101 A Kind Of Magic
by Simon Brown
DC's tradition is almost BASED on magical characters, going way way back to Doctor Occult. He led the mystic charge in the Golden Age, soon followed by the likes of The Spectre, Zatara, Sargon The Sorcerer and Dr. Fate. In the 60's and 70's, mystical characters were even more prevalent: from the obvious heroic types like Zatanna and Deadman, to the more esoteric, like The Phantom Stranger. Magic is now considered a fact in the DCU, both to the characters who live inside it, and to the readers who vary from marveling at the spectacle of it to crying foul as a deux ex machina mystical ending makes JR's dream shooting look like a stroke of storytelling genius.
Speaking of storytelling genius, let's move onto my subject, Neil Gaiman's Books Of Magic. Now 8 years old, this prestige miniseries is a sweeping epic through DC's mystic domains. It ventures from the aforementioned heroics to the stranger side or magic, from dark to light, from play to deadly earnest.
The first book introduces the main character, Tim Hunter. Tim is a 12-year-old boy who has been targeted by The Phantom Stranger, Doctor Occult, Mister E, and John Constantine for "education" in magic. Tim is poised to become a great magician, and these four want to educate him to use his power responsibly. The four find Tim and convince him of the truth of magic. The Stranger then takes him through time to show the evolution of magic through the ages. They witness the birth of the universe and the fall of Lucifer from Heaven. They see Atlantis disappearing beneath the waves, and hear the advice of an Atlantean mystic - Don't get involved in magic. They see mystic ceremonies from cave dwellers, Egyptians, Japanese, Greek and English history. Tim is introduced to a 14 year-old Merlin, to gain a peer's perspective of magic, who warns him that magic has a price. He sees a young Kent Nelson, nursing the helm of Nabu, and meets the departed Zatara and Sargon, who gave their lives to save the world. They both lament their passing, and the fading of their legacy. The Stranger returns Tim to the present, and he sets off with John Constantine to meet the current "players" in the game of magic .
The second book is vastly different in tone, taking Tim across the world, showing him the magical forces around him, and also making some slightly goofy characters seem very real (and menacing). Constantine takes Tim to America, where they start their tour with a visit to Madam Xanadu. She does a reading for Tim - which is basically a synopsis of the whole 4 issues crammed into 1 page - and then sends them upstairs to visit Jim Corrigan. Here they learn that Tim is being hunted by other mystics who want him dead so that he can't meet his full potential - that of the most powerful magician ever seen. The Spectre kills the assassin, and Doctor Fate brings a summons for Constantine to join the other three of Tim's guides. John takes Tim to Zatanna while he heads off to join the others, and she takes him to a Halloween party. Deadman has been watching over Tim during the trip, and warns him at the party to leave. The four guides are in India and fighting unbelievable odds to protect Tim, but there has been a price put on his head, and the creatures at the party all turn on him and Zatanna. At the last moment John Constantine appears with a threat to the gathering. They let the three leave without a fuss, completely baffling Zatanna who can't fathom Constantine's hold over them. Leaving for England once more, John says that Tim's next stop is Fairyland .
In book 3 Tim is taken through the lands of faire by Doctor Occult, and his other persona, Rose. Between them they take Tim through a Rackham-esque world of fairies and goblins. They swim through a river of blood, answer a giant's riddle, and see the resting place of King Arthur. Tim is tricked and kidnapped by the Baba Yaga and rescued by talking animals. Rose saves them all by threatening the secret of Baba Yaga's real name. Titania the Queen of Faire gives Tim a gift of a key to other worlds, and he and Occult pass through many lands : Skartaris, home of the Warlord, the plane where Claw the Unconquered lives, Gemworld, Hell, and finally the Dreaming. On returning to the Queen, she reminds Tim of the rules of Farie - If you accept a gift, you must give one in return. In return for the key, she demands Tim remains with her. Occult cannot stop her, and Tim only has an object he picked up earlier to give in return. It turns out to be a Mundane Egg, from which worlds are born. The Queen is forced to let them go, muttering something about her son. Tim then wakes under a tree, back at the entrance to Faire, and with the key in his hand. From here, Occult tells him, he shall journey into tomorrow
Book four leads us in a different direction to the last two. Here, plot become paramount once more, rather that secondary to the history/geography lessons, as Mr. E takes Tim on his last leg. The other 3 mystics express their concern about E's mental state. Brought up under a puritan father, E believes killing Tim now would be best for the future, but agrees to help in his education. They begin 15 years into the future, where they witness a massive battle between good and evil. The leader of the evil side is an older Tim, and as John Constantine dies before him, E tells Tim that this is one possible future. They travel on, and E tells how his father caught him looking at a picture of a "shameless" woman when he was a boy. His father cut his eyes out with a spoon to remove the lust from his heart. They travel to cities in the future, seeing the mages joined to the Legion. They see the dwindling of magic, and the corruption of goodness. They see Fate, driven mad by immortality and despair, they see the last vestiges of humanity, returning to the sea. E takes them past the farthest point he has ever been, and still further. Realizing there is a danger, The Stranger and Occult send Tim's yo-yo (in the form of an owl) to help him in the future, and keep him safe from E. E travels to the very end of time, where he takes a stake and tries to kill Tim. Yo-yo the owl gets in the way, and dies, reverting to a normal yo-yo. E tries to strangle Tim, but is stopped by Destiny. He can't find Tim or E in his book, and he is waiting to end the universe. His sister, Death, relieves him of his duty, and Destiny ends. She then sends E back, telling him he must walk home, across a hundred billion years. She returns Tim to his own time, where the Stranger gives him the choice: magic or not? Tim chooses not, and returns home to his father. Later he sits with his yo-yo, regretting his choice. He chooses to believe with all his heart in magic, and he turns his yo-yo back to a bird. Magic!
The captivating story is perfectly complemented by some of the finest painted art ever seen in a comic. Each book has it's own artist, and each has his own unique style. John Bolton's amazing oils start the series, giving life and texture to The Stranger, and to the history of magic. Scott Hampton (Batman: Night Cries) does some beautiful watercolors in the second book, showing a precise realism for the scenes in New York, but an ethereal quality for the magical bits. Charles Vess paints book 3, and Faire is perfectly detailed by fine pen with a wash of color. Finally, Paul Johnson shows a stark and harsh future. Each artist does not only a magnificent job, but has been matched perfectly to his chapter - swapping them around would not have worked.
The Books Of Magic is an excellent story, and of course, the lead in to the ongoing series.