Oni Press’s The Black Mage, by writer Daniel Barnes and artist D.J. Kirkland, tells a story that’s unique to the young, black magic-user at the center of the comic. But the story is familiar to any person from a historically marginalized background that finds themselves suddenly thrust into the eternally weird world of higher education.
When Tom Token and his familiar, Jim the crow, show up at St. Ivory Academy of Spellcraft and Sorcery, they aren’t just any magical duo—they’re thrust into the school’s spotlight specifically because of how different they are from the rest of the school’s matriculating population. It’s not that only white people in this world can do magic, it’s that St. Ivory’s never admitted a black student into its hallowed halls. To his white peers, this fact makes Tom special, but from Tom’s perspective, he’s just another mage trying to mind his business and master his magical powers.
When I recently spoke with Kirkland and Barnes (also the creative team behind the upcoming Aggretsuko series) about the book, they explained how they approached The Black Mage with the intention of pouring their own experiences of being ostracized for their race into the story in a way that would make Tom relatable to readers who looked like him and understood what it’s like to be told that their blackness makes them less than their non-black peers. Digging into the specificity of their own experiences, the creative team told me, was the key to making The Black Mage’s story feel universal to readers that, even today, still don’t see themselves and their journeys being centered in these kinds of fantasy narratives.
io9: I want to hear about your own experiences in higher education. What was school like for the two of you?
Daniel Barnes: So, I know a lot of this book’s inspiration came from my time in middle school—elementary school, and the beginning of high school. I used to live in Virginia...in a town called Colonial Heights...its nickname was “Colonial Whites” for very clear reasons. I was one of, maybe, like, five black students at my school. So, I definitely got the whole tokenism. I got the whole, “Let me touch your hair!” Stuff like that. I was treated like a space alien the whole time. And I also happened to be into anime and manga at the same time, which just a lot of really weird interactions with my peers. I don’t think I got anything, luckily, too overt. Just a lot microagressions against me.
D.J. Kirkland: I would say, for me, a very similar experience. I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina and we grew up in the suburbs. So, I was like, the one black family that lived in the ‘burbs. So, it was like...very much “the black family.” Being into anime and manga and all that stuff—and I was basically told, like, “Oh, that’s just for white kids.” It was like there was no place for me. But if we’re talking about college, I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design and that was like, the first place I actually met other black kids that liked anime and manga and that stuff. It was like, “Oh my God, I actually have a community. There are other black folks actually accepting me for me.”
But also, I was a queer kid and if you couldn’t be openly out in art school, there was no place you could be. College was super-formative for me in terms of understanding my relationship to my own blackness and feeling accepted by people for my own queerness, which is why that was the point in my life where I truly began to flourish.
io9: Do you think that was a function of just being at school for art in particular? Or do you think it was a function of being in a new environment that all higher education affords people?
Kirkland: It was a combination of both those things. I definitely think that also having been at a liberal arts university definitely played into that. There were people who were trans and polyamorous and almost every form of queerness you can imagine. It was great to kind of be surrounded by other people that were just so different, coming from all sorts of different marginalized backgrounds, was formative. I think that’s the experience a lot of people have.
Barnes: What’s interesting about that, actually, is I feel like I got into my element when I was in the Navy—2011-2015. The Navy is super problematic and I hated it, but, throughout my whole high school, middle school, I was othered by white people. I was othered by black people for “not being black enough” in that weird limbo area D.J. was in, but I found when I went into the Navy—there’s a lot of black people in the Navy—there’s so much weird politics and racial stuff in the Navy that black people really stick together a lot there. No matter how weird and nerdy and I was, they’re like, “You’re ours!” They grabbed me, and pulled me in. So, all the black people really took care of one another, and that’s when I stopped feeling like I was pushed out for my nerdiness.
io9: And how much of your experiences in the Navy informed the kind of person you wanted Tom to be? Just in terms of character aspects.
Barnes: I definitely think the whole being in an establishment, a hierarchy, and then realizing it’s full of shit and just trying to bro through it? That’s all the Navy right there. High school, also. Definitely very much, like, “I’m here going to get what I need out of here. Y’all don’t fuck with me, I won’t fuck with you.” And then, of course, people proceed to fuck with Tom. That’s the Navy in a nutshell, I think.
