Exclusive: Spy-Fi and Real Magic Arrive in BOOM!’s New Series, “Cloaks” [Interview]

By | May 29th, 2014
Posted in Interviews | % Comments
W. Scott Forbes cover to CLOAKS #1

BOOM! Studios have been doing their best to ramp up their output as of recently, and September isn’t going to see them slowing that down one bit. Launching that month, BOOM! will be debuting a brand-new four-issue mini-series called “Cloaks.”

Written by Caleb Monroe and illustrated by Mariano Navarro, the book is another feather in BOOM!’s magic cap — but this time, the magic is all based on actual street magicians and not the kind with wizards and sorting hats. Starring a young man named Adam, he plays the role of essentially the Robin Hood of Wall Street, re-distributing wealth to those in need. But as his thievery escalates, he finds himself joining up with a clandestine organization known as the Cloaks and the series takes off from there.

Here’s the official solicitation:

CLOAKS #1 (of 4)
Written by Caleb Monroe
Illustrated by Mariano Navarro

WHY WE LOVE IT: Who doesn’t love a good magic trick? From HEXED, to HUNTER’S FORTUNE, to THE LAST BROADCAST, we’ve always had a few tricks up our sleeves, and CLOAKS continues the tradition with a Black Ops twist.

WHY YOU’LL LOVE IT: Caleb Monroe (STEED AND MRS. PEEL, Batman) and artist Mariano Navarro (PROTOCOL: ORPHANS) bring you the Robin Hood of Wall Street, combining street magicians with a spy-fi thriller.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: In the Big Apple, a highly skilled street illusionist named Adam blows the minds of crowds with logic-defying acts, while surreptitiously using his artistry to steal from corrupt Wall Street investment bankers and re-distribute their ill-begotten wealth to those in need. He’s a modern-day Robin Hood, but his travails garner the attention of the local authorities. While evading their pursuit, Adam is confronted by three suits and quickly ascertains that freedom has a cost—in order to maintain his liberty, he must join this clandestine Black Ops organization simply known as CLOAKS.

Read on as we chat with writer Caleb Monroe, and look for the series to debut from BOOM! this September.

Tell me a bit about how you came up with the series. How did you and Mariano Navarro come to work together, and how did the book end up at BOOM!?

The concept for the book was actually created by David Henrie, which many people may know best as Justin Russo from Wizards of Waverly Place, or as the son being told how his father met his mother in How I Met Your Mother. But his talents are much broader-ranging than his skill and accomplishment as an actor. Even before we met or began working together, he had written one of my favorite episodes of the entire Wizard series (“Alex’s Logo”) and directed the film Catch, which comes out next month.

He developed this amazing character in Adam D’Aquino and set him in this fascinating context. It was like the sports car equivalent of a series concept: lean, purposeful and beautiful to look at. The book was already a BOOM! project when I arrived: they basically handed me the keys and said, “All right, get this baby out there on the track and show us what she can do!” It’s really the best of both worlds: I was gifted this incredibly fun and solid idea for a comic and at the same time I was given a lot of free reign to do with it what I wanted, to put my stamp on it and make it mine. I created our villain and was given the freedom to take the narrative in pretty much any direction I thought it should go.

Mariano was also brought in by BOOM! We had never met before commencing work on “Cloaks,” though I was familiar with his art from another BOOM! title, “Protocol: Orphans.” So I came into the scripting stage of the project with Mariano in mind and with pretty high expectations of what he could do with this sort of material. Then he went and upped his game and blew my expectations away. I couldn’t be more pleased with the way this book looks and reads.

Phil Noto Variant for CLOAKS #1

The creation of the story, in that it comes from David Henrie, is pretty fascinating. What’s that collaborative process like? Coming into this book from that angle, how do you find you approach the book differently than something that you’ve created from the ground up on your own?

Continued below

The approach to writing someone else’s characters and writing my own is surprisingly similar. Either way, I have to circle the character until I find my way into their head, until what happens to them is important to me. Once that happens, I’m passionate about telling their story, about getting it front of people. It’s the difference between ownership and creative ownership. I have to feel a sense of creative ownership over the work, otherwise it comes across false, and a reader can sense “your heart’s not in it.” Anything you write is a process of finding a way to put your heart in it.

