The Books of Magic

By Neil Gaiman, John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess & Paul Johnson (DC/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3781-3 (HB)                :978-1-4012-4686-0 (PB)
:978-1-85286-470-5 (Titan Books Edition)

Way back when Neil Gaiman was just making a name for himself at DC, he was asked to consolidate and rationalise the role of magic in that expansive shared universe. Over the course of four Prestige Format issues a quartet of mystical champions (thereinafter known as “the Trenchcoat Brigade”) took a supposedly typical London schoolboy on a Cook’s Tour of Time, Space and Infinite Dimensions in preparation for his long-anticipated ascendancy. This meant becoming the most powerful wizard of the 21st Century, and an overwhelming force for either Light or Darkness.

Shy, bespectacled Timothy Hunter is an inoffensive lad unaware of his incredible potential for Good or Evil (and yes, I know who he looks like but this series came out eight years before anybody had ever heard of Hogwarts, so get over it).

In an attempt to keep him righteous, the self-appointed mystic guides provide him and – through literary extension – us, with a full and dangerously immersive tutorial in the history and state of play of “The Art” and its major practitioners and adepts.

However, although the four guardians are not unanimous or even united in their plans and hopes for the boy, the “other side” certainly are. If Hunter cannot be turned to the Dark, he has to die…

Thus, following an Introduction by master fantasist Roger Zelazny, the thaumaturgical thrills begin in Book I, painted by John Bolton.

Here the Phantom Stranger conducts his youthful charge on a trip through ‘The Invisible Labyrinth’ revealing to Tim the history of magic with introductions to Lucifer, Atlantis, and other Ancient Empires, Jason Blood and the boy Merlin as well as mid-20th century crime-busting mystics Zatara and Sargon the Sorcerer.

Scott Hampton picks up the brushes for the second chapter, wherein irrepressible urban trickster-wizard John Constantine hosts a trip to ‘the Shadow World’ of the then-established DCU: introducing the wide-eyed lad to contemporary paranormal players such as Deadman, Madame Xanadu, the Spectre, Doctor Fate, Baron Winter (of Night Force fame), Dr. Terry Thirteen (AKA the Ghost-Breaker) and mystic super-hero Zatanna, who boldly organises a trip to a mage’s bar where the likes of Tala, Queen of Darkness and the diabolical opportunist Tannarak attempt to take matters – and Tim – into their own wicked hands…

For his third work-experience trip, Dr. Occult (created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster years before Superman debuted) escorts the messianic boy on a voyage to the outer lands and Realms of Faerie, courtesy of Charles Vess in ‘The Land of Summer’s Twilight’. This ethereal, beautifully evocative segment would inform much of Timothy Hunter’s later life in the Vertigo comicbook series and graphic collections that inevitably spun off from this saga. Cameos here include Warlord/Travis Morgan, Nightmaster, Amethyst and Gemworld, Etrigan the Demon, Cain, Abel and the (Gaiman-originated) Sandman Morpheus.

Bringing the initial educational experience to a close, ‘The Road to Nowhere’ is painted by Paul Johnson and concludes the peregrinations as ruthlessly fanatical zealot Mister E whisks our astounded boy to the end of time, where the sightless fanatic attempts to twist Tim to his own bleak, black agenda. Beyond Darkseid and the climactic battles and crises of our time; progressing even forward past the Legion of Super Heroes, to the end of Order and Chaos, unto the moment Sandman’s siblings Destiny and Death switch off the dying universe, Tim sees how everything ends before returning to make his choice: Good or Evil; Magic or mundane?

Books of Magic still stands a worthy primer for newcomers who need a little help with decades of back-story which cling to so many DC tales, even today. Despite an “everything and the kitchen sink” tone, this is still a cracking good yarn (available in hardback, trade paperback, eBook and even a British edition from Titan Books), offers useful grounding for all things supernaturally DC and still has overwhelming relevance to today’s much rebooted continuity.

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