Magic is such a broad term that can mean so many different things, but when it comes to totems, spells, powers, clans, grimiores, and bloodlines, I’m a sucker for all of it. There’s something about magic’s versatility, how powers can become deep reflections of character, how institutions and bonds are formed around or because of such power, and the innate characters of those who possess it that inherently piques my curiosity. Manor Black lies right in the middle of that. The family patriarch of a noble magical bloodlines is looking for his successor while another magical totem is on the run, threatened, and let loose. At the intersection of these two should lie a fascinating story. There’s something to be said about young magic vs. old magic, the idea of magic choosing the worthy vs. being passed on, and the examination of large noble magic intersecting with rural, small-town life. Unfortunately, none of these ideas are executed very well and the entire thing comes off as fairly lackluster and slightly problematic.
The biggest issue with this comic is that the creators seem to assume that I’d just freely walk into this world on premise alone when there’s nothing to make me care. The first issue sets up an interesting premise and a decent exciting incident. The patriarch of a southern, wealthy family of blood magic users is losing his magic and therefore his life and needs to choose a successor. At the same time, a family of fire magic users is on the run from a mysterious threat, and it doesn’t end well. This should be a story that intersects the two through conflict, magic, principles, or literally anything other than mere chance, but that isn’t what we get. Additionally, we see most of the conflict through the eyed of a traumatized and newly appointed sheriff conducting his investigation. It’s all very confusing and ends up feeling like there’s too many extra elements stuffed into this four-issue miniseries.
There plenty of opportunity to do an interesting analysis on the intersections of magic, power, class, and even race, but all of it feels squandered. If you are going to have a noble, southern, white patriarch taken in a young, black woman on the run out of a burden of responsibility, there better be something more at play to address the connotations there, and yet there is none. We even have the would-be heir taking out his frustrations at having to aid someone who he feels doesn’t deserve it. As a result, not only is there nothing that makes us care about any of these people other than maybe Ari, the young magician on the run, but it also quickly becomes fairly problematic. The end just teases that it was only the beginning, but this is still teased as a self-contained miniseries, but why? The end is that all parties retreat to their separate corners. No actual conflict is permanently resolved. For someone invest in Ari’s ability to handle her magic, the sheriff’s ability to grow into the role, or Roman Black’s ability to choose an heir, sorry, but you aren’t getting any answers. There are so many plot lines that could be followed down rabbit holes of interesting theory and commentary, but it appears as though Bunn and Hurtt choose to explore all of them and therefore end up exploring none of them.
At the very least, Tyler Crook’s art and lettering are good for the most part. He has some weird pacing issues with unnecessary cuts and choppy scene transitions, but his watercolors are gorgeous. There are also some weird inconsistencies to how detailed he chooses to make facial expressions, but overall the character and magic designs look great, especially the explanations given at the end of the trade. I thought there’d be a bit more action, but any conflict usually just results in someone or something bursting into flames which looks pretty but feels pretty static. Unfortunately, nothing even comes close to making up for the general story which doesn’t feel fleshed out at all.
Manor Black is quite the misstep for this creative team. This certainly wasn’t the best I’ve read from Cullen Bunn, and I’m not sure where Brian Hurtt came in during the process. Tyler Crook’s art was really good at times, but he also had some things that fell flat as well. To be honest, I can’t really see a point to reading this book, so I wouldn’t suggest it. There were some ideas there, but none one followed through with any of them.