The Sandman Universe: Books of Magic review (spoilers)

I’ll come out and say it: the plot design lacked the finesse of the SU Dreaming and Lucifer and the originality of House of Whispers. But the SU Books of Magic has some of the most memorable character moments in the new Sandman Universe comics, though.

The main standout quality here is the portrayal of stereotype threat. Nearly everyone in Tim Hunter’s life tells him his dormant magic is so powerful that it might be a good idea to cut the universe’s losses and just kill him. This goes back to the very first miniseries which Neil Gaiman completed in 1993. There is even an arc running parallel to Tim Hunter that explores Tim’s genuine potential for destruction as sympathetically as possible.

Like Tim, Ellie is established early in the SU story. The reader gets to know her almost as well as they know Tim. Ellie is joined by two other classmates who are characterized, early on, as one bully and one anxious bystander. I wondered, more than once, if Ellie the teenager is modeled after the adult character from the older Hellblazer comics. If so, I wonder how/if Ellie and the two others (Fatima and Kevin) may factor into the upcoming Hellblazer young adult comics if DC is still committed to that.

As Tim is our main viewpoint character though, the weight of the stereotype threat is expressed largely by what it means for him. In other words: is Tim in fact a ticking time bomb that should be done away with?

The fear of this possibly has oppressed him long enough for Tim’s mind to subconsciously create a mirror image of his conscious good intentions. When this character first appeared, I initially thought it was a version of Tim from another timeline. Multiple timelines have appeared before in this story. If this were an “AU” evil Tim, the plot would probably require a deeper exploration of that timeline later.

That happens, incidentally, but for completely unrelated reasons: “evil Tim” is literally a dream made flesh, born from the fears and dark fantasies that Tim’s mentors engendered with their warnings of what he might become. The problem with possibilities, according to Lucien of the Dreaming, is that too narrow a choice can often be worse than none.

Tim’s future is frequently described to him as a narrow, binary choice: good or evil. The evil part is fleshed out with far more details by those who have been outside of the story’s timeline. One of the first of these people to meet Tim tried to kill him before any of those details materialize. This was a factor in Tim’s earlier decision not to pursue magic, since that choice would stop the “evil future” as surely as his death would. Tim later reversed that decision, though, since his magic is endemic to his being and is no worse than he chooses to be.

Changing your mind is also a thematic big deal which compliments the theme of stereotype threat. While also exacerbating some of the accompanying mysteries. After parting ways with Lucien, Tim encounters Emily Dickinson within the Dreaming. She explains to him that she left precise instructions for her family to burn all of her writing. Instead, her sister re-arranged her poems according to her liking and published them.

Tim understands this to mean that people are only free to interpret your nature and your legacy if you are dead and can no longer speak for yourself to them. He asks Emily if it’s true that, so long as you can think and act autonomously, it is never too late to change your mind. Emily agrees, adding that to be yourself or authentically adopt a commitment is to consciously express it consistently. Almost as soon as this happens, though, we learn that the most consistent antagonists throughout the SU comics and the miniseries are from a reality where this cannot be true of Tim.

The evil cabal of magicians called The Cold Flame is used as a red herring in the original miniseries. (There’s gotta be a pun in that somewhere) During the original miniseries, there were constant hints about the fabulous and chaotic world just outside of Tim’s point of view. This world is separated from Tim by the “trenchcoat brigade” and the lessons they teach. A battle between the trenchcoat brigade and the Cold Flame happens completely off-camera. Later, one of the trenchcoat mages (Mister E) attempts to kill him. This builds tension over whether the danger in that specific story comes from the outside world or Tim’s would-be protectors.

This works for the duration of the opening miniseries but a bigger story would necessarily show more of Tim’s world outside of his bubble. As it turns out, The Cold Flame comes from a timeline where Tim went full supervillain. Stopping him at all costs is the highest possible priority as far as they are concerned. In the third book, they are revealed to be adult, “alternate universe” versions of Ellie, Kevin and Fatima. They time-travelled to the present of the story in order to kill Tim before he can become the apocalyptic nightmare he is in their own world.

From the perspective of The Cold Flame, Tim’s good versus evil dilemma has already been resolved. This echoes the revelation at the end of the miniseries when Phantom Stranger states that Tim already gave explicit consent to learn magic when he agreed to be educated.

On one hand, your consent and commitment are yours to give or withhold no matter what at any time. On the other hand, your consent and commitment are out of your hands and already decided by others. As soon as Tim leaves the company of Emily Dickinson, Tim is abducted by the Dead Boy Detectives and put on trial for his wrongdoings.

With Tim as our main character, his perspective is the one we see the stereotype threat through. So it’s severity is determined by how much credit Tim gives it himself. So, from Tim’s point of view, what are his wrongdoings?

