M. Dean’s Strange Magic is Spellbinding

M. Dean has a commitment to a line that feels both precise and uncertain, not unlike Katie Skelly. Both cartoonists also work in the woefully underused magazine size, separating them from contemporaries operating in much smaller formats, but it takes just a quick look at the color and tone of Dean’s comics to see that comparisons can only go so far.

She stands out about as much as Lisa’s yellow dress on the first page of Strange Magic

This uniqueness caught my attention at the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo last year, bringing home Baby Fat and K.M. & R.P. & MCMLXXL to discover her commitment to the coming of age story and the ways in which it can span generations. Strange Magic exists 40 years in the past, a densely packed eight-page recount of a young woman’s acid-infused senior prom and the aftermath. The beautiful lines and colors of Strange Magic might allow M. Dean to skip the motive for Lisa to drop acid before prom, but she doesn’t. In just one sentence in one panel we discover our star’s personality: she sees adulthood as being “too old to care about new experiences.”

I never went to my prom, but when I was nineteen, my girlfriend took me to hers. I have to wonder how many people actually have fun at them. Like with weddings and graduations, it feels like there’s often so much concern for what prom should be that everyone there spends their time trying to craft the culmination and celebration of four years of relationships. Or they stay home, because fuck those relationships. Strange Magic has me wondering if we wouldn’t all have been better off with acid-spiked proms.

The opening pages blast the reader with midnight blue, the kind of scabby neon crimson found only in kids’ cartoons, and a yellow the color of Danish tulips, colors that stand out on their own and aren’t often seen together on the page. If you’re reading it digitally, you would do well to zoom out and just stare at the pages facing each other before diving in. It’s almost as if the primaries that have defined Superman for the last century were filtered through a bit of the 70s, tinged with a bit of acid, and then spread over the page. Dean’s disco ball in the first panel is so well established that it is every disco ball, and it feels as though it would set the scene perfectly on its own until the next panel introduces us to Lisa, the yellow of her dress and the resignation that she will leave this life soon, that she is going to study math and is serious enough about it to already be thinking of grad school.

Strange Magic¬†immediately establishes a rhythm: four steady beats, a bit of magic, a long panel made for lingering on, a bit more magic, and four more steady beats. Repeat until Lisa wakes up on her bedroom floor listening to Pet Sounds. It would be tempting to deviate from the rhythm for the four-page acid trip, but in retaining the same panel structure, Dean deranges the senses a bit. She has already established this rhythm, given the reader instructions for how to pace themselves in her comic, then forces us to fit Lisa’s transcendence into that structure — almost like fitting a hallucinatory experience into the four walls of a high school gymnasium. The midnight blue all but disappears during the trip, existing only as a part of Lisa: her hair; her shoes; her arm in contrast with the nothingness behind waves of tulip yellow, sickly magenta, and pale seafoam.

As we hit the final two pages of Dean’s established rhythm, she brings us back to a color palette reminiscent of K.M. & R.P. & MCMLXXL. Maybe it’s the sobering light of day that demands the color change, but it reads as though the acid was already hitting Lisa the moment she arrived at prom, perhaps leading to the tight focus on details and the dissociative feeling that comes from her musings on the young girls killed in the Salem witch trials. In the aftermath of her prom, Lisa wants to know if she said anything strange, but doesn’t really seem to be too concerned about it, focused more on the music playing, her mind still considering that future that will be arriving too soon, the prospect of being too old to care about new experiences.

Closing with small reproductions of the two albums mentioned in the comic — Pet Sounds and Eldorado — causes the final scene to simply fade away into the music, allowing Strange Magic to feel more expansive than its eight pages should be capable of, to linger in the mind. This short work makes it clear why M. Dean was the winner of the first annual Creators for Creators grant, and I can’t wait to see where she goes next.