Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Magic Is Cheating

Not really. But let me explain what I mean.

MightyGodKing had an interesting post discussing some people's views on whether Doctor Strange needs to be "saved," that is, a) is he too powerful, b) how do you write For my next trick, watch me pull a rabiit out of my hat!
a "magic" character in today's comic idiom?

Well, my problem (and not just with Strange, but with most comic magicians) has always been the inherent lack of rules the creators seem to give us.

With the "physical" superheroes, the creators lay down rules and limits and guidelines. We know what a character is capable of, and if suddenly those rules are transgressed without reason or explanation, we bitch and send in for No-Prizes.

Take, for example, Superman. We know he's vulnerable to kryptonite. We know that lead can block kryptonite radiation. These rules have been laid out for us, so when something profoundly silly like this happens, well, we can chide it for being stupid or scientifically questionable, but it cannot be said that they weren't playing by the rules.

But the magic of comic magicians too often comes across as mystical technobabble, made up on the spot to make the story work the way the writer wants it to. The Crimson Bands of Cyttorak? Well, sometimes they can hold things, sometimes they can't, sometimes they can be broken, sometimes they can't. The rules? Who knows? When all the DC mystics were running around saying "the rules of magic have all been re-written" post post-Infinite Crisis, my reaction was, "There were rules?"

Part of this, obviously, just comes down to a matter of taste in types of story, and modes of storytelling. But me, I like it when I know what a character's limits are. I like knowing that Spider-Man can lift a car, but not a building, and that won't suddenly change next issue (unless Captain Universe is involved...) . But let me present a Socratic dialogue, by 8 year-old me with my 8 year-old cousin, to show my opinion of what far too much comic book magic is like:

Me: Well, I'd zap you with my super-force rays!
Cousin: Uh-uh, because my mega-force field is immune to your super-force rays, and they just bounce off!!
Me: Well, these are super-duper-force rays that are invisible to your force field, and break right through it!!
Cousin: But my costume absorbs those rays, and power up my brain beam, and I blast you!!
Me: Uh uh, because...ad infinitum.

As you can see, we were making it up as we went along. Fortunately, most of us outgrew this when it came to our superheroes: we began to expect rules and limits, not randomness and crazy ad hoc one-upsmanship. But for some reason, we never demanded the same of Doctor Strange, or Zatanna, or Doctor Fate. We just accepted that "magic can do whatever it needs to do for this story, and has no relation to what it could do in any previous or future story." Which, all too often, was an excuse for lazy story-telling.

Don't get me wrong: I own boatloads of Strange and Fate, and have mostly enjoyed them. But for me, that enjoyment has always been a teensy bit tempered by my frustration at the genre's inability (or unwillingness) to sit down and map a system, a logic.

Maybe it's just my anal personality...and maybe I'm asking for something that can't be done. I'll still read, just as I'll still watch Star Trek even when this week's warp crisis is solved by yet another made-up radiation or particle field that was conveniently never mentioned before but just as conveniently exactly solves this week's problem. But I'll still call "Cheat!!" on it.

So if anyone wants to "fix" Doctor Strange, or if Keith Giffen wants to lay down the "new" laws of magic in Reign in Hell, start at the beginning. Give us some rules, dudes. Enough with the cheating.


Siskoid said...

An interesting point! The question remains: What possible "rules" could work?

Role-playing games might yield possible answers, but as that's usually behind the scenes mechanics, we might not be able to tell. For example, a spell-based system would just look as things do now, or would you be happy with spell depletion, can't use that one again until I study, type deals?

Ars Magica offered a smooth system in which magi learned from "verbs" and "nouns" and could produce any effect related to those (so if you knew how to transform and all about fire, you could transform fire, etc.) But again, would that register as rules?

And what about mythical/cultural differences? A Viking rune-wizard is more interesting than a spell-based Viking wizard. And that might be our opening: What if magic is always drawn from some mythical source, and that source shows up in the effects and practices?

So Dr Fate has a definite Egyptian motif, and that conception of the mystical world should be respected and "true" for that character. I don't know, I'm just musing.

Anonymous said...

You know, I remember efforts of both DC and Marvel to bring "rules" or a sense of internal logic to their magic characters...most recently DC making a big hullaballoo over the "new rules" that would be in place following Infinite Crisis.

As usual, nothing much has come of it (other than the wretched "Power of Shazam" mini-series featuring Freddy Freeman working his tail off for each super power).

Y'see, when it comes to magic (at least for me), its difficulty to quantify and classify is also its appeal. I mean, the whole point of magic in fiction is to break the rules of nature, or as a dazzling "shortcut" through the rigid structures of science. To apply rules and regulations to an inherently rule-defying concept seems like a fruitless task that ultimately just robs magic of its whimsical anarchy.

Siskoid's comparison to role playing games is logical, but I think those types of rules work better in a gaming environment where rules are essential (or no coherent gameplay can result)...but magic in the fictional realm seems to resist the "bridle" of a rule system, probably because most creators and fans sense much of the fun will be removed from magic's use. Just as more physically-oriented superheroes can become a real drag if they're constantly dealing with equipment breakdowns or tiring out, magicians having to recharge or study a spell book in the middle of a conflict aren't a thrill a minute, either.

I can definitely understand your frustration with the "make it up as you go along" squishiness of magic stories, but like I said, for some of us, I guess that's precisely its appeal.