If you’ve played Magic: The Gathering, you know how easy it is to get sucked into the massively-popular trading card game’s world. Even beyond the addictive complexity of the game itself, it’s set in a richly-detailed, ever-expanding universe bolstered by breathtaking artwork. Some of the artists who have contributed their talents to the cards will be familiar to comic book fans, including Geof Darrow, Scott Hampton, and Mike Dringenberg.
Magic’s immersiveness appealed to Vita Ayala (The Wilds; the upcoming Children of the Atom) and Harvey Tolibao (Green Arrow; G.I Joe), the writer and artist, respectively, of Magic: The Gathering: Chandra. Spotlighting one of Magic’s hottest (literally!) characters, this four-issue miniseries is now available as a trade paperback from IDW, and features art assists by Tristan Jurolan, colors by Joanna Lafuente, and letters by Christa Miesner and Jake Wood.
As someone with fond memories of Magic: The Gathering despite being utterly terrible at the game itself, I was eager to talk to these talented creators about their experiences with the game, their collaboration, and what Magic means to them.
GREGORY PAUL SILBER: Let’s start by talking about Magic: The Gathering itself. Vita, what is it about the Magic universe that appeals to you as a writer? And Harvey, those cards have always looked gorgeous, so what kind of inspiration did you take from them?
VITA AYALA: For me, there is A LOT that is appealing about the MTG universe! I am a huge game person (board, card, video, whatever) and the possibilities of customization in the game have always really spoken to me. You can literally build your deck to reflect every way you like to play games, whether it be slow, fast, direct, sneaky, whatever! And the art on the cards and other stuff you can buy has always been so gorgeous to look at. Story-wise, I am a very big mark for long form storytelling that builds on what came before, and Magic has that, across mediums and genres. It’s a universe that has been developing for over 25 years, with characters that I have come to love very much, and stakes that range from the deeply personal to the big, bombastic, universe-ending kind!
HARVEY TOLIBAO: I’m a fan of the cards’ artwork. I was totally excited to be part of it when Daniel [Ketchum, Magic Franchise Senior Art Director] mentioned the comic book project. Those wonderful cards are always part of the bucket list for a fantasy artist or even us illustrators. In our studio, HMT Studios, we have several artists who play the game after office work. I remember my colleague would laugh, shout and feel the electrifying intensity of the game. I see from my point of view how these games really move any artist who’s been playing them. They always educate me why lands are powerful, why these characters are lucky if they are part of your deck. So it was surprisingly a game for any artist. The imagination really works big time. We wanted to blow everything up to a bigger size so we could imagine how beautiful these cards are, and the illustrations are really a big part of it.
GREG: I’m fascinated by the aesthetic of this book. So often in fantasy settings, at least those not set in our world, the timeframe is vaguely “the past.” But here, characters talk very much like we do in the present day, and even some environments and hairstyles (Tibalt, for example) seem to have modern inspirations. How did you mix timeliness and timelessness?
VITA: That is one of the (many) advantages of the MTG universe – the multiverse gives you so much to play with, in terms of technology, social customs, and style. And with Planeswalkers, regardless of the where and “when” they come from, they have had so many interactions with people and places and “times” different than their own. They adapt and incorporate what they find! If I could do a book just about Planeswalkers swapping culture I would; it is such a fascinating aspect that is built into the multiverse! And Harvey has this knack (skill and also instinct, I think) for finding the details that make sense for a character or a scene. He is so good!
HARVEY: I think the biggest part of the influence is the card illustrations. I mean, any artist that would get assigned to any of these characters, I think would probably have their mind blown. Maybe to me, I think, because every illustration has the soul of the character. That’s what makes you love the cards. The first time I received the script I started immediately. I knew it would still have changes, but I got so excited and started the page after the script arrived… which turned out to be not part of the book. But that’s how it gets you. Reading the script would bring you to the world beyond your chair and your computer or studio station. I think Vita really made this book more than an illustrator could dream of. I still remember every scene and every panel now, that’s how much this book meant to me as part of the team. And I think huge credit also goes to our editors, Zac and Tom, and the Wizards of the Coast team, who truly believed in me, Vita, Joanna, and Tristan that we could bring it until the series ends. But I wish there was more. I think I could draw this book for 30-50 issues and I think I would keep loving it.
