10 Years of Sorcery 101: An interview with Kel McDonald

I ran across Sorcery 101 in its youth. I was reading it back in the aughts until the death of the ancient computer I was using took my bookmarks with it. When the assignment came up, I was pleased to have a chance to revisit a comic I had lost connection with.

I believe in completism where comics are concerned, so I did a good old archive binge, reading from the first comic to the most recent.

Sorcery 101 follows a youngish man named Daniel Gunn. He’s a history teacher at a posh school. His class is full of rambunctious teens. He’s the “we expected better of you” disappointment of his family, and, oh yes, he’s studying sorcery under a former mage named Pat, while in service to pretty but amoral vampire named Seth.  He’s also not as fast a learner as you might expect in an Urban Fantasy.  Kel herself describes him as, well… inept.

Daniel is divorced from a woman named Jackie. They have a prodigy daughter, Natalie, who Danny gets to see in the summer. Daniel lives with his two friends, married couple Brad Wolfe and Ally Masters. They have a five year old daughter named Rebecca. Brad and Becky are both werewolves. Ally is a former demon hunter, a mage, and a barkeep.

Danny tries to have a normal life insomuch as his supernatural connections permit; which is to say not much. He’s aging slowly due to his blood bond with Seth. That in turn makes him antsy about dating human women; and dating supernatural women comes with its own set of difficulties. Then there are the rumors that swirl around him at school, plus the drama Pat brings, and the enemies of all his supernatural friends and acquaintances.

The comic is rendered in kind of a wry noir style with the occasional moment of levity. McDonald does wonders with color and inking to evoke the mood of any given sequence in her chapters. The casting is fairly diverse as well, portrayed in a way that feels refreshingly organic. McDonald interweaves real life concerns into the supernatural backdrop in a way that is respectful: depression, alcoholism, coming out of the closet, PTSD, among others.

The series is winding down toward its finale. We got with creator Kel McDonald to talk about the long running series.

Jamie Kingston:  Sorcery 101 has been going since 2005. As such, congratulations are in order. You just passed a milestone anniversary. Having done this comic for so long,  what would you say is the most significant thing you have learned doing a long running webcomic?

kelmcdonaldKel McDonald: When you spend over ten years on a project, be prepared to have very complicated feelings about the beginning. I’ve grown a lot as both a writer, artist, and just as a human being. Sorcery 101‘s start has a lot of things I’d tackle differently or dig deeper into or just cut entirely.

Also, with stories this long, sometimes the size of the archive alone can make people scared to jump in. So there will come a point where it will be hard to get new readers online alone. You’ll need physical books to pick up the slack or some kinda option that makes it easier read digitally like ebooks and PDFs. Part of why the stories Strange Someone, As We Were, and From Scratch exist is to be little shorts that would be easier to read first and then transition to diving into Sorcery 101.

JK:  You mentioned that you considered Seth as kind of a riff on Spike from Buffy…to a point.  Where else does your inspiration come from, especially your unique take on lycanthropy?

KM: To clarify. Seth is a riff on characters like Spike from Buffy who are amoral but help the heroes. Their amoralness is used for humor. And I played with that trope to surprise the readers later on.

A lot of Sorcery 101 comes from thinking about and pulling at the stuff I have seen in supernatural shows and in fantasy. So Danny’s spells always take time to say and that isn’t very useful in a fight, turns out. Then if anyone can learn magic, why doesn’t everyone? Well, it takes forever to learn. So Danny learning for ten years and only knowing 2 spells is not abnormal. The way Pat deals with being a vampire is thinking about how people handle depression.

The lycanthropy in particular is I have read A LOT of both fiction and nonfiction about werewolves. So I learned that all the stuff we associate with werewolves (Silver, the full moon, wolfsbane, out of control murder spree, transfer by bite) was invented for the original Wolfman movie in the ’30s. Older stories were a mix of God or the devil or the gods turn a man into a wolf as punishment or just people randomly had this power with no explanation. So the fear was less on ‘I’m going to hurt people and more my community/loved ones will turn on me and hurt me not knowing it is me they are hurting.’ I found that angle more interesting and a lot of the choices about lycanthrophy come from that. From there I decided how the first werewolf was made and between the two that helped me figure out their powers and the types of stories that would be told.

JK:  One thing that really makes S101 a compelling read is your characterization. I love Danny and the conflicts he deals with. I love his clever, out of the box way of handling his problems. Brad’s gentle and easily embarrassed personality also charmed me. Natalie and her potential intrigue me. Do you find you have a character in your wide cast who is more easy or fun to write/draw, or one who gives you fits trying to get them to fit what you want?

KM: I like to write characters bouncing off one another and who are snarky. So Connor is the most fun to write. Seth is pretty easy to write too. The hardest to write is Seth’s sire, Asagi. Since his whole character is very careful and tries hard to be pleasant and nonthreatening, I had to always read and reread the lines I wrote for him. Fortunately he’s not in many scenes.

