So: we’ve come to the fifth issue of “Smoke and Mirrors” and the end of its first arc. Looking back on how this story has played out, is this magic-centered comic a feat of misdirection, or does it have some more tricks up its sleeve?
Written by Mike Costa & Jon Armstrong
Illustrated by Ryan Browne
This is it — the issue you’ve been waiting for! Stage magician Terry Ward is going to need every trick, every sleight-of-hand, every illusion he knows if he’s going to overcome the conjuring powers of a world where spells are real and magic — not technology — rules. Everything comes down to this climactic confrontation!
In a world where magic is real, a stage magician like Terry Ward is more than a fish out of water — he’s a living contradiction to that world’s understanding of physics. Now imprisoned for shadowy reasons by the world-renowned sorcerer and innovator Stephen Carrol, Terry’s going to have to count on his pupil Ethan — as well as his own talents — to try and extricate himself from a dire situation.
“Smoke and Mirrors” has got one hell of a premise, but so far it’s had very limited space in which to grow. Happily, it looks like a second volume’s worth of this tale is in the works, so the wonderful premise of this series is going to have a lot of room to spread out. As for this issue, at 28 pages it’s good value for your money, not to mention a gigantic helping of plot. But Costa and Browne manage the pacing well, and the issue never feels rushed or compressed. And incredibly, there’s still room for touches of character development, with a stronger focus than ever on the didactic/paternal relationship between Terry and Ethan.
A series that has gone to greats pain to incorporate interactive magic tricks into its pages and its plot (Jon Armstrong, a real-life illusionist, serves as consultant in that regard), there’s little in the way of stage magic in this issue. That’s not surprising, given the amount of heavy lifting to be done plotwise, but there are some neat examples of mentalism as Terry attempts to make Stephen think him more powerful than he is. As Terry tries to anticipate what Stephen is thinking, he’s also playing off the reader’s expectations, and the effect is truly engaging. All the while Terry’s well-developed sense of irony is on show, and it’s fun to see him muse incredulously about how odd his situation is. (“I’m a prisoner in the dungeon of a magic sorceror. Of course it would come to this.”)
Ethan, on the other hand, continues to be a little on the shrill side. He’s still a well-developed character; bright as well as sneaky, he accomplishes a fair amount of his own magic — the kind from his own world and the kind from Terry’s — in this issue alone. The trouble is that he comes off a little too earnest and striving, and while it’s difficult to say whether the locus of this feeling is in the art or the writing, it still keeps the reader from identifying with him very well. This also lessens the emotional payoff of the dynamic between Ethan and Terry; Terry’s the more likeable and interesting character by far, and makes Ethan look like a precocious blank slate of a person. I get the feeling that we haven’t seen the last of Terry, however, so hopefully this is one of those dynamics that will be honed and balanced with time.
Speaking of failure to identify, Stephen Carrol — not the cuddliest of characters to begin with — manages some pretty horrifying stuff in this issue. His method of divination in particular is chilling, casting into relief just how far this guy is willing to go to stay on top of the competition. There’s a less-than-subtle allegory here pertaining to the tech moguls of our generation, with the implication being that power-hungry is power-hungry regardless of the mechanics involved.
Unfortunately, at the end of this issue we still haven’t learned as much about the magic in Ethan’s world as we have about stage magic, and while some may find that hard to complain about, there’s a feeling of missing context to this arc as a whole. While Costa and Armstrong have taken pains to make this magic-run society just as dependent on hard work and innovation as ours (i.e., nobody had god-like powers or the ability to do everything), there’s still a lot of detail and nuance lacking. Hopefully this is something that can be rectified in future issues, as this story spreads out into something with a broader scope.Continued below
Ryan Browne’s art, meanwhile, is strong all round. There’s a tendency to rely on facial expression rather than composition in order to sell the drama and significance of a moment, but it’s a stylistic choice that blends well with the emotional emphasis of the story. Like a good magician, Browne knows where to direct the eye, with all layouts flowing smoothly and effortlessly (one two page spread near the beginning is a particular standout). Overall this is one good-looking comic, with its precise, clean lines and faded colours (assisted by Aaron Daly) imparting a classy, vintage poster look. Thomas Quinn’s design work for this series has been spectacular all round, making each issue look like a luxury object, and call me presumptuous, but I feel like this foreshadows a gorgeous trade paperback. But then, you’ll be able to check it out for yourself in October.
Although this isn’t a perfect comic, it’s got a unique premise that has been executed with style and conviction. There’s a lot of room for this story to grow — not least because Terry still has to figure out a way back to our world — so you can expect all kinds of surprises from “Smoke and Mirrors” in the future. And I think we can all be glad that creators Costa, Armstrong and Browne have got a couple more rabbits to pull out of this hat.
Final Verdict: 7.5 — Solid ending to a strong arc. Give the trade a shot!