While Tim has not turned the world into a burning hellscape, he has been forced to kill twice in self-defense so far. Since Mister E had already told him a number of horror stories about how evil he’ll become, these incidents haunt Tim. Potentially, with enough fear and self-loathing, they could be seen as definite proof that he is evil.

In volume one, several members of The Cold Flame attack Tim in astral form and Tim levels them with a flick of his screwdriver-wand. (between his hair, glasses, owl and magic screwdriver, only one of those was an knowing pop culture reference- the first three were in the original miniseries before Harry Potter was published). In volume two, a proxy of The Cold Flame was about to kill Ellie, Fatima and possibly Dr. Rose before Tim intervened.

This brings us back to the credibility of the stereotype threat and how it’s credibility effects its narrative function. Most of us who do not have antisocial personality disorder would probably need some time to psychologically process killing someone. The normal psychological impact of this experience is exacerbated by the messages Tim has received about being inherently evil. The normal mental hardship of killing is turned into a crisis in which Tim wonders if his accusers have been right all along regardless of his actual decisions.

Luckily, the bodies of the astral warriors are still biologically alive which means their souls can simply be “re-tethered” which Tim has a chance to do. This is what brings Ellie around to wondering if Tim actually is the world-ending menace her future self says he is. The insistence of the other accusers beyond this point convinces Ellie that they’re disingenuous which makes her abandon them altogether.

By the end of the story, all of the main characters have come around to Lucien’s point of view: a given range of possibilities is often limiting because such a range can bait ones’ mind into thinking there are no lateral, “third” options.

The risk of binary perspectives is pointed out several times. One of the starker examples of this happens in the garden of Destiny of The Endless. The last and most powerful of the eponymous books of magic to be gathered is the Book of Possibilities. And it can basically hack Destiny’s book.

This gave me a little bit of pause. The book of Destiny is basically the script for all of space and time- all alternate timelines, every hypothetical or imaginary event, literally everything. The beings and events that defy Destiny’s book in the original Sandman are singled out as startlingly unique, like the triple-goddess form of the Kindly Ones spontaneously appearing to herald the departure of Lucifer. Or even Delirium knowing more about her origins than Destiny himself.

The exceptions to Destiny’s surveyance stood out in the original Sandman. I get that the Book of Possibilities is supposed to be a crazy powerful object. But when an exception is used to signify how special something is…you probably shouldn’t wear out a single, specific standard of exception. It doesn’t break any suspension of disbelief or anything, but it is an unfortunate eyesore.

Getting back to binary versus lateral, the Book of Possibilities basically generates extra paths in Destiny’s garden on demand. And Ellie is the first character we see use the Book of Possibilities within Destiny’s garden. This serves to emphasize the importance of her changing opinion of Tim. But that’s not the only thing that it effects.

Like the role John Constantine and Dr. Rose play in the thematic treatment of binary-defiance. Before handing over one of the books of Magic to Tim, John Constantine elects to put Tim through a reliability test. There are multiple moving parts in this scene but one particular detail serves for our purposes: Tim is required, by a “demon” of impartiality, to sort different uses of magic into general good and bad categories. They soon stop being clear choices between good and bad and become choices between two equally bad events. Tim elects simply to attack the demon and end the charade.

This mirrors the event in Destiny’s garden with Ellie almost exactly, minus the actual Book of Possibilities. The placement of the “sorting” test makes it appear to be foreshadowing which just adds even more build-up to the revelatory use of the Book of Possibilities. This just brings us back to the exceptions to the scope of Destiny’s book being overused, though.

I realize that reading the original Sandman repeatedly for years might not be the frame of reference the SU writers intended, though. The four modern SU stories are supposed to be set within the world of The Sandman, not be an actual continuation. Kat Howard may have plotted this story with nothing else in mind other than the original Books of Magic miniseries. But between Tim exploring the Dreaming and the appearance of Destiny, it really starts to feel like A Game of You, in which the Endless are present but Morpheus/Daniel is not the main character(or barely, in A Game of You). Which makes the over-use of certain tropes hard to overlook.

Both John Constantine and Dr. Rose are interrogated multiple times by different characters for being both committed to Tim’s protection and prepared to kill him if necessary. This implicitly threads the binary-transcendence theme through the story from the beginning. Constantine walks all the way up to that line (remember the moving parts I mentioned?) but doesn’t cross it.

Rose, realizing she has to briefly assume the appearance of going on the offensive against Tim, takes another route to the party. If you’ve read either the opening miniseries or my post about it, you’ll remember that Dr. Occult transforms into a female alter-ego called Dr. Rose when she enters Faerie. During her brief ruse, she assumes her Dr. Occult identity. This moment enables Tim to play an instrumental part in Ellie’s perspective change.

