Finally, a product that combines my first love, sequential art (comics to you plebeians), with my latest infatuation, playing card decks.
Launched off the back of a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2011, Magicians Must Die is series of decks that serve as short comic books. Created by card manipulator De’vo Vom Schattenreich and artist Jay Peteranetz the decks follow the story of card manipulator, D, as he tries to rescue his sister from evil, child-kidnapping magicians. The comic itself looks like one of those exploitative, Euro books that toes the line between outright stupidity and tongue-in-cheek goofiness. I don’t think it’ll be winning any Eisners any time soon, but it’s the medium rather than the message that caught my eye here.
While the decks clearly don’t work as playing cards – the comic is printed on the back, making them useless for most tricks and games – they do make surprisingly good comic books. The cards are printed by USPCC, and while I occasionally find myself at odds with the company’s apparent love for garish skeleton decks, their printing process is great at producing the bright colors and deep blacks good comic art needs.
While Peteranetz’s art style translated well, he did have to reconsider his approach to page layouts, given that the audience would be reading the comic card by card rather than page by page. As he told CBR back in 2016:
Unlike turning the page of a comic, and getting that entire “thought” in a quick glance, with “Magicians Must Die” you slowly reveal each beat of the story as you lay the cards out. When laying out the cards, you may only get to see the top half of a panel before the panel is completed when the next row of cards is laid out. So I needed to carefully consider the necessary information on the top row of a “thought,” then complete and enhance that with the bottom row. I think I really figured that out with issue #2. You can read the comic by laying out every other row, but the secondary rows really fill out the story and give context to the action.
The first Magicians Must Die #1 was launched in 2012, and its initial 2500 unit printing sold out in just days. The deck, and all subsequent “issues,” have since been reprinted and can be picked up from some select magic supply sites; check the last issue’s Kickstarter for more information.
I’ve been giving Mark Millar’s upcoming, magic-themed comic book, The Magic Order, a lot of coverage as of late, mostly because comics are my main passion* and it’s rare that I get a chance to talk about them here at GeniiOnline. Having contributed to the pre-launch hype for the comic, I feel like I’m duty-bound to report on the apparently shifty things going on behind the scenes.
Last week, Millar announced that the comic was a hit before it launched, with pre-order numbers that are, frankly, astounding for a new intellectual property. He and publisher Image Comics have managed to flog north of 140,000 copies of the #1 before its June 13th release date.
If that all sounds a bit too good to be true, it’s because it probably is. According to anonymous tip received by nerd news outlet, Bleeding Cool, the insane pre-order numbers for the comic are an illusion. According to their source, sales have been inflated by what the industry calls, “bulk buying.” Essentially, 100,000 copies were sold to convention organisers, ReedPOP, at a reduced rate of 40 cents per copy (vs the cover price of the comic is $3.99) to be sold or given away at various events. In exchange for the bulk purchase, Millar has apparently agreed to appear at shows organized by the company later in the year.
Using bulk buying to manipulate sales chart numbers isn’t illegal, but it isn’t entirely ethical either, and bragging about record-setting sales using inflated numbers is in very bad taste. Stripped of the 100,000 bulk sales, The Magic Order #1 has still racked up an impressive 40,000 pre-orders, but that number gets smashed to pieces by the 100,000+ pre-orders for Oblivion Song, the new comic from Walking Dead scribe, Robert Kirkman.
Neither ReedPOP or publisher, Image Comics, has responded to Bleeding Cool for comment.
*Shameless plug: lets just say if you were to google my name and, “comics,” the results would be interesting.
While the lead character in his recently released graphic novel, The Millionaire’s Magician, might share Steve Cohen’s name, the comic isn’t exactly biographical in the strict sense of the word. Some liberties have been taken.
For example: Steve Cohen did spend some of his youth in Tokyo, and is fluent in Japanese, thanks to a cultural exchange program. He did not, as far as I’m aware, flee to Japan after being shot by an evil businessman, only to learn the secrets of the sword and return to New York wreak terrible vengeance upon his foes. I think they would have mentioned that on his Wikipedia page.
So it appears The Millionaire’s Magician is following in a long comic book tradition of fictionalizing the lives of celebrities. Especially those from New York. Cohen laid the ground work for the book, but most of the heavy lifting was done by artist-turned-writer, Keith Champagne (The Mighty, Ghostbusters, Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters) and artist, Peter Krause (Irredeemable, The Power of Shazam!, Captain Marvel), with coloring by Jordie Bellaire and cover art by the always amazing, Tara Phillips.
The book also features a foreword by none other than David Copperfield.
Comic nerd opinions begin here: I’ve had a flick through the sample pages and it seems like a fun time. Krause’s line work is sharp and expressive, and it’s clear a ton of time went into detailing Cohen’s hands during the performance scenes. Champagne’s writing keeps things breezy and fun, which is important as it’s really easy for comics like this to become insufferable vanity projects if they take themselves too seriously. Like Cohen’s real-world act, the comic has a sense of throwback charm, right down to the goofy white-man-in-Japan setup that straddles the line between problematic and endearing.
