BLACK MAGE Shines Light on Inequality in the World of Magic

Black Mage
Credit: D.J. Kirkland (Oni Press)
Credit: D.J. Kirkland (Oni Press)

The wizarding school St. Ivory Academy is opening its doors to a non-white student for the first time ever - but all is not as it seems.

In the new graphic novel The Black Mage, readers can follow Tom Token in his first days at St. Ivory - and how an affirmative action initiative within the school might have a vicious agenda.

Writer Daniel Barnes and artist D.J. Kirkland spoke with Newsarama about the recently released Oni OGN, the state of magic in The Black Mage, and who they're making this graphic novel for.

Credit: D.J. Kirkland (Oni Press)

Newsarama: Daniel, D.J., what is The Black Mage's St. Ivory Academy and why would someone want to go there?

Daniel Barnes: In the world of The Black Mage, St. Ivory Academy for Spellcraft and Sorcery is the most prestigious wizarding school in America.

D.J. Kirkland: It is the Academy to attend if you want to get the best formal education in magic. It’s a dream come true for certain kids that want to learn magic.

Barnes: Anyone who’s lucky enough to be accepted as a student is essentially set for life. It’s where the rich and elite send their kids to study magic.

Nrama: Since we're talking about magic, what are the ground rules for magic in this? Can anyone do magic?

Kirkland: We get questions about the magic system a lot! In our world, anyone is capable of using magic. It’s something that everyone is born with. However, your proficiency with said magic depends on how much training you have.

Credit: D.J. Kirkland (Oni Press)

Barnes: Anyone is capable of using magic. It’s an inherent skill that comes from within, and must be trained properly. But, one of the themes we touch on, in the book, is who has access to that training. Magical education is a privilege reserved only for those who are wealthy enough to afford it.

Kirkland: Daniel said it best, our story is about who has access to that training.

When it came to drawing the magic, I studied a lot of effects in anime with magic and fighting games effects. I studied Dragon Ball FighterZ a lot. The way that game handles energy beams is really cool and I think lent itself to the vibe of our book very well. I also looked at a ton of stuff from the original 90’s Sailor Moon anime. There’s a scene in the middle of the book that is a love letter to the series that I hope fans of Sailor Moon will love.

Nrama: This centers on a young man named Tom Token, who joins the school in a new "Magical Minority Initiative." First, who is Tom Token - and what is up with the name 'Token'?

Credit: D.J. Kirkland (Oni Press)

Kirkland: Tom is a smart, hardworking black kid who is eager to learn everything that he can about magic. He goes into St. Ivory with one idea of what his experience is going to be like but that idea is immediately turned upside down once he steps into those halls.

Barnes: So, at the outset of the story, St. Ivory Academy’s entire student body and faculty is made up of nothing but white people. But, after centuries of shutting minorities out, Tom Token is granted admission to the school, becoming its first-ever Black student.

Tom Token’s name comes from the term “Uncle Tom” and the concept of “tokenism” – both of which carry negative meanings, in regards to racial politics. Besides being a funny, super on-the-nose name, in the vein of anime and manga protagonists like Usagi Tsukino from Sailor Moon (whose name literally translates to “Rabbit of the Moon”), the purpose of giving him that name was to reappropriate those negative Black literary traits and inverse them.

He’s “Tom,” but the last thing on his mind is being obedient to white people. His name is “Token,” but he’s the main character of the narrative, has agency, and is driving the plot. His name is purposely ironic.

Credit: D.J. Kirkland (Oni Press)

Kirkland: When Daniel pitched the story to Oni, there were sample pages along with some pretty cool character designs. I didn’t want to stray too much from his original vision of the character so my final design for Tom was very similar to the one in his original pitch. Tom’s color pallet was a direct nod to the Black Mage job class from Final Fantasy and the St. Ivory school uniform colors were a direct nod to the White Mage job class.

Nrama: So just what is the "Magical Minority Initiative"?

Barnes: It’s essentially an affirmative action scholarship devised by St. Ivory’s Headmaster – Atticus Lynch III, to diversify the school and shake up the wizarding community’s racial stagnation. The vast majority of powerful and prolific spellcasters, in the world of The Black Mage, are white.

Nrama: So what's it like for Tom in this school?

Barnes: Oh, it’s just awful. All of the students either talk down to him or treat him like some sort of exotic animal. On his first day, he’s asked if “Black people use grape drink, instead of potions, to replenish their magic.”

All Tom wants to do is study magic, and everyone just immediately alienates him with their ignorance and bigotry. Poor guy.

Credit: D.J. Kirkland (Oni Press)

Nrama: Then what is this conspiracy Tom and Lindsay uncover?

Barnes: I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, but let’s just say that the Headmaster’s reasons for enrolling Tom into the school aren’t as innocent and benevolent as everyone was led to believe.

Nrama: D.J., from the cover, I get the hint that you get to draw some figures from history - can you tell us about that?

Kirkland: You’re absolutely right! When I found out that I was going to get to draw anime-inspired versions of John Henry, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman, I was super excited. Getting to recontextualize these historical heroes from Black History into super dope heroes with magical powers in our book was a challenge I was ready to take on. It took a couple of passes to get the designs nailed down for them but ultimately, I’m really happy with how all three of them came out. Harriet is my favorite!

Nrama: How'd you connect with two connect, and connect with Oni to do this graphic novel?

Credit: D.J. Kirkland (Oni Press)

Barnes: Back in 2015, Oni held open submissions to the public for a few months, and invited everyone to send original pitches to them. I submitted my proposal for Black Mage and, by the end of the summer, they called me up and said they wanted to move forward with it!

Shortly afterward, they approached D.J. at PAX West about it, and the rest is history! I never imagined we’d creatively mesh so well together! Working with D.J. has literally been the best creative experience of my life, and I can’t wait to work on tons of other comics with him! Through this book, we’ve become best buds!

Nrama: Big picture, what are your goals with this OGN?

Barnes: Honestly, to capture the imaginations of younger Black readers who long to see themselves represented in fun narratives. Black Mage is the book I needed, back when I was a nerdy 13-year-old who was one of the few Black kids at a predominantly white school.

I want Black kids to realize that they are magical, and that they can be heroes too!

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