While it's been many years since Scott McCloud published his foundational text Understanding Comics, and loads of other scholars have tried to define comics in the intervening time, I frequently find myself circling back to his elegant initial definition. See, for McCloud, what makes a comic is not floppy books or hard covers, not Batman or allegorical mice, and not even the co-mixing (as Will Eisner put it) of word and image. Instead, a comic, for McCloud, comes into being when you take two images and put them next to each other in order to make meaning.
With me so far?
Here's the next step.
Amonkhet's split cards are comics. For the most part, though, they're not . . . great ones?
Magic: The Gathering has a long history of wanting to be comics. This isn't particularly surprising. After all, there's loads of magic that's kind of hard to depict if you've got a single frame, a single slice of time, in which to capture it. Depicting complex magic without reducing the card art to an endless, tedious procession of people shooting lasers from their fingers is perhaps the central problem of Magic's art direction.
It makes some sense, then, that the earliest example I can find of Magic trying to be comics is either Dan Frazier's Shapeshifter from Antiquities, or Amy Weber's incredible Time Walk from, of course, Alpha. Depending on how willing you are to interpret Time Walk's abstraction, one or the other probably represents the first attempt to depict multiple moments in time in a single piece of Magic art. For one, this is necessary in order to show transformation — the movement from one state into another. For the other, the subject is time itself and its traversal, which I think necessarily invites the Redon-esque surreal treatment Weber uses.
Time magic is a bit more specialized, but transformation is all over the place in Magic. Things get big, get small, turn into sheep, get reshaped by flowstone, get enchanted, are possessed by corruption, level up, change power and toughness and color and abilities. More broadly, transitioning from state to state by non-magical means is omnipresent. Things transform, for example, from not being cut in half with a sword to very being cut in half with a sword. Usually we get still frames of action in Magic art, but I think there's always a tug to make that action coherent through the introduction of a beginning and end to support that middle, as we see crammed into a single moment in Frazier's art.
The result has been some pretty odd experiments over the years, particularly when, for one reason or another, artists have had to depict multiple states in the same art. The flip cards from Kamigawa are probably the most memorable example of this. For folks not familiar, the Kamigawa flip cards were kind of like the double face cards we know and love today, except two states were crammed awkwardly onto a single card front.
Now, I have a fondness for these cards, but even I've got to admit that they don't, for the most part, really work. I think some of their weaknesses actually can help us pick at the art and design decisions of these flip cards to see where they fall short.
See, these cards have the juxtaposition thing down. They have two states with two pieces of art (albeit weirdly merged into one art box) that show a transition across time. That's a pretty good start. But a lot of the artists can't seem to really figure out what the heck to do with that setup. The majority of the pieces just sort of plop two creature designs next to each other, one of the upside down, and call it again.
This is highlighted all the more by the pieces that actually do something more innovative. Kev Walker's Budoka Gardener, for example, introduces into the art a kind of makeshift frame worthy of comics folks like JH Williams III or Dave McKean, a tree that is, itself, a transitional element, going from spring to autumn in its appearance. This makeshift gutter between the two implied panels of the art is traversed by the smoke coming from the bowl the boy carries, becoming the green magical fog the legendary Dokai conjures. So, there's continuity between past and present demonstrated by breaking the frame that Walker has imposed. That's pretty clever stuff, and it's visually interesting stuff as well.
This is a cleverness that I'm just not sure is really present in a large number of the new split cards. This, in a way, doesn't come as much of a surprise — after all, previous split cards have done little to no work tying their images together in this comicsesque fashion — but it's still disappointing, given how few the opportunities are in modern Magic art to play these kinds of narrative games. Sure, the new cards aren't wholly and bewilderingly disconnected from each other the way even split cards with Fuse traditionally have been, or the way some of Kamigawa's flip cards seem to be visually between their two aspects, but the connections are often kind of . . . well . . . boring? Mouth // Feed, for example, looks nice enough — certainly it makes better use of the elongated panel of Half 1 better than many of these cards — but nothing about it really screams "compelling juxtaposition." It's just sort of a super literal interpretation of the card names, done in the near ubiquitous frodorealism of contemporary fantasy art.