There’s basically just an extra layer to that process: my first job is to really understand what David wants to do with a character like Adam, why he created him and why he’s excited about him. Then I look for our common ground: what part(s) of each of those answers gets me excited, too? And what excites me about it that maybe he hasn’t seen yet and I can get him excited about, too? It’s treating vision as a contagion; learning to infect and get infected.

So the pitch of the series is that Adam is a modern-day Robin Hood going against Wall Street. I’m curious, though: is political activism a part of your personal background? Where does the inspiration for a character like Adam come from?

Political activism doesn’t make up much of my DNA. I think I’m blessed (or cursed) with the combination of an overly practicaly mindset that makes it hard for me to adhere to any sort of strict ideaology, and being a writer, which basically means I professionally get into other people’s heads and can therefore usually empathize in some way with both sides of a given issue. I think politics could really use a behavioral branch, the way behavioral economics has impacted that field.

But beneath the rhetoric I think there are basic human issues most people agree on. Greed is bad, generosity is good; selfishness is bad, altruism is good. And that’s why a story like Robin Hood has such a timelessness to it. It wasn’t some political statement about the evils of the Crusades, or feudal government, or even taxation: it was about how one man was greedy and one man was generous and the conflict this caused is one pretty much any person can identify with.

That’s the type of dynamic I’ve attempted to craft between Adam and the characters—both good and bad—who represent Wall Street and the government in our story.

Adam is a street magician, but I do find I have to ask — with this already being a spy book and a thriller, is the book firmly rooted in reality, or are you allowing more fantastic elements to seep in? Or would that be telling (a magician never reveals his secrets, after all).

Well, there’s also this interesting and controversial history of famous stage magicians revealing their secrets. David Devant, considered the finest magician of his day, scandalized the magic community in the 30s when he wrote several books revealing many of his secrets and techniques. But he wasn’t ostracized: to this day The Magic Circle in London’s headquarters is named after him. So I’ll try to walk the balance between the two extremes.

Excerpt from CLOAKS #1 (Art Not Final)

The book is firmly rooted in reality, but “reality” is a bit of a mutable term when illusion is involved. I found, frankly, I didn’t have to get any more strange than the already-true history of overlap between the worlds of stage magic and spycraft. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, considered the father of modern magic (Eric Weisz named himself after Houdin when he became Harry Houdini), was brought out of retirement in 1856 by the French government to subdue an Algerian uprising. He used stagecraft to demonstrate France’s “supernatural” superiority. During World War II, Jasper Maskelyne, from the long line of influential Maskelyne magicians, was used by the British to develop methods for camouflaging troop movements from German spy planes, creating inflatable tanks and the like. Highly influential American magician John Mullholland joined the CIA in 1953 as a consultant and wrote several manuals on deciet and trickery for the MK-ULTRA program. They were developing all these stange new poisons and chemicals like LSD, but agents needed to learn sleight-of-hand to slip them into people’s drinks or what have you.

Continued below

All that to say there’s a fine and storied relationship between magicians and spies, which we’ve built upon. That’s about as fantastic as we needed to get.

It seems like you’ve done a LOT of research to prepare for the book — that, or you’re just really into spy history. What sort of things did you do to prepare for your work on the series?

Because I’m just coming off a spy book, even if it was a spy-fi book set in the 60s, I was feeling pretty comfortable on the espionage side of things, but I didn’t know much about the way magic works because I had always been afraid to spoil the wonder. So that’s where I had to do the most research. Turns out, the more I learned about the techniques of stage magic the more wonder I had. Magic’s one of those things that takes advantage of the way the human brain works on a neurological level: even if you know how a trick fools you, it still fools you because that’s just how the brain works. And you can grow to really appreciate these perceptual hacks in a way you couldn’t when you didn’t know what they were or how deftly they were being performed.

On research, I generally give myself a pre-writing limit of three books. I think I took that from Steven Pressfield’s “Do The Work.” After that, I have to start no matter what; otherwise research becomes a crutch or an excuse to procrastinate. To be honest, though, I rarely read all three in their entirety. I basically read until what I’m reading suddenly strikes against what I want to do with the book and sparks fly and this fire of ideas starts. Then I put the book down and follow the fire. I love learning all sorts of facts and information, but if you fill your head with too many of them then they can keep you from doing your chief job as a writer of fiction, which is making stuff up. You have to find an operational balance. For learning about magic, I bought an overview of the field, a history of stage magic and a book on “neuromagic,” which is basically the study of how magic fools the brain. That gave me a pretty comprehensive feel for the subject.

