Getting To Know The Unknowable: Greg Rucka On ‘Black Magick’ [Interview]
This week saw the release of the first issue of Black Magick, the new series from Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott, and from the very first page it was easy to see that those two creators were doing something different. The visual style of Scott's watercolors bring incredible depth and expression to a story that blends crime and the occult in a way that's pure enjoyment to read.
To find out more about the series, I spoke to Rucka about his approach to the rituals shown in the comic, the main character's crucial flaws, and the unexpected roots of his love for supernatural stories.
ComicsAlliance: Even after all these years, I still primarily think of you as a crime writer. That's a genre that's certainly well-represented in Black Magick, but seeing you writing a supernatural story wasn't something that I expected.
Greg Rucka: We've talked about what a great big gaming geek I am, you know. One of my all-time favorite RPGs is Call of Cthulhu, so take from that what you will. I think if you look back at some of the stuff that we broadly label as the crime ouvre, there are certainly elements of the supernatural at work. You can see it in the original Detective Comics run, it's certainly evident in Five Books of Blood and "Pipeline," so I don't know. I've always found some very compelling earth to be tilled in that particular genre. There's always been something about those kinds of stories that's appealed to me. I love The Omen, just as a piece of plotting. I love the Marlowe play Faust.
These kinds of stories fascinate me, and when they're done well, I think they pay off in a way that a filmmaker like M. Night Shyamalan is just desperate to constantly replicate. When they're done well, there's a beautiful and sometimes tragic inevitability, so I do think it's there. Obviously, I've never really turned into it in the same way as we have with Black Magick, but you can see it at work in other places as well.
CA: I'm glad you gave a complicated answer, but you also mentioned Call of Cthulhu and now that's all I want to talk about.
GR: [Laughs] Geek!
CA: Really, though! You're very well-known as a fan of video game RPGs, you're a big Mass Effect and Dragon Age guy, obviously, but what is it about CoC that gets you?
GR: One of the things I think Cthulhu did for me very early was that it's so crunchy in the early editions, and it's easy to get distracted by that. The fact of the matter is, if you try to solve your problems in Call of Cthulhu by shooting them, you end up dead or crazy, or crazy and then dead very quickly. As a result, it's a game that I think was really the first RPG that really forced the "R."
That was a high school game. I played it with friends, and I still have friends who pull quotes from sessions out on each other, still. The game itself opened up not just Lovecraft's works, but that whole genre of horror. I'm not a huge Lovecraft fan as far as that goes; I think there are some stories of his that are really quite wonderful, but for the most part I have great difficulties with his prose --- and the more you know about the man, the harder it is to separate him from the work in many ways. Just as a story setting, that here's this thing, it's all around you but you did not see it and you were not aware of it, and now you've become initiated into it, and then you realize maybe you were better off not knowing, but you cannot un-know, that's a very compelling hook to me.
CA: I always liked the investigation aspect, the weird happenings and the idea of solving mysteries, but I could never get into the mythos stuff because they always felt like opponents I couldn't beat. All of my games unsurprisingly ended up being about dealing with cultists.
GR: Well, it's interesting. I don't know who's running these games for you...
CA: Oh, I was running them.
GR: Well in theory, there's always a solution, but the solution always has an enormous price. That kind of tension only works if you're invested in character. If you're moving pieces around on a board, it doesn't matter, right? As you invest characters with breath, with history, with life, then that sacrifice and those struggles become very compelling. But then, a good Cthulhu campaign is driven by investigation that is inexorable. That's the power of it, that you know this thing nobody else knows, and if you turn your back on it, everybody is screwed, but if you pursue it, you are screwed. That's good drama, right there.
CA: Just so we're not going to far afield with this ---
GR: We already have!
CA: But the way that you describe that, with solutions having dire costs and the idea of having to care about characters to make it work, that sounds a lot like how you'd approach a story like Black Magick. The idea of forbidden knowledge is very much a theme in this first issue, as is the idea of trying to find a solution and only coming up with something that's incredibly harmful to people.
GR: It's interesting, because we're talking about the big spoiler moment of the issue, and that is a moment where the first time you read it, you go, "Okay! That solved that problem!" I think if you think about it, you start going, "Were there other solutions? And if there were, why weren't they taken?" That says a lot about character, right?
Rowan is one of the more flawed protagonists that I've written in a long time. I saw something on Twitter, and I wish I could remember who said it and I wish I could remember the phrasing, but they were talking about how female protagonists are never allowed to have a significant character flaw in the way that male protagonists are. I haven't thought about it enough to think of examples to refute that assertion, but I do think that we tend to walk a very careful line, writers and storytellers like myself, who are trying to be conscious of gender parity and ethnic parity and going on down the line. We want to see more diversity in work.
