Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic — the original story, not the series — began when DC Comics approached Gaiman about doing a series that would bring together the “magic” characters of the DC Universe. Gaiman created the character of Timothy Hunter, a twelve-year-old boy who has the potential to become the greatest magician of the age — our age. Gaiman’s story became the basis for the ongoing DC/Vertigo series of the same name.
Tim is accosted by four men, the Trenchcoat Brigade, who are there to teach him about the history and future of the universe and the possibilities and costs of magic, before offering him the choice of whether or not to follow that path. The four are the Phantom Stranger, John Constantine, Doctor Occult, and Mr. E, whom we may take as being on the side of Light, or Good, or whatever. Meanwhile, the forces of the Dark, or Evil, or the flip side of whatever, are trying to do away with Tim.
The irony here is implicit in the fact that the more you learn and understand about something, the harder it is to leave it behind you.
Roger Zelazny built his introduction to the collected edition on the way Gaiman’s story conforms to Joseph W. Campbell’s outline of the basic structure of myth as described in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, so I don’t have to discuss that: Zelazny did a wonderful job, worth having the book for all by itself.
I will point out, however, that a major portion of the excitement of The Books of Magic — and it is an exciting story, on a certain level — comes from the explication of ideas that Gaiman has provided. The man has a remarkable ability to leave a trail of archetypes, correspondences, associations and connotations behind him in his storytelling. Having said that, I feel honor-bound to point out the obverse of that particular coin: this is a didactic story, and therefore somewhat talky, and quite unapologetically so.
Consequently, there is not a lot of action here, nor is there a great deal of dramatic tension — it’s a heavily scripted comic, and long on philosophy.
I am always interested in the way artists handle the visual component of graphic works — the interplay of image and word fascinates me, to be honest. It’s something that one finds not only in examples of popular culture — comics, for example, or advertising — but in the reaches of high art, in the works of any number of contemporary artists. The core issue is how much of the meaning is carried by words and how much by images? (And I have to confess, in something like The Books of Magic, idea-oriented and heavily scripted as it is, the issue is problematical.)
What’s happening in this collection is a series of illustrated stories, which seems, in my recent experience, the norm for American comics. (We live, it seems, in a terrifically word-oriented culture, perhaps continued fallout from the Enlightenment and its reliance on rational exposition.) John Bolton, for example, who illustrated Book I, “The Invisible Labyrinth,” has done some ravishing work here — rich, tactile images drenched in light and shadow, and including some adventurous and arresting page layouts and spreads, but they remain illustrations: the meaning is still in the words, and while the images echo and amplify, they carry little of the narrative burden. The same holds true of the work of the other artists involved. Scott Hampton’s art for “The Shadow World” is almost as rich as Bolton’s and just as appealing, while the crispness of Charles Vess’ images for “The Land of Summer’s Twilight” gives us a breathing space between the almost impressionistic feel of the first two books and Paul Johnson’s equally atmospheric renderings for “The Road to Nowhere.” Vess’ style can also be taken as an illustration of the difference in perception between Tim’s “normal” world and the realm of the Fey — a very different sense of reality. Johnson plays some fascinating games with the concept of “frame” to create the effect of collage throughout the last section, especially intriguing when the “collaged” sections occur within frames — there’s a spatial displacement there that echoes perfectly the feel of the story. Both Vess and Johnson add a degree of resonance, but no one actually carries any part of the narrative line.
It had been a number of years since I’d read this volume, and it was a great pleasure to read it again. It’s one that carries the idea of comics as a form of literature, and not merely entertainment, which I think is perfectly appropriate. Besides, it’s fun to read — and if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.
(Vertigo, 2001 [orig. DC Comics, 1993])