A team-up between Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott, two creators known for carefully considered—but hard-hitting—action is a dream, and their series BLACK MAGICK, with letters by Jodi Wynne, color assists by Chiara Arena, and design by Eric Trautmann, more than delivers. It stars Rowan Black, a member of a coven and the Portsmouth Police Department, as her life slowly unravels in the face of forces moving against her. BLACK MAGICK looks amazing, thanks to Scott's artwork and palette. BLACK MAGICK feels like a black and white comic until you realize how subtly they use color in the series, as they routinely maximize the impact of their storytelling with splashes of particularly effective color. In this gallery, Scott and Rucka break down some of their creative decisions, from the palette to the comfort of a nice sweater.
IMAGE COMICS: I think a lot of people see the series as a black and white one, but that's not quite right, is it? Even on page one, with the moon, color is present. How do you see the palette of BLACK MAGICK? What influence does it have on the atmosphere or storytelling?
NICOLA SCOTT: Greg had told me about the story behind BLACK MAGICK years ago. Even though I could see ideas in my head straight away, it wasn't until I actually sat down and tried to nut it out that it started to come together. I'd had such a long time letting the ideas marinate that it felt really fun to actually experiment. I already had a firm belief that I wanted it to be fairly dark and muted, playing into both the noir and occult aspects, but it wasn't until I was playing around with different mediums that I started getting a real feel for what we might do.
I started suggesting black and white but theory and execution don't always marry. When I'd completed the first scene and Greg got to clock what I was on about, he was completely on board. I'd suggested where and how we might use colour, knowing there was the double-page spread at the end that would explode off the page, and that really opened up the conversation about where else and why other colours might be used. Even now, and possibly until the end of the series, these Skype conversations, the where and why of colour, are the most fun. Except for poor Chiara, who has to put up with us micro-managing.
GREG RUCKA: This was all Nic at the beginning—she suggested limiting the palette, and really tightening how and where we would use color in the series, and I pretty much opened my arms and ran straight into it as soon as she suggested doing so. When I'm writing now, I write with an eye to the color "moments," and we have several conversations about how and where and what and when it's right to broaden the palette.
IC: This is our first full-figure introduction to Detective Rowan Black. What did this page have to say about her, to make sure the readers were on the same page with you?
NS: This whole spread had a lot to do. It's a smash-cut from our previous context, suddenly revealing a full urban set and introducing the drama of the issue. It's also the readers' first proper look at Rowan as she presents herself to the world. I decided that her intro panel was equally or more important than the establishing scene shot, so I cut her loose from the confines of a panel border and made the motorbike front and centre. I knew the bike would really carry this panel. That and her haircut were the visual cues the readers needed to know about who she is without dialogue or action.
IC: An undressing scene is a sensitive thing to depict in comics. What was your strategy for avoiding coming off as overly titillating or exploitative?
GR: For me, when I was writing this, I was very aware that it was potentially going to be very problematic. Posture, the body language, was going to be everything here—how Rowan agreed to the demand, and her attitude once she'd stripped to her skivvies, and of course Nic just nailed it—you can see from the way that Rowan's standing that she's "agreed" to the demand, as opposed to having been coerced into it, even though it's been presented as coercion. That was very telling, that she took this moment and she made it a choice, even if it's arguably not a viable choice.
Second factor, and I think just as crucially, is that there's no shame apparent here at all—the gunman is the one looking frightened, looking on edge. Rowan's calm. Rowan's assured. There's no body shame, there's no sense of her acting vulnerable or exposed. It borders on matter-of-fact, okay, here I am in my underwear, happy now?
And finally, frankly, it's what she is wearing that's just as important. Her physicality is powerful. It's not diminishing any—objective—view of how attractive or even unattractive others may find her. Her lingerie isn't sexytimes—it's what a police officer would be wearing on the job. So every choice that Nic made here, however I may have suggested or guided them in the script, ultimately came down to her execution, and it worked remarkably well.
