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Ryan Browne and Mike Costa Take Us Behind Smoke & Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors ComicsDo you believe in magic? What about a comic that will perform it, right before your eyes? That’s the aim of Smoke and Mirrors, a new series from IDW Publishing that debuts March 21. Created by writer Mike Costa (G.I. Joe, Blackhawks), artist Ryan Browne (God Hates Astronauts), and world-famous magician Jon Armstrong, Smoke and Mirrors takes place in a world where magic is everywhere–for a price.

We had a chance to interview Ryan Browne and Mike Costa about this intriguing new series, below. Plus, make sure to take a look at our six-page preview of Smoke and Mirrors #1!

TFAW.com: Ryan, how did you get involved with Smoke and Mirrors?

Ryan Browne: Writer Mike Costa and I grew up together and have been collaborating since the fifth grade. We have developed many many projects together over the years, and Smoke and Mirrors is our first big chance to work together on a published book. Mike was an aspiring magician. He joined “The Magic Castle,” a magician’s club out in L.A., and soon befriended world-famous card magician Jon Armstrong. After finding out that Mike was a comic book writer, Jon proposed to Mike that they make a comic together that has actual magic tricks within the pages. From there, Mike brought me along to flesh out the idea with visuals, and to illustrate a trick as a proof of concept.

TFAW.com: What drew you to the project?

Smoke and Mirrors Page 1RB: First and foremost, I was just excited to work with Mike on something that didn’t just end up in a drawer somewhere. Secondly, I was really blown away by the idea. After I drew the original proof of concept magic trick, I would show it to friends and totally freak them out. Since I know basically nothing about magic, it was really thrilling to have the power to fool people and get the reaction, as if I was an actual magician, even though I was just following Jon and Mike’s instructions.

TFAW.com: What was your process of designing the characters?

RB: Whenever I design I character, I like to envision a friend or actor in my mind’s eye and base them roughly around that. Not as in a photo reference kind of thing, but just as if I sat down to draw them from my semi-distorted memory. Our main magician, Terry Ward, is a combination of Gabriel Byrne and James Garfield’s character from the Red Riding trilogy. I like to associate colors with the characters as well. You will always see Ethan the boy in yellows, Terry the magician in deep maroon colors, and Stephen J. Carroll (based on Steve Jobs) in blues.

TFAW.com: You drew some pretty fantastical scenarios in your independent comic, God Hates Astronauts. Did that prepare you for drawing magic?

RB: Hah! Yeah, I guess I did. I wouldn’t say that prepared me for drawing magic, in GHA I basically just drew whatever I wanted to draw. In Smoke and Mirrors, every time that I need to draw a trick, be it a card fan, coin roll, or wand spin, it is heavily referenced with photos of Jon Armstrong. When Mike sends me the script, it is accompanied by photo references and videos that he will take of Jon doing the tricks, and then I use those to do the drawings.

Smoke and Mirrors Page 2Since Jon is pretty serious in the magic community, and I know that a lot of magicians are going to read this book, I try and take great care in drawing the magic the way a world-class magician would do it. I would hate for a pro to read our book and say, “That guy’s holding cards like an amateur.”

TFAW.com: What were some of your artistic influences, growing up?

First and foremost has got to be Rob Schrab and his work on Scud: The Disposable Assassin. From ideas to art, that book is everything that I have always wanted my comics to be. Beyond that, I’ve always been a big fan of Geof Darrow, Mike Allred, Mike Mignola, David Mazzuchelli, John Paul Leon, Kevin Knowlan, and Darwyn Cooke. I’m not entirely sure who influences me the most visually, I like to think that it’s kind of an overall mix.

TFAW.com: What’s it been like for you, breaking into comics?

RB: It’s been fantastic. It was something I worked for for about 10 years now, and now that I’m drawing professionally, it was totally worth it. Really, during the last year or so, all of the hard work and mental fortitude has been paying off, and I’m really happy that I stuck with it.

TFAW.com: Can you give us any hints about the storyline for Smoke and Mirrors?

RB: I’ll leave that for the writers. All I can say is that Smoke and Mirrors goes way beyond its initial gimmick of having magic tricks in every issue. I have drawn the first two issues so far, and I am wholeheartedly invested in the story of Ethan and Terry. I can’t wait to tell the next chapter! There are some really intense moments emotionally, something that couldn’t be farther from my experiences on GHA. It’s been an incredible learning process so far, and I hope that the readers will get as emotionally attached as I have become.

Smoke and Mirrors Page 3TFAW.com: What other comics are you reading right now?

RB: I love The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurt. Hands down my go-to book right now. Locke and Key has been consistently great and slightly disturbing. Other than that, I love what Chris Burnham is doing with Grant Morrison on Batman Inc. and really enjoyed Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s Red Wing, and am really looking forward to Saga, as well as Hoax Hunters and Revival, all from Image Comics. Oh yeah, also love the Parker adaptations from Darwyn Cooke.

TFAW.com: Mike, how did the idea behind Smoke and Mirrors develop?