Kirkland: And I would say the endless amounts of questions and things white folks would say to myself or Daniel, as well, definitely informed the characters. It was definitely inputting our lived experiences from being othered by white folks and all the stuff we’d just have to deal with. You can kind of see the exasperation, the “Oh, my god, I’m over this...” attitude Tom has because he’s being bombarded by all this stuff—for one—and then there’s like the one well-meaning white person in the group, Lindsay, who is like, “Oh my God, it’s so exciting to have any kind of diversity at our school! Are you excited? I’m so excited.” And he’s like “...really? I just want to go to school and get educated and learn. And everybody to leave me alone.”
Like, to Tom, his being at St. Ivory is not a big deal, and everyone’s going out of their way to try and make it one. I think a lot of our readers—or just people from marginalized groups—understand that sentiment, and how having to be the kind of ambassador for everything that is black or brown or queer is a job nobody wants to be forced on them.
io9: Dovetailing off what you just said, just reading throughout the book, I was really sort of impressed at how there is very much a universality to Tom’s experience I think will be meaningful to readers—but at the same time, he’s still his own character. Despite the fact that his last name is Token, he doesn’t feel like an ill-defined person. How did you guys go about telling a story to readers that was like, “Yes, this is the experience.” But also, “This is very much Tom’s specific story.”
Barnes: I think the hero’s journey—when you look at a hero’s journey or any of that—there’s always a part where the hero crosses a threshold. You know, Luke Skywalker’s threshold is his [aunt and uncle dies], he leaves Tatooine, and Lord of the Rings, Bildo leaves the Shire. And Tom’s is that he’s thrust into this environment with overzealous white people. So...it’s very much that broad structure every hero has been through and then recontextualizing it into the modern, every day existential crises of black people.
Kirkland: It just came from...honesty? Growing up, I was like, “Does this shit only happen to me?” It’s something we all ask ourselves, and gradually you start to learn, that no, It happens to a lot of black people all the time.
I think everyone at some point in their life has been thrust into a situation to where they’re just trying to be and everyone is making the situation much larger than it needs to be. “I just want to go to school. I just want to learn magic.” I think everyone has been able to experience that. Whether it’s in a sports team, or like, an office environment or...just any kind of group thing. I think there are certain elements of that that are universal, that a lot of people can really understand and relate to when it comes to this story. And putting it in the confines of the high school magic academy environment, I think, it adds that layer of fun and mysticism to it filled with fantasy and anime references and all of that stuff.
I think those things coming together, combining our experiences with that? There’s not a whole lot of content doing stuff like that. This very specific thing. And I think that...because though out the whole process of us making the book, Daniel and I, we both have this shorthand where we understand what we’re harkening back to in terms of, “Oh, this is a reference to this...” or a nod to that. Or, “the structure is very similar to this.” Us having this shared language and really, really close understanding of the kind of story we both want to tell, I think, really helped us in the long term—both universal, but also very specific, of that makes sense.
io9: You bring up the anime references scattered through the book...I think it’s really refreshing how straightforward and matter-of-fact the book’s take on magic is. A lot of other fantasy books tend to get lost in the weeds with the technicalities of magic, and it’s fun—
Barnes: I’m so glad you’re saying this.
io9: We’re all nerds and we like seeing people draw complex runes. It’s all very cute, but, after a while it’s like, “At this point you would have been attacked by now, it doesn’t make any sense.” But my question for you is...how and why you guys decided to go with a take on magic that is just like, “Bam!” Very descriptive and to-the-point. Talk to me about that.
Barnes: There are a lot of people into YA books—because that’s who it’s marketed at? And they’re used to the Harry Potters and all of those books. “You guys aren’t talking enough about the magic system”—people really want to know how exactly the magic works, which I think is funny. I think one of the appeals of magic is that you don’t really know how it works. It’s a kind of fantastical, metaphysical thing. But I think part of that also came from...the magic isn’t so much the focus as it is the society in which the magic exists. It’s not about how Tom is able to use magic, it’s about why is Tom not allowed to use magic and white people are in this world. It’s about the world system, not the magic system. don’t get too caught up in how they’re doing it, I think. That’s how we approached it.
