Friday, August 16, 2013

I Reads You Review: THE BOOKS OF MAGIC Book 1


WRITER: Neil Gaiman
ARTIST: John Bolton
LETTERS: Todd Klein
EDITOR: Karen Berger
48pp, Color, $3.95 U.S., $4.75 CAN (1990)

The Books of Magic was a four-issue comic book miniseries written by Neil Gaiman and published by DC Comics.  The series focuses on a boy named Timothy “Tim” Hunter, who has the potential to become the world’s greatest magician.

Each issue (or “book”) was drawn by a different artist:  Book I by John Bolton; Book II by Scott Hampton; Book III by Charles Vess; and Book IV by Paul Johnson.  In addition to Hunter, the book also features four characters who take it upon themselves to introduce Hunter to the world of magic (as it exists in the DC Comics Universe):  The Phantom Stranger, John Constantine, Doctor Occult, and Mr. E.  Constantine mockingly refers to himself and the others as “the Trenchcoat Brigade.”

The Books of Magic, Book I is entitled “The Invisible Labyrinth.”  The Phantom Stranger takes Tim on a journey through the history of the DC Universe.  The story begins with the Trenchcoat Brigade debating if and how they should help Hunter.  Eventually, the story moves the Phantom Stranger and Hunter back through time so that the boy can experience ancient figures speaking of the high cost of magic.  DC Comics magical characters that appear in Book I include, Merlin, Jason Blood, Dr. Fate/Kent Nelson, Zatara, and Sargon the Sorcerer/John Sargent.

If I remember correctly, I read one or two issues of The Books of Magic, but I did not read the story in its entirety until the first trade paperback collection, which had an introduction by author Roger Zelazny, was published in 1991 (I think).  However, I have not read the story since then (which is something like over twenty years), nor have I ever read the ongoing series that spun off from the original miniseries.

Reading The Books of Magic again, I am not only surprised by how humorous it is, but also how often the story shifts in terms of tone and mood.  Gaiman presents the gathering of The Phantom Stranger, John Constantine, Doctor Occult, and Mr. E, as if it were a regular meeting between bickering old pals, which I thinks encourages the readers to want to get to know all four characters better or, in some cases, for the first time.  That humor is mostly conveyed in the dialogue, because John Bolton’s art, as effective as it is for most of the first book, does not capture the nuances and little bits of humor that Gaiman is giving to the characters in the first ten or so pages.

Bolton’s strength comes through once the Phantom Stranger and Tim Hunter begin their journey.  Gaiman portrays magic, not as a happy thing ready to pull anything out of thin air.  He is philosophical about it, imparting to his readers that it comes with a cost, in that magic may take much more than it ever gives.  Bolton depicts magic in all the diversity of its earthly incarnations, while encapsulating the interplay between the dark and the light, the beautiful and the unsightly, and the alien and the familiar.  Bolton makes DC Comics’ nonsensical ‘bible” of magic visually and graphically dark, ambiguous, intriguing, and even alluring.

The Books of Magic, Book I: The Invisible Labyrinth will make you want to read the rest of the series.  I had forgotten how special this series was and is.  I doubt DC Comics could do something like this again, even they tried.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux

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