Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic lives up to its name. Combining Gaiman’s distinct charm with illustrations by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson, Magic stands as a narrative wonder among the pantheon of amazing graphic novels. In fact, published in 1993, it may have built the foundation on which some of the medium’s best work stands.
I encountered The Books of Magic after a lengthy discussion with a friend about the Harry Potter series during which he called out certain similarities between the stories. I usually wouldn’t mention this in my review, but it seems this is a common question among Potterheads looking to dive into Gaiman’s graphic novel. Perhaps significantly, The Books of Magic predates the first Harry Potter book by about five years, and there are a few notable similarities. Tim Hunter, the graphic novel’s protagonist, has dark hair and glasses. Early on, he’s given an owl by an older magician. Both of these facts become apparent right from the start, but the parallels pretty much end there.
Following a quick and mysterious intro that establishes Timothy’s potential to be an immensely powerful wizard, he’s whisked into a crazy adventure by four magicians who all wear trench coats. He explores the past, the present, the future, and Fairyland, each time with a separate mage companion. The entire plot is staged as a sort of “magical preview,” and when he’s through with the journey, Tim must decide whether he wants to pursue magic further. Boiled down to its bare bones, the story is essentially Timothy watching a trailer for a fascinating, real-life movie, then must decide whether to watch the feature film.
The plot, paired with brilliant illustrative work and Todd Klein’s diverse lettering, make The Books of Magic a feast for the eyes and mind. Tim’s journeys through time and reality are beautifully imaginative, and they leap off the page with the help of Gaiman’s typical (but still somehow unbelievable) panache. The past, present, and future as they relate to magic are fascinating “locales” worthy of the pages-long explorations they receive. Fairyland, though, plays the starring role. An amalgamation of countless worlds including Hell, the dream world (inhabited by Gaiman’s Sandman, who makes a cameo), and many others, Fairyland and its whimsical reality-bending branches shine through in text and drawing alike, culminating in a downright gorgeous romp through Gaiman’s fantasy-genius imagination.
The story and setting are bolstered by a quirky cast of characters, many of whom have appeared in other DC series. In the visual medium, the lack of physical space for text places much of the characterization burden on the artist, and each illustrator in The Books of Magic showcases talents that well surpassed even my highest expectations. They treat every illustration with such care that I often found myself lingering on the artwork for minutes at a time, absorbing the detail admiring the artistic skill on display.
The Books of Magic builds to an explosive and, I have to say it—magical—ending that mostly pays off. Tim’s journey comes to a meaningful and sensible conclusion, but it does lean heavily on a loophole that felt either cheap or unearned—I honestly can’t decide between the two. Still, it did little to detract from the fantastic story that preceded it. In some ways, the story feels like a prequel to a much longer saga, and that’s partly true. While Gaiman’s novel stands alone, it did continue under new penmanship years later. I left The Books of Magic so enamored that I bought the continuation, and I can’t wait to dive in.
Rating: The Books of Magic – 8.5/10