The Millionaire’s Magician is currently only available in a digital format for $19.99, but there will be a physical release this fall. You can see a preview here.
You’ve probably heard of comic scribe Mark Millar’s work, even if you haven’t heard his name before. Wanted, Kingsmen and the two Kick-Ass films are all (loose) adaptations of his original comics, and his work for Marvel and DC has laid the groundwork for two or three major movies. His latest comic, The Magic Order, was announced back in 2017. Now that we’re within walking distance of the comic’s June 13th launch date, Millar has shared some of project artist, Olivier Coipel’s, gorgeous panel work.
Described as “magic meets the mob,” The Magic Order follows five magical families sworn to protect the world from supernatural threats, at least when they’re not being picked off one by one by unknown forces of darkness. Judging by the sneak peak we’ve had of first issue, and there’s certainly some traditional performance magic going on amongst all the supernatural stuff.
Like most other outlets covering The Magic Order, we erroneously reported that streaming giant Netflix would be publishing the comic. To clarify, Netflix has purchased Millar’s production company Millarworld, but Image Comics will be publishing The Magic Order.
It just so happens that GeniiOnline has someone who used to review comics for a living on staff (spoiler: it’s me), so expect a review of TMO shortly after the first issue hits shelves.
TV channel FX has ordered a pilot for a potential adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan’s excellent 60-issue comic, Y: The Last Man.
In the comic, struggling street magician and escape artist Yorick Brown and his capuchin monkey Ampersand become the last males on earth after a mysterious event kills every other creature with a Y chromosome. What follows is an exciting, raucously funny, brazenly political, and often heartrendingly sad journey across the post-male world.
Yorick’s escapology skills get him out of (and into) a whole bunch of sticky situations, but their use is almost always realistic, if not authentic. The wrong pair of handcuffs or an antagonist that’s just a little too attentive is enough to render most of his tricks useless. The jargon is mostly spot on too (though a New Yorker being a member of IBM instead of SAM stands out as odd now I think about), but what really grounds Yorick as a character isn’t that he’s a magician, but that you can see how a man like him would become magician, and how that’s an inexorable facet of his character.
There’s no news on when the pilot is set to be produced, but we know Michael Green (American Gods, Blade Runner 2049, Logan) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Luke Cage, Turn) are to serve as co-showrunners and executive producers on the project. Vaughan will also be an executive producer. Insecure and Master of None director Melina Matsoukas has been tapped to direct the pilot.
Personally, I’m super excited about this one. In my humble estimation, Vaughan is straight up the best writer working in comics today and Y stands among his best work.
Cynthia von Buhler is one of the most hyphenated multi-hyphenates I’ve ever encountered. She was already an artist, performer, playwright, and author before adding comic book creator and illustrator to her list with the release of Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini. The series is published by the Hard Case Crime imprint of Titan Comics, and is slated for four issues and a graphic novel finale. Minky Woodcock plays on von Buhler’s habit of producing theatrical experiences centered around prohibition-era murders, combining her deep dive into the styles and stories of the 1920s and 1930s with another of her life’s passions: magic.
The murder that started it all remains close to von Buhler’s heart. “Shortly after prohibition ended, my grandfather was shot on the streets of New York,” von Buhler tells GeniiOnline. “Nobody in my family knew why he was murdered, and my mother was born the day he died. We know he was involved in bootlegging, but that’s all. It was a strange mystery in my family, so I started investigating.” Her research into grandfather von Buhler’s murder resulted in a 2011 play called Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning, which ran for many years and still pops up occasionally in New York City.
After The Bloody Beginning she produced the Midnight Frolic, a play about Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas’ mysterious death in Paris in 1920. Elbow-deep in the search for the next prohibition-era murder to hang her hat on, von Buhler came across none other than Harry Houdini. “I’ve always been interested in magic, I actually do magic myself,” von Buhler says. “I can make doves appear and disappear. I was shocked by what I found out about Houdini because there are so many loopholes and mysteries about how he died.”
Von Buhler says she was already hard at work on a new play about Houdini’s death when a publisher from Hard Case Crime contacted her. “He said he was starting a comic book line and asked if I had any ideas for pulpy comics. I said, ‘well, I’ve been doing this series, and any one of these stories could work.’” The idea for a private investigator character came up when von Buhler realized she’d need to thread together all the deaths she wanted to include in her narrative, and Minky Woodcock was born. “I came up with the name Minky Woodcock many years ago,” Buhler admits. “I’ve been using it as my pseudonym. She’s kind of me, but not me. She’s a part of me.”
The comic opens on Woodcock & Son, a private investigator firm that Minky’s father started with hopes of roping her brother Bennie into the business. But Bennie has no interest in investigating, he’s more interested in becoming a showgirl. Let the gender politics begin. Minky explains that she wants to be a private detective, but her father will only permit her to be his secretary. “Later on, you’ll find that part of the reason Minky’s father doesn’t want her to be a private investigator is because she’s actually really good at it,” von Buhler teases. “He doesn’t want her to find out some things he has been hiding.”