I know that for a very long time, there were certain things that I would not allow myself to do to certain protagonists. If I had a gay character, I wasn't going to kill him. If you read the Kodiak novels, Dale Matsui was the safest guy in the series, right? Dale was out, he was happily in a relationship, and my politics are such that I wasn't seeing that a lot and I certainly wasn't going to get rid of the one guy who was there. That is, in its own way, a bigotry. What we want to see is stories that are going to be honest stories about the characters that we're telling them about. We want to be fair to those characters, and those characters get to be people, they're not defined by gender or sexual identity or ethnicity, solely. Those are elements of character, as I've said multiple times and I'm sure bored people to tears with it.
So getting back to Rowan, from the beginning in my head, she's got some issues. She's prickly. I'm not sure how easy she is to like. She may fall into that category of character where she's a badass and you respect that, and you think it's cool, but you're not really sure if you'd want to hang out with her once you get to know her.
CA: That's something I've enjoyed about your work in the past. Tara Chace is a pretty clear example of a character with some deep flaws that make for compelling stories that can be really hard to get through sometimes.
GR: And Tara would be great to go out for a couple of drinks with, and would be a car crash to get involved with. You're going to get burnt by that, because she ain't healthy, and she's not healthy in a very self-destructive fashion. Rowan is not self-destructive, but she's carrying some baggage --- she's carrying a lot of baggage, actually.
CA: I saw that family tree.
GR: That's a lot of legacy, and that's not the whole legacy. That goes back to, what, 1650? This was the coming-to-North-America break, but the tree goes back much further than that. So you've got, what, 400 years on those two pages? And if you take a look at that family tree, then you'll see certain things. There are certain patterns that emerge, and if you look at those patterns, you can see what Rowan's looking at.
CA: There are a lot of "Circumstances Unknown" on there.
GR: "Circumstances Unknown" are problematic, yeah. There's another one listed on there, too.
CA: "Tried and executed?"
GR: Yeah. So she's got some baggage. I really like Rowan, and honestly, I like her more now that I've gotten to know her better with Nicola. I'm a writer, I like my protagonists. I'm going to look at them, and no matter how effed up they may be, I'm going to find something about them to love, if for no other reason than that's my job. I really like Rowan, but I am not blind to the lady's flaws. And her flaws become more evident.
CA: I hadn't looked at any previews or anything because I wanted to read it as an issue ---
GR: Surprise! [Laughs]
CA: It has a really interesting visual style. It's black-and-white, but it's not.
GR: If you're expecting the Nicola Scott that you saw on Earth-2 and a whole raft of DC titles, you're going to be surprised. This is the same artist, but this is the same artist working a very different way. The palette and the use of the palette, that's all Nic, she's the one who brought that to the table. She said "This is what I'm thinking, and this is how I'm seeing it," and it was absolutely the right decision. It opens up some wonderful storytelling opportunities for us as a result, because it isn't a black-and-white book.
There is color, but that use of color is very deliberate and very restrained. Issue #2, I think, has only one moment of color in it, and it's very subtle, and then issue #3 has a page like you get in #1, and another one that's much quieter. The color is a storytelling element, and that's all Nic. That's all the style that she's bringing, and that visual language.
CA: I noticed that the first things that get color in the book, aside from the moon, are the candles that are involved in the ritual in that opening scene, and that certainly sets at least one pattern that repeats over the course of the issue.
GR: Hm. Interesting extrapolation. I see what you're getting at, absolutely, right? You're tying it to flame. What you're watching at the beginning is a meeting of the coven to celebrate the fall equinox, so this is actual high ritual. This is a holy day. Candles are an intrinsic part of that worship, and the color of the candles is actually significant, everything you see on the altar has its significance in the practice.
One of the things that we wanted to do, and I've talked about this elsewhere, too, is that when we talk about the kind of paganism that Wicca is, we are, for the most part, talking about a modern interpretation that stems out of the mid-20th century. It's what we call Gardnerian Wicca. But for Rowan, and for Alex, who's the high priestess leading that ceremony, they're actually practicing a tradition that goes much, much further, that predates Gardnerian Wicca by many, many hundreds of years, if not thousands.
"Accurate" is a very difficult word to use when you talk about Wicca, because one of the beautiful things about Wicca is that the individual's worship is precisely that, it is individual. You're not going to go from coven to coven and find them saying the same things. The intent may be the same, but each person finds their own way, too, and thus interprets it in their own way. We want to be respectful and we want to be accurate where we can be accurate, but by the same token, we're talking about something that's similar but not the same to what many people are practicing today.
Black Magick #1 is on sale now from Image Comics. Black Magick #2 is on sale November 25.