Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Stuart Immomen
Image Comics, May 2022
The marketing copy for the second volume of The Magic Order reads as follows:
A magical turf war like you’ve never seen before! The London chapter of the Magic Order has entered the scene, and these tough Guy Ritchie-style gangsters have a problem with the Eastern European Warlocks moving into their territory. Can new leader Cordelia Moonstone keep the peace?
One of the well-recognised aspects to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels is that the tone of the books ages with the characters and the readership. Imagine, then, that the characters grow entirely up and get into drugs, sex, show business, and bone-cracking policing?
This seems to be a much better elevator pitch for The Magic Order, a title from writer Mark Millar and artist Stuart Immomen. The Magic Order itself is a sort of self-appointed police force with ancient roots. It deals with mystical threats and emergencies in a decidedly brutal way.
Most of these threats and emergencies involve horror. Mr Millar has a quarter of a century’s worth of reputation in creating concepts which shock his readership. This title does not depart from the formula.
Before we look at the concept itself and the plot so far (encompassing two collected volumes with a third one imminent), let us consider the wonderful artwork of Mr Immonen. It is exceptionally hard to flaw the fluidity of his pencils. Mr Immonen is best known for his work on Empress (for Image Comics), Star Wars and New Avengers (both for Marvel Comics). In a book filled with dark concepts, Mr Immonen’s use of shadow is what is most striking. Quite deliberately, we think, there are not many gloomy halftones. The subject matter is stark. Singular light sources in dark rooms make for deep shadows, and Mr Immonen intermingles those shadows with blood. In the page below, the only reflected light is from the wand, casting blue tones from Regan Moonstone’s hand.
As to the indicia of Mr Millar’s craft: Blood, gore and internal organs are as common to the plot as commas must have been in the written script. But Mr Millar also borrows some of the charm of JK Rowling’s books. There is a flying car. There are many wands, crackling with luminous energy. The protagonist’s luxurious headquarters are in a painting of a castle contained in a public art gallery in Chicago: gallery visitors are perplexed by what they think are lights going on and off within the painting. There is a hotel which touches every point in time. There is a trick involving a broom and a blanket and an infinite conversation spell, which looks like a person lying down and chatting away. There is a magic violin which causes the enchanted to be projected seven minutes into the future (here, permitting unbridled chaos and murder). There are shark watchdogs, impossibly floating above trespassers. There is a big-eared, pink imp in sneakers and a broad smile who haunts one of the new characters, Francis King… but the imp facilitates his use of heroin, encourages him to suicide, and has blank pits for eyes.
Some of this gore manifests as black humour. A minor character, Zhang, an immortal, lives on the insurance money arising from his many deaths. The two examples in this volume involve Zheng, first, blowing up a passenger jet, and second, being run over by a train. We thought Zheng might have had a bigger part to play as a recruit of the play’s villains, but instead his gooey intestines and efforts at pretending to be dead are wry comic relief.
The main character, Cordelia, unexpectedly came into the role of leader of the Magic Order in volume 1. Cordelia is a stage magician as well as an actual magician. Readers across DC Comics’ character Zatanna (and particularly the slightly disorganised version from Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory (2005-2006) and Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic (1990-1991)) will find someone very familiar in Cordelia. She is an essentially fun and slightly neurotic person cast into professionalism and competence by necessity, and not because she is born to a role of leadership. Cordelia’s self-doubt is a theme throughout the title. And when her self-doubt is gone, there is a panel in which Cordelia is finally self-assured and covered in gross cosmic goop. She lights a cigarette, illuminating her face, and says, “A magician never reveals her secrets”, surely a deliberate reference to the ever-assured, chain-smoking, tormentor-of-demons John Constantine, another character within DC Comics’ panoply.
Cordelia had a tempestuous and damaging relationship with Francis. It ended with Francis checked himself into rehabilitation. We first meet him as he leaves the rehabilitation clinic, where he engages in some self-indulgent displays of magic for his own amusement.
Francis is called upon to fight an ensemble of villains, lead by Victor Horne, the descendant of the Romanian sorcerer Soren Horne. A millennia ago, Soren Horne used the power of an otherworldly monster called Othoul’endu to try and conquer the world. Only when Othoul’endu unexpectedly vanish was Soren Horne defeated by an international coalition of wizard, which in due course became the Magic Order.
Othoul’endu is clearly borrowed by HP Lovecraft’s body of works, a creature which lives outside of time and which feasts on suffering. Unable to directly act upon the world, Othoul’endu uses an avatar. In exchange for being a conduit for the pain of others, Othoul’endu bestows upon its avatar limitless power. This is Mr Immonen’s singular drop of the ball. He fails in the task of rendering Othoul’endu as sufficiently foul. Othoul’endu instead looks like a colossal mustard-coloured flea. Hardly a vase of flowers, but not especially horrific, either.
Victor seeks the restoration of the chaos of sorcery which has been quashed by the Magic Order. He wants dragons to again inhabit the earth, for various other arcane creatures of the night to rise up, and, most importantly, he wants to rule it all. Victor is a bottle washer in Romania working for a pissant middle manager (who is the subject of Victor’s equally petty wrath once Victor has saddled Othoul’endu). Victor seeks the glory of his birthright.
Not for one moment are we prompted to be sympathetic to his cause. In one of the more disturbing elements of the story, Victor incinerates his young and beloved son Jakob in order to enact a rite called a “black wedding”. Jakob’s corpse and the corpse of the very young granddaughter of a rival warlock named Henrik Raag are betrothed as a way of forming an alliance between the two. It culminates in a drunken party between the two gangs, circling around the two bodies which have been dressed in wedding clothes. The episode is very unpleasant and gives us no doubt as to the extent of Victor’s ambitions. (Jakob patiently waits by the bottle factory gates for his father to finish work, but later is delighted when his murderous aunt Brigitta causes two policemen to shoot some bystanders and then shoot each other. With such a learning environment, we are invited to think that Jakob is probably better off dead.)
Victor reminds us by appearance and sense of familial entitlement to one of Mr Millar’s other creations, Wesley Gibson in Wanted (2003-2005). Viktor’s development as an antagonist is a little undercooked. A villain with more dimensions to his character would have been more intriguing.
With his penchant for ultraviolence and trampeling taboos, Mr Millar is a polarising figure amongst Western comic book readers. Mr Millar’s many detractors, who regard him as this century’s godfather of all things “edgelord”, will not enjoy this book. But Mr Millar’s many fans will very much enjoy it. (For the avoidance of doubt, that category of readers includes your reviewer.)