While the challenge to traditional gender roles was an intentional theme in the story, von Buhler says that the comic’s release coinciding with the #MeToo movement was a happy accident. I asked von Buhler about the “mature readers” rating on the comic, and about including scenes that are sexually explicit and that depict sexual assault. “I’ve been working this for a few years, so before the whole #MeToo thing started,” she says. “We’ve come so far but we have so far to go. I like showing that we have made progress, but things are still bad. The times and how Minky is treated as a woman are definitely a big part of the story. I’ve had to deal with a lot of sexism in my life. I’ve buried a lot of it, but it’s there. It’s in our minds, it comes out in our art.”
As much as elements of early 20th century sexism that feature into the comic are based on fact, von Buhler says most of the comic’s narrative is actually the truth. “That’s what intrigues me,” she says, “the facts are so bizarre you wouldn’t imagine they could be real. On my website I have a section called ‘Evidence’ where you can actually look at the documents I dug up as proof.” Von Buhler discovered that female private investigators working undercover during prohibition was actually something of a trend: “It became popular that women could manipulate situations and they wouldn’t be suspected so they made better spies.”
In the Minky Woodcock story, we catch up with Houdini when he was rallying hard against the spiritualist movement. “A lot of people didn’t know that Houdini was trying to debunk spiritualism,” von Buhler says. It’s one of the elements that caught von Buhler’s eye when she dove into the historical archive of work written both by Houdini and about Houdini. Von Buhler is quick to recommend Wild About Houdini as a source for anyone interested to learn more about Houdini’s life, and says that her favorite book in all her research on the project was The Man Who Killed Houdini, by Don Bell. “He actually went up to Canada to interview people about Houdini’s death,” says von Buhler. “The fact that the man who punched him was a spiritualist was groundbreaking, in my opinion.”
Of course, Houdini’s death fits perfectly into von Buhler’s already well-tested obsession with mysterious murders of the age. “If you ask most people how Houdini died, they’ll say, ‘oh, he died during his trick,’ because there’s a movie where he died during a trick. Or they’ll say ‘oh, he was punched,” but they don’t really know much about it. I’m really delving into what that punch meant, and what else was going on around him. A lot of people didn’t like him. He was a very opinionated person and he had a lot of enemies. People wanted him dead.”
Houdini’s spiritualist adventures also captured von Buhler’s imagination because of the contextual difference between spiritualism and magic. “It’s funny that Houdini was debunking spiritualism, because what he was doing was sort of the same thing. But he was calling it entertainment, and they were preying on people who had lost loved ones. What’s interesting about this is that Houdini really wanted to believe. He loved his mother so much that when she died, he really wanted to reach her. He wanted someone to prove him wrong.”
Most of von Buhler’s theatrical productions qualify more as immersive experiences than as straight plays. Breaking down the traditional barriers of performance and of art are crucial to her ethos, and venturing into comic book creation has been a project inspired by that approach. “I was trained as a painter, that you should be able to show something in a single image without words. I always thought comics were cheating because you’re adding words and panels,” she confessed. “I hadn’t thought about it as a storyboard, I hadn’t realized it was a whole other way of storytelling that I hadn’t explored yet. I find that comics bring a lot of people to reading who wouldn’t normally pick up books, because they like the pictures and that helps them.”
That’s just one of the ways that von Buhler hopes MInky Woodcock will inspire readers to do more and explore on their own. Whether it’s the comic book form encouraging the passion of a new reader or Minky’s adventures with Houdini inspiring people to learn more about good ol’ Harry, von Buhler considers that kind of personal connection with a piece of art to be the ultimate goal. “I find that people relate better to art when they actually interact with it. If you’re looking at a painting on the wall you may get something out of it, but if that painting starts talking to you or you have to interact with it, to touch it or look at it from a different angle, then it becomes partially yours. That’s what I try to do with my art. I want people to go to the website and read through the evidence, asking, ‘did that actually happen? This is amazing, but is this real?’ I want people to do that with Minky too.”
Memorized deck tricks are absolutely impressive to pull off once you’ve got it worked out, but the amount of effort to learn even one memorization feels Herculean. At a Magi-Fest 2018 talk, David and Sarah Trustman unveiled their secret behind rapidly memorizing multiple decks of cards: the magic of psychology, mnemonics, and comics.
Before explaining their method, they brought their son out on stage and asked for a random number from a member of the audience. “37”, they shouted, and their son went to work writing down letters and numbers on a whiteboard. Meanwhile, they opened four decks of differently prepared cards, pulled out the 37th card from each deck, and their son was able to name each card from each deck with 100% accuracy.
