By Arpad Okay. Cinder might be the only character in Rich Douek’s Gutter Magic who can’t cast spells, but he does have one advantage over the people he steals from: a practical mind. The other citizens of his steampunk metropolis home are too busy chasing the infinite and ethereal to be concerned with the everyday. Typical wizards.
It’s hard to remember to properly lock up the house when you spend your days plumbing the cosmos for secrets. You miss the Ratcatcher’s spies when your eyes are always set on heights beyond the dirigibles and dragons. I can see that Cinder is pretty much the only character in the book who carries a gun, but I believe a sharp mind is his greatest weapon. Yet Cinder the sleuth or Cinder the thief — neither is a Sherlock Holmes or Moriarty. Cinder is a gambler. He sees when the odds are worth playing and shoots the moon.
Gutter Magic is packed with ideas. Bullets and magic. White knuckle Western standoffs of Wild Bunch intensity. Which is to say, the shootouts have lots of bullets. The adventure side of the story swashbuckles from one genre to the next. The tavern scene is part Prancing Pony and part Shadownrun nightclub. This effect would be a hard sell if it weren’t for Brett Barkley’s classic art style (reminiscent of other contemporary Romantics JH Williams III and Barry Windsor-Smith) paired with Douek’s action movie. The scenes are modern and dynamic, rendered in a fine art aesthetic.
Another seeming contradiction (and surprising pleasure) is the balance of characters to setting. On one hand, the setting melts away once the characters start talking. Their presence takes the reins, and all that world-building flavor on the periphery never gets in its way. On the other hand, the cast of characters Gutter Magic has dreamed up are distinctly new. Even something as easily hackneyed in fantasy (as the tavern scene) is full of fresh takes. I did not expect the skull with ginger locks adorning the sign of Smiling Mary’s to actually be tending bar. Or the henchmen gang called the Ghost Knives to look so much like a bunch of Amish pirate Baron Samedis — lead by a pale little girl who carries a straight razor. One of the characters is a self-aware, MC Escheresque marketplace splash page that helps our hero escape his pursuers. (I know, right?) All these side ideas, what would be throwaway background fun in a lesser comic, shine in Gutter Magic. I want to linger with each stranger and learn more. Why is she on fire? Why do they like edged weapons so much? What exactly are the rules of this world?
Cinder finds himself in a library at the issue’s start and a bookstall at its end. His past and his power are hidden in books, but there’s something more to their presence in Gutter Magic than that. Rich Douek is an Alonso Quixano, surrounded by every kind of book, and their stories become his stories. Stories of derring-do, of magic and monsters, ghosts and pirates, stories of people surrounded by books.
Written by Rich Douek.
Art by Brett Barkley.
Colors by Jules Rivera.
Letters by Nic Shaw.
8 out of 10