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.

Marvel 1602, volume one

Sooo I read my first Marvel comic not so long ago! I gotta say I was way more impressed by Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 than with the relatively new re-imaginings of older properties in recent film. And yes, as is typical of me, I won’t be taking any particular care to avoid spoilers.

Granted, some of these characters I knew nothing of prior, other than their names and certain details of their back stories. I remembered enough of that one Iron Man movie right before The Avengers to know who Nick Fury was and I briefly dated a guy who was really into Dr. Strange (he once said something vague about Dr. Strange comics being one of the first in the industry to involve Eastern religion).

Those were the characters I knew the least about, though. As someone who was in first grade during the early days of Cartoon Network, I was sometimes able to catch episodes of the older Hannah-Barbara Fantastic Four cartoon. Around the same time, the Fox Kids Saturday morning block was getting off the ground with contemporary animated versions of Spider-Man and X-Men.

(If I may stop for a silly digression, idiosyncratic usages of punctuations are funny. Especially when you know a given punctuation choice is supposed to entirely be a matter of personal preference with no relationship to grammar. I mean, I can’t think of a whole lot of superheroes just now that use hyphens in their names. Just now, I really can’t think of any others except Spider-Man and the X-Men. There. It’s out of my system now)

I enjoyed both but Spider-Man held my interest a little more, possibly for no other reason than that Peter Parker’s double-life in a large urban setting and occasional brooding reminded me a little bit of Batman: The Animated Series which, in my opinion at the time, made it slightly better by association. More recently, I’ve been hooked by the Netflix Marvel shows, particularly Daredevil and Jessica Jones. In high school I knew a few fans of the Punisher but learned virtually nothing about him until the movie came out. At that point I decided he’s a completely impoverished catch-all of Batman tropes. The Punisher is a blandly moralizing serial killer whose rejection of a wider moral context, in and of itself, is awkwardly framed as compelling (punishment versus justice). Essentially, he’s the Joker without humor, Batman without morality and Two-Face without character development. Oh yeah, and he’s fascist-friendly. So the Netflix Daredevil show scored points with me by making him the villain of the second season.

This was my frame of reference coming to Marvel 1602, which I was originally interested in when a random Wikipedia link led me to a Daredevil elseworld page. I read a little more and the re-imagining of the X-Men characters piqued my interest. I read a little further and found that Neil Gaiman was the author of the story arc that constitutes the first graphic novel and it then became mandatory reading. I can nit-pick a few of his novel-length prose stories and his short stories range from so-so to delightfully clever, but the man is absolutely unparalleled with it comes to comics. When I finally write my Promethea review, that will be a nice segue toward the specific genius of Neil Gaiman’s contribution to graphic literature (it contrasts with Alan Moore’s writing style and Promethea contains departures from Moore’s typical MO that makes the contrast relevant). For now, though, I’ll just say Neil Gaiman continues to be my favorite graphic lit writer.

Anyway, my first proper narrative encounter with Dr. Strange seems to bear some resemblance to Dr. John Dee, an enigmatic and potentially mythic figure who is sometimes presented in fiction as a court magician of sorts in the employ of Queen Elizabeth. John Dee is still somewhat fresh in my mind from the brief mention in Alan Moore’s prose novel Voice of the Fire within the vignette called Angel Language, so I was tickled. To my delight, Renaissance-era Daredevil appeared in fairly short order after the opening scene, as did a charming re-imagining of Peter Parker as Peter Parquagh, a young dogsbody and student under the tutelage of Sir Nicholas Fury.

Close on the heels of this is a fictionalized version of Virginia Dare, the first European child born in America after European colonization began in earnest, who is travelling in the company of an…apparent Native American named Rojhaz. Who is blonde haired and blue eyed. Later, in conversation with Queen Elizabeth, Virginia says that blondes among the Natives testifies to the possibility that the Welsh landed in America before the Spanish and started families with those that received them.

Okay okay okay okay okay I get it. He’s Captain America. Fine. This is a Marvel story, after all, and there’s no other likely candidate and the dude’s name was originally Steve Rogers so it fits. Still, as a Native American, watching white people do Native stuff gets old really, really quickly. Does Rojhaz’s role in the story’s denouement make up for it? Not really, but it was still cool enough to ease the burn. When Rojhaz is revealed to be none other than the original Steve Rogers himself, sent back in time and causing a temporal paradox that threatens the universe, it ties together a big thematic element. The resolution of the paradox also helps this along.

Captain America says he wants to make the future inhabitants of the continent proud to be Americans- minutes before getting knocked unconscious by Nicholas Fury. While the conclusion of this story didn’t quite push me in that direction, it did offer a forgiving interpretation of the meaning of the so-called New World in the European mind at that time, and even ties it into a bigger philosophical question about the nature of possibility and hope.