They then explained how they were able to teach four different decks to their son in under an hour. Normally, magicians use a version of the mnemonic peg system to memorize decks. The brain, however, does its best memorization when it associates objects with images. And so, the two of them combined their knowledge of magic, mnemonics, and their work as comic book artists to craft a series of graphic novels that teach deck order through pictures.
Each page contains drawings of animals, buildings, or other objects, specifically arranged on the page in such a way to denote card order as well as type, and as you read through the story, you will also learn a full memorized deck order from front to back. The idea is that they wanted a book that could teach mnemonics so easily that even a six-year-old could memorize not just one deck, but multiple decks of cards.
Their project is called The Memory Arts, and while you can download a few of their graphic novels in ebook form through Vanishing Inc., they are also working on a physical hardcover compiling a few of their mnemonic comics into a single edition for $50.
While the book won’t be available on Vanishing Inc. for another few months, the duo had a few books available to sell at the convention. Considering how many people immediately rushed the stage as soon as their presentation was over to grab a copy, I imagine it’s going to be a pretty hot commodity once it’s officially out on physical and digital magic store shelves.
Stay tuned to GeniiOnline for more reports from the heart of Magi-Fest 2018.
He’s one of the earliest superheroes, who uses science, gadgets and deductive reasoning to bring villains to justice – but he’s not Batman. He’s a student of mystic arts and has mastered the arcane, but he’s not Doctor Strange, or even Sargon the Sorcerer, though both borrow from him. He and his creator’s other breakout hit, the Phantom, help define what it is to be a 20th Century superhero. He’s Mandrake the Magician, who even today guards humanity, and the Galaxy, against threats both natural and supernatural, from his mountain fastness Xanadu in New York State – and thanks to a failed television pilot and constant mismanagement, there’s a good chance you’ve probably never heard of him.
Lee Falk created Mandrake in 1934 while a student at the University of Illinois. Mandrake was Falk’s tribute to the gentleman thieves and well-travelled heroes of the pulps, like Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin, and Edgar Rice Burrows’ Tarzan. He borrowed his snappy wardrobe from Lupin, though his physical appearance – mustache and all – was pure Falk. As Falk told it, of course Mandrake looked like him; Falk was looking in a mirror when he drew the Magician.
At first it was just a way to have fun, and Falk noodled onward without any real plan to sell his work. Then, almost on a whim, he sent his first two weeks’ worth off to King Features, William Randolph Hearst’s publishing arm. King loved it. King wanted more – eighteen panels a week, plus a Sunday page.
Suddenly, at the age of twenty-two, Falk found himself in business, in a very big way.
The strip took shape. Mandrake, originally a stage magician, developed hypnotic powers and acquired a magic hat, cloak and wand. His friend Lothar, Prince of Seven Nations, was the strongest man in the world. Princess Narda, from the land of Cockaigne – a mythic land of peace and plenty – was Falk’s ideal woman, and Mandrake’s companion. Together they were Three Against Evil.
However though the strip was Falk’s, the rights belonged to King, and that included the right to spin off into other media. “King Features acted as my agent through all that,” Falk said in a 1996 interview, “And they paid a little royalties, very little.”
So when King decided to make a radio show (like the one found above), or a movie serial, Falk had little say in what happened next. Neither worked out, though the radio show was more favorably received than the serial, with Falk describing the production of the serial as “badly and unimaginatively done.” The radio show lasted two years, but after the movie serial’s 1939 release there were no more plans to bring Mandrake to the big screen.
War came and went. Lee Falk worked for the Office of War Information, and later joined the Army. By the time he demobilized there was a new medium to be conquered: television. There was a voracious demand for content, and NBC was quick to notice that pulp heroes were extremely popular – and profitable. Why not Mandrake?
NBC partnered with Bermuda’s Trade Development Board to build a television studio at an abandoned seaplane aerodrome, and the Board agreed to pay half the $1.5 million set-up cost. It would have dressing rooms, a restaurant, two sound stages, a theatre for screenings, offices, prop rooms, and everything else a full-scale production unit needed. NBC could rebuild the entire aerodrome as a set if it liked, and it had a 99-year lease on the property. The weather’s perfect for shooting – even sunnier than California, NBC claimed – and if this worked, NBC would have a money-spinning TV show, of which Falk would see modest royalties.
In May 1954, NBC made the first move and incorporated Atlantic Productions (Bermuda) Ltd. to control the enterprise. It hired locals both as unskilled labor and as on-screen talent, reserving five Mandrake speaking roles for Bermudians. Seventy five hopefuls, including a baby and a professional stage magician who promised to be available “any day, any hour,” audition.
On screen, the Three Against Evil were inexperienced but hopeful. Coe Norton, Mandrake and magical technical consultant, had a short list of 1950s TV credits. Lisa Howard, only twenty-four, had a string of film and television credits, including a role in perennial soap The Guiding Light. Woody Strode, as leopard-skin clad Lothar, was probably the best known of the three leads. By 1954 he’d already had a trailblazing career as one of the first black players in the NFL, played a number of roles in jungle pictures throughout the 1940s and 50s, and was an established professional wrestler.