In the SU Books of Magic, Dr. Occult exists almost exclusively as Dr. Rose and only assumes her male identity under specific pressure.

On that subject, I gotta mention how happy I am with Dr. Rose in general. I’m a trans lady so I would be a little sensitive to this, but it really, really looks like Dr. Rose is a trans lady. She even seems to refer to her Dr. Occult alter-ego as something separate from her but with specialized, limited use (“I’ll have to slip into someone less comfortable”).

Granted, using the apparent gender-swap as a last- minute plot device is a bit cringe, but it is portrayed as a temporary magic transformation. As in, a short-lived event, and it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know from context. Basically, it looks like her main, long term preference is Dr. Rose, and it’s played for zero laughs, gross-out moments or cheap pathos. That may be a low bar but honestly that’s where we’re at with trans inclusion.

Another character event I appreciated: seeing John Constantine be morally ambiguous for the first time. I’ve never actually read a Hellblazer comic so my knowledge of Constantine comes from The Sandman, the recent SU comics and the 2005 movie. In the movie, Keanu Reeves tried really hard to portray a morally indifferent character who does good things almost on accident. In The Sandman and the new SU stuff, Constantine barely has enough time in the foreground to show any range. So this was my first time seeing Constantine actually grapple with anything.

I also liked how much Howard committed to the stereotype threat/imposter syndrome theme. With a lot of fan communities, you gotta watch how you portray that. For some readers, a character voicing a belief is enough for it to appear canonical. Stereotype threat or imposter syndrome is most readily visible when multiple characters have clashing perspectives and there are clear reasons for both sides of the “disagreement” to have strong, emotional motivations. Then again, a lot of the cool narrative conflicts are conflicts of conviction, so good job Howard.

The Books of Magic review (light spoilers)

The collected edition of Neil Gaiman’s opening run on The Books of Magic is one of the most unconventional comics I’ve ever read. While plot construction is one of Gaiman’s strengths, this story does not rely on it much.

Or at least…it doesn’t rely on plot the way most stories do. Lots of stuff happens off camera. The central narrative details the education of a young boy named Timothy Hunter. Timothy has the potential to become the greatest magician of the current age and is taken in hand by DC/Vertigo’s “trenchcoat brigade”: John Constantine, Doctor Occult, Mister E and Phantom Stranger. While Tim is receiving all these words of wisdom, other characters are frequently rushing around doing other things.

Major characterization details are hinted at more than they are shown. With a bit of context this can be overlooked: Neil Gaiman wrote these comics when he was commissioned to do an ensemble story for DC featuring all of their occult characters. The four volumes anthologized in the collected edition were also meant to be a frame work that later stories would spring from. Meaning that Neil’s chief obligation to DC & Vertigo was to establish that a bunch of characters exist in the same universe so other writers could craft stories about them interacting with each other.

So, of course, many of those implied character beats are meant to be callbacks or references for the benefit of readers already familiar with the source materials. Neil Gaiman also took the opportunity to introduce several original characters besides Tim Hunter. One of them, Mister E, has a naming scheme that makes him fit in with the likes of Dr. Occult and Phantom Stranger. He’s a Neil Gaiman creation designed to fit into the overall DC occult universe. If you’re like me and you’re learning about many of these characters for the first time, it’s easy to assume Mister E is another pre-existing character.

Neil Gaiman cannot resist an opportunity to throw a wild card into situations where you are tempted to assume you know what is going on. With this in mind, the subtle introduction of Mister E has got to be intentional.

Another interesting original: Glory. The first time I ever heard of that character was in Sandman: Overture in 2013. The Books of Magic miniseries was first anthologized as a trade paperback book in 1993 though. In retrospect, it lines up: Neil Gaiman has said that he was thinking of the plot of Overture since the early nineties. He originally planned to publish the story that would become Overture as part of the original Sandman run. Even so…it’s a little hard not to be gobsmacked by that character’s appearance in an early nineties comic. For me, anyway.

Comic franchises like DC doing crossover ensemble stories have long been par for the course. When I say that The Books of Magic is one of the most unconventional comics I ever read, I mean the relationship between it’s stated subject matter and it’s script. Most of Timothy’s would-be mentors attempt to shelter and educate him. Tension mounts when Tim is not sheltered and instead learns firsthand. This, in turn, forms a response to the lectures.

Speaking of the lectures…consider the various qualities they attribute to magic. The lessons of Phantom Stranger and Mister E are the furthest from waking, physical life. The lessons of Constantine and Dr. Occult are the closest. Phantom Stranger and Mister E discuss universal generalities of time and space which relate to magic. Constantine and Dr. Occult discuss magic in terms of it’s accessibility from waking existence. The generalities often have smaller details which are consistent with the more specific lessons.

