In the new Image Comics/Skybound title Excellence, the state of magic isn't that excellent - and the son of one of the masters of magic is out to fix it.
Black magic meets black excellence as writer Brandon Thomas teams with artists Khary Randolph and Emilio Lopez for this progressive take on magic realism. No, this isn't a Harry Potter with magicians of color; as Randolph tells Newsarama, "it’s the farthest thing from that."
With Excellence #1 debuting May 8, Randolph and Thomas spoke with Newsarama about the inner workings of magic in the world of Excellence, the meaning behind the title, the designs of the characters, and what this books means to them on a personal level.
Newsarama: Even before the book starts, there is a list of rules for magic users in this world of Excellence, how did you come to these?
Brandon Thomas: Anyone that wants to get a general sense for some of the themes and conflicts to come in this book, should pay real close attention to “The Four Walls.” Like many things in the world of Excellence, what appears on the surface to be benign and quite reasonable often hides a more sinister purpose. These tenets are drilled into every young magician from their superiors and trainers at an early age, but the reinforcement also comes from some of their closest family members, who have been connected to the Aegis at some point. The conditioning and the programming are just everywhere, and almost impossible to shake past. Almost.
Khary Randolph: The storytelling in Excellence is all about layers. What we present on the surface may look like one thing, but as the story continues and we peel back layers the reader will discover this is a very different book than they think it is. Rules and laws are presented as good things for society, but as we’ve seen throughout history, laws are not always just and sometimes have to be questioned, tested, and even broken if they are unjust.
Nrama: One really stuck out to me and wondered why is the wand so important to the magic user?
Thomas: Playing into the previous answer, it’s another subtle system of control. Who gets to actually create wands is a huge thing, and characters like Spencer, who is a natural magic user that can cast with or without a wand, is actively discouraged from doing so. The wands keep a detailed log of every spell used for “training purposes,” and they’re treated like firearms, in a sense that every bullet/spell fired has to be accounted for and explained away.
Regulating and monitoring the number of wands in circulation helps to curtail and discourage major dissent, and like I teased above, the extensive web of rules surrounding the Aegis should give you a sense of some things we’ll be diving into immediately.
Newsarama: Who are the Dales family, especially Spencer?
Thomas: Spencer Dales has been born into this secret world of magic and wants more than anything to be loved and respected by his legendary father, but a twist of fate makes that impossible. His father is one of the most prominent members of this covert society, the latest in a powerful, respected bloodline, and with that comes a series of expectations that Spencer doesn’t initially live up to. Which cracks the relationship between father and son in half, possibly irrevocably.
The series is largely about whether this bond can be salvaged, and if not, if some good can possibly come from it being broken.
Nrama: What can you tell us about Aaron's conflict for Excellence? We see he has somewhat of a rival at the Aegis, but it seems there's something bigger at play.
Thomas: Much bigger role for him to play in the series, most notably as a contrast to Spencer's experience. Even though they essentially have the same "father," both of their childhoods went very differently, and we'll get to see how this whole thing looks from someone not born into some legendary magical family. Lot of cool stuff to come involving Aaron, so great instincts!
Randolph: Aaron is one of my favorite characters. When designing them, I instantly related to Spencer so I put a lot of myself into him, but Aaron is the character I always aspired to be.
Nrama: The designs feel very contemporary but also futuristic. It's not a Harry Potter knock-off, so how important were the aesthetics you wanted for you?
Randolph: There are a number of properties involving magic in the market right now. It’s super-crowded, so literally, the first thing me and my artistic collaborator Emilio Lopez discussed were ways we could make this book stand apart from the countless other properties out there. In all aspects, from the fashion, the hairstyles, the wands, the art style, the way magic is presented in the world, these are things we went to great pains to try and show something familiar yet unique.
It’s kind of like hip-hop in a sense - take something old and understood and flip it on its head, and then reintroduce it to the public as something new. The point is, this book is not “Harry Potter, but with black people.” It’s the farthest thing from that.
Nrama: Can you tell us how magic works and is done in this world? Is there a magical hierarchy at play here?