However things didn’t go according to anyone’s plan. Art Director Dick Sylbert complained that he couldn’t get anything done at the pace he’d like; he was used to picking up the phone and getting what he wanted almost before he’d put the phone down. That very definitely was not the Bermuda way. Meanwhile the producers were tearing their hair out over the tour boats that came to Darrell’s Island at Bermuda every week. People were keen to see what all the fuss is about, and as the aerodrome was easily accessible by water they just motored up and asked if there was any shooting going on that day. Yes, the producers responded through gritted teeth; now will you please go away and let us get on with it? The sound of your boat’s engine is ruining our shot!
Mandrake’s problems were bigger than boat engines. Coe Norton later told M-U-M Magazine, mouthpiece for the Society of American Magicians, that the producers had no idea what to do with the show. Five different directors tried their luck. Among the more unusual demands was a stage magic performance for a colony of blind people, and a complete program of magic was to be performed in a hotel swimming pool at six hours’ notice.
Only nine episodes of the planned twenty-six were filmed, and only one – the pilot – ever got made. Coe Norton blamed rights issues, and told M-U-M that the series was tied up in litigation.
This was a pattern that continued throughout Mandrake’s long career. On paper he was the kind of pulp hero that ought to make waves, but the people most interested in his career were also the least involved in projects like the TV show. Lee Falk didn’t own the rights. King did – and King didn’t know what to do with them.
When Falk wrote the book for a Mandrake musical, it got a performance up in Massachusetts, but when a money man tried to bring the show to Broadway he discovered that King had sold the movie rights, and without a movie option he couldn’t interest investors in the Broadway show. When auteur director Federico Fellini wanted to make a Mandrake film, he too discovered that King had optioned Mandrake to someone else.
Of course, as far as King was concerned, Mandrake was just one of many. At its height, King exec Sylvan Beck said the syndicate received 1,000 comic strip submissions every year, and would only choose one. If a project like the Mandrake TV show didn’t pan out, King had plenty of other properties to choose from.
It didn’t help that Mandrake is pure fantasy. Falk’s other comic creation, the Phantom, aka the Ghost Who Walks, is just as pulp, but ultimately grounded in reality. The Phantom may have a Skull Cave, but he uses fists and gun, and the enemies he faces are relatively mundane. Whereas Mandrake, with his Eastern mysticism, magic apparatus and hypnotic powers, is much more exotic, and often deals with the supernatural. That’s before you consider that his girlfriend literally comes from a fantasy kingdom, and his best friend is stronger than a thousand men.
It’s a problem that can be seen in the TV show (which you can watch via YouTube below). Mandrake’s powers almost beg for special effects wizardry. Instead what we got was a poor madman babbling about flowers. As Falk pointed out when discussing the movie serial, even at that time the directors could have tried something a little more visual – anything, really, so long as it sold the idea of a magic man doing incredible things. Instead we got a crime fighter just like all the others, except this one was in formal wear and had a knack with throwing knives.
After the 1954 TV show wrapped, Bermudians were shown Mandrake in viewings at the local cinema. A child buried her face in her father’s chest and wailed, “that bad man is beating up my daddy!” William ‘Cheese’ Ray, the unnamed villain thrashed by Lothar, could only smile. It was the start and end of his television career.
The team broke up. NBC kept its studio for a brief while, and a movie was shot there in 1956, but NBC no longer had any big plans for its Bermuda outlet, and the expensively renovated seaplane aerodrome was allowed to rot.
Coe Norton had a good life, but never really became famous. If ever you see a 1960’s era TV commercial for cigarettes or Charmin starring a debonair master of magic, you’re probably looking at his work. Woody Strode went on to become one of the most recognizable and talented character actors of the 20th Century, appearing in many westerns, especially for director John Ford, who championed Strode.
Lisa Howard gave up acting and reinvented herself as a journalist, becoming ABC’s first female correspondent. She backed liberal Republican Kenneth Keating in his 1964 Senatorial reelection contest against Robert Kennedy, and because of this ABC fired her. In 1965, at the age of thirty-five, she overdosed on barbiturates and died on the 4th of July.
Mandrake continued his career, with Falk writing his adventures until his death in 1999. Even today his continuing adventures appear in magician-centric magazine Inside Magic, with King’s permission, and there are any number of reprints of his past escapades.
Even so, it’s hard not to imagine what could have been; had the NBC show not flopped miserably, maybe we’d be talking about the Mandrake Cinematic Universe alongside Marvel and DC Comics. With Sacha Baron Cohen set to play Mandrake on the silver screen in 2019, here’s hoping he’ll finally have his shot at the spotlight.
Even in a medium defined by heroes who do the impossible, comic book writers continue to develop characters whose abilities surpass the boundaries of human knowledge by use of magic. More than a mere narrative cheat, this allows creators to stretch outside the even loose boundaries of science-fiction and tell stories that would otherwise be impossible. From stage performers to special effects to actual mysticism, magic has become inextricably linked to super-heroic adventures.
