Magician Jon Armstrong & Writer Mike Costa Create Comic Book Magic in 'Smoke and Mirrors'

Watching people flip through an issue of Smoke and Mirrors is almost as entertaining as reading the comic book itself. It's not uncommon for a reader to gasp or exclaim, "How'd he do that?" Both the physical comics and the digital versions offer a fresh take on comic book magic and actively engage the reader in the tricks themselves.

The creation of the comic—the origin story behind the origin story—started at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, where comic book writer Mike Costa (G.I. Joe: Cobra, Blackhawks) met magician Jon Armstrong (an award-winning close-up magician and chairman of the board of trustees for the Magic Castle) after one of Armstrong's shows in the Close-Up Room.

Upon discovering their mutual love for comic books and magic, the two kept in touch and talked about creating a comic book that would combine both arts. Along with artist Ryan Browne, Costa and Armstrong launched Smoke and Mirrors, a five-part series that follows a sleight-of-hand magician named Terry Ward, who finds himself in a world where magic is real, tries to fit in as best he can, and ends up mentoring Ethan, a young boy who discovers his secret.

LAist recently sat down with Armstrong and Costa to learn about the history of Smoke and Mirrors, the relationship between comic books and magic, and some little-known facts about the Magic Castle.

LAist: The premise for this comic is such an intriguing one. How did this concept come together?

Jon Armstrong: A while back, I was having lunch with a publisher friend of mine who said, "It'd be cool if you could do a comic that taught magic." I played with that idea in my head for a while but felt that it would just break the narrative.

But I brought the idea to Mike, because he actually writes comics, and I know when I'm in over my head. The more we played around with it, the more we realized that it would be so much cooler if the comic could actually perform magic for the reader. He was skeptical at first, but I wrote down some concepts and it started coming together. Then we started creating this world and inventing all these ideas.

LAist: Was there anything you wanted to stay away from in this comic?

JA: I didn't want it to be like every other magic comic book, because magicians in comic books and pulp literature usually have real magical powers and have to pretend they're fake magicians to blend in and hide their powers. We wanted to do the exact opposite.

Mike Costa: Exactly. If the idea is to do magic tricks for the reader, then the magician in the comic has to be performing magic tricks. The standard way of doing that is to be like the Mentalist, where there's a character using his mental abilities to solve crimes or to trick people, but that just seemed very boring to me for a comic.

So the natural thing was to do what Jon said, and create an inversion of the usual idea by putting the magician in a world where everything is magic and he doesn't have real powers. That way, he has an excuse to do his tricks, and that's where the audience gets to see them.

JA: Yeah, and we've always wondered why characters who have magical powers in literature don't just go, "Boom! Pot of gold. Done." So for this world of real magic that we created, everyone can do magic, but it's finite.

LAist: How so?

MC: In the real world, you can be an astronaut or a surgeon or a guy who builds a bridge, but you can't really be all three of those things because they take a lifetime of study. So our magic world works in a similar way. You can have the ability be a healer, but then you can't do something else, because that's all the time you have.

So whereas usually if you're Dumbledore or someone, you can do anything and have god-like powers, we wanted to make sure that this magic world looked like our world and made sense in a way.

JA: Plus the people in this magic world wouldn't be impressed by what Terry [the magician] is doing if they could already do everything.

LAist: The theme of an outsider trying to fit in ties in with something Jon said in his essay at the end of issue #1—how comics and magic have often been maligned art forms…

JA: Those two worlds are more connected than people realize.

MC: There's a lot of overlap. A lot of magicians have worked in comics, and a lot of comic book theory is very similar to magic theory.

LAist: When it comes to figuring out which magic tricks to use, does layout drive the magic, or vice-versa?

JA: It doesn't drive the complete layout of the issue, but it definitely drives the panels on those pages. Sometimes a trick won't work if you don't have a page turn.

MC: In issue #1, I knew I was building to a card trick on a page turn, so I had to write the story in such a way that we'd get to that odd-numbered page. That was definitely part of the construction.

LAist: Plus you do things with the magic tricks in the digital versions that couldn't have been done a few years ago.

MC: It was important to us that the tricks worked on the actual static page, but we've absolutely been looking at stuff to do exclusively in the digital versions that you couldn't get on the page of the comic.

LAist: Art-wise, what's been your favorite sequence from the first five issues?

JA: My favorite is the two-page spread in issue #2, where Terry is teaching Ethan how to do magic. That was our artist Ryan Browne's idea, and it was amazing.

And I guess it really resonated with me because that's my life. A man named Terry Ward, who still performs in Orlando, talked to me that way and taught me how to do magic, so that actually happened—not that our Terry is in any way like the real Terry—but he was my mentor.

LAist: Speaking of mentoring—Mike, now that Jon has to give you the inside scoop on how to do these magic tricks in order to use them in the comic, do you have to abide by the Magician's Code?

