflict of this iteration more or less the same, or different?
RD: I’d say the central conflict started the same, but escalated beyond what happened in our history. With wizards on both sides unleashing more and more powerful energies and forces, the world was driven nearly to Armageddon. As it is in the story, the world is much closer to the pre-industrial world than our own present day – islands of civilization in the midst of a vast wilderness.
DS: Aside from the presence of magic to help fight the war, are there any other major differences between the World War you’re painting and the one we know?
RD: At a certain point, the war in the book became less about conquest of physical territory and more about establishing magical dominance – this is what lead to things spiraling out of control. That’s about all I want to say about it at the moment; it’s something we’ll hopefully be able to explore in the future!
DS: Oppenheimer is mentioned several times in connection with the end of the war, but he doesn’t appear to be a recognizable figure in this story like he is in our history. What is his role? Is he still the father of an invention similar to the atomic bomb or something else?
RD: I can’t really answer that without spoiling the story! Let’s say he played a big role, but due to the nature of it, the bulk of his work remains hidden from the public eye.
DS: One of your main characters is a goblin, but what other sort of fantasy creatures will be featured or exist in the world you’re bringing to life?
RD: There’s a whole menagerie of creatures, from dragons and trolls, to banshees, elves and dwarves. Some of them will seem familiar, while others will appear to be wildly different from our popular conception of them. One thing I’ll say is to keep an eye on the backgrounds, you never know who or what is going to come into the story down the road!
DS: How is the chain of hierarchy structured in this “new” world? By those who won the war, or is this post-war society mostly divided up between magic and non-magic users? And how does the Morgue fit into this?
RD: Much like the Gilded Age, and even the present day, society is split between the magical elites, and the common people – there’s a huge gulf of inequality, and the divide pretty much can’t be breached; one can’t just decide to become a wizard and wield magical power, as Cinder has learned throughout his life. All the power, wealth, and resources are concentrated at the top, and the best those at the bottom can hope for are the rewards of serving those at the top.
Still, neither class is homogeneous; there’s a ruling council of wizards, sure, but how do you keep a leash on someone who can do practically anything with their magic? That’s pretty much where the Morgue fits in – she’s powerful, but doesn’t respect or kowtow to the power structure that rules the city. She does things her own way, for her own reasons. She’s almost like a mob boss, wielding influence and power on the city outside of the established government.
DS: What do you look for in a main protagonist for a story like this? What motivates Cinder to find a way to do magic? Are his motivations entirely selfish or laced with good intent? What’s the story behind this magical legacy his family is a part of?
RD: I think Cinder’s motivations can appear pretty selfish on the surface, but there’s a deep current beneath them that I think is more well-intended. A big part of what drives him is the belief that he could do so much better with that sort of power than the people who actually have it. He’s had a hard life, been surrounded by people who have lived hard lives, and from where he’s standing, magic could make life easier for everyone. It’s something he may even lose sight of himself, but at his core, he’s got good intentions.
As for his family, you’ll have to read on! Haha.
DS: How do you feel about fantasy tropes? Are there any in particular that you try to avoid, or deliberately use as a tool in your story telling?
RD: I think tropes exist for a reason – because they work as shorthand, and help ground readers in the story. It’s like, OK, I see dragons and elves; I know what kind of story I’m reading. The important thing to do as a writer is to both put your own twist on them, and make sure they’re not the only thing going on. Relying solely on tropes will get you a clichéd, boring story. If you can subvert or twist them in some way, that helps, but it doesn’t get you all the way there. You need to add your own elements that surprise and intrigue readers.
I think that, if you are going to use them, you want to use them just enough to give readers a sense of familiarity about the story, and then you want to draw them past that familiarity with the uniqueness of the world and story you’re creating.
DS: Any plans to continue the story line after these issues, or is Gutter Magic pretty much going to be contained within this miniseries?
RD: We definitely have future story lines sketched out that we’d love to work on. When and whether any of them see the light of day will depend a lot on how people react to this, and how well the market receives it. But honestly, we’d love to keep making Gutter Magic as long as we can!
Gutter Magic #3 hit stores this week!