How Real Can You Make Magic? Lev Grossman & Lilah Sturges On The Magicians: Alice’s Story

by Hannah Means Shannon

Very modern fantasy novel series The Magicians (2009), The Magician King (2011) and The Magician’s Land (2014), by Lev Grossman, opened on the New York Times Best-Seller list at #1 twice, and has given rise to a TV series on Syfy that’s just completed its fourth season, with a fifth season coming up, much to the approval of a fairly rabid fandom.
The world of The Magicians naturally gives rise to further exploration, and taking the property to the graphic novel format in the comics medium is an exciting venture. It offers possibilities and interpretations beyond what fans might have picked up from the novels or the show, and due to the strengths of the comics medium, it offers time to get to know characters in a unique way.
In fact, what writers Grossman and Lilah Sturges (Lumberjanes: The Infernal Compass, House of Mystery, Jack of Fables) have done in The Magician’s: Alice’s Story, published recently by Archaia at Boom! Studios, is pretty ingenious. They’ve taken one character–Alice Quinn–and presented the entire first book’s narrative from her own perspective, letting us in on her thought processes, experiences, and more, much of which had been alluded to, but not fully presented in the book. It will turn what readers think they know on its head and will argue, quite compellingly, that Alice may just be the central protagonist of the novel series after all.
Then there’s also the simple fact that the graphic novel is granting us a new vantage point, with fresh approaches in visual language, on a world deeply influenced by magic, and lives thoroughly interconnected with it. Whenever an artist attempts this kind of subject matter in comics, they have their work cut out for them, and Pius Bak, supported with colors from Dan Jackson, treads the fine line between absolute realism in style, and a cartoony mobility of line that convinces you that just about anything could happen in Alice’s Story. The letters by Mike Fiorentino are also presented in rather classic style, but have a versatility that challenges your assumptions, constantly grounding the fantastic elements you may be seeing with firm verbal anchoring.
Altogether, this book is the product of a lot of interesting choices on the part of each creative team member, bringing us an unexpected, but very rewarding reading experience. I was really delighted to have the chance to talk to Lev Grossman and Lilah Sturges at SDCC 2019 about Alice’s Story, and our interview appears below.

Hannah Means-Shannon: To jump right into the book, I was wondering if working on this particular project challenged your views or preconceptions about Alice. Do you feel like this was a discovery process at all regarding the character?
Lilah Sturges: I’d like to hear what Lev has to say about this, too, but I went into the book with a fairly good idea of what I was going to say, and how I was going to say it. I was surprised by how naturally the voice came, once I got a handle on it. I think I projected a lot of how I felt as a person at that age, if I’d been allowed to be presenting as a girl at that age. Who would I have been? That’s who Alice is in my mind. Because I’m very much that kid. That hyper-sensitive, hyper-thinking, too smart for her own good, girl. I really resonate with that character so much. Someone who is willing to sacrifice for others in unhealthy ways. It was such a treat to write, from beginning to end. It’s a corny thing to say, but it’s true.
Lev Grossman: It’s so interesting to hear that, because as much as I have emotions invested in Alice, and bound up in her as a character, as much love as I have for her, she’s not one of the characters that I identify with. In all of the three books, there are only two or three pages from her point of view. I found it very hard to write from her point of view. It was one of the things that made it so exciting to read Lilah writing so fluidly and authentically in her voice.

HMS: I imagine it would be very hard to write her in a convincing way if you weren’t someone who was as detail-oriented and perhaps, obsessive, as she is in personality, since it wouldn’t feel authentic. You’d need to bring in all the surrounding detail.
LG: That’s a good point! She doesn’t miss much.
HMS: Are those reasons why Alice was a good choice for this graphic novel project? Because her perspective hadn’t been as fully represented in the original books?
LG: Yes, I think so. And also, when I wrote The Magician King, the second book, I knew Julia was going to be a big part of it, but I didn’t realize that half of it was going to be from her point of view. That hadn’t been the initial plan. I didn’t know, technically, how to do that as a writer. It makes a lot of sense to go back and redo the first book, with Alice’s point of view in it, because it’s so much about her, but she gets to speak so little.
LS: There’s a very strong case to be made that it is Alice who is the protagonist of The Magicians, especially in the climax of the story, so I think it didn’t take much tweaking to present her as a the protagonist.

HMS: Yes! Do you hope that readers will at least be persuaded of the possibility that she’s the protagonist by reading this new book?
LS: I hope so! If not, then I clearly didn’t do my job, and should be fired (laughs).
LG: It’s interesting. There’s that scene where Alice comes to Brakebills, and goes through the forest, which she describes relatively quickly. That’s a big subject for fan art at the moment, and yet it’s never really directly narrated in the books. She talks about it, but we don’t really see it happen. So to go back and show it, and really let people feel it fully, that was a really emotional thing for me to see.
LS: It’s a great moment in the graphic novel because of the way it’s drawn by Pius Bak. It’s very intentional that the first few pages are crowded and dark, and then you get to this big reveal of Brakebills and it’s this enormous double-page spread. Pius did such a perfect job making it bright, and magical, and exciting. It really conveys the sense that this is a whole new world you have entered, that you have walked through into something. I think I make a Dante reference in there about losing the way in the forest, too. But then she finds herself at this place.