GREG: Both of you have unique approaches to writing and drawing fantasy, respectively. What was your experience like collaborating with each other?
VITA: Initially I wasn’t really sure how I would be supporting my collaborator. I wasn’t sure of Harvey’s experience with Magic as a universe or game, so I think I over compensated with reference! But when I got to see the first pages IN LAYOUTS (which are more detailed than many artist pencils), and we chatted a little, I realized that what I really needed to do was get at the heart of a scene and give just solid (but not overly detailed) descriptions. Harvey is so incredibly skilled at making the page come alive, feel REAL while still finding ways to exaggerate action to be dynamic even in such a static medium. I really just needed to tell him what was happening and WHY it was happening, and stay out of his way! I asked a few times what he wanted to draw and tried to make sure that I incorporated that as much as I was able, but honestly, once I saw even the first few inked pages, I was just writing to try and make his job as easy as possible. If I could write for him forever, I would; his imagination is a joy to watch come to life!
HARVEY: Vita is lovely. I think they’re really a dream team to work with. They always consider the other part of creativity, which is the drawing or illustrated story. They give me the cake and icing of the Magic: The Gathering world: from the different races of the characters, to places like Regatha, Tarkir, Ixalan, Alara and even Innistrad. These are places where different designs of characters existed. Dragons, vampires and giants are all here. Demons and gothic creatures are all in this book. It became possible because the writer sees the huge potential of this book. I think it’s a no-brainer for Netflix to get this teamed with the amazing Russo brothers because this is the future of fantasy. It’s a huge world, so many things to do, so much stuff to work on. I’ll thank Daniel Ketchum and his WOTC team for pairing me with the brilliant Vita Ayala. I’m very fortunate to be part of it.
GREG: Magic: The Gathering has a huge, dedicated fandom, and the lore goes quite deep, so I’m sure it helped to receive guidance from Wizards of the Coast. Was the deep catalogue intimidating? How was it working with them?
VITA: Less intimidating, and more overwhelming in the sense that I just wanted to sit around reading everything for hours, but couldn’t haha. I worked with someone on the Wizards end that I actually already knew from my everyday life, and he was a wealth of knowledge. He had his fingers on the pulse of every detail of the book, and if I ever had a question, I could reach out and he was ready with an answer or time to talk things through. This book could not have happened the way it did without him!
HARVEY: The process was not easy, sending the pages back and forth, which I think is the proper way. The details of this MTG world are very intricate. I hope the word I used here truly describes it. The armor, the hair, the vines, and the animals have a unique way of representing their time or era. so it was truly hard work to make this book work. I know it’s hard on my part, but I think everybody does it, even Vita or Joanna. We go through the process that really make this book worth reading, and worthy to be on everybody’s shelves who’s been a fan of WOTC and Magic: The Gathering. It’s a process. It took us a year to work on the four-issue book, but I think it’s my fault because I really wanted to show the details of the cards truly in each panel. I really hope people will love it. But if I was asked to do this dozens of times, I would truly do it over and over again. Until now I can’t truly imagine that I was part of the project.
GREG: Finally, I’d love to know if either of you have any fond memories or funny stories about playing Magic in your personal lives. I’ll start: I don’t think I ever won a single game of MtG in middle school, but that didn’t stop me from giving out starter decks as party favors for my Harry Potter-themed Bar Mitzvah!
VITA: Magic is actually one of the ways I bond with some of my siblings. Especially as adults, it can be difficult to find time to spend time, so my brother and I will use a pre-release as an excuse to meet up and play games/catch up for a few hours. On my 29th birthday, I bought some booster boxes (Theros, my favorite block thus far) and had a bunch of friends over to draft. Half had never played, but it was such a fun time!
Thanks to Vita Ayala and Harvey Tolibao for taking the time to chat about Chandra with us. Magic: The Gathering: Chandra is available now!