NS: We were both aware that this scene was extremely compromising for Rowan, putting her in a very vulnerable position. In the panels where she's undressing there's no posing, no hips jutting, no eye contact, it's just perfunctory. In one panel I show the hostages looking away, they don't know where this is going.
But when she's standing there in her knickers, she taken ownership of the moment, no fear, she understands what his reasoning is. She's ready. It also helps that we put her in practical sporty underwear, nothing flimsy or lacy, and I added stripy socks for witchy fun.
IC: Emotions! Expressions! Desperation and sadness are in full effect on this page. Acting is clearly important to you—how do you go about depicting it accurately?
GR: The only thing I'd chime in with here is that, when I'm writing, I spend far more time trying to convey the internal life of a character to my collaborator than I do focusing on the physical action—the moment, the mood, what the character is thinking, all the things that would go into the "performance."
And it doesn't hurt at all that Nic has substantial acting experience, you know.
NS: On my second or third read through, when I'm thumbnailing the page, I act out all the characters. I'm looking for the flow, the subtext, the nuance, the dynamics and the actions. Often during this I completely change my mind about what to draw, moments are revealed that speak volumes about someone's inner conflict.
This page is where we reveal how sympathetic our "bad guy" might be, how clearly compromised and coerced he is. Suddenly the readers understanding of the drama shifts, there's more... I needed to get right up in his face, only pulling back when he's at his most isolated and vulnerable.
IC: The best word for the establishing shots in BLACK MAGICK is probably "lush." The building aren't gestures or skeletons but detailed structures with weight and (metaphorical) gravity. Can you tell me a little bit about your approach to setting, and why you chose to emphasize it in this way?
NS: I love architectural detailing and this series, being both noir and occult, really benefits from locations feeling real, grounded, but also consciously "pulpy", some buildings being characters themselves. Most buildings say a lot about who's in them and this series had to be no exception, especially for Rowan and Alex's homes. There's significant history in both of them, shown especially in BLACK MAGICK #3 when we spend quite a bit of time inside Ro's house.
In the first five issues we're introduced to quite a few Portsmouth locations, hopefully providing a decent scope of the city and its suburbs. Greg has created a LOT of info about Portsmouth and its infrastructure, making for a very real, detailed PNW city. I have to keep up and deliver on the ideas.
IC: I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've seen a cable-knit sweater in a comic book, so I want to dig into fashion and character design a little bit. Greg, do you include notes on fashion or costuming when scripting or collaborating on the design of characters? Nicola, how do you decide a character's "look"?
GR: Sometimes, yes. Some characters get more detailed costuming notes than others, but there're plenty of characters where the information we need to convey—who they are, what they do—comes down to their costuming. For the squad room here, I had a list of the detectives, and I had little biographies for each of them, and it was those that influenced their costuming more than anything else—knowing who they are and where they come from and what they're dealing with outside of work, etc. Costume is character, after all.
Morgan's sweater was all Nic, more specifically, but it's in keeping with what we're doing with the character, and where he's headed. Nic describes him as "cuddly." I can buy that.
NS: I just want to snuggle a cable-knit. There's a reason why it's there.
Greg gives me a couple of lines that speak more to who the character is with a few words of direction regarding what they wear. A black haired girl in a leather jacket on a motorcycle isn't that unique anymore, so finding an interesting silhouette and specific fashion choices for each character that sell a deeper, more complex idea of who they are is quite fun. Ro has a modern take on a mid '70s rock aesthetic, pulling her ever so slightly out of time. Alex has an accessible Bo-Ho pretty look for day/work and a slightly edgier/relaxed look after hours. Alex and Ro's ritual robes say a fair amount about them too. Morgan is a hot scruff but has nice smart-casual pieces that I imagine his wife bought him, probably from a catalogue. He's had rough patches so is generally happy to go with the flow when it comes to his lovely real wife and his complicated work wife.
There's a scene at the end of #5 where outfit design became really fun.