The Books of Magic 1-4 (1990-1991) DC Comics, Vertigo
By Neil Gaiman
As an avid fan of Neil Gaiman’s work I was super surprised to find out I totally missed out on The Books of Magic. I think I knew of the four issues in the back of my head but completely forgot they were a huge thing as time went by. And the weird thing is I was reminded of them due to a semi-recent tweet that addressed more or less people complaining Gaiman stole the idea of a boy “wizard” in his starting steps from J.K. Rowling. What sparked that conversation on Twitter I have no idea (was it the owl? Because Tim has an owl called Yo-Yo? People did read the comics before going on a Twitter rant, right? They know an actual yo-yo was turned into an owl just for Tim to know magic is real?), but it resulted in people and even Neil Gaiman himself having to explain to other users how fiction writing works and how inspiration works and also that 1990 comes before 1997. Yep, the Philosopher’s Stone came out in 1997 and The Books of Magic were written between 1990 and 1991. I think that’s pretty much a discussion ender there. Anyways…
Aside from that, as always I was really happy to explore another piece of Gaiman fiction in a universe I am familiar and comfortable with.
The Books of Magic give the starting point to Timothy Hunter’s adventure in becoming, if he choses so, one of the greatest if not the greatest magician of his generation. As he is quite young and unaware of that possibility, four practitioners of magic take it upon themselves to introduce Tim to the capabilities, promises, dangers, opportunities and costs of magic. Dubbed the “TrenchCoat Brigade”, its four members are John Constantine, the Phantom Stranger, Dr. Occult, and Mister E. Each of them take Tim on a specifically tailored tour of the magical realms that showcases certain aspects set in the distant past, the chaotic present, the dangerous multi-realms and Faerie and the far, far set future.
Between these points in time and magic, Tim is introduced to what are essentially Vertigo’s and DC’s greatest magical persons – Zatanna, Madame Xanadu, Dr. Fate, The Spectre, Merlin and many more. A fantastic treat are the appearances of Dream of the Endless and Death of the Endless, Sandman’s perhaps most beloved characters (I know they are mine).
So, in all that Tim has to decide whether he wants to pursue magic or science, science being a life of normality and rationality and safety without a hint of magic. He is given the opportunity to learn about magic and thus decide whether he wants it and also unbeknownst to him passes a sort of test which might help determine whether his affiliation, if he chooses magic, will lie with the forces of good or evil. Though that’s somewhat of a blurry line in that universe as things are neither black nor white. They’re kind of mood indigo, as Mister E knows all too well.
I wouldn’t want to spoil too much for anyone who hasn’t had the chance to read these four issues though it’s been years since they came out and the respected characters appear not only in their own arch’s but in many collaborative issues such as Justice League Dark and even the Sandman series just to name two out of the top of my head.
If you are keen on magic but in its philosophical, transcendental, esoteric, ancient, powerful and dark visage and admire smart and elegant and through and through brilliant writing that’s syphoning life-lessons on the backdrop of angels cascading flaming to earth, or Atlantis crumbling in the distance, or the universe and the stars being birthed, led by hierophant’s and jackasses and occult figures without true names, then this is absolutely the mini-series for you. You even get Death telling you about that appointment in Samara. Well not with so many words. You know the one, right? There was a merchant in Bagdad…
The mini-series is very strong even as a standalone series. Tim Hunter’s adventures do continue after this and the Books of Magic themselves make an appearance in Hellblazer and in Justice League Dark where John Constantine and Zatanna are important if not main characters. So there is a nice tie-in between very familiar characters and places that have been around in print form for a long time like Hellblazer, Sandman, Faerie to name some of the bigger ones. They don’t require an extensive introduction not only because of their pop-culture popularity but also since passing through them we do so as Tim does, our and his interval of introduction is based on the need to acquire knowledge, not to linger. It’s not an exploration mission, it’s one of understanding basics.
The Sphinx claimed that we are not really here at all. That we are an illusion, an oscillation in the final Event Horizon. But we feel like wer are real. We bicker and fight and make love for warmth and for comfort; We huddle together, and distrust one another.
– Issue 4
My point being, even if you are a reader unfamiliar with that universe, you can still enjoy it just as much as avid fans do, because you get to experience these worlds and characters in their possibly most condensed form without losing from their allure and world mechanism. As brief as they come and go you understand what they are meant to be or represent.
Boston Brand aka Deadman even makes an appearance in The Books of Magic jumping from person to person to occupy their bodies and speak to Tim to inform him on who wants to kill him. The Spectre, though very briefly appears in the second issue and he is a huge DC character in its multiverse. Lady Titania, the Queen of Faerie represents a vital part in the third issue but she shares that introduction into Faerie with a famous fairy tale figure Baba Yaga, with a multitude of realms each bearing their own stories told masterfully in one page.
“Here do many demons make their homes, the twisted geometries conforming with their own dark internal vistas…”
John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson deserve more than praise for their work. They did fantastic work on the art of each of the four issues. Building these transitions in magic through realms in colors that stand out, that speak of ethereal and mystical is by far not an easy task as isn’t refreshing known characters and stylizing them according to the topic, the realms, this “TrenchCoat Brigade” but also keeping them consistent throughout the adventure even though each artists gives them different nuances. Each panel is detailed and the pages made such that they don’t feel clustered and obtrusive with colors or text. As always there are a few snapshots here for the viewing pleasure but their main purpose is to show just how amazing the art is and how important to this type of story. It is here to hook you up.
Any of you who know Neil Gaiman or his work know the universes he creates and know how carefully crafted they are, how vast and expanding they are and yet in their heart stands one person and their journey and them meeting all these bizarre and terrifying and amusing characters who offer riddles, or advice, or tales or danger. Trust me, The Books of Magic are a pleasure.
*Images and quotes used here belong to their sole creators.