Magical Mystery Tour: Sexton Talks "Mystic Arcana"

There is another part of the Marvel Universe that many of its costumed heroes and villains never see. In this section of the MU, chaotic and powerful energies are wielded by individuals through the use of complex spells or mystically imbued artifacts. This May, the eldritch corner of the Marvel U will be explored in the four issue mini-series "Mystic Arcana." CBR News spoke with the architect behind the series, writer David Sexton.

For Sexton, "Mystic Arcana" is a chance to work on a project that's a Reeses's Cup style combination of two of his favorite things - myths and comic books. "I've been lucky enough to have had some of my work in the former field published ('The Tarot of Oz' from Llewellyn Worldwide and 'The Winged Spirit Tarot' from US Games Systems) and this is an opportunity for me to bring some of what I learned about Tarot and magic into my work for Marvel," Sexton told CBR News.

"I pitched a different Magic/Tarot related story idea to Senior VP, David Gabriel," Sexton continued. "He liked the pitch and put me in touch with Editor, Mark Paniccia. Mark had actually learned a little about Tarot from his Uncle who was a Jungian psychologist (Jung advocated the use of Tarot in therapy), so he really responded to some of the ideas. As much as they liked the pitch, they both felt that what I had proposed was too ambitious, especially for my first Marvel project. So, we started to talk about doing something on a smaller scale to introduce some of the concepts and to see what the reaction was from readers. We decided on a four-issue mini-series that kept a lot of stuff from the original proposal - like looking at ways the archetypes of the Tarot sync up with the archetypes of Marvel and examining the fundamental structure of magic in the Marvel Universe. And the four issues naturally connected to the four classic elements, which are symbolized by the Minor Arcana suits of Swords, Discs/Pentacles, Cups and Wands."

Assisting Sexton and Paniccia with their exploration of all things magical in the Marvel Universe is a host of writers and artists. Each issue of the four part series will feature a main story by a different creative team spotlighting a mystical character and an artifact, with a back-up story penned by Sexton starring a young magician named Ian McNee. Sexton's back-up stories serve as the spine of the series and connect each individual issue to a larger story. In addition to authoring the series spine, Sexton contributed a number of ideas and input to "Mystic Arcana." "I also provided rough plots for the main stories," Sexton said. "I already knew what Ian's story needed to be and we wanted the back up story and all of the main stories to interconnect and enhance one another. Since my background is in Tarot and some of the writers were not so familiar with it, I created a basic guide that focused on the Minor Arcana suits and their meanings. When Marco Djurdjevic started to work on the covers, he asked for information about symbols that represented the four elements, so I expanded the guide to include symbols of the elements and seals to protect against various elemental beings. I believe now that the lists of. 'correspondences' (which is what symbolic relationships are called in Wicca and Ritual Magick) are going to be posted online and then published, so be looking for them."

Sexton has also been working with the authors of the individual issues to enhance and add some authenticity to the way magic is depicted in their stories. "For example, 'Mystic Arcana Book III: The Scarlet Witch' is set during Wanda's childhood with the Romanian Gypsies. When the writer, the very talented Jeff Parker, was done with the first draft of his very cool script, I read it over and then showed him some research I had compiled on 'Gypsy Magic,'" Sexton explained. "The research included myths, symbols, pertinent Gypsy vocabulary (their word for the undead is 'mullo'and their word for water spirit/elementals is 'Nivashi.') There was information about Gypsy charms and talismans (though the charm bracelet has become a superficial decorative adornment, the Gypsies created them to be supernatural defensive armor.) I even found some genuine Gypsy spells! My favorite one is a Fertility Charm, which I will share with you now, first in the original Slovak and then, translated into English…

"Káy me yákh som

Ac tu ángár,

Káy me brishind som,

Ac tu pâni!"

"Where I am flame

Be thou the coals

Where I am rain

Be thou the water!"

Enhancing and authenticating the way magic is portrayed in the Marvel Universe and comics in general is one of Sexton's goals for "Mystic Arcana." "Not so long ago, there was a magic based mini-series (which I won't name) that climaxed in a battle between a good wizard and an evil wizard. After the evil wizard head-butted the good wizard, it cast a spell on some innocent bystanders by pointing its evil wizard finger at them and uttering that most famous of magical phrases, 'Bang!'" Sexton explained. "Reading that sequence kind of crystallized some of the things I had been thinking about regarding magic in comics. Magic is not a gun. It should look and feel different from technology or from a mutant power. Magic should be depicted in an imaginative manner. Magic only exists in our shared imaginations, so a writer needs to provide that kind of convincing detail in order for the reader to 'believe' in what they're reading.