With theatrical showmanship and fabulous costumes, stage magicians are fertile ground for comic book heroics. A short-lived European cartoon called The Magician even had a stint on the Fox network in 1999, sporting a look similar to the popular Batman and Superman animated series. The hero, Ace Cooper, was a stage magician and superhero flanked by his sidekick and assistant Cosmo. And just in case that wasn’t enough zaniness, this all took place in the year 3000.
The most famous stage magician in superhero continuity, though, is DC’s Zatanna–a member of the Justice League and childhood friend to Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. Though she has powerful innate magical abilities, she steadfastly abstains from using them during her shows. In fact, she often uses mastery of sleight-of-hand tricks as a meditation and practice for using her actual powers. Her secret identity is not-so-secret, as her crime-fighting outfit is often portrayed as the same stocking-clad tops-and-tails tuxedo as she uses during performances.
Zatanna first appeared in 1964, but even at the time she was essentially a new, female version of an already-existing character. It was a soft reboot, of sorts, making her the daughter of Giovanni Zatara, who preceded her by almost 30 years. Despite his relative obscurity, Zatara shared a debut with the one of most famous characters of all time. Action Comics #1, widely known as the first appearance of Superman, was an anthology of 11 different superhero stories. Superman was the showpiece and claimed the most pages of the book, but Zatara was actually a close second.
Zatara was just one of many comic book characters who struck an uncanny resemblance to Mandrake the Magician, a popular comic strip introduced just four years before Zatara. Mandrake was more known for his hypnosis techniques, hailing from a time when hypnotic suggestion was more associated with mysticism than psychology, but he was known to adopt other powers as needed. Mandrake and Zatara were both stage magicians who also had magical powers and fought criminals, but the similarities even extended to oddly specific aspects–each of them had a hulking bodyguard from a foreign land.
What differentiated Zatara from other characters of his day was a stylistic flourish introduced by artist Fred Guardineer. Zatara controlled his powers through backwards-speech, casting any spell by describing its effect in reverse. Fire, for example, could be summoned by uttering the word “iref.” It was a small touch, but one that invited kids to imitate the gimmick. Years later his daughter, Zatanna, uses the same gimmick to express her own superpowers most of the time.
DC Comics attempted to make lightning strike twice a few years after Zatara’s first appearance, with another wizard named Sargon. He’s been a minor character and bit player in stories revolving around the magical heritage of some in the DC universe, but never caught on the way Zatara did. Instead, he’s often used to expand the universe of magicians.
Magic does carry one more special application within the DC universe, however, and it appropriately ties Zatara together with the much more famous Action Comics hero who shared his debut issue. Superman, often criticized as too powerful for his own good, is actually vulnerable to sorcery. This doesn’t mean that the presence of magic itself weakens him, as in the case of kryptonite. It simply means he is not invulnerable to magical attacks in the same way that he is to most physical attacks. Superman can stand in a raging inferno without feeling the slightest tickle, but a magical fire will hurt and burn him just as much as anyone else. Given Superman’s wide range of abilities and near-invincibility, this is one rare gap in his armor.
That may be why Superman’s first super-powered nemesis wasn’t a rogue Kryptonian or hulking alien, but rather, a magical imp from the 5th Dimension known as Mister Mxyzptlk. The character is often portrayed as silly and mischievous, not malicious, but his disregard for the inhabitants of our dimension can cause some real chaos. In the classic tradition of Rumpelstiltskin, he is traditionally only defeated when his own name is used against him. In a touch borrowed from Zatara, though, Mxyzptlk has to be tricked into saying or spelling his own vowel-barren name backwards. The plot contrivances needed to force a character to say “Kltpzyxm” can only be repeated so often, so more recent comics have found other ways to banish the little imp.
In contrast to DC, Marvel has made its name on being tethered to the real world. Events in the Marvel universe take place in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles instead of stand-ins like Metropolis, Gotham, and Coast City. Real events like national elections and 9/11 have been incorporated directly into Marvel books.
With that added layer of realism comes the ability to host real-life cameos, as a Spider-Man and Deadpool book did last year. That issue featured an appearance from magic duo Penn and Teller, written by Penn Jillette himself, while the book’s usual writers took the extra time to work ahead on the next issue. Among the shenanigans, the always-silent Teller disguised himself Deadpool, a wink-nudge joke for those familiar with Deadpool’s persona as an obnoxiously chatty anti-hero. The two take on a super villain and ultimately defeat him with, what else, a card trick.
Of course, the world of magic is innately about deception and trickery, which naturally lends itself to occasional villainy. Mysterio, a B-tier Spider-Man villain and member of the collective Sinister Six, was a special effects producer who realized he could create illusions to mask his crimes. His schemes often revolve around trickery, but comic storylines are nothing without some escalation, so he’s occasionally turned to hypnosis, deals with demons, and actual magic. A minor Marvel villain known as the Magician is similarly a trickster without any supernatural powers. His name, Lee Guardineer, is a hat-tip to the creator of DC’s Zatara.