But I feel like in general certain scenes are easier to write rather than certain characters. Like everything in chapter 28 was something that was so clear in my head when I got to it. And Pat talking to Ally in the rain was easy to write.

JK:  You’ve alluded to some backstory. Before you wrap it all up, will we readers get to see the event that got Brad bitten, or the situation that resulted in Brad convincing Seth to take Danny as blood bond? For that matter, will we see a leap in Danny’s skill as a sorcerer?

KM:  Nope. I wrote all that out so I know what happened. The further I got into Sorcery 101 the more I realized the specifics weren’t important to Sorcery 101‘s main story about Danny and Seth. I didn’t want to detract from that focus. And the story just doesn’t stick with Danny through a long enough period to see a huge improvement in his skills.

JK:  You’re not shy about bringing diversity into the comic, which is appreciated. Did Brad and Ramon’s multiracial families pop fully formed into your head way back in the high school days,  or did it come together over time as you mapped out the story?

KM: It came together as the story continues. I knew from the get-go that Brad was adopted but didn’t think anything beyond that until I got to the chapter with his family. Ramon and his cousin were originally gonna be friends but as his behavior was more extreme and cartoonish, I thought them being friends wasn’t as believable so I made them cousins.

JK: Speaking of not being shy,  you also seem completely at ease with showing the gory horror elements that naturally go with vampires, werewolves, and crazy cults. How do you decide when to go with gory discretion shots vs. letting the splatter fly freely?

KM: I took each situation and figured out what I needed from it. There are a few times where the gore is explicit because several times the nonreaction to the gore is important. Where other times it was more effective to let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps.

JK:  Another powerful aspect of the story that resonates with me is the different types of women you portray.  There’s Jackie, bitter and kind of skeptical about the supernatural being the reason for Danny being such a flake.  Ally, retired demon hunter who is happy in her domestic life.  Trish, unknowing victim of mind control. Poor tragic Suzanne.  Even Natalie and Rebecca, the children, have individual personalities. They kind of build a supportive framework around Danny. Was that intentional, or did it just work out that way as their stories intermingled?

KM: I always try to have all my characters be different, whether they are men or women. So while I didn’t specially set out to make the women in particular different, I tried to make sure there was variety in all of them. If two character were too close to each other, I would try to combine them or use one to comment on the other. And since each character comes from a different place they will react to Danny in a different way.

JK: Once you’ve finished Sorcery 101, do you have plans for another webcomic, or other creative venture in the pipeline? Spinoffs, maybe a grown up Natalie sequel, dare I hope; or something far afield of what you’ve spent 10+ years on?

KM:  Well, I do have to draw the 3rd book in my magical girl series Misfits of Avalon. I have a scifi story I’m pitching around that is sorta Avatar the Last Airbender meets Saga. Then my friend Kara Leopard and I are making a reverse-harem story where I’m writing and she’s drawing. It will be much much goofier take on supernatural stuff though.

The closest there will be to a Sorcery 101 sequel is a new series called The City Between which is futuristic urban fantasy stories. Each will be self contained and roughly 80 pages and set in the same city. That way I can jump around more and start and stop as I come up with ideas. The first one is currently updating online and is called Fame and Misfortune. I’m drawing the second one right now to for a book I kickstarted last year, I’m writing the third, and have half a dozen in various stages of development. It’s sort of a reboot of Sorcery 101‘s world but I changed stuff around to be clearer, less convoluted. Like I got rid of the vampires having claim on werewolves. And many people didn’t realize Sorcery 101 doesn’t take place in our world, so the City Between stuff makes that more obvious visually and doesn’t have any cultural references. A lot of it was world building changes that aren’t tied to the supernatural. So it’s a sequel in tone and some of the characters get reused but slightly altered. If someone wants more of a direct connection to Sorcery 101, they can grab the side stories As We Were, Strange Someone, and From Scratch.

JK:  Is Danny’s piano tie the only one he owns, is it one of a closet full,  or do you just enjoy drawing it? 

KM: I really like drawing it. It is a fairly easy pattern to do and it stands out.

The Kickstarter for Sorcery 101 is still going. Give the comic a read at sorcery101.net, but make sure you’ve got plenty of time! The archive is a good 1300 pages and well worth your undivided attention! Give the Kickstarter your support here;  and if you want to see where she posts extra content, consider supporting her Patreon!

Jamie Kingston

Jamie Kingston

Jamie Kingston is a Native New Yorker, enduring a transplant to Atlanta. She’s a lifelong comic fan, having started at age 13 and never looked back, developing a decades-spanning collection and the need to call out the creators when she expects better of them. Her devotion extends to television, films, and books as well as the rare cosplay. She sates her need to create in a number of ways including being an active editor on the TV Tropes website, creating art and fan art, and working on her randomly updating autobiographical web comic, Orchid Coloured Glasses. As a woman of color, she considers it important to focus on diversity issues in the media. She received the Harpy Agenda micro-grant in November of 2015 for exceptional comics journalism by a writer of color.