Kirkland: We’re not mincing words about any of the scenes happening in the book. It’s really hard to read our The Black Mage front-to-back and not understand what the story is and what the message is, and that’s very much on purpose. And I think what also happens a lot in YA and entertainment and longer form things, too—TV series, movies, multipart series—whatever—we tend to get so caught up in the minutiae of the systems and how certain things work. I get why you want to understand that stuff but I think that with us, not specifying how the magic system works, per se, I think the magic is more informed by moment than system. And again, going back to the specific moments and references, I think, things like Diamond Dust from Final Fantasy and things like that—those things are more informed by those moments in those games.
Barnes: I’ve always liked to look at magic as a metaphor, not as a science, and I think so many people get caught up in treating magic like a science and that’s not fun. I don’t want to read a textbook. Magic is a metaphor. It’s who the person is. It’s why they’re doing something. It represents something greater than just how, exactly, they’re doing it all the time.
Kirkland: And our story is a story about access. And that’s the big thing for us. It’s like, “Why aren’t black students allowed to receive magic the same way white students are?” That’s more or less what the overarching thing for us is. Or at least what I was when we were writing the book. It’s more a story about access than how magic works.
io9: There are a couple points in the book where I caught myself reading panels out of order just because I’m so used to going up-down, up-down. And the book really encourages you to read it horizontally across these big, sprawling panels that emphasize the action. It sort of gets back to you guys explaining how the magic is defined by the moment. Talk to me about how you went about plotting and choreographing these big action sequences.
Kirkland: Yeah, so both Daniel and I read a lot of manga, watch a lot of anime, and play a lot of video games. I think that’s pretty clear in the book. Those all kind of informed the action choreography of those moments. Much of the process of making the book was Daniel coming back to me and asking what do I want to draw, and I think that’s probably one of the best things you can get as an artist working with a writer: When someone says, “What can we do to make this more fun for you?” Because you’re only going to get a good product at the end of the day where an artist is allowed to play to their strengths and the things they like to do. Honestly, we wanted to make really cool fight scenes. The fights have always been really, really cool, and for me, it was like a cross-fit course on these really over the top and cinematic fight scenes.
In terms of the book and the way it visually looks, whenever there were moments where characters were talking and getting us toward an action scene, basically what we ended up doing was try to keep all the panel layouts very traditional—from the talking moments, the plot moments, stuff like that. But when it got to the action, that’s where things go a little bit crazy. That’s where the more manga-influenced layouts come into play. And with some of those, I definitely did my best to kind of like draw the action in the panels to lead the eye through the page. So, while you might not want to read it traditionally up and down, you might be reading it all the way across and then making the diagonal back down the lower row and making it across again. It’s kind of to help guide, not only the viewer through where the dialogue is going, but kind of like to guide you to where the visually-interesting elements are highlighted. Sometimes those layouts seem a little unconventional, but I think it shows the action in a way that’s really interesting.
Barnes: I think the idea, once you have it, the book is inspired by Final Fantasy and RPGs which kind of make it feel like that. So, you know, you’re progressing through the story like you would in a game. It’s the overhead map, and then when the random encounter happens, everything just opens up. You’re in the tall grass. All of a sudden, it’s double-page spreads everywhere.
io9: The book is its own complete story, but by the end, you definitely get that beginning kind of vibe—if either of you had your druthers, what would you want next for Tom and Lindsay?
Barnes: We’re working on a potential sequel right now. So, I don’t want to give away too much, but...I think our next focus is the school-to-prison pipeline. So, Tom’s in school now, so, what other institutions can we talk about in this fantasy world? I think it’s our next big goal.
Kirkland: I think for us, we wanted the book to kind of feel somewhat helpful and leave the reader wanting more. Ideally, I will make more of this. I love these characters. I often refer to them on Twitter as our kids. I love these characters so much. I’m excited to take them on all sorts of new adventures, wherever that may be. I’m happy with whatever format that may be. But I’d definitely take them on more adventures together and do all sort of fun things and tackle different issues that we experience in our community and things we want to talk about and say.
We just want to keep injecting anime and manga influences into our narratives while venerating the blackness at the forefront. We grew up loving this stuff, but never really saw great depictions of black people existing in those things. We want to showcase our love for anime and manga but also our blackness, as well. Let us be the heroes, the heroines, and as cool and awesome as the characters we grew up loving.
The Black Mage is in stores now.
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