Much more pervasive in Marvel continuity is the existence of real magic and mysticism. Marvel has a wide array of categories for its super-powered characters, from mutants to aliens to actual magic, and most famous among the latter is Doctor Strange. Having earned his own film and a spot on the Avengers, Strange was an accomplished surgeon who lost the use of his hands following an accident. Turning to mysticism for a cure, he discovered a cabal of magic users led by the Ancient One, and ultimately became the Sorcerer Supreme protector of earth–a title given the most powerful magic-user of any given world. Though he has learned to control magic with a great degree of innate skill, he relies heavily on the use of magical artifacts.
On some level, all comic book superheroes are fantastical in some way. There doesn’t seem to be much difference, narratively, between the super-science of Iron Man or Wonder Woman’s near-invulnerability and a character like Doctor Strange who taps into a supernatural force to draw upon his abilities. The power of magic in comic books and super heroics goes beyond a mere extra avenue for larger-than-life stories, by providing writers and readers with the power of the unknown. Science-fiction is constrained by its own narrative limitations and has to work within the rules it sets for itself. In the hands of a good writer, magic can be limitless.
It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like magic, but what do you get someone who loves magic? We’ve compiled a few of our favorite gift ideas from some of the most interesting corners of the internet for magic fans of any interest or skill level, whether they know how to do a proper Faro shuffle or simply appreciate the art of illusion. These gifts go beyond your standard grocery store magic kit, offering a bounty of DVDs, books, tricks, playing cards, and much more. Give the gift of magic this holiday season with our suggestions below.
Price: $35 for digital only or $58 for print and digital
We admit, we’re a bit biased, but you’d be hardpressed to find a better monthly magazine out there covering magicians and their craft. Each issue is loaded with articles, tricks, interviews, reviews, and so much more, and features columns by some of the greatest magicians who have ever lived. Your subscription doesn’t just get you new content, either; you’ll gain access to over 80 years of back issues, and all digital issues from 2011 onward contain exclusive audio and visual supplements. It’s nearly a century of magic history, right at your fingertips.
Magic kits come in all shapes and sizes and often range wildly in quality. Not wanting to recommend any old box full of plastic, we’ve picked out the Facinatrix Kit from Fantasma Magic. It contains a bunch of tricks—over 200, the box boasts—and many of them the kind you don’t typically find in your run of the mill magic kit, including linking rings, bitten-and-restored cookies, a mirror box, and even a trick to perform with your smartphone. It’s a bit pricier than the average magic kit, but the Fantasma line is the only one endorsed by the International Brotherhood of Magicians, so you know it’s legit. Perfect for kids or kids-at-heart.
If you’re looking for a magic kit that’s a little less flashy, a little more professional, this is the one to go with. The heart of the set are two DVDs filled with tons of great instruction, ramping up in difficulty from easy, virtually self-working tricks to more difficult, mind-boggling fare. The kit itself is customizable, too—purchase either DVD separately, or combine them and a box of gimmicks to save money on the whole set.
Looking for a quick bundle of goodies but aren’t sure what to get? Grab a Christmas stocking from Ellusionist filled to the brim with playing cards, including Black Tiger, Blood Kings V2 (or Black Rounders if sold out), Blue Keepers, Rockets, and Roadhouse. Act fast because once they’re gone, they’re gone, and Ellusionist has already sold out of its Magic Christmas Stocking bundle.
Price: $9.95 for the deck of cards, or $149.95 for the Lockbox
What’s in the box? Well, they’re playing cards, but each deck is individually wrapped and sealed to give it some added mystique. The Mystery Box deck is designed in conjunction with J.J. Abrams’ production house Bad Robot, with art direction by Abrams and Theory11 CEO Jonathan Bayme. Grab a deck, or spring for the Lockbox, which includes 12 decks of cards inside a handcrafted box made out of 100-year-old reclaimed wood and sealed with an alpha-numeric lock.
Sure, you could just hand someone a deck of cards, but why not make them work for it? The Outlaws Vault is a fiendishly challenging puzzle box, built out of Raintree wood and covered in all kinds of mysterious locks and symbols. It’ll take all the logic at your disposal to crack it open, but once you solve it, you’ll be rewarded with two decks of Outlaws playing cards—the original and the crimson variant—as well as a challenge coin to show off how smart you are.
If the mentalist in your life is looking for an upgrade to their standard impression pad, look no further than Parapad. Its slick design looks classy without appearing obvious, and more importantly, it just works. The $69.95 price tag gives you enough paper to perform this routine over a hundred times, and even includes an instructional video to teach you everything you need to know to perform this trick flawlessly.
