Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Books of Magic’ Reintroduced Fans to the Occult Corner of the DC Universe [Review]
On sale this week is a new edition of The Books of Magic, collected in hardcover for the very first time, over twenty years after it first appeared. Written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by four of the most refined artists of the era, it’s a book that seems to have been a little forgotten in recent years. But with the heat surrounding Justice League Dark, and Guillermo Del Toro’s alleged desire to make a movie starring a gaggle of DC’s supernatural characters, it may be a great time for Books of Magic to finally get deluxified. Long before JLD brought Timothy Hunter together with John Constantine and Zatanna, Books of Magic introduced the twelve-year-old English kid to every mystical character in DC’s canon, solidified a corner of what would become the Vertigo universe, and evoked a powerful metaphor for the pitfalls, potential, and magic of youth.The Books of Magic came about specifically because DC wanted a comic that threw a spotlight on its horror and supernatural properties, which had reached a new level of popularity after years of dormancy. After Alan Moore’s success in reviving and re-imagining a host of forgotten properties for The Saga of the Swamp Thing in the early eighties, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer continued the trend, building the supernatural line into a formidable one. From about 1983 to 1989, quality work, primarily by an influx of British writers headhunted by Karen Berger, stoked enthusiasm for an area of the DC universe that had been mostly ignored since the 1970s. Attempting to build on that interest, “The Book of Magic” was conceived to define DC’s “magical community.” Originally to be written by J.M. DeMatteis, with art by John J. Muth, Kent Williams, and Dave McKean, they eventually all dropped out (No, really. See Comic Book Legends Revealed #271).
The project ultimately ended up in the hands of Neil Gaiman, which was of course the best possible thing that could have happened.
By the time The Books of Magic landed in his lap, Gaiman had gotten over the awkward hump of the first few months on The Sandman, and was regularly turning out one of the most imaginative, literate, and unique comics of the era, in which several of DC’s mystical properties had already appeared — Cain and Abel from House of Mystery, John Constantine, Etrigan the Demon, etc. It’s actually kind of hard to fathom why Gaiman wasn’t pegged as the writer in the first place – J.M. DeMatteis is a great writer who was at the peak of his powers, but Gaiman was so perfect a choice for The Books of Magic, it’s hard to imagine anyone else having written it.
They stuck with the multiple artists approach. Gaiman was teamed with four spectacular draftsmen, in order by issue: John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson. And rather than use an existing character as the lead, Gaiman (with John Bolton) created an entirely new one, able to act as a stand-in for the readers, who sees everything with fresh eyes.
Timothy Hunter is twelve years old, British, and destined to become the greatest wizard of all time. He also has dark brown hair, glasses, and a pet owl. If that sounds familiar, that’s because you haven’t been living under a rock for two decades. The superficial similarities between Tim Hunter and Harry Potter are many, and though it’s been suggested that J.K. Rowling ripped off Books of Magic, Gaiman himself has always dismissed the idea, offering that they were both just borrowing from T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. Ultimately, the similarities really are only superficial — Timothy Hunter doesn’t get initiated into a magic Disney castle by wearing a talking hat. As his guides, he gets a distant weirdo, a con-man, a man who sometimes changes into a woman, and a psychopath.
The Phantom Stranger, John Constantine, Dr. Occult, and Mister E, or “The Trenchcoat Brigade” as Constantine mocks, come together to give him the news of his potential and take him on a walking tour through the magical history of DC, and pretty much every character who treads on the darker side of continuity makes an appearance. Jason Blood and his counterpart Etrigan, Dr. Fate, Sargon the Sorcerer, Zatara, Merlin, Deadman, The Spectre, Madame Xanadu, Baron Winters, Felix Faust, Nightmaster, and several more. There’s even an appearance by Amethyst. Tim is shown ancient myths and the land of Faerie, and with everyone he meets and every story he’s told, he’s shown the price of a life of magic and educated on the merits and danger of what may await. And he’s warned that, despite his best intentions, he may turn out to be an evil piece of #### and destroy the world. No pressure.
Shortly after meeting Timothy, it’s evident that his power may not be a great thing. When asked if he believes in magic, he admits that he wishes it was real, so he can, you know, make people pay. “If I could do this stuff they’d have to treat me different. That’s for certain,” he thinks. “I wouldn’t have to take any crap from anybody. Not ever.”
That’s not the internal monologue you want to hear from the kid who may grow up to be the most powerful wizard of all time. The potential of Tim’s power, and the potential for it to corrupt him, made for high stakes in what became the Vertigo line — it fueled the best moments of the eventual monthly series for years (particularly a fantastic 25-issue run by writer/artist Peter Gross). But more than that, it made for a powerful metaphor for the self-discovery of late adolescence.
So many of the magicians Hunter comes in contact with are portraits of youth corrupted or pushed aside. Teenage Merlin is the greatest wizard of his era, but he’s also the son of the devil, knows exactly how he’s going to die, and can’t do anything about it. Zatanna’s endless positivity doesn’t hide the fact that she’s still dealing with Zatara’s gruesome death (in Swamp Thing #50) and reckoning with the bloody heritage imparted to her by her father while she was still a child. The best example is obviously Mister E, a powerful magician who can walk through time, but has been permanently corrupted by a father who blinded and abused him.
The message is clear: magic, like youth, has it dangers. But they are nothing compared to the joys.