Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review - The Books of Magic

The Books of Magic
Written by Neil Gaiman; Art by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson
1992 Eisner Winner for Best Writer

Due to the way that the Eisners work every so often you get a real oddity in the list. There are several categories that are for a person instead of a specific work which means that while someone may win for their work on a particular project (like Sandman to use an arbitrary example) and other lesser things they did that year get to come along for the ride (such as The Books of Magic to use another completely arbitrary example). Despite some terrific painted art by four exceptional artists The Books of Magic is not Gaiman's best work. He's limited by his format and while flashes of his skill occasionally shine through it just isn't enough to justify it.

The nominal plot is that Harry Potter... er... Timothy Hunter is a boy with potential to be the greatest wizard in the world. In an attempt to channel his abilities for good four wizards confront him and lead Tim on a hero's journey of a guided tour of all magic. What that tour ammounts to, and what the vast majority of the book comes down to, are quick introductions to the supernatural characters and concepts in DC comics.

(The similarities between Tim Hunter and Harry Potter has caused some people to claim that J.K. Rowling "stole" the idea from Gaiman but I think it's clear to most people that they both were inspired by the similar things.)

There are four chapters to The Books of Magic each featuring a different facet of magic: it's history, the current practitioners, the supernatural realms, and it's future. Each chapter is painted by a different artist which is a striking visual effect. Unfortunately these explorations are comprised of one or two page executive summaries of the concept. Here's a page on Egyptian magic. There's a page about the Dreaming. Or a quick flash of 64th century techno-magic. It's glimpses of bigger concepts and Gaiman doesn't do justice to any of them by flickering past them.

When The Books of Magic follows the story of people trying to take advantage of Tim then it is a decent read. It's still a bit simplistic since Gaiman is firmly attached to the traditional hero's journey arc and he doesn't apply it with a lot of style. But Tim is a likable enough character who keeps a lighter tone going in the more serious moments. That makes the dryer parts of the book much more bearable.

The most coherent portions of the plot are the middle. The second chapter is built around a chase as some wizards seek to kill Tim before he can make a difference and they seek sanctuary. It is also the only chapter where the introductions to the concept fit into a narrative framework.

The artists really add a lot to the book. Each of them render beautiful magical landscapes. In particular Charles Vess and Paul Johnson do some exceptional work. Vess is given the task of illustrating the fairy realms which is something that he's well suited to. Johnson's illustrations are a chaotic jumble that dramatically depicts the entropy at the end of time. None of the art is less than terrific though.

The Books of Magic is a vacation slide show of one comic book company's view of magic. And much like a vacation slide show actually going on the adventures you see would be a lot more fun than seeing the snap shots afterward. I'd still say it's worth checking out for the artwork since Gaiman's story isn't actually bad, just don't expect the same quality of storytelling that Gaiman was doing elsewhere at this same time.