4 out of 5
I knocked on a fantasy comic recently for representing the genre a bit too accurately, with a lot of purple-tinged prose and explain-it-all lore, things that certain fans surely enjoy – something I maybe equate more with a Lord of the Rings-style of fantasy – but that don’t do much to encourage or immerse me. It made me wonder, in part, if I just didn’t like the genre itself, with its various classes and magic(k)s and whatnot, but reading Jakob Free’s Cities of Magick reminds me that’s very much not the case: I’m a sucker for a well told story, regardless of the setting.
Free’s approach is, admittedly, the complete opposite of the drawn-out, info-first lead-in, and is also presented in exactly the kind of world-building method that – when done right – I find really powerful, and to also really take advantage of the medium: we zoom through years of progress that show how magick has infected and changed the world, spotlighting the exact scenes we need to understand how and why things are as they are “today,” with different color-clad, spell-flinging gangs fighting over territory and for primacy. This is the kind of compressed Grant Morrison can excel at when they’re focused: true world-building in the sense that we get the maximum feeling of story and space in the minimum amount of panels and pages.
Free also gives us a good POV hook into this: tossed into the middle of warring factions is Lev, an “analogue” type who doesn’t care to use magick, and is trying to hunt down an old-school pair of Nikes – you know, some shoes that don’t frikkin’ fly.
While I think it was the right choice to not try to over-ingratiate us to Lev – he doesn’t speak in an overly cool fashion, and Free isn’t trying (at this point in the story) to make any grand points about the ironies of cultural / technological “progress” – the story does escalate into a cliffhanger without really earning our buy-in: Lev gets nicked by a spell which poisons him, cue a To Be Continued hunt for someone to cure him. This is a good way to draw Lev in to a world of which he wants no part, but it’s a little too mixed up with the magick politics for us to focus on him as a character. Still, the confidence of the presentation and depth of the lore make me eager to see where this is going.
On the art side (and co-creator), Will Tempest’s thin-lined character models remind me a bit of Chris O’Halloran, though with a more closeup camera and a tighter sense of paneling that puts the book in a state of consistent momentum. It can occasionally be a little tough to decipher what’s happening when our focus is cropped so much, even in big scenes, but the eye direction is very clear and the pages, in general, are very clean. I dug the spell design – it’s like paintballs – and the various guild’s / gangs’ outfit variations. Colorist Brad Simpson rounds out things with a very Earthy, but distinct palette that sells the modern fantasy setting.
Note: There was a gumroad published version of this, and then it was picked up by Scout Comics. They are identical (maybe the colors in Scout are slightly less glossy), with some swapping of bonus pages: the Scout edition is missing a page and some text describing magic spells – but I’m imagining that will be repurposed in a later issue – while it adds a two-page silent comic from Will Tempest and others. The silent comic doesn’t have much context to me; perhaps it will be something of an installment in later Scout issues?