Excerpt from CLOAKS #1 (Art Not Final)

After that initial big download, I still return to research throughout the rest of the writing of a project, but by then it’s for specific purposes: to make sure I’m getting the mechanics of an effect right, or am using the right names, dates, history, etc. Targeted research.

The book seems to draw at least partial inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement, but with an obvious twist. When addressing these kinds of issues, where do you find the reality ends and the fiction begins with the type of story you want to tell?

I got into this a bit above, but for me I try to look for the issues behind the issues. Institutions or movements like Occupy or even Wall Street will come and go. I think the desire is to look at them while they’re here and try to extract the universal principles—what Charles Minger would call “mental models,” or Christopher Alexander would call “design patterns”—that we can then apply to the whole of the human endeavor. Including storytelling, which at its best covers the entire scope that endeavor.

I participated in the “Occupy Comics” anthology that came out last year (probably the only time I’ll share a credits page with Alan Moore!), but ended up only obliquely writing about Occupy. Instead, my story (‘A History of Nonviolence,’ with artist The Ellsowrth) became a mini-history of nonviolence and peaceful protest in general, and how the idea has both evolved and stayed the same over the centuries.

“Cloaks” actually makes a strangely appropriate companion piece to that one. Reimagining peaceful protest/gathering/demonstration as a magic show!

You’ve done spy stories before in the form of “Steed and Mrs. Peel.” What do you find working with classic archetypes like those characters taught you about the type of characters you’ve created for this book?

Continued below

Steed and Peel’s cases would always start out with these incredibly bizarre premises, but in the end there would usually be a fairly mundane explanation (Usually—the show still had the occasional mind-controlling plant from outer space or working shrink ray…). Which is much the way a magic trick works. That’s probably the biggest connection: “Steed $ Mrs. Peel” really exercized my muscles in that type of thinking. I’m using that thinking in an entirely different way here, but those muscles definitely help.

Fans of the back-and-forth banter between John and Emma should enjoy the relationship between Adam and our villain. Probably the main thing the two projects bear in common is they’re both examples of serious, high-stakes stories that don’t have a need to sacrifice fun and humor. The two can coexist quite comfortably.

Other than those general similarities: Adam’s a whole new ballgame! No sense in repeating oneself…

Excerpt from CLOAKS #1 (Art Not Final)

It sounds like you’re pretty boned up on spies, but where do you sit in terms of real world magic? How do you approach the incorporation of street magic into the book, and have you met with Penn and Teller yet?

Ha! I have not met with Penn and Teller yet, but I look forward to it.

Using their work, and that of several others, as a basis, I developed my own take on the six basic principles of all magic. Which I laid out for the readers early in the first issue. Then, when I was plotting and Adam had to solve a problem (which is pretty much every page, seeing as how conflict is the engine of story), I figured he would see the solution, even if it wasn’t a specific magic trick or anything, through one of those six lenses. They’re not his tools of the trade so much as his way of seeing the world. Going back to that idea of “mental models” I mentioned earlier. There’s an infinite number of ways to approach any one of the principles, so while it sounds like it could have been a restrictive approach to problem-solving, it was actually liberating and helped me get out of my own head and way of seeing the world and into Adam’s.

So aside from maybe the obvious strokes (i.e. the plot, etc), what is it that you think makes CLOAKED so unique?

I think what sets it apart is the axis it falls along. People are familiar with espionage and spy stories, and generally familiar with stage magic, but rarely consider the relationship between the two. It’s a fascinating relationship. I won’t ever see either field quite the same. They’ll always be lit, however faintly, by one another in my mind. My appreciation of both has been enriched by the experience and it’s our goal to convey that shift in perception to our audience.

To give readers a slightly different way of thinking, of seeing the world. After all, that’s what all the best magic does, doesn’t it?

Matthew Meylikhov

Once upon a time, Matthew Meylikhov became the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Multiversity Comics, where he was known for his beard and fondness for cats. Then he became only one of those things. Now, if you listen really carefully at night, you may still hear from whispers on the wind a faint voice saying, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not as bad as everyone says it issss."