At the beginning, Virginia Dare and Rohjaz set out for England hoping to persuade Queen Elizabeth to offer more financial support for their colony at Roanoke. At the end, Sir Nicholas Fury is an enemy of the Crown for having disobeyed the newly ascendant King James of England and Scotland, Carlos Javier and his gifted students are fleeing the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition with former Inquisitor Enrique (Renaissance Magneto) and his own followers in tow, all bound for America, empty-handed and exiled.

On the shores of the American continent, the witchbreed students of Carlos Javier begin to hope for a home in which they can be themselves openly and without fear of persecution, while also dreading the imminent arrival of Enrique and the Brotherhood of Those who will Inherit the Earth. Banner, an agent of King James taking Peter Parquagh as a captive and reluctant informant, is also fast approaching. Virginia’s father begins to despair of the future of the colony without Queen Elizabeth or any support from the British Crown and also has to reconcile himself with newcomers who may bring more trouble in their wake. After Clea Strange forces Rohjaz to reveal his true identity, he begins to fantasize about a new America that he would help along through his inability to age. And then he gets sent back to his own time retroactively, permanently closing off most of the effects of his resulting paradox. The colony at Roanoke, abandoned by the Crown and helpless without the meta-humans, is now doomed to mysteriously vanish. The stark Roanoke disappearance will not happen immediately, but it will happen.

This is framed well by the commentary of Strange’s alien connections, called Watchers. The young Watcher who relayed the news about the paradox through Strange to the meta-humans is instantly consumed with shame. Watchers are a people who, normally, are destined only to watch and appreciate the whole universe objectively. The objectivity of their Watching is implicitly linked to an appreciation for the universe as something that is both ever-changing and also whole and complete unto itself. The young Watcher called Uatu, who assisted Stephen and Clea Strange in resolving the paradox, is heart-broken over the newly emergent possibilities being shut down. For a Watcher, it is a tragedy that any possibility should be foreclosed, as per the simultaneous flux and completion of the universe. The fact that this one particular chain of events needed to be retroactively taken out to preserve the wider universe is undeniable, but that does not prevent one from mourning the loss of the newer and stranger possibilities that almost happened.

While this has all the bombastic sci-fi bells and whistles you could ask for, what with aliens and time travel and paradoxes, it’s still a rather subtle look at what we think of as being possible and how that shapes the scope of our aspirations. It’s subtlety can be detected in that it involves the eventual obliteration of the characters that shaped our perspective as readers, how they navigated the world and what they understood as inevitable facts of life. Our protagonists are oppressed by the cumulative menace posed by the Inquisition, Count Otto Von Doom and King James in the beginning. At the end, they know that they will soon be wiped from existence and their last few moments of subjective life are gravely limited. We nonetheless end with a touching hint of friendship and intimacy between Virginia Dare and Peter Parquagh. In the last few panels, Peter is bitten by a spider and Viriginia says “it’s not the end of the world.”

Each step into the future is a step into a vacuum, it can either be an explosion of possibility or oblivion itself, but one only ascertains which by taking existence moment by moment, forming our dreams in the shelters of our minds and the love of those around us. Very typical of Neil Gaiman, really. It reminds me of what Stephen King wrote in his introduction to the graphic novel World’s End, that in Neil Gaiman’s stories there is a fundamental good will that applies to everyone, that everyone is deserving of shelter, perhaps the shelter at the end of the universe featured within World’s End. Marvel 1602 is also a clear expression of this kindly humanism.

There’s a lot more in this story that I appreciated, but that’s the big one I wanted to get out of the way. I particularly liked the parts of this tale concerning the Renaissance-era X-Men, but unfortunately the high point of that also ties into the low point.

One of our early character viewpoints on the students of Master Carolus Javier’s Select College For The Sons of Gentlefolk is a mutant named Werner, known commonly as Angel, who quickly develops a romance with young Master John Grey. Anyone who follows Neil Gaiman knows that he is, in general, very queer friendly and female friendly and typically pulls absolutely no punches in this regard. As the romantic chemistry blossoms between the two witchbreed youths we begin to see jealous outbursts from Scotius Summerisle (our version of Cyclops), which reminded me of the jealous lover from the first live-action X-Men movie. Not only are there queer characters, but it also looks like a queer romantic subplot is developing and it ties in with previously established nuances of the mythos. I was absolutely over the moon about this for awhile. And then John Grey turns out to be a woman disguised as a man. Like I said, Neil Gaiman normally does not pull punches with LGBT characters. I find it very easy to suspect executive meddling of one kind or another. It’s disappointing, but there you go.

All in all I very much enjoyed this book and can easily see myself re-reading it soon. A very nice way to lose one’s Marvel Comics virginity 😀