Mike Costa: It actually came from a conversation that Jon Armstrong (our magician and illusion-creator on the book) had with a publisher about creating a comic book that taught magic. Jon was a huge fan of comics, but he wasn’t a writer himself, so he approached me about collaborating on it. Throughout the course of our conversations together, it became clear that the comic wasn’t so much going to “teach” magic (which both he and I were worried would seem dry, instructional, and boring), but actually “perform” magic for the reader, which, obviously, sounds much more exciting.

After we settled on that format, we built the story around the obvious questions: who is the character performing this magic? Why is he doing it? What’s interesting about it, other than it’s just a trick? After we had all that, we brought on Ryan onboard to start developing the look of the characters and their world, and it’s been full steam ahead ever since.

TFAW.com: Why does Ethan have such a chip on his shoulder?

MC: Ethan is a young kid who lost his dad and doesn’t have a lot of friends. He’s also really smart–in some ways, a lot smarter than the kids around him. And that makes him angry.

Smoke and Mirrors Page 4I think a lot of things that stories about children tend to miss is how alone a lot of kids feel–particularly around the ages of 11 to 13, which is right where Ethan is. The middle school years. There’s a lot of loneliness and anger in those years. A lot of frustration that life’s not fair. It’s not fair that nobody likes me because I’m smarter than they are. It’s not fair that my teachers pick on me because I talk the most. It’s not fair that I lost one of my parents. So the way that a kid like Ethan deals with that is to act out and show off. It’s a way of getting the attention that he wants, which, to him, is the same thing as getting into trouble.

TFAW.com: You’ve done a lot of military-themed comics, with G.I. Joe and Blackhawks. What made you decide to do a book about magic?

MC: Well, like I said earlier, this project was suggested to me by Jon. But the whole reason I know Jon is because I love magic. I’m actually a member of the Academy of Magical Arts and Sciences, for which Jon is the Chairmen of the Board of Trustees. We actually met at the Magic Castle, which is the club that the Academy operates. I started learning the craft several years ago and practicing sleight-of-hand, and hanging out at the club with some of the greatest sleight-of-hand artists on Earth is one of the coolest parts of my life now.

TFAW.com: Did you come up with a lot of hard-and-fast rules for the magic in this book?

MC: Absolutely, we did. One of the major rules was: knowledge of “magic” (meaning supernatural magic) does not make you all-powerful, any more than knowledge of technology would. For instance: if you wanted to, you could be a surgeon and perform open-heart surgery. And if you wanted to, you could be an engineer and build a suspension bridge. But you probably couldn’t be both. Because each of those things requires a lifetime of study. Same thing with the “magic” in Ethan’s world. You can use it to do amazing things . . . but no more amazing than designing a super-sonic jet is in our world. And you have to specialize. It keeps the world under control and recognizable.

Smoke and Mirrors Page 5Also, we needed to establish a scarcity problem. For example–if magic can be used to do or create anything, then no one would ever need anything. If you can magic-up some food and clothes and electricity out of nothing, then there’s no economy, because there’s no balancing factors of supply and demand. And if there’s no economy and no want, then very quickly you’re creating a world that’s either incoherent, or totally unrecognizable compared to our own, to the point where I wouldn’t know how to write about it. So we had to set rules that required perishable goods. For instance–cars in this world don’t just run on “magic,” they run on magic talismans that need to be re-charged by licensed professionals, similar to going to a gas station or getting your oil changed. So the tools are different, but the rules are the same.

TFAW.com: I really enjoyed Blackhawks, and was disappointed when I heard it was canceled. What was the whole experience like?

MC: My experience on Blackhawks was a blast. DC mostly got out of my way and let me tell the story I wanted to tell. I wrote myself into a corner on every issue, with no idea how I’d get out of it until I started the next. It was a thrilling way to work–and atypical in the big corporate comics structure that has an interest in long-term planning to protect their investments.

Of course, the book ended up being canceled, so I suppose a case could be made that there’s a reason they don’t usually writers work the way I did . . . but I loved it, and I really think Blackhawks is among my best work because of it.

Smoke and Mirrors Page 6TFAW.com: How much story do you have plotted out for Smoke and Mirrors?

MC: Well, right now it’s a five-issue mini-series with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. But we leave the door open for more stories–and we definitely have a direct sequel planned that would expand the scale drastically. So, we have a lot of story plotted out. It’ll be up to the readers if they want to see it. We hope they do. Things just get better from the first issue on.

Smoke and Mirrors #1 is out March 21–pre-order it now and save 20%! We want to thank Ryan and Mike for a great interview. Make sure to check out our six-page preview of Smoke and Mirrors to get a sneak peek!

PRE-ORDER SMOKE AND MIRRORS ISSUES #1 AND #2

Are you intrigued? Any magic fans out there? Post your comments below!

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Written by Elisabeth@TFAW

Elisabeth has been reading comics since we was a wee girl. She's obsessed with John Byrne, Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, and making the perfect scrambled eggs. Follow her on @Twitter to get bonus conversations with her cat!