"During the early '60s, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko established a magic system for Marvel. The early 'Strange Tales' had a completely fabricated mythology of mystic pseudo-deities with crazy names like Valtorr and Agamotto, but they were grounded in authentic aspects of Ritual Magick and Wicca, like invocation and incantation," Sexton continued. "Magic didn't just shoot out of a pointed finger. If a sorcerer wanted power from a Watoomb-type entity, then they'd better beg correctly and the correct method for begging was usually metered and rhymed. This 'Proclamation of Poetic Incantation' applied to Dr. Strange and to everyone else, from the Ancient One to Umar. Small-scale magic could be achieved with the appropriate gesture (which was still visually distinct and memorable), but if you hoped to impress in the 'Big Time,' it was best to express with the 'Big Rhyme.' Now, not so much. The rules have gotten rather mushy, but 'The Magic Gun Syndrome' can be stopped. If a character or a creature manipulates magic in a new and different way, fantastic, but the reader needs to understand how. The magic has to make sense. Not rational sense, but it should have what Jung referred to as 'Mythopoeic' meaning.

"Nico from 'Runaways' is a perfect example. Her magic weapon, The Staff of One, is activated by succinct and constantly changing incantations, so Nico's creativity is challenged and she can only summon the Staff by sacrificing blood. Now interestingly the Tarot's Minor Arcana suit of Wands or 'staves' represent fire and deals with creative energy. Fire and Sacrifice are closely linked in mythic stories; as are Fire and Blood (especially as it pertains to passion, i.e. 'his blood burned.') So, either consciously or unconsciously, Brian K. Vaughan has created a new myth that resonates beautifully with the old myths.

"Also, in a recent Daredevil story, Joe Quesada created a magic based group called The Santerians. As I was reading the stories, I kept thinking how rich and authentic the magical details were. I could tell that Mr. Quesada had done lots of research into the Santerian belief system. Afterwards I learned that the characters and Santeria were personally tied to his Latin American heritage and that he felt passionately about this project. On some level, I felt that, just by reading the stories."

As we mentioned earlier, Sexton's back-up stories in Mystic Arcana star Ian McNee, a character that some hard-core Dr. Strange fans will recognize. "Ian McNee, the teenage magic prodigy created by Roger Stern and Charles Vess, has only appeared in one issue of 'Marvel Fanfare' (issue #7), where a teenage Ian challenged Dr. Strange for the title of Sorcerer Supreme," Sexton stated. "The back up story takes place in the present, which is roughly six months ADCA (That's the new way time is measured in the Marvel Universe. It stands for 'After Death of Captain America.') Roughly a decade has passed since Dr. Strange gave Mr. McNee a mystic ass kicking, so Ian is in his 20s."

Ian has grown up in some ways since his last appearance but still has much to learn. "Ian is talented, self-assured and smart. He can also be cocky, self-obsessed and a smart ass," Sexton said. "He has learned a lot about magic and about himself since his last appearance, but he is still immature in some ways. He has issues with authority and is not likely to accept a thing as true just because someone tells him that's the way it is

"I loved 'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell' by Susanna Clarke. I loved the interplay between the two title characters and I started to think it might be interesting if there was another voice in the Marvel Universe with ideas about magic," Sexton continued. "Dr. Strange is the man. He knows how things work. He has personally met most of the entities that Ian has only recently learned to summon. That kind of certainty can get a little dull. Maybe Ian will stir things up."

In Sexton's back up story in "Mystic Arcana," Ian searches for artifacts that could cause a big stir in the mystical corners of the Marvel Universe. "Ian has a dream/vision that starts him on a quest to retrieve four mystic items that are connected to the Elements and to Tarot and to Marvel," Sexton explained. "Together the items are known as The Cornerstones of Creation."