That's not to say all the split cards are like this. Rags // Riches is also pretty literal, but it has the major advantage of implying a whole bunch of narrative in between the two images, juxtaposing states that require quite a bit more "closure" on the part of the audience, to use McCloud's term for the gap-filling work we do as comic readers. (It also gets extra points for using a fairly flat, simplified style that reads much more readily at the miniscule size of the elongated art box.) And there's something about the way Heaven // Earth describes specifically the location being affected by a huge meteor barreling through the two panels, as well as the way the camera goes from staring up at oncoming doom to looking down at the crater of an impact that, again, we never see, that I find really fun. It's not Watchmen, but there's come clever things going on here.
I think it's notable that both these examples do a bit more to tailor the images to their oddly sized frames. Rags and Heaven both take advantage of the panorama scope of their long panels to create a sense of space — either vast size or overwhelming desolation — which is then capitalized on in their following panel — through the round impact crater's implied enormity, and the more comfortable and familiar confines of the cat's new home. Jonas De Ro and Greg Opalinski have adapted to their new, weird environment real well, using the frame shapes to enhance the narrative they're telling.
That's the other thing that I think is lacking in a lot of pieces — an adjustment to the card frame. Panel sizes and shapes signify in comics. They carry information. Sure, size is a part of that in terms of readability (though I'm not convinced that a ten point difference between a normal and a special border of some sort is as important as the fanbase is currently making it out to be . . . ); but, more than that, it conveys possible meaning. It might suggest a wide space, as we've already seen. Or it might suggest an elongation of time, a slowing down as the eye passes over the whole panorama. It might suggest or allow for multiple moments in the same space.
Or hey, it might just be used as joke, as in the direct predecessor to the graphic design of these cards: Unglued's Burning Cinder Fury of Crimson Chaos Fire and Spark Fiend. These cards, like so many Unglued cards, turn the manipulation of the frame into a gag. Spark Fiend's in particular uses the narrow panel to give a sense of some mad malevolent being so eager to break free of its cardboard cage to get at you that it can't help but gnaw feverishly at its own panel border. The shape of the art here is used to emphasize the claustrophobic space that the Spark Fiend leers out of. And that malevolence is mirrored in mechanics. I mean, can you imagine a card, a piece of card text, that hates its reader more than Spark Fiend?
. . . If you can, the reaction I've been seeing online suggests that you might be picturing Bounty of the Luxa.
Anyway, if any card best captures what these split cards can do I actually think it's Insult // Injury. Let me try to break down everything this seems to do from my perspective as a comics theorist. We're probably inclined to focus on the upright art, as that's how we tend to read Magic cards and, importantly, how we tend to hold them in our hands (the bottom of the card is often obscured). So, we see Insult, which has a central figure but uses the composition to really focus on the trail of pictographs streaming out of that figure. The composition's length might suggest a slow pace, an extended amount of time. This kind of fits the card ability — an ongoing effect that changes the rules of the game over the course of a whole turn. For a Red spell, it is surprisingly distant, slow, and contemplative, using the panel shape to convey this relatively lasting sorcery.
Then we manually flip the card sideways and see a snake getting hit in the face.
Injury is abrupt. Injury is a punchline. Injury is a quick direct damage spell, it's a close up image, and it's a shorter, standard panel, a panel that might suggest a shorter measure of time than Insult does. Injury capitalizes on Insult's setup with the kind of comedic timing that we get in comics — one of juxtaposed images in a set space.
The card uses a well established comic technique too of taking a continuous image and splitting it into two parts — literally, Lucas Graceland's art is one continuous strip that has been divided into the two halves of the artwork. It's got a fun inversion of the original meaning of "adding insult to injury" — here, the injury isn't added to by the insult but instead the insult literally becomes the injury! And that central joke, that turning on its head of the saying, is enhanced by the setup-punchline structure of the panels and how we manipulate the card (literally turning it) in order to get from one part of the narrative to the other. At least in my reading, anyway.
The point here isn't that the new split cards should aspire to be the next Sandman, it's just that they offer a chance to actually play with ideas that Magic has struggled to explore for almost 25 years now: how to show multiple states or ideas on the same card. Right now many split cards — not just the Amonkhet cards but split cards generally going all the way back to Invasion — feel kind of like a gimmick to me, like a clever mechanical trick and cute word game that isn't really matched on the flavor end.
What I'd love to see in the future is the use of weird frames like this to explore the territory Insult // Injury, as well as Heaven // Earth and Rags // Riches, start to dig into: the possibility of card frames also being comic frames.