It was the late 1980s and it was a dark time for DC comics and that was a good thing. Only a few years had passed since the Crisis on Infinite Earths had finished and legends were being rewritten. Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen were harbingers of things yet to come, both in content and in the deluxe quality of paper. Meanwhile Moore had quietly been resurrecting the horror genre in a mainstream comic with Swamp Thing. Neil Gaiman, another subversive agent of the British (comic) Invasion, was given the freedom to write Black Orchid and had only just introduced The Sandman, a comic that would win awards and inspire a generation of new kinds of comic book stories. From this fertile ground, Editor Karen Berger would soon spearhead the Vertigo line at DC Comics.
Into this mix, came a bespectacled British child, who was about to embark on the path of Magic and learn of his destiny. Not that child (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was about a decade away still).
What’s it about
The boy’s name was Tim Hunter and he was about to take a guided tour spanning the Fiat Lux at the beginning of all things, sideways to the courts of the Faerie, and to the end of all things where a bright eyed goth woman is there to lock everything up and call it a day. Through this vehicle of a child on the hero’s journey, the lore of the magical side of DC Comics was about to be rewritten much in the same way the history of the infinite Earths got rewritten in the epic Crisis of a few years previous. The ‘Trench coat Brigade’ of John Constantine, The Phantom Stranger, Doctor Occult / Rose Psychic, and Mister E acted as his guides and along the way Tim interacted with just about every mystic and magical character that Gaiman could dig up.
What I liked about it
I could not but be drawn in by the weaving of the occult lore of DC history, both the old tales of the more pulpy age of Doctor Occult and the newer edge of John Constantine (just on the edge of getting his own series). Some of these characters encountered soon be returning with a surge of magic to the DC Universe, others remained as footnotes in the DC’s Who’s Who. Tim had his struggles to overcome, but it wasn’t a titanic battles of spandex clad titans. Madmen and fey dogged him as he followed his way through the unfolding of a universe we only know in those times half asleep and worlds as true as our belief in them.
More importantly, these books were gorgeous! I could not think of a better artist than Charles Vess for illustrating the mystical realms or Scott Hampton’s flowing shadows to take us down those dark paths. The covers alone had more sophistication than your standard floppy off the racks at the local Seven -11. The print format was the same as The Dark Knight Returns had been, somewhere between the graphic novels of Marvel Comics at the time and the normal size of a floppy.
These were a far cry from the glossy shine of the Chromium Age that was soon to come. These were ART!
The Gamer Eye
If you happen to be looking inspiration when dealing with magicians in your Urban Fantasy games (Dresden Files, World of Darkness, and maybe even Shadowrun), there is a lot to draw from The Books of Magic and the series that they tied into (Sandman, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing). Most of those games have the source of magic already encoded into the mechanics, but attitudes of the magicians and magical creatures could easily be pulled for an NPC or two.
And in the end …
There was a series by the same name that followed this, but I never followed it. Prices in comics were going up and I had expenses of my own to look out for. Maybe someday I’ll try to go back and read them. But meanwhile, I’ve got my original Books of Magic to see me through.
“I’m not merciful or blessed. I’m just me. I’ve got a job to do and I do it….When the first living thing existed, I was there. Waiting. When the last living thing dies, my job will be finished. I’ll put the chairs on the tables, turn out the lights and lock the universe behind me when I leave.“– Death