What would you do if four creepy guys in trench coats emerged from a dark alley and asked if you believed in magic? You’d probably do what Timothy Hunter, the young hero of The Books of Magic, does: you’d run. 12-year-old Tim is no fool, and he’s naturally suspicious when four mysterious men appear one day to offer him experiences beyond his imagination. Tim, it transpires, has the potential to become the greatest wizard of his age–a potential he may fulfill for good or for evil.
Despite a superficial resemblance to another magically gifted young boy with dark hair and glasses, Tim’s story has little in common with Harry Potter‘s (for one thing, his glasses are significantly dorkier). Created by master storyteller Neil Gaiman and continued by John Ney Rieber, The Books of Magic reflect a grittier, more ambiguous, and quintessentially Neil Gaiman take on fantasy. As he did in Sandman, Gaiman takes characters from the DC universe and mixes them with older mythological figures to people a wonderfully eclectic world.
Like any good piece of speculative fiction, The Books of Magic are as much about the human experience as they are about magic. As John Ney Rieber writes in his introduction to The Books of Magic, vol. 2: Summonings, “Tim and Molly actually live in a realm that has never been mapped by the Royal Geographic Society…people who’ve lost touch with the place call it ‘Adolescence.'” Tim’s journey through this strange and dangerous land is the journey of a teenager struggling to find an identity: questioning his parents, questioning his world, questioning himself. The various people in The Books of Magic who would like to control Tim’s destiny are neat metaphors for the forces vying to shape our identities every day.
Artistically, the series recalls Sandman; it shifts back and forth between a traditionally “realistic” comic book style, a more impressionistic use of elongated figures and limited color palettes, and delicate Charles Vess fairy tale illustration (Vess contributes several covers to the series and draws the fairyland scenes in the first book). Gaiman’s original volume uses a different artist for each story, while Peter Gross and Peter Snejbjerg trade off for most of the rest of the series. Readers will react differently to different takes on the characters, but all the artists preserve the skinny awkwardness of Tim. Another common thread is Sherylin van Valkenburgh’s use of color to emphasize the bleakness of Tim’s modern-day London and his sense of disorientation as he moves through different worlds (the sickeningly pink color scheme of Hell is particularly memorable).
The Books of Magic series is ongoing, and further collections are planned. Fans will want to read The Books of Fairie, which explore the fairy characters from The Books of Magic. There’s also a series of novels, based on the comics stories, by Carla Jablonski. Despite the “mature readers” warning on their covers, The Books of Magic are quite appropriate for young adult and high school collections. They do feature some gore, used mainly to underscore the evil of various villains. Despite a drop in the quality of storytelling in the later books, the series deserves a place in libraries for the strength and relevance of its story.
Despite his initial distrust of the afore-mentioned mysterious men, Tim Hunter’s life could use some magic. Our hero lives with his widowed father, who barely seems to know Tim is there. His would-be magical mentors, who include an endearing version of Hellblazer‘s John Constantine, take him on a tour of the magical universe that includes heaven, hell, fairyland, various comics, and the end of time. At the end of the journey, Tim must decide whether to accept his magical gifts or return to his previous ignorance. First, however, he must survive the trip.
Each chapter of this original volume features a different artist, giving it a rich variety of styles. Gaiman explores some of his favorite themes: the nature of good and evil, magic as a double-edged sword, and the importance of looking beyond your own reality. While readers will want to know what happens to Tim afterwards, the story can also stand alone.
The Books of Magic
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, Paul Johnson
DC Comics/Vertigo, 1993