Once upon a time, in the mid-1990s, my best friend was a guy named Sebastian, and like most teenage guy-girl best-friendships, there was an unrequited romantic interest prickling beneath the surface. The end was predictably torturous: He “cared too much” to carry on as friends and I, in my very real but somewhat histrionic grief, accidentally triggered the fire alarm on the floor of my freshman dorm as I torched stuff that reminded me of him using a Spencer’s Gifts candle and a cake pan (to collect the ashes of my misery, natch). The bad news: Now, years and years and years later, we are reunited as Facebook friends, where I hesitatingly like some of his updates (he never likes mine) and admire silently and from afar some of the things he is doing, because of course any attempt at genuine IRL reentry is tacitly discouraged. The good news is that Sebastian gave me great gifts – talismans, really – during those years of us kids becoming, well, smarter, older and more complicated kids: Chief among them a cassette copy of the Cure’s The Head on the Door and the “Brief Lives” issues of Sandman. I guess that is where any leftover love hides out.
So thank you, Sebastian, for my entrée into the world(s) of Neil Gaiman; the reference point has never staled. My appreciation, however, was strongest back in the day, when Stone Temple Pilots were cool the first time around. In recent years I’ve had a generalized sense of oversaturation, as in, NEIL GAIMAN: STOP BEING EVERYWHERE. He’s even snuck onto my grad level Children’s Lit syllabus, and though Blueberry Girl deserves to be there, it’s one of those things where universal acclaim and repeated success feeds my totally random desire for schadenfreude. This month, at the behest of my comics gurus, I read The Books of Magic, so you’ll understand that I mean good things when I say, “You did it again, Gaiman. Dammit.”
The Books of Magic is almost entirely a preface, or a flashback before we even know where we’re flashing back from. Timothy Hunter is a 12 year old British kid with a skateboard, a yo-yo and decidedly uncool glasses, the kind of kid who honks when he blows his nose. Not who you’d imagine to be first in line for the title of Most Powerful Magician Ever. And yet he is cornered in an alley by a shadowy foursome – John Constantine, Dr. Occult, Mister E and the Phantom Stranger – only to be told that this could indeed be his future. So, in the interest of education, illumination, grave warning and whatnot, these intimidating trench coats trade turns escorting Tim through what seems like the history of all things conceivable and inconceivable, literally, from the Big Bang to the End of Time. After mulling all of this over for a minute, he can decide whether he wants to walk a magical path or keep on with his earthly and apparently dreary everyday life. You know, the whole red pill/blue pill thing.
It is, as Roger Zelazny suggests in his introduction, an expression of the monolithic hero’s quest, and thus unfolds in a certain way, recalling other great works that depict a battle between good and evil. There is a door to pass through (much like a rabbit hole, the back of a wardrobe, a transporter bay) and John Bolton, the illustrator for this first chapter, renders the scene with a particulate texture of light blues and browns; dematerialization must leave some grit. At the turn of the page and on the other side of the door, Tim stands in front of the exaggerated silhouette of the Phantom Stranger, contained within this negative space as if a subset of him, or like the shadow is a dark bottle that simultaneously traps him and protects him.
How does one sum up the whole of human history? Pages and half-pages are devoted to cross-sections of magical time – the dawn of man, ancient Egypt, dynastic China, classical Greece, Arthurian England, witch trial Salem, the art deco intersection with stage magicianship – and each illustration is archaeologically iconic, drawn in the tradition of its era accompanied by poetic cryptograms written in contemporaneous lettering. The two page woodcut concentration on the witch trials is particularly intense; smaller blocks of narrative images are overlaid on top of larger scenes, subverting our sense-making abilities and interrupting the story with other parts of the same story. The simple figures are somehow more brutal in this horrifying recasting of folk art.
The second act, interpreted by Scott Hampton in washy watercolors, is where John Constantine, the cad we know and love from “Hellblazer,” takes Tim to America and introduces him to Zatanna, a sorceress who makes the grievous mistake of bringing the boy to a party populated with all kinds of powerful beings, some of whom are looking to cash in on a price set for Tim’s head. A subsequent trip to Fairyland reveals both sides of Dr. Occult; on one side of the gate he is all stubble and overcoat, after he crosses into Fairy he transforms into Rose, his anima self, beautifully androgynous, though by contrast, unfailingly female. Charles Vess illustrates this section with all of the color and whimsy of a vintage children’s fairy tale picture book: a house walks on bird legs, a loquacious hedgehog and rabbit collaborate with Tim on a perilous escape, and after a short interlude featuring a cameo of Sandman’s Dream, the green-skinned Queen Titania explains to Tim that fantasy worlds exist only because they aren’t real.
The concluding chapter, drawn by Paul Johnson, shows Mister E jutting Tim forward into the most future of futures, the End of Time. Jarring and angular, the visuals are intricate explosions of graffiti color: chaotic and violent, mathematical yet disproportionate. The figures of Mister E and Tim are outlined with negative space as if they were ripped from a book, their very presence pasted over, emphasizing the discontinuity of context and defamiliarization of shape resulting from the distress of ending. Disembodied images are crammed together to the point of becoming a jumble of high impact sensory data, and if the purpose was to overwhelm and distort meaning out to meaninglessness, then the application is only too successful. Betrayed by his protector, Tim is rescued by the intervention of Dream’s cohorts, Destiny and Death, proving if nothing else, Neil Gaiman knows how to give the people what they want.
Tim is meant to be archetypal, but in this first installment of his much longer story, he is too much a blank slate, lifeless and oblivious to the delights and dangers surrounding him. He looks like Harry Potter (replace the skateboard on the cover with a Nimbus 2000 and you got a whole different boy with an owl) but projects like Napoleon Dynamite. For many readers, Tim’s story is not the draw anyway, as The Books of Magic can be dissected as an insider’s Who’s Who of DC Comics. Speaking for myself, beyond the Sandman characters and John Constantine, I was at a loss. In the end, I chose to read The Books of Magic on its own terms, without stopping every five seconds to enter a new search term on Wikipedia. Seriously, fuck that idea anyway, it’s no way to read a book.
As a standalone novel, The Books of Magic is remarkable as an artistically-driven work: The shift between illustrators was like walking between the different rooms of a well-curated special collection, neither seamless nor distracting. The narrative of pagan
history is ripe for the most fantastical of artwork, and the quality exhibited here does not disappoint. Secondary is the plot, which in this case is more of a servant to the visuals. Considering by the end of the book, the protagonist has only just decided to be a hero, this journey is not so much the destination as it is the starting point. Though other of Gaiman’s stories are more effectively told with nuanced attention to the heart or head, The Books of Magic is a story best taken in by the eyes.