By Arpad Okay. Just three months ago, we here at DoomRocket had the privilege of reviewing Rick Douek and Brett Barkley’s Gutter Magic #1. The book, certainly rife with action and spectacle, had even more to offer us, a certain high-mindedness that we couldn’t ignore. So we came back for more in issue #2, and sure enough, our diligence paid off. Arpad Okay, contributing writer for our site, had this to say:

Gutter Magic is packed with ideas. Bullets and magic. White knuckle Western standoffs of Wild Bunchintensity. 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.

Arpad sat down with Rich Douek and spoke about Gutter Magic, the necessity of parchment, and the lasting effect of Cervantes.


AOK: So maybe my favorite thing about Gutter Magic is that it doesn’t feel like the start of a story so much as dropping in on a tale already in progress. I want to know about the depth of the world, the stories of the side characters. Does Smiling Mary have a story? The Ratcatcher and the Ghost Knives, are these ideas you had already and finally found a place to use, or is writing the world inspiring you to create people in it? Are you showing us a small part of the map or are you drawing it as you go along?

RD: Thanks! There is indeed a deep backstory for almost every element in the story, including Smiling Mary, Ratcatcher, and the Ghost Knives. I won’t say everything is completely fleshed out or developed to a similar level, but pretty much everything in the world has a reason for being the way it is. Part of it comes as inspiration as I go along, but much of it is already written down, and is mostly a matter of choosing what elements make sense to reveal during the story.

So, I’d say things are indeed well mapped out, but there are definitely surprises along the way, even for me.

AOK: That feeling of the story existing before the comic began I think comes from everything in Gutter Magic being so fully realized. What helped you build such such a killer world-building skill set? Do you have a process you have developed over the years? How much of Gutter Magic is pure you and how much of it is collaboration with Brett Barkley and the rest of the team?

RD: I think if I had to credit one thing for my world-building skills, it would be me falling in love with Dungeons & Dragons, and other pen and paper RPGs as a young teen. I would buy all these campaign-setting sourcebooks, like Forgotten Realms, or Dark Sun, and just devour all the information, and use it to make backstories for my characters, and eventually worlds for myself and my friends to play in.

Like anything, it’s a skill I developed over time – the first ones were pretty terrible [laughs] but over the years I became pretty good at building campaign settings, which translates almost directly into building worlds for my stories to inhabit.

However, collaborating with Brett Barkley, Jules Rivera, Nic Shaw, and our editor Andy Schmidt opened up a whole new dimension as far as bringing that world to life.

For example, among my notes for the world is that due to the decline of mass production and industry in the wake of magic’s rise, most people would be wearing hand-made, tailored clothes. Now, people wouldn’t suddenly revert to dressing like medieval peasants, yet there would be no ubiquitous brand name department stores to shop at. It made sense to me that as far as clothing went, steampunk was a logical place for fashion to go, as it can really have that tailored, handmade quality to it.

Now, it’s one thing to say that, or write it as a direction, but it’s another thing completely to bring it to life in a way that looks good, and makes sense for the story — I mean, I’m no fashion designer! So it was something that really came through during the collaboration… how to take these various elements in the setting and really make them work on the page.


AOK: You have the freedom to draw upon whichever genre conventions you like and weave with them into a story that is your own, and you have. But something like a tavern scene or consulting the oracle who speaks to the dead, these are fantasy staples from time immemorial. I want to know how you approach writing those kinds of scenes. Do you try to do honor to the classics or are you trying to shake off traditions and make your own, new thing?

I think that for me, including scenes that call back to genre conventions is something that hopefully helps get readers into the groove of the story – it almost grounds it a little bit, so people get an idea of how to approach it. The tavern scene is pretty familiar to fantasy readers, so the challenge is, can I make a tavern scene that is at the same time familiar and surprising?

I want it to be familiar, because I want people to feel like they’re reading a fantasy story, but I want it to be surprising, because I don’t want them to be bored.