Price: $120 (currently on sale for $99)
Buy it from Shin Lim’s website
Shin Lim’s 52 Shades of Red is a stunning work of magic and performance art, and with this starter kit, you can learn how to do it yourself. The kit includes the full second version of Lim’s signature act, twice as many Shim magnets (each one the thickness of a single playing card), as well as the vanish/reappear trick Gone Deck. Stocks are running low, but if it sells out, don’t worry—version three of 52 Shades of Red is arriving on December 8.
This is perhaps the weirdest, most gorgeously off-kilter deck of playing cards we’ve ever seen at GeniiOnline. Developed in conjunction with Stranger & Stranger, the Ultimate Deck features 54 playing cards, each one featuring wholly unique artwork. The three of spades incorporates a charcoal drawing of a skull into the card; the ace of spades features a drawing of a massive, trimmed hedge with the roots exposed. There’s no other deck of cards quite like this one.
The first part in a planned trilogy from actor and magician Neil Patrick Harris, The Magic Misfits isn’t just a whimsical tale of a young runaway illusionist finding adventure with a gang of, well, misfits. It’s also filled with games, secret codes, and even instructions to make and perform your own magic tricks. Perfect for middle graders, but no judgements from us if you decide to sneak in some reading when your kids aren’t looking.
Another ingenious book combining storytelling and puzzle-solving, The Maze of Games is a massive tome filled with crosswords, riddles, logic puzzles, and of course, mazes. It tells the story of two teenagers living in Victorian England, trapped in a menacing, puzzle-filled labyrinth. Each page of the book has a different conundrum that must be conquered before the kids can continue their journey. What makes The Maze of Games so great is that the writing is approachable for youngsters but the puzzles remain vexing enough to challenge even the most ardent sleuth.
The Expert at the Card Table by S.W. Erdnase has been one of the foremost authorities on card manipulation for over a century, and it’s old enough that cheap paperback versions of it abound at bookstores and on the internet. Why not give this classic the appreciation it deserves with this special, faux-leather pocket edition from Dan & Dave? It’s called the Erdnase Bible for a reason: it’s printed on thin gilt edged pages, contains line numbers for easy reference, and even features a ribbon for keeping your place.
Jim Steinmeyer is one of the foremost experts on magic history and the craft of illusion design, and his book explores the life and legacy of Howard Thurston—a man who during his time achieved greater heights of fame than Houdini but has since lived in his shadow. A book as much about the history of two great magicians as it is the psychological battle waged between them, The Last Greatest Magician in the World is vital for anyone wanting to learn more about the Golden Age of Magic.
One thing is certain: the Golden Age of Magic from the late 19th to early 20th century had the best posters. The McCord Museum in Quebec compiled hundreds of broadsheets and documents of the era in an exhibit called the Illusions: The Art of Magic. If you weren’t able to make it up to Canada (or simply love old-timey artwork), Abrams Books has reproduced more than 250 illustrations from the full exhibit in a lovely coffee table book.
Max Maven has been wowing audiences for decades with his brand of mentalism, and now, he’s finally revealing the methods to many of his signature routines. Kayfabe is a four-DVD box set filled with nine hours of videos, with detailed instructions and performance advice, as well as interviews and documentaries about one of magic’s most enduring performers.
Price: $15 ($20 signed)
Our Magic is a documentary made by magicians, for magicians and anyone else who appreciates magic as a serious art form. The two-disc DVD set contains the documentary, filmed over the course of 18 months with conjurers from all over the world, as well as bonus extra features that include interviews cut from the final film. Pick up a signed copy for that extra-special touch.
Price: $175 ($200 for custom wands)
There are magic wands and then there are magic wands, and the Levit Wand is definitely the latter. Each signature wand is hand-crafted over two days with blackwood, faux ivory, and cocobolo, or can be custom ordered and fashioned with a variety of high-quality woods and acrylics.
Price: £30 (about $40USD)
Buy it now from the British Library
The Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibit is in full swing at the British Library, but if you can’t make it to the UK by Christmas, you can do the next best thing and order the official exhibit book instead. Filled with write-ups and images of ancient historical artifacts, as well as concept art and sample manuscripts from J.K. Rowling’s seminal fantasy, Harry Potter: A History of Magic is a perfect gift for Potterheads and magic fans alike. (Sidenote: There is another, very similar edition of this book also curated by the British Library more readily available in the United States called Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic, but it’s about 30 pages shorter and only available in paperback. I have no idea whether that’s because content has been removed or just formatted differently, so buyer beware.)
Lev Grossman’s hit fantasy series The Magicians tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, a young genius who discovers that magic is real and Fillory, the magical realm from books he loved as a child, is an actual place. It may take place at a school for magicians, but this is no Harry Potter wannabe; the stakes are very high and nobody’s chugging butterbeer. Grab all three entries in the trilogy in this swanky box set of trade paperbacks (or pick up the hardcover editions here for a little more cash).
The world’s first comic book hero is having his magical exploits from the 1930s reprinted in a series of wonderful hardcover editions. This one contains Mandrake’s first Sunday story, but there are a variety of other compilations available from different eras of Mandrake’s legacy.