Before the rise of Science Fiction, most stories used mysticism and the supernatural as the methods of development while today, plots often rely on speculative science or modern ideas of reality over spells, potions, incantations, and curses. While the Big Two are not necessarily adverse to magic, they seem shy about relying on it.
The decline of Magic is something visible both in comics and real life. It’s easy to explain why for both, Magic just naturally erodes away in the presence of Science. Before Industrialization, people were more susceptible to disease and disaster and random chance could mean your death. Faced with that, belief in higher powers or things outside the physical realm were more palatable since people hadn’t learned of the lack of evidence for their existence. Magic is something that’s so expansive and immutable, it depends on ambiguity and mystery for acceptance. If you know medicine will cure an illness better than holding a shiny rock, the shiny rock will suddenly become an ordinary object. So it went where people learned about Astronomy, Biology, Evolution, Engineering and on and on until the gaps in human understanding shrunk to mysteries we either don’t have the means to solve or the evidence.
That doesn’t mean Mysticism and Fantasy have no place in our entertainment; Harry Potter, The Hobbit/ Lord of the Rings and the Elder Scrolls games all take place in worlds where magic is just as real as anything else. Most horror films like to use the cliched ghost/haunting tropes year after year. Yet, Zombies and Vampires are usually science based monsters now instead of something involving Voodoo, curses or the Devil. Magic still has a place in our lexicon, but its much smaller post 20th Century. Part of that is the academic prodding to extinguish the irrational and superstitious in favor of a more learned and reasoned civilization. Harry Houdini, the famed magician and escape artist, made a hobby out of debunking bogus mediums who claimed to communicate with the after-life. The stigma of believing in the outlandish doesn’t help, a sincere belief in ghosts is one thing but others tend to earn the label of “mentally unbalanced”.
You can see part of that in comics, with magic based characters facing fear or mistrust from their peers. Batman is depicted as the epitome of human potential, even doing things that should be impossible, but he has trouble reconciling the existence of the unexplained with his scientific deduction.
Some magic users have an air of prestige about them, Doctor Stephen Strange is actually used as a doctor for his fellow Marvel heroes who face problems outside their realm of experience. It’s fitting, both given his past as a medical doctor and his title as Sorcerer Supreme for our realm. DC’s John Constantine has been given a similar role, despite Dr.Fate being more trustworthy if not as theatrical. Constantine’s skill-set usually involves slight-of-hand and cons rather than proper spells, although he’s not adverse to a summoning now and then.
Issues of race also factor into portrayal of certain characters and their status in their publisher’s universe. Brother Voodoo has never reached the acclaim of Doctor Strange despite being relatively accomplished in his own way. Like his title suggests, Brother Voodoo uses the Haitian belief system involving demigods called Loa to enact change on the physical plane. Voodoo, in itself, is a less familiar form of mysticism due to its practitioners guarding its ways. Taking this into account, its fitting Brother Voodoo is still a Marvel character living on the fringe.
Voodoo is far from the darkest part of the Marvel Universe, Mephisto/The Devil is a recurring presence to torment its heroes. Most of the holders of the Ghost Rider mantle have some connection to a demonic figure, giving them the ability to transform into a nigh invincible flaming skeleton who punishes the guilty.
Despite Science and Magic competing, Marvel has melded them a few times in their Mutant characters like Magick, Scarlet Witch and her son Wiccan. While the mutant gene is supposed to an evolutionary adaptation based on science, those three characters are able to use magic because of their mutant genes, which seems like it should be some kind of paradox.
It’s often said that science is just magic explained, or put another way, magic is a form of science that has yet to be fully studied. 2011’s Thor attempted to bridge the two threads to explain the Asgardians and Norse mythology, while the comics seem to put both Thor and Loki in the realm of magic as demigods. Perhaps because of Thor’s pedigree as a creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Thor has almost always been a consistent part of the Marvel Universe. His background makes for a good contrast to Iron Man and Captain America’s as firmly science-based heroes.
Magic in comics has waxed and waned somewhat, likely in response to tastes in the readership. It’s unlikely we will ever see a huge resurgence into the mystic arts or the occult with new smart phones being released annually and our dreams of flying cars, jet packs and food in pill form still a distant realization. Both the West and the East, despite the trope of the latter being a haven for mysticism and forgotten knowledge, have embraced modernization and reason. Magic resides in Disney’s animated features, as something to astound children.
Writers like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison like to talk about using alternative systems of thought, like Chaos Magic or snake gods to help enhance their writing. It gives them an air of mystery, if not a quantifiable method of quality writing. Although it could be said that Grant Morrison’s numerous hits, as well as Alan Moore’s mature and cerebral classics, make a case to light some candles and chant for hours at a time in order to write the next great comic.
Unlike science, which both requires and provides hard evidence to explain the natural world and its rules, magic operates almost solely on belief. Whether its real or not is largely up to an individual’s capacity to imagine things beyond their ken and will their existence into being, much like Doctor Strange and John Constantine do on a regular basis.
Magic has had a long and fruitful history in the real world, if not exactly for the reasons we would like. As such, it’s always worth being open to the possibility of things beyond our senses or physical laws.