HMS: That’s kind of what I meant about having to fill in details to make Alice convincing—here she is associated with literary references, and she’s the kind of person who would make literary references.
LS: Oh, yes. All the characters in the book are smart, wise-asses. So that was me and my friends in college to a “T”. Showing off with our incomplete knowledge of things that we wanted to seem very smart about, so it was easy to fall into!
HMS: Well, regarding what you were saying about Alice’s arrival at the school, and the fact that it hasn’t really been “shown” before, this is an opportunity for readers to experience that event this first-hand rather than second-hand and be there.
LG: Yes, it’s always been buried in the story. But Lilah and Pius disinterred it and brought it to the surface where it deserves to be.
LS: There are a couple of other moments like that, too. There’s a story that Janet tells about a girl called Emily Greenstreet, who has a sad fate. In the novel, that story is related by Janet, but in the graphic novel, it’s narrated by her, but we see that story play out, which was a lot of fun to do.

HMS: I was, of course, going to ask, what are some of the easy things and what are some of the difficult things about bringing the world of The Magicians visually into existence for readers? Especially how did you find the experience of presenting magic in this medium? I know that comics have a long tradition of presenting magic, and I actually have an academic background writing about what magic does, and how it operates in comics. But it seems like a particular challenge here.
LS: Well, two things: I wanted to get very fiddly with it initially, and I realized after I had come up with all this stuff that the artist would murder me if I got as detail-oriented as I wanted to get. What survives is a page that’s inserted in the book, which demonstrates the different hand configurations and their meanings, and that began as a visual Bible that I was going to give to Pius, so that whenever people were casting spells, they would be casting them the same way each time. And then I realized that that was insane and he would murder me!
So, as it went along, I said, “Pius, you know what you’re doing. Just draw a magical thing.”

HMS: So, the invented look of magic in the book is very much from the artist’s perspective, then? That’s great.
LG: One of the things that drew me to Pius’ work was the way in which supernatural things in his art have a sense of weight, and tactile realness that you don’t always see in the way people draw things. One of the major things driving The Magicians for me, as a writer, was that I wanted to see magic presented in the way a realist writer would write about ordinary, everyday things. How would Virginia Woolf describe magic? She was not geeky enough in that way to write about magic. Or Hemingway writing about a chair. He’s describe the fuck out of a chair, and it feels real and has weight. How would he describe magic in a way that was real, so you could feel it, so you could smell it in the air? That was the challenge of the books, and also of the comic.
I think it’s really in there. Doctor Strange did that really well in the 70’s. That was definitely an inspiration.

HMS: There have been some different eras in comics where people really hit on certain aspects of shorthand, visual languages, that really worked.
LG: Yes.
HMS: And we know it can be done very badly and unconvincingly, or convincingly, but not very awe-inspiringly, without as much effect.
LG: Yes. I had high hopes for Doctor Strange, the movie, and then I didn’t end up feeling satisfied with the magic. Ah well, it doesn’t matter.
HMS: Sometimes in presenting magic, people can go too far into spectacle, and that can distract from what it’s supposed to actually do. I actually wanted to ask you all more about the realism in the art, and wondered if the use of realism is an intentional counter-balance to talking about magical things. Then it pops more, when things that are amazing, and interesting, and different, happen against that background. But the characters are also drawn in a realistic enough way that you feel that you could meet them, of course. Is that part of why the artist was chosen?
LG: Very much. But he also strikes a balance. My fear was that we would have someone whose work was too detailed, too grimy and noir, and we’d be bogged down in the realness of it. Pius’ work is stylized and cartoonish in a way, and yet everything is very specific and real at the same time. It’s very accessible in that way, without feeling idealized, or flat. He strikes a balance in a way that not that many artists do. That’s what I saw in his work, and made me say, “We have to have him.”
HMS: The line weight he’s using is interesting, too. It’s mobile. More in the European and South American tradition of comic art.
LS: Yes, it has more of a European feel. The thing that I love about his work, especially, is his face acting. He conveys the nuance of emotion very, very well. Someone said this, and I wish I could remember who, since I quote it all the time, is that the best thing you can give an artist for any given panel is an action and an emotion. Any more is too much, and any less is not enough. His ability to capture that emotion in any given panel is par excellence. He would just nail it constantly.
HMS: And the artwork doesn’t get repetitive in its realism, I noticed. In the close-up, reaction shots, you never see characters looking exactly the same. And even if it’s on the same page, with repeating reactions, they are quite different.
LG: It goes back to the way that you represent magic. It’s so important to have people react to magic in a way that feels emotionally real. If the emotions are real than the magic feels real. If the people around the magic react to it as if it were real real, then it feels real.

HMS: And that’s part of how you convey magic convincingly in a visual medium, right? It’s maybe even as much as 50-50 relying on the human side to have to convey what’s going on.
LG: Yes.
HMS: Anything you’d like to add about the colors by Dan Jackson? I noticed there are plenty of earth tones throughout, which feel very grounded, too.
LS: I think the colors are very well done, though I didn’t have much influence on it. I would include the odd color note, like, “Make sure the Niffen is blue when you draw it.” Other than that, Dan had free reign.
HMS: Well the colors do really work and add to that sense of realism, too. You don’t tend to have a scene where colors are stylized to show emotion, but rather you’re observing outward events and states, and the school itself. It’s all a great combination for visual storytelling.

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