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He's an ordinary-looking 12-year-old boy with tossled hair and glasses, living in an unspecified city in England.  He doesn't know it yet, but he might grow up to become the greatest wizard of his era.  He's about to meet some strange and mysterious people who will introduce him to worlds he never imagined.  And give him a pet owl.

His name isn't Harry Potter; it's Tim Hunter.

The Books of Magic was originally published in 1990 as a comic book limited series and then compiled into a single volume graphic novel.  It was written by Neil Gaiman, the celebrated writer of the SANDMAN comic.  On one level, it is a grand tour of the DC Universe introducing us to every major practicioner of magic ever appearing in a DC comic and a good number of the obscure ones as well.  More importantly, it is a meditation on the nature of Magic.

It begins when young Timothy Hunter encounters four mysterious and not a little bit creepy men in trenchcoats.  "Do you believe in magic?" they ask.  They know that Tim has the potential to become the greatest magical adept of his era; but that is a choice he must make of his own free will and not a choice to be made in ignorance.  The four have approached him in order to show him the world of Magic so that he may understand it.

These four guides are referred to by one of their number as "The Trenchcoat Brigade."  The colors of their coats are evocotive of, (but do not necessarily correspond to) those of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Each one is going to show Tim a different aspect of the Worlds of Magic:  Past, Present, Future and Other.

First is the Phantom Stranger, an enigmatic character of undetermined origin, who speaks in cryptic riddles and largely acts as a straight man.  It has been suggested that he was an angel who refused to take sides in Satan's rebellion and who has been cast out of both Heaven and Hell.  This might be why Gaimen depicts him as lacking a sense of humor.  Other origins have also been suggested.  He didn't always wear a trenchcoat, but does in this series because it's a theme.

The Stranger, (and he has never been given a name), takes Tim on a journey into the past, where he witnesses the beginning of Time and meets sorcerors of the past, such as Arion of Atlantis (from a 1970s series inspired by Michael Moorcock's Elric); the young Merlin; Doctor Fate and the Golden Age magical hero Zatara.

On the whole, their advice is:  Don't Do It.  "Don't take what they're offering.  It's a crock.  A big golden crock," the ancient Arion advises.  The boy Merlin can forsee his own future, how he will help found Camelot; but he also know that he is ultimately destined to fail and that he will be betrayed by his own desires.  Tim asks why he can't change the future if he knows what will happen.  "I'm sorry.  I must do as I will do.  Magic grants no freedoms, friend pupil.  Everything it buys must be paid for."

This is the recurring theme of the entire series.  In a later scene Tim meets the decaying form of Sargon the Sorcerer, an obscure Golden Age magician who hid his true sorcery behind stage illusions.  "You.  Listen.  It's.  Got.  A.  PRICE," he croaks as his body melts like wax.

Tim's next guide is John Constantine, a wise-cracking cynical street-mage who looks like Sting and who originally was a supporting character in Alan Moore's SWAMP THING.  (And no, he looks nothing like Kenau Reeves, thank you).  I always imagine him sounding like a young Michael Caine; he exudes the same aura of the Lovable Rogue.  (There's a running gag in which every time Constantine and Tim board a plane, Constantine goes off to chat up the stewardess; a few panels later he comes back with a red palm-mark on his cheek).

John takes Tim to America to introduce him to some of the players in the magical world.  Tim meets the Spectre, a ghost-like entity said to personify God's Spirit of Vengence; Madame Xanadu, a seeress who has personal reasons for hating Constantine; the current-day incarnation of Doctor Fate, and others.

One of the more obscure people he meets is a character named Baron Winters, from a short-lived series called NIGHT FORCE.  He's a bit like Nero Wolfe, only he weighs only half as much, is a sorceror instead of a detective, and his mansion is a nexus of time and space.  I've never had the opportunity to read NIGHT FORCE, but the glimpse we get of the Baron here makes me wish I could.

