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Spellbinders: Signs & Wonders

I really have to give credit to Mike Carey for what he does in comics; the man flies under the radar writing very good books like Lucifer and filling in expertly on previously established series like Hellblazer and Ultimate Fantastic Four. Carey has proven himself to be both an innovative creator and a go-to-man when you want someone to maintain a certain level of storytelling quality in a series that’s already written well. He’s a great utility writer.

Which makes me wonder what exactly happened in Spellbinders to make it quite so dull and uninspired.

Admittedly, the story elements of magic and death are things that Carey is more than familiar with from his work on Lucifer and other Vertigo titles. With her parents, Kim Vesco moves from Chicago to Salem, MA, escaping some obscure type of unpleasantness.

Upon arriving in town, Kim comes to discover that Salem is more than just a tourist attraction for those with a love of the history of Puritanical executions; there are witches in Salem, and they’re all in high school. The school is divided among the “Wicks” and “Blanks” or rather the magical and non-magical student body, and while the students seem unfazed by the use of magic, when certain spells and certain people start getting hurt in magical attacks, high school suddenly becomes even more dangerous than usual. Kim may be the key to ending these attacks, but that’s only if she survives a few herself and somehow makes sense of the powers rising around her.

The problem with this story isn’t the characters, though they have some issues, but rather that Carey has given us a very generic plot structure. Step 1: enter new girl(boy). Step 2: have something weird going on at school. Step 3: have girl(boy) stop said weirdness, making friends along the way.

It’s not the most creative way to start or end a miniseries, especially when you only have that certain amount of issues in which to tell a rich story. Kim enters her new world with very little trouble and quickly becomes not only immersed in the ways of magic, but adept as well. She’s the forced upon heroine of the tale, but everything she does comes easily to her. While this is a trait that can be beneficial to a character, the ability to walk through any situation and come out the winner is one better fit for a character that has been around longer and earned the reputation, like Wolverine. When that happens, it’s more about watching the character to see exactly how he or she wins this time.

Carey has set it up early that his main character can do very little or no wrong, and it just doesn’t fit the reality of the fictional situation. Because the reader doesn’t really believe that Kim will fail, when she wins it is just not exciting and even the way in which she vanquishes her opponent is unimpressive and obvious from at least 10 pages previous.

Carey is also juggling too large a cast for a miniseries, though the mystical reasons for having seven characters rings true. But too many characters almost always means too little characterization. Other than the cookie-cutter personalities that show through on the surface, the reader really only gets a glimpse at Kim as a character. While Kim is likable, even what little we find out about her is pretty generic; she’s an artist of some sort and has a dark spot in her past, neither of which is elaborated on since we never see any of her work and only find out that she’s an orphan. The fact that the script depends on this fact in order for her to even be possessed of magical abilities is also treated with almost no urgency.

The worst part about the characters is that they are not in any way dynamic. They are pushed around by the story instead of being apart of it. It’s ham-fisted writing that I really didn’t expect from Carey. He never really fleshes out his world of magic either as the reader is never really sure if magic is used outside the school or by the parents of the children, though it is hinted that they do.

Not helping is the artwork, which is perfectly serviceable artwork that simply hits on a few little pet peeves of mine: one being the drawing of characters that should be teenagers barely out of preteenage years as if they were twenty-five and all had memberships to NYSC. Mike Perkins’ artwork isn’t gratuitous or overtly sexual like some significant parts of our industry, and I thank him for that, but he seems to have no grasp of teenage anatomy. Not everyone will be tall, lanky, well muscled or attractive. Hormones fly around the teenage body faster than Superman on crank so some body variation happens.

I’m not saying make your characters ugly, but make them different. Outside of hair and clothes styles, there’s very little that’s distinctive about his characters. He reminds me of Butch Guice’s work from Ruse in that respect. I work in high schools and see students every day and not one of them has the same body as the next.

When you build a character visually, it’s just as hard as creating the written history of the character: the character’s appearance should speak to what type of person, superhero, or giant space monster that it happens to be. Also, Perkins’ style of drawing magic couldn’t be more boring, using a glowing sigil around the hands to indicate every time a spell is cast. It’s only noticeable thanks to the coloring, and it also helps suck the energy out of the plot.

I expected better of Carey, and having never read Perkins I expected nothing, so I ended up being half disappointed. It’s a passable story and since Marvel has lumped it under the Marvel Age heading (which it honestly can fit under since the violence is rather muted), it only costs $7.99. It’s not worth a pick up to me, but it might be a good comic to try and wean a manga user off the opiate of the east and onto the American brand of literary addiction.

Signs and Wonders (Spellbinders, Vol. 1)

Robert Sparling

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