Urban fantasy is a genre, right? The idea that magic is real (because of course it is) and happening all around us, usually with a sprawling city full of dark nooks and crannies as the background, isn’t a new one, but I guess now it has its own genre. After all with books like The Magicians and movies such as Doctor Strange utilizing such concepts it’s hard to ignore the growing niche this kind of story has.
But one thing that seems to be lacking (at least in some respects) in these stories is humor. Not to say they’re all grim and devoid of any laughs at all. It’s just that the darkness of “real-world magic” sometimes outweighs the comedic beats. But Curse Words, the new series from Charles Soule and Ryan Browne, looks to remedy that by offering a fantasy tale that’s equal parts goofy, entrancing, and self-deprecating.
The first issue begins by introducing Wizord, a hipster-esque magician living in New York City who grants wishes to those who can pay him in sapphires. He even helps make the world a better place from time to time. It’s only when a dark wizard from Wizord’s world arrives to do battle with him that we learn the truth – Wizord was sent to destroy the Earth, but instead decided to make himself a “hero” out for his own self-interest instead. No wonder his former allies call him “The Devil’s Devil.”
I’ll admit that I’m woefully lacking on my knowledge of the “urban fantasy” genre. Yet this debut issue stands out in the way it blends darker elements with more lighthearted, quirky beats. After the cold open of seeing Wizord’s power on display, a flashback to his arrival in New York for the first time details his slow change from wanting to fulfill the wishes of his master to deciding to serve himself instead. The reveal gives the series a Breaking Bad feel to it, where we, the readers, know Wizord’s true nature…but no one else does. It adds an element of tension that helps carry the story along at a rapid pace. Will anyone discover his deadly secret? Of course, but that’s what makes it compelling.
It’s easy to compare any story that deals with magic in the real world to Harry Potter. Even though that series had it’s own wizarding community, the idea that a secret society exists parallel to our own is frequently used. Curse Words gets around this by having brief flashes of Wizord’s world interspersed with the narrative. What we see is more out of high fantasy than other such stories, with scenes depicting a dark, medieval world with slaves and castles. There seems to be more to this realm than the opening issue lets on, and hopefully future story arcs will detail Wizord’s home further.
Above all the fantasy is the humor. Soule plays into certain tropes of fantasy stories while also rebelling against them and offering his own spin on certain beats. The opening scene shows Wizord, acting in the sage manner most wizards do, offering to grant a wish to a paying customer. Only the man who has come to him is a hipster/artist/superstar named Johnny One, speaking in slang more akin to a dudebro than someone in awe of magic, who wants to be literally turned into platinum (so his enemies can’t “bite him” and he can remain “on top”). When Margaret, Wizord’s talking Koala bear, shrugs her shoulders at the request, the reader can’t help but feel the same way.
There are other gags and moments to make you chuckle throughout the issue as well. From seeing Wizord get acclimated to being in a strange new world called Manhattan (where the people speak in strange tongues) to Twitter blowing up over Wizord’s incredible abilities (#TeamMargaret), it’s fun to watch the series avoid taking itself too seriously. People tired of more traditional fantasy stories would do well to check this out just to cleanse their palettes.
Ryan Browne, coming off of God Hates Astronauts, seems to be a great artistic choice for Soule’s fantasy-driven series. His art manages to blend both the mundane and the extraordinary into a multicolored fusion where nothing feels out of place. Sequences inside a bell tower full of vials and cauldrons are balanced against a plush penthouse Wizord rents later on, and both work in the context of the story. This idea culminates in a wizard battle/duel inside a packed baseball stadium. Two otherworldly wizards throwing spells at one another inside the halls of America’s pastime is a visually genius sequence that Browne renders wonderfully.
His art also extends beyond the way he draws scenes within panels, but to the panels themselves. Many pages are structured to have a unique grid setup as opposed to the traditional rectangles of other books. Plenty of artists implement such a technique to differentiate their books, most notably Yanick Paquette’s Swamp Thing pages looking like tree branches, and here Browne makes his pages look like stained glass windows, with zig-zags across the pages breaking up the panels in an impressive manner. Soule has crafted a great story, but Browne makes it looks great.
The biggest issue present here is one that I have with many single issues…there wasn’t enough info given. Wizord seemingly changes his mind once he better understands the Earth and the people on it and decides to not go through with blowing it up…which has been done plenty of times before. For a story that pushes the envelope the way it does, this seems too basic and simplistic of a plot point.
Granted, this is only the first issue of the series. Should this turn into a long-running Image Comics series, as many of their books have, we’ll get a better understanding of Wizord and his choice to strike out on his own instead of taking orders. But as of right now it feels like there should have been a clearer understanding of why he’s doing what he is, especially when you’re looking to get new readers on board your story.
Curse Words doesn’t necessarily break new narrative ground at any point in its debut issue. It toes the line of many tropes that other “urban fantasy” stories utilize. But it does so in order to poke fun at how stories like this can take themselves a bit too seriously at times. For those of you looking for something more zany and high-energy and less doom-and-gloom-y, this new series is probably the thing for your sensibilities.