A bespeckled and awkward twelve year-old boy (with parental issues no less) discovers that he’s possibly the world’s most powerful practitioner of magic. Oh! And he has an owl for a pet.
Sound remotely familiar?
For all intensive purposes, it shouldn’t. You see, it’s January 1990 – seven years before the publication of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – and the first issue of the four-issue mini series, The Books of Magic, is being published by Vertigo Comics. And its black-haired, skateboarding, main protagonist, the kid that would be eclipsed the world over by the fictional lightning-shaped scarred forehead of Harry, is named Timothy Hunter.
It’s not like this is revisionist history. No, The Books of Magic was an absolutely beautiful series – and proved to be an enormous missed opportunity for Vertigo/DC Comics and their parent company, Warner Brothers.
Written by: Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by: John Bolton, Charles Vess, Paul Johnson, Scott Hampton
Published by: Vertigo Comics
So, here’s the premise of the story:
Created by hot comic book writer Neil Gaiman, who was writing the award-winning Sandman series at the time, The Books of Magic tells the tale of Timothy Hunter, who has the potential to be the world’s greatest magician. Now, this isn’t the kind of magician that pulls rabbits out of hats, although I’m sure that Tim could have done that too. No, this is the kind of magician that walks the line between the worlds of reality and mythology, between the kingdoms of faerie and hell, the shadowed worlds and all possible futures. In fact, those lands are what each of the four issues showcased. Understood to be powerful, Tim is approached by some of the more magical characters of the DC Universe in order to be given a choice: accept magic or reject his destiny. Each issue sees him on a guided tour of strange lands and dimensions, a sort of Joseph Campbell hero-pilgrimage.
In the first issue, with beautifully painted artwork by John Bolton, Tim is told the history of the DC Universe by the character known as the Phantom Stanger. In the second issue, with painted artwork by Scott Hampton, everyone’s favourite British mage, John Constantine, takes the boy on a tour of the darker areas of the present world. The third issue showcases the exquisite artwork of Charles Vess (Stardust) as the character named Doctor Occult shows Tim all of DC’s mystical realms including Faerie, Gemworld, Skartaris and Hell. In the fourth issue, painted by Paul Johnson, Tim is led by the slightly mad Mister E into the future.
Drama unfolds as there is continuous debate by the four guides, affectionately known as The Trenchcoat Brigade, on whether the young boy will choose magic and be benevolent or turn absolutely evil with his power. Heck, will be choose magic at all?
The Books of Magic served not only as a successful catalyst for the character of Timothy Hunter and his guides (Tim would later get his own ongoing The Books of Magic series that lasted 75 monthly issues which have since become available in compiled trade paperback books) but the four-issue mini-series served to re-introduce comic book audiences to the more mystical realms of fiction in the DC Universe. Even though he had such enormous success with his Sandman series, you could also look at The Books of Magic as Neil Gaiman’s early forays into subject matter that would become the novels Neverwhere, Stardust and American Gods.
Still, with all that success, one can’t help but look back on Timothy Hunter and The Books of Magic as a failure in terms of marketing to a larger audience. At one point in time, in the early 1990’s, the series was optioned as a motion picture. Through various re-writes, the project got dropped – and then Harry Potter took the world by storm. Timothy Hunter’s book was eventually cancelled and the character relegated to a sort of obscurity.
It kind of makes you wonder if the various editors at the comic book company and, especially, the executives at the parent company decided, unlike the fictional creation, to not choose magic.
The Books of Magic is a wonderful tale with fascinating characters to meet and locales to wander. It’s beautifully written and divinely illustrated by some of the best talents in the industry. Make the run today and pick up the new deluxe edition hardcover.
You can still choose magic!