Thomas: Well, we wanted to make the hierarchy a living thing inside the book, and so we’re using spell color to indicate what level a magician is, and when two of them duel, it creates this really amazing splash of color and intensity, especially if they’re on different levels. It also helps us deliver some jaw-dropping moments when characters wield spells and magic they’re not supposed to have access to yet. It was important that it wasn’t just words on the page, but something you can really feel when things ramp up.
The actual mechanics of how most of the magic is used is something I think we should say only a little about. Let’s just say it’s a very subtle, intimate, and personal application of magic, which helps its presence remain mostly concealed. It’s one of those little details that sets Excellence apart from other stories dealing with magic.
Randolph: Part of the magic trick is not just about what you can see, but what you can’t.
Nrama: What was the basis for the colors used in different magics?
Thomas: For me, it started with the color purple, which has always felt regal and powerful to me. Maybe it's my childhood Prince obsession showing, or it being the color of Mace Windu's lightsaber, but it was an obvious choice for the Tenth's casting color. Green for the rookies is very on the nose, and blue felt like a nice complimentary color to that. There's also a secret casting color that'll come into play down the line as well.
Randolph: This is one of those funny things about me and Brandon where we are in sync even though we don't discuss things by we are somehow still on the same page. I always looked at the color hierarchy as a video game thing. In loot based games like Destiny, Diablo, Division (don't ask me why they always start with 'D') the progression system is based on color. You start with green items, and then blues, and then purples are like the "legendary" status. I consider it a head nod to the gamers out there.
Nrama: What kind of research did you do for spells, the runes, and language of magic, to possible make this feel, not real, but very organized?
Thomas: Khary might be able to speak to some of the visual aesthetics he was inspired by overall, but the runes, in particular, were something everyone contributed something to. The final look was an amalgamation of Khary, our Emilio Lopez, letterer Deron Bennett, and designer Andres Juarez, who came in at the end and was really inspired by the runes and made them a centerpiece of the trade dress. He also created us a full set of symbols that I then helped turn into a working alphabet. Love, love, love how that all came together, and it’s a great feeling that everyone on the book was able to touch it in some way. True collaboration.
Randolph: The origin of the runes came from my love for manga. The sound effects in Japanese comics have such a bold visual aesthetic that makes them feel like they are an integral design element of the page even though you don’t necessarily know what it is they are saying. You feel them. This is one of those things that is completely unique to comics and I wanted to embrace it, so I created runes that would sort of act like a manga-esque sound effect. I initially did research a number of African symbols so that the runes would not look too similar to the typical Norse runes that you normally see in pop culture, but as time went on I just started freestyling my own.
Nrama: With your own rules of magic in consideration here, how well do you think you'd fair in the Aegis?
Thomas: Oh man, probably not well since I wouldn't be from a famous family. There's a character named Darius that comes from more humble beginnings, so sadly this is probably the rung of the organization I'd be trapped on until something significant changed. But without giving things away, if change comes, everyone will have some part to play.
Randolph: Same. I always think I'm the hero of my own story, but I'm a solidly middle of the road guy. [Laughs]
I'd be a Darius as well.
Nrama: Brandon, Khary, I believe the title of the book refers to the phrase “black excellence”. What does that mean to both of you?
Thomas: It’s a mission statement, a promise, a threat, but ultimately a celebration that will occur in this book. That’s why when it was pitched, I always intended to do it alongside an all black and brown creative team, and I wanted that bolstered by the variant cover initiative that was announced earlier. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to spotlight every creator of color that’s offered us inspiration in the past, is thrilling us in the present, and will lead black comics into the future, but we’re going to partner with as much talent as we can. Excellence is a canvas, to showcase the multitude of blackness that exists just within the world of comics right now, and we hope to give readers some new favorite artists to follow in the future.
Randolph: Black Excellence is aspirational. It’s not about what you are, but what you are trying to become and the journey towards that destination. In that sense, Excellence is all about our hero’s journey and those around him, what those trials are and overcoming them for the betterment of everyone. It’s something we think everyone can relate to, and we’re inviting the rest of y’all around for the ride.