Ian's quest for The Cornerstones of Creation sends him on a globe hopping trek. "As I worked on the plots, I decided to set the stories in times and places that were important for magic in the Marvel Universe, so the reader gets a bit of a mystical historical overview. Ian pretty much follows the path of locations that are set up in the main stories. Starting in Ancient Egypt, a Golden Age for Marvel magic with the original Magik (Illyana Rasputin) in 'Mystic Arcana Book I: Air', written by Louise Simonson, with art by Steve Scott. Then on to the Age of Wizards that was Camelot with The Black Knight in 'Mystic Arcana Book II: Earth' (written by Roy Thomas). Ian actually does not visit Romania even though a fascinating chapter from the Scarlet Witch's Gypsy past emerges there in 'Mystic Arcana Book III: Water,' written by Jeff Parker, with art by Juan Santacruz. The last story is set in modern day LA where new Witch on the Block, Sister Grimm a.k.a. Nico Minoru, struggles with the passions that threaten to burn her out and her friends up in 'Mystic Arcana Book IV: Fire,' written by C.B. Cebulski."

Ian's journey will be fraught with challenges and dangers. "As I was doing some research on Egyptian Magic I came across a ritual that marked the passage of an apprentice Magician into the deeper levels of the occult," Sexton said. "It's called 'The Ritual of the Sphinx' and it resonated with several of the themes of 'Mystic Arcana' The ritual challenges the neophytes, 'To Know, To Dare, To Will, To Keep Silent!' The first issue of 'Mystic Arcana' is subtitled 'Air' and in the Tarot's Minor Arcana air/swords represent the mind and the Intellect, so I had already decided Ian would face a cerebral challenge from a Sphinx-like creature in the form of a Riddle Game. I thought it was cool that my first story corresponded with the 'Ritual of the Sphinx,' so I let it inspire some of Ian's other obstacles. As far as the adversaries, Morgan le Fey, Llyra, Damballah and Modred the Mystic are some of the malevolent mystics that menace Mr. McNee."

He may be facing an array of adversaries, but Ian won't be facing them alone. "The quests take up a lot of room, but I do manage to introduce one supporting character for Ian," Sexton said. "His name is Mr. White. Ian is part owner of a magic and curio shop and Mr. White is his business partner."

Bringing to life Ian's quest is Sexton's collaborative partner on the back up story, artist Eric Nguyen. "I just got his thumbnails for the first issue and just the thumbnails looked great!" Sexton stated. "I can't wait to see the finished pages."

Readers intrigued by Sexton's exploration of all things arcane in the Marvel U might also be interested in two magical handbooks that the author is writing. "The first is 'The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Magic.' I worked with Jeff Christiansen and his crew on the book. Those guys do such a great job on the Handbooks and this one follows in the fine tradition with a special emphasis on magic. It provides info on several characters and items that will play a part in 'The Mystic Arcana' series including Ian McNee, Modred the Mystic, Ashake and many others. It comes out in May.

"The second handbook comes out in July and it is entitled 'The Marvel Tarot-Magical Theories from the Files of Ian McNee,'" Sexton continued. "Obviously, it is written from Ian's perspective. The idea behind the book is this--in 'The Mystic Arcana Book I: Air' readers are introduced to a very special deck of Tarot cards. The cards are magically connected with the world around them and they magically transform to represent the "real person" (i.e. Marvel character) that most embodies that particular card. For example, if you drew the Major Arcana card of the priest, 'the priest' depicted there would look like Brother Voodoo because Brother Voodoo is the individual who, at this moment in time, most embodies the archetype of the priest. Now if Brother Voodoo were to die or to abandon his beliefs, then The First Tarot (as this magic deck is called) would alter itself and depict a different person as the priest. For the most part, the individuals that appear on the cards are never aware of their connection to the deck or that the deck even exists.

"Ian has been in possession of this special Tarot for some time. He has studied it and has learned a great deal from it, but now the deck appears to be "broken." The card depictions are in a constant state of flux. If you were to draw the devil three times in a day, the card might show you three different Devils or the face on the Queen of Wands might morph into another face right before your eyes and then morph back. So Ian is noting the irregularities in his 'files' and the notes are inspiring thoughts and theories regarding magic."

Sexton is having a great time with "Mystic Arcana" and would love to tell further tales of the mystical Marvel Universe. He said, "I have consulted the Tarot and I see this is in the cards."

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