The Lost Gems Dept.: Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic

Everyone loves Harry Potter, right? We’ve all read the books, seen the movies, bought the T-shirt, gone to the theme park, ordered the commemorative plate. It’s Harry’s world, and we’re all just living in it.


Except that back in 1990, Harry Potter didn’t exist yet, was nothing more than a possible notion in the mind of a London researcher for Amnesty International named Joanne Rowling. However, there was a bespectacled young English kid learning the ways of magic with a pet owl out there in the pop-culture landscape, and his name was Timothy Hunter, as introduced by writer Neil Gaiman in the DC Comics miniseries THE BOOKS OF MAGIC, recently re-released in a hardcover collection.


At the time, Gaiman was making waves with his SANDMAN series for DC, which was really starting to take off, and so DC gave him the keys to their entire magical kingdom with this series, in which young Tim Hunter, a 13-year-old kid with the potential to be one of the great magical powers of the cosmos, is given a grand circle tour of Magic in the DC Universe by a quartet of mystical players sardonically referred to by one of their number as “The Trenchcoat Brigade”: the Phantom Stranger, John Constantine, Doctor Occult and Mister E.


Each DC sorcerer takes Tim on a different leg of the journey, with the Phantom Stranger showing the past of magic, Constantine showing Tim around the present-day magic scene, Doctor Occult taking him to the otherworldly realms, and Mister E giving Tim an unsettling look at the future. Each chapter is painted by a different artist, with John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson handling the respective art duties.

The series provides Gaiman with a great opportunities to handle all of DC’s magic-based character in one form or another, even the ones who had the time had already been killed off, such as in this chilling scene where the Stranger introduces Tim to the recently deceased Sargon the Sorcerer, who has some ugly advice for young master Hunter:


As Constantine shows Tim around the here and now, we learn that there’s already a price on his head, thanks to repeated warnings from Deadman, who possesses the bodies of those around Tim in order to give him the heads-up:


Tim’s first meeting with the Spectre takes an unexpected turn when the Spirit of Vengeance takes out another of Tim’s would-be assassins:


And afterward, the Spectre offers Tim his own advice:


Gaiman also has Tim spend some time with Zatanna, and it should come as no surprise that Gaiman writes an immensely appealing, grounded Zatanna. It’s a shame he’s not done more with the character over the years.


In the book’s third chapter, things are at their most SANDMANesque as Tim is ushered through faerieland by Dr. Occult, thanks to both the more fantasy –influenced feel of the story, and the exquisite art by Vess, such as in this scene when a captured Tim has a chat with his fellow prisoners of Baba Yaga, a rabbit and a hedgehog:


We’re even treated to a visit with Gaiman’s Morpheus, in one of his few appearances outside the SANDMAN series proper:


Things take a grim and ugly turn in the final chapter, as Mister E shows Tim his own possible dark future:


There’s also a curious omission from the series as it was originally published, in which Mister E confesses to Tim his own childhood trauma, in which his father gouged his eyes out with a spoon. That balloon is missing entirely here, which makes for an odd silence before Tim’s rejoinder:


Hopefully this was a simple accident, and not hamfisted revisionism on DC’s part.

We’re also treated to another rare cameo in BOOKS OF MAGIC, an appearance by Death herself at the end of the universe, where, as she puts it, she’s “locking the place behind her as she leaves”:


THE BOOKS OF MAGIC is an often overlooked gem in Neil Gaiman’s DC catalog, scary and sweet, funny and tragic. Highly recommended.

Scott Tipton needs to go re-read SANDMAN.


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