So, I looked for ways I could make it unique. I pictured a bar owner shouting at unruly customers, and around the same time, thought of a banshee wailing at her victims – so it occurred to me, why not have the banshee own the bar? Get out of line, and get an ear-shattering death howl for a scolding.

It’s something that’s not essential to the story — I mean, it could be anyone behind the bar and the scene would still work – but it adds some uniqueness and color to a scene that could be very much by-the-numbers. And when I do draw on genre conventions, that’s my main goal — to do an interesting twist that sets it apart.

AOK: I have noticed that your book is full of books. Multiple scenes are set in libraries. There’s a shootout at the bookstall. Cinder’s family secrets are hidden in books. Magic lives in the written word. Talk to me about your relationship with stories. What makes you like books so much? What do you like to read?

RD: It’s funny — I grew up living in the same house with both my parents and grandparents. My grandmother was self-educated, she worked during the day, and put herself through night school. Reading was very important to her — almost sacred. When I was growing up, she’d always say no when I asked her to buy me a toy, but when I asked for a book, she’d buy it for me no matter what. And she really impressed on me that reading was one of the most important skills you can develop, so I really tore into books from an early age. I think reading so many great stories was what inspired me to tell my own… not in a sense of “I could do better than so-and-so”, but in a sense of there’s something magical going on when you tell a story, something I really wanted to be a part of.

In terms of personal preference, I have a pretty broad taste – I love fantasy and science fiction, obviously, but I also like reading biographies and histories. Also, I read my fair share of comics. [laughs]

Gutter Magic 01 p2

AOK: Building off of that a little bit, I want to throw this quote out there: Jonathan Gharraie on Don Quixote, the first book about books. “Four hundred years after Cervantes’s masterpiece emerged, we now stand on the farthest shore of the printing age. We still buy books; we still want them hanging round, causing clutter or mess. Or at any rate, I do.” Me, too. How do you feel about this? Could you live in a world without bound books? Are they the stuff of the gods, or just stuff?

RD: In the end, they’re just stuff, but they’re some of the best stuff on earth. They’re the distillation of our hopes, our dreams, and our ideas. They’re precious to me, and I wish they were as precious to everyone. I read some things digitally, sure, and listen to some books on audio, but there’s nothing, nothing like cracking the spine of a book and turning the pages. I really think it engages a different part of the brain than reading on a screen does. I don’t know if it’s the smell or feel of the paper, or what, but I don’t think bound books are going to go away. I’m keeping all of mine, at least.

AOK: How long do you see yourself staying in the world of Gutter Magic? Once the miniseries is done, where to next? Could you see yourself returning to the characters or the setting for another run? Is there something you wish you could have fit into Gutter Magic but didn’t have quite enough room for? How do you feel about creating characters and then leaving them behind?

RD: To be honest, I have enough stories and threads of stories that I want to develop, that I could keep Gutter Magic going for as long as people wanted to read it. I’d happily return to the characters and the setting for another run, or another ten runs. The realities of the publishing world mean that I’m probably going to have to do a bunch of other stuff before I can make that a reality, but it’s something I definitely want to pursue down the road. In a way, it’s probably good to take a break and revisit it, as I’ll have new experiences and perspectives I can bring to the table when I’m ready to dive back in.

I feel like there are always cuts you have to make to keep the story moving, and of course there are things I would have liked to delve a little deeper into — like the origin of Cinder and Blacktooth’s partnership, for example — but the great thing is, if people want to know about it, it’s something I can revisit at some point. I think talking to people who loved the book, and want to see more, will in part inform where I take it next.

As far as leaving characters behind, I don’t really have an answer, because they’re still knocking around in my head! Putting this adventure of theirs down on paper doesn’t mean anyone has heard the last from them, especially not me!

‘Gutter Magic’ is in the midst of a four-issue run, as published by IDW. Issue #3 will be available on March 9.