Life During Wartime represents a distinct break with The Books of Magic as it had been developed by Neil Gaiman and John Ney Rieber. Si Spencer, working with Gaiman, “updated” the characters and took them into a new set of trials that speak strongly to a contemporary audience.
In one of the universes we visit, Tim Hunter, now about nineteen, is occupying a milieu that seems composed of equal parts drugs, beer, and aimlessness. He, Molly, and their friends Dog and Cat form a tight-knit group who meet a man named Brewster, whose advent marks a change in Tim’s nice, safe little universe: suddenly, Tim is getting hints of power, glimpses of other possibilities, and he wants that. Something deep in him is hungry for that. A visit to Avebury sparks the crisis.
In another universe, there is war. The Faerie Queen, whose forces are known as the Born, is intent on conquering the entire world — and perhaps more. Krakow and Thule (Rejkavik), the remaining outposts of humanity (the Bred) are isolated. John Constantine heads the coalition of Born and Bred besieged in Krakow. The magician Zatanna acts as his spy service, engaged in assembling the Books of Magick, which will enable them to bring back the Hunter, revered as a god by the coalition, and save the world. Lord Midian, who leads the Bred coalition forces in Thule, is preparing to invade Albion.
As a story, it’s got a lot going for it — it has the potential, based on this first installment, to be an absorbing adventure of a dark cast: we’re dealing here with intolerance, war, and the depths to which men can sink. Spencer notes in his foreword that the intent was to take Tim Hunter into a “hipper, funkier post-millennial milieu,” which they’ve done. What’s been lost here, at least in my reading, is the mythic resonance that made the previous volumes of the series so much more than they might have at first seemed. I have to confess to some ambivalence here: Spencer is at pains to note that the purpose was to bring Tim Hunter to a new generation of readers who might not be — and probably aren’t — familiar with the original series. They’ve done that, to a certain extent, but, while Tim is still recognizable as the cynical boy who finally learned to live with himself, and Constantine and Zatanna are still very much themselves, there are some changes that don’t sit well. The Faerie Queen is no longer the proud, arbitrary, but vulnerable and sometimes all too human Titania, but merely an abstract evil residing in a porcelain mask. That is, perhaps, only the tip of the iceberg: we don’t see many of the characters we might have expected. What we do see is largely a band of clichés.
Nor is there a great deal of depth. Midian comes to believe that his second and lover, Piotr, is a traitor, but we are privy to no soul-searching, no justifications, no grief over the betrayal, merely a summary execution. Brewster turns out to be the demon Sirius, sent to protect Tim, who falls in love with him and sacrifices himself to save him, but we are given merely the baldest of statements on the emotional context. Just as there is no mythic resonance left in this story, there’s no psychological resonance.
The graphics, as much as I like them, seem to fall back on the same clichéd framework as the story. The new Tim is visually very satisfying, as are most of the human characters and even many of the non-human, but we seem to be stuck in the idea that fat plus warts plus spines equals evil. Unless evil is skinny and has webbed feet and a tail — although that might be good, as well. I don’t mean to dis the graphic work here — as I said, I like it, and I think the character renderings for the major characters are superb. I just couldn’t shake the feeling, as I was reading, that I had seen it all before.
As a stand-alone, Life During Wartime works pretty well. As a continuation of The Books of Magic, it’s lacking.
(Vertigo [DC Comics], 2005)