Monday, 1 July 2013

The Books of Magic review

Alan Moore can easily be considered the pioneer of the Vertigo comics universe while Neil Gaiman is responsible for giving it much of its heart and soul. At the very least, the parts of the “Vertigoverse” that form a shared universe. As many people know, Vertigo is also the home of many great comic runs that are unrelated to other comics and inhabit their own little worlds. Those are actually some of the most famous Vertigo titles. They include but are not limited to The Invisibles, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Scalped, Y: The Last Man and Fables. Vertigo does have many other series and mini-series that are linked together. Stories that are set in their own comics bus share a universe with other titles. Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Sandman, Lucifer, The Dreaming are all examples of this. Although Moore is the one who cleared the path for more mature and intelligent comics to be told, it’s Neil Gaiman who’s responsible for giving the Vertigoverse a sense of coherence, a direction and its tone.

Alan Moore's Swamp Thing had a tone of its own, but it never carried past his own tenure on the title. Gaiman's own series, Sandman, is more representative of the tone of Vertigo than any other comics from the publisher. The Books of Magic has that same tone that readers can find in Sandman. It’s not surprising considering they’re both by Gaiman.  

Gaiman can do horror just as well as Moore but he chooses not to. In his Vertigo comics he explores the ideas of myth, magic and identity. He's also very concerned with the idea of choices and individuals’ perceptions of reality. He's also quite the fan of stories that introduce someone to a hidden world of wonders, stories of initiation. It's evident in so many of his stories: Several Sandman stories, Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Books of Magic.

The Books of Magic is the story of young Timothy Hunter's initiation into the world of magic. He's guided by four magicians which Gaiman playfully nicknames the Trenchcoat Brigade. It's composed of Doctor Occult, Mister E, the Phantom Stranger and, of course this being a Vertigo comic, John Constantine. Each one takes Timothy on a journey. The Phantom Stranger brings him to the past and shows him the development of magic. Constantine takes him to America and shows him how magicians live in the modern world. Doctor Occult (and Rose) take Timothy to the land of Faerie and many other to show him all the lands in which magic is present. Finally, Mister E takes Tim to the very End. They travel to the future and see how magic transforms itself all the while witnessing some of Timothy’s possible futures. The Trenchcoat Brigade’s intentions are to positively influence Timothy whether he chooses the walk to path of magic or not.

In The Books of Magic, Gaiman demonstrates one of the skills Moore used while writing Swamp Thing. He seems to effortlessly incorporate existing DC characters into the richer world of Vertigo comics. It’s not surprising when you consider that Gaiman is a protégé of Moore. Over time there some pretty interesting differences have developed between both writers and depending who you talk to either one of them can be considered the superior author. Moore's work can be dry, cold and so structured it can make the reader feel alienated. Gaiman on the other hand has a softer approach.

I’ve just realized that part of this review is more of a comparison of Gaiman and Moore Vertigo comics than a proper review of The Books of Magic. It seems a bit late to go back now so I might as well continue with my comparison and how it relates to The Books of Magic. Both authors clearly love magic. There are several different types of magic and Moore and Gaiman each write about a specific kind of magic. Moore's magic is based in the real world study of magic, the magic that can quite literally be found in the day to day. He's studied the works of Crowley and the Jewish Kabbalah and has applied that to his work as well as his life. His comic that focuses on magic, Promethea, is a wonderfully complete story about the rules of magic. In fact, you could easily argue that a significant portion of the series is an essay in comic book form outlining the complicated rules, symbols and iconography of magic and how to understand it. In short, Moore's magic is overly structure and complexly defined.

Gaiman's magic is simple. He offers simple rules that can be combined in many different ways in order to offer thrilling results. Like Moore's magic it has a structure and some rules, but it's simpler. It's not as heavily as obviously structured but it’s all there. Based on the magic and the lands of the fantasy books of his childhood, Gaiman's magic could be said to be based in fiction instead of reality. This fictional magic also has symbols but their meanings are left to interpretation more so than Moore's. For Gaiman, there is no rule more important than the rule of names. He's also an ardent believer than there is nothing free, everything has a price. It's like a second law of thermodynamics for the magical realms. Every gift is met with an equal gift or service in return.

Gaiman demonstrates this best in the third chapter of The Books of Magic which is my favourite. The chapter focuses on one of the best elements of Gaiman's oeuvre and one of his most distinct collaborators, Charles Vess, is along for the ride. I love Gaiman's Faerie. It’s inspired by all the fairyland he encounter in the fantasy books of his childhood all condensed in one elegant and potently magical place. Of all the artists to have worked with Gaiman to this day, no one captures the essence of faerie quite like Vess. Artistically, this chapter is also my favourite. It’s gorgeously illustrated, the lines are elegant yet otherworldly and the colours are spot on.

For Timothy Hunter, magic is choice. It's as simple as that. You choose to live a life of magic; you choose which path to follow and which side you'll follow it on. You can even chose to make your own path. It’s not limited to Good and Evil, Chaos and Order, etc. It’s about the ability to make choices. Balance is still important to Gaiman though but it’s a balance on the micro scale, not on the macro. If an individual offers a service or a good, the person who took it has to offer something of equal value in return. Once again though, the power of magic is in the choices you make while giving and taking.

If there's one thing you need to have understood from this review is that Gaiman knows magic. More importantly, he knows his kind of magic and that's about all we can really expect to see from any author. He offers the reader a world where magic can truly be felt, you can experience the magic along with Timothy. Some things are left unexplained or ambiguous (the battle against the Cold Flame in India or the key Tim receives from Titania) and that’s the beauty of it. It adds incredible richness and depths to the comic. The Books of Magic is an excellent example of Gaiman casting one of his spells on the reader by engrossing him in the world that’s already in place but giving it a fresh spin and adding some depth and characterization. It’s a great comic and it really puts me in the mood to grab another Gaiman book and jump feet first into the land of Faerie or any other magical lands.

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