While traveling with John Constantine, Timothy meets magicians who reside in the physical world who discuss their magic in words that have double meanings that can just as easily be true of our reality. Upon arriving in America, Constantine says that, as a boy in England, the comics he read made America sound like a fantasy land. All America was to him as a child was a world where a lot of colorful, larger than life characters were- and also where he was not. As I read that I was reminded of the Atlantis vignette from the lesson of Phantom Stranger.

The Atlantean magician says that Atlantis itself is a symbol of the art (meaning magic). All interactions with Atlantis are with emanations of the original- not the original itself. Later, in the company of Dr. Occult (who occasionally transforms into a female alter ego named Rose), Timothy travels through Faerie, the Dreaming, Hell and a cave where dwells a bard singing songs about a mythic king who sleeps beneath all countries. This could be Heinrich Barbarossa, King Arthur, the Roman Emperor Julian, King Solomon or any other living king that passed into the myths of people who dreamt of their return.

The magical countries of Faerie, Hell, the Dreaming, Atlantis and America are all alternatives to physical reality that provide the opportunity for genuine change to manifest. Many of the magicians residing in the physical world that Timothy encounters have rather simplistic ways of “clipping out of bounds.” Zatana and her father (two of the pre-existing DC characters) discovered magic while talking backwards. Madame Xanadu, another established DC character, begins simply with a Tarot reading. She freely admits that the Tarot symbols could be interpreted on any number of symbolic levels or literally.

This all pops when Timothy and Constantine visit a magician who wants nothing more to do with the practice of magic and insists that anything else is a better use of time and effort.

Magic, for Baron Winter, is everything outside of reality. Atlantis and the fantasy realms of divergence are paths outside of reality that begin with imaginary contrast or re-interpretation. Earlier, with Phantom Stranger, Timothy’s encounter with the Atlantean magician is situated between the distant beginnings of the universe and the birth of human myth, rather like a link between them.

Anyone else think that there’s no way that isn’t the same Hamnet from the Midsummer Night’s Dream story in The Sandman?

It really starts to look like that when these characters are discussing magic they’re actually talking about imagination. However I don’t think The Books of Magic is a narrative treatise in the same way that Promethea is. Yet it is difficult to look past the prominent dialogue. Dialogue (or just someone talking to you without an answer) is a way of directing attention. While Tim is being lectured by Earth-dwelling magicians, a clash between the trenchcoat brigade and the evil magic cabal known as the Cold Flame happens elsewhere. One character in particular is reputed to have fought valiantly in Timothy’s defense. Later, when Tim is alone with him, he’s rather less protective. Details like that draw your attention to what is stated to Timothy versus what he directly observes.

Yes this relates to a plot point and the pay-off at the ending is realizing what happened much earlier while your attention was directed elsewhere. Come to think of it, I think there’s a word for a kind of stage performance you do where you carefully control the audience’s attention so you can do cool things in their blind spots that they don’t notice til later. Involves cutting people in half and rabbits in hats. Cain took a run at it in Season of Mists.

I’ve been light on spoilers so far but now I’m gonna get into some speculation that could spoil some stuff, in case you’d rather not know.

That this was written near the inception of the original Sandman comics appears significant. I have not yet read any of the following Books of Magic comics after this point that were not written by Gaiman. I do have the three recent Books of Magic collected editions from the Sandman Universe run, though, so I’ll probably review those sooner or later. I have also been meaning to review the SU House of Whispers comics but they’re just so dense that I think I better re-read them first.

Back on topic though: Gaiman said that the story that would eventually become The Sandman: Overture was in his head in the early nineties. He also originally intended to publish it within the original Sandman series. The appearance of Glory at Faerie in Books of Magic resembles what might be some early groundwork he was laying for his original Overture plan. The idea of the Gemworld, introduced in Books of Magic, could also tie into that.

Early in Overture, we see all manifestations of Dream, from the eyes of all who have seen him, all interact with each other. It at least seems possible that, along with the “emanation” metaphysics, those different facets are also intertwined with his soul. When Timothy encounters the Gemworld and the regions beyond it with Mister E, mention is made of diverse timelines and how they cluster in matrices in probability. Overture is the only other story within the world of The Sandman that also prominently features different timelines. Mister E also points out, in their journey through future timelines, a cancerous god whose soul forms a hive mind with his followers. I think this sounds like the mad star who became a dream vortex in Overture.

I don’t think I’m ready to commit to the theory that Mister E showed Timothy the foreclosed timeline of Overture but it sorta looks like it. This then leaves us with the conundrum of the mundane egg which also plays a role in the later Sandman Universe stories.