MC: (laughs) Yeah, I had to burn a picture of Houdini over a candle and say the words… Being a member of the Magic Castle, I have access to the library and everything, and it's incumbent upon me to keep those secrets. But frankly, if you're somebody who loves magic and the performance of it, you don't want to tell people how it's done.

LAist: So you've started doing magic tricks on your own?

MC: I started doing that before the comic, and it's my hobby. It's not something I do professionally, and I still haven't performed for Jon. But why would I? The guy's one of the greatest card magicians alive!

LAist: Please tell me about the cat in the book. That one scene with all the cats in the room was very dramatic.

MC: That was something I came up with on the spot. I wanted Ethan to be poking around and discover something that was vaguely strange and maybe even sinister. Cats have been associated with magic and witchcraft for so long, and Jon knows more about the history of that. One of the other things Jon brings to the table is not just his knowledge of stage magic and sleight of hand, but he also has a knowledge of the history of occultism.

JA: That's mostly because of my involvement with skepticism. I don't believe or ascribe to any occult beliefs at all, but I'm interested in anyone who genuinely believes they have done actual magic. That fascinates me.

MC: And with the cat thing, I liked the idea of showing that Ethan has a talent for real magic as well. The cat will become a larger plot point in the final issue, which comes out at the end of August.

LAist: In addition to issue #5 coming out on the 29th, the trade paperback—containing all five issues—will be released in October. Will the paperback include any bonus materials?

JA: Yes, there will be a foreword and some extra features. For one thing, I'm going through and doing a magic bibliography to annotate all the magic references throughout the entire volume.

MC: One of the things I want to do is, if a kid—and I'd say this comic's appropriate for a 15-year-old, but I wouldn't give it to an 8-year-old—but for a teenager who's getting into magic, I want them to pick this up and say, "Wow!" and have resources for learning more about magic. We're not teaching people how to do magic, but I want to show people how to begin their education.

LAist: You talked about the Magic Castle earlier—Mike's a member and Jon is chairman of the board of trustees. What makes that place so special?

JA: I moved to Los Angeles for one reason, and one reason only, and that was to be around the Magic Castle. My involvement with the Academy of Magical Arts [the Magic Castle is the clubhouse for the Academy] started when I became a member from Orlando back in '97, when I didn't even live in L.A.

I do love it here. It's home to me. But I think if the Magic Castle had been in Cleveland, Ohio, I would have moved to Cleveland. I wanted to be around that community and history.

LAist: What have the last few years at the Magic Castle been like, and how long have you been on the board of trustees?

JA: I ran for office more than five years ago and got on the board of trustees as the youngest person ever. It's wonderful, though the last few years have also included a couple challenges—the weird fire and a very odd power struggle…

MC: And power struggles at the Magic Castle are really compelling. You know in The Lord of the Rings where Gandalf is fighting Saruman? It's pretty much like that.

JA: (laughs) Just like that. But we're now in a really amazing place where the Castle is probably in the best financial and structural shape it's ever been in.

LAist: What's one interesting thing about the Magic Castle that people might not know?

JA: I think people don't realize how many priceless artifacts are on the walls. People see those posters and assume they're prints, but those big multiple-sheet posters are actually from the 1900s. A lot of them—the Carter, the Alexander, all the Blackstones—are original one-of-a-kinds.

In fact, when you go from the dining room into where the Palace is, you'll notice that the walls are decoupaged with posters. There's more than $100,000 worth of posters decoupaged on those walls—lost forever because they didn't realize what they were doing when they put those up. So the walls are rich with history and lore.

MC: And thankfully, the fire didn't threaten the artifacts…

JA: Thankfully! We had amazing firefighters who came in, covered things up and moved them out of the water. It was incredible.

MC: I think the fire also shook everyone up with the thought of, "Wow, this could have been really bad. All of these irreplaceable things could have been gone."

LAist: Do you think you'll do a book launch at the Magic Castle when the trade paperback is released?

JA: I don't know, but we did launch our first issue there. We did a whole thing about one of our precursors, a very famous comic artist by the name of Jim Steranko, who redefined how comics looked.

MC: …with a very modern/pop art look.

JA: And what's amazing is the way he redirected and moved the page and changed the narrative in ways that had never been done before. I genuinely think that had a lot to do with the fact that he was a famous magician before he was an artist.

LAist: Have you heard from a lot of magicians who have read Smoke and Mirrors?

MC: We've gotten some great feedback. Magic—like comics—is a very narrow world, and anything that brings positive attention to it is a good thing.

It was very important to me, and also to Jon, to make sure that the details were right; we knew magicians would be reading it. I don't think I ever said to Jon, "Well, that's how it'd be done for real, but we have to change it for the comic."

JA: One of the best compliments I've received about the comic is, "I knew this was you when I saw this, and I'm glad you did it!"

Issue #5 of Smoke and Mirrors will be released on August 29, and the trade paperback will be available in bookstores on October 9. For those who have a Magic Castle membership, Armstrong will be performing in the Close-Up Gallery August 20-26.