Tim also has several enigmatic encounters with Boston Brand, also known as Deadman; a former circus aerialist who was assassinated and whose spirit remains on earth serving a Tibetian deity.  He cannot be seen by mortal eyes, but he can interact with the living by possessing others and speaking through their bodies.  Tim finds this unnerving.

Brand warns him that a group of evil cultists are out to kill him; "Part of the Cold Flame or the Blood Red Moon or the Dark Circle -- one of those spookshows."  and Tim narrowly escapes death several times.  Constantine takes Tim to the home of Zatanna, who like her father Zatara is a stage magician who secretly can perform actual magic.  Zatanna is best-known in fandom for speaking her spells backwards and for wearing fishnet stockings.  She is also notable in that she is possibly the only one of Constantine's ex-girlfriends who doesn't hate his guts.

It happens to be Halloween while Tim is staying with her, and she takes him to a local nightclub where magical practicioners congregate.  The club is sort of neutral ground where "white magic" and "black magic" users can hang out.  This proves to be a mistake when the club's owner announces the price on Tim's head, and only Constantine's timely arrive prevents a major magical brawl.

Tim's next trip takes him into the Faerie Realms with Doctor Occult.  This obscure character is actually one of the oldest in the DC Universe; he was created by Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman; a private detective who specializes in magic.  He's sort of a precursor to Harry Dresden.  Originally he had a sister named Rose Psychic who worked as his secretary/assistant which Gaiman works into a bizzare twist.  When they enter the Fairy Lands, Occult turns into Rose; and from then on, occasionally switches gender depending on which would be more appropriate.  Gaiman does not explain why this happens; whether the two are one person, or whether two different people are sharing the same space.  He wisely leaves it a mystery.  (A few years later, someone at DC did write an explanation for the time-share arrangement between Doctor Occult and his sister; as you might guess, it came off as lame and unsatisfying).

This section has fewer cameos by DC Heroes, (although it does have a few; most notably he meets with Lord Morpheus, the personification of Dream and title characrter of Gaiman's SANDMAN comic.); mostly it's an adventure Tim has in the Faerie Realms.  He visits a magcial bazaar; witnesses a riddle contest with a giant; fords a sea of blood; pays his respects at what might be the resting place of King Arthur; and forgets to heed one of the important Fairy Tale Prohibitions resulting in his being captured by Baba Yaga.  The art in this chapter is done by Charles Vess whose delicate exquisite style fits the setting perfectly.

There's another nice creepy bit in which Tim has an audience with Titania, the Queen of the Faerie Realms.  Titania tries to persuade Tim to stay in Fairyland with her.  Tim politely declines.  But we see that Titania is being waited on by a young human boy whom she calls "Hamnet."  This is a reference to an earlier SANDMAN story in which Morpheus commissions William Shakespeare to write a play for him which is performed in a country field before the Faerie Court.  In between scenes, Titania has a similar conversation with Shakespeare's young son, Hamnet, who is working as a bit player in his father's company.  According to historical records, Hamnet died at the age of nine.  Perhaps... he's still alive, someplace else...

Tim's final journey is into the future, and his guide for this trip is a character named Mister E.  Originally, Mister E was a recurring character in one of the many horror and supernatural anthology titles DC Comics published in the 1970s, (like the Phantom Stranger).  He was blinded as a child, but has the ability to "see" good and evil.  He also has the ability to walk through time; (an ability he learned, Gaiman suggests, from his own future self).  I'm unfamiliar with E's earlier appearances, so I don't know how much Gaiman reworked the character; but in Books of Magic he is an uncompromising fanatic.  He frequently suggests to his collegues that it would be safer to simply kill Tim, rather than risk having him become a force for evil.

The first place E takes Timothy is to an apocalyptic battle about a dozen years in the future, in which the forces of Evil are being led by Tim's adult self.  Tim is shocked by this; and upon questioning E admits that this is only a possible future:  "There are others in which you are a Mage Supreme, the Champion of Light.  And there are an infinite number of other options.  In many of them you are entirely uninvolved in this battle -- on either side."  Then why, Tim wants to know, is he showing him this?  "I felt you should see it.  That was all."

The two fast-forward through the next few centuries in a clever montage showing glimpses of some of DC's science fiction characters.  But they do not pause yet.  E explains that after the battle they witnessed, magic lies dormant for many years; just as it did during the Industrial Revolution.  Then in the 30th Century, there is a resurgance of magic, possibly for the same reason it came back in the 20th:  "Technology has increased to the point where people no longer comprehend it.  To the point where it might as well be magic, for all they know."  This is the era of the Legion of Super-Heroes, a futuristic team of super-powered teens who occasionally fought magical foes as well as alien and technological threats.

The travel further on, millions of years into the future, where humanity has devolved into strange, primitive creatures and life on Earth is nearly extinct.  And then further still, where the expansion of the Universe has reached its limit and it is now collapsing in on itself.

Finally, they reach the End of Time itself; and there in the ultimate darkness, E pulls out the sharpened wooden stake we saw him with earlier in the chapter.  "I don't want to hurt you, Timothy.  I want to protect you from the world.  Because it would corrupt you..."

Tim is saved by Yo-yo, the pet owl Doctor Occult created for him and sent to follow him into the future.  And by the interruption by two unexpected strangers.  One is Destiny, one of the Endless; beings that personify concepts so ancient that they predate even the Gods.  Destiny's role is to read and maintain a massive book that records all that happens in reality.  He's almost on the last page.  

The other visitor is Destiny's sister, Death, whom Gaiman portrays as a cute goth girl wearing an ankh.  She's here to take her brother and the Universe itself.  It's time is up.  Tim and E are loose ends and need to go back.  "I took you billions of years ago."
She sends Tim directly back to his own time; but E will have to do it the hard way:  walking backwards through time, step by step, across a hundred billion years.  "Get going, Erik," she says; "We've got an appointment in Samara."

Reunited with the rest of the Trenchcoat Brigade, Tim is once again given the offer:

"If you choose magic, you will never be able to return to the life you once lived.  You world may be more... exciting... but it will also be more dangerous.  Less reliable.  And ocne you beign to walk the path of magic, you can never step off it.  Or you can choose the path of science, of rationality.  Live in a normal world.  Die a normal death.  Less exciting, undoubtably, but safer.

"The choice is yours."

Tim hesitates.  And declines.

"I'm sorry.  I...

"I appreciate what you've done for me.  All the stuff I've seen.  All that.

"But I've learned a lot of things.  The main thing I've learned is that it all has a price.  I mean you can get whatever you want, but it all has to be paid for, doesn't it?

"And I don't want to pay what it'll cost.  I'm scared.  I'm sorry."

Almost as soon as he says it, Tim regrets his decision.  But now the strangers in the trenchcoats are gone.

The remnants of the Trenchcoat Brigade discuss what happened, Constantine is disgusted.  "It's all been a bit of a washout, hasn't it?"

"It's strange, Constantine," Doctor Occult replies.  "All the things I have heard about you... no one ever told me that you were stupid."  He reminds John of excactly what happened when they first met Tim, and he realizes that Tim already made his decision when he first agreed to accompany the Phantom Stranger on the trip into the past.

"They say humanity only gets one chance at the carousel's golden ring," the Stranger says, "But the carousel goes round and round, and round and round, and the golden ring is not going anywhere."

And back at home, in his own room, Tim comes to the same conclusion.  "I don't need you lot.  I don't need anything.  All I need to do is believe."  He takes out the yo-yo which Occult had changed into an owl and which is now once again a toy; and he transforms it once again into an owl.  As it flies out his window, he follows it with his gaze and shouts, "MAGIC!"

NEXT WEEK:  It's back to Science Fiction with Isaac Asimov's tale of an impossible murder in a future New York and the detective assigned to solve it with the help of a robot partner.  Come take a trip into The Caves of Steel.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sun Sep 11, 2011 at 06:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter and Community Spotlight.

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