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The Books of Magic Volume 1 (revisited)

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Art: John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson

DC Comics, 1990-1991.

The Books of Magic reminds us of debris on a beach, an almost random collection of dried objects bleaching in the sun. The Books of Magic was, in its first incarnation, a periodical issued by American comic book publisher DC Comics from 1990 to 1991. Buoyed by the unexpected success of the brooding horror title The Sandman, and with various other writing talent walking away from the concept, DC Comics commissioned The Sandman’s writer Neil Gaiman to pen a story linking all of DC Comics’ magic characters like charms on a bracelet. Mr Gaiman put it more simply in an interview in 2007, where he said, ” The ‘Books of Magic’ started with DC saying, “Can you do us a four-book Prestige series about our magic characters?”

Mr Gaiman has these characters meander through, and thereby link the worlds of:

  1. Hellblazer (in 1990, a very gory title indeed). The lead character, John Constantine, would once have been called a “cunning man”: a person educated in magic lore but is, at least back then, not actually a magician. Constantive plays a role beyond mere guide to the lead character Tim Hunter: he is a watchdog, unsettling in his barely masked penchant for violence, capable of intimidating a crowd of malevolent magicians.
  2. DC Comics’ well-known magical superhero characters – Zatanna, Dr Fate, the Spectre – as well as its obscure or almost forgotten ones such as Deadman, the Phantom Stranger, Dr Thirteen, Madame Xanadu, Mr E, Baron Winters from Night Force, Amethyst Princess of Gemworld, and the underground world of Skartaris from The Warlord.
  3. Some villains, such as the old 1940s bad guy called the Wizard, and the Flash’s foe Abra Kadabra.

It is a big debris field within which to scavenge. Some key concepts reappear in the works of J.K Rowling – the white saviour wizard boy in the glasses, the owl, the eclectic teachers – so that anyone not familiar with the publishing order might think that The Books of Magic copied Harry Potter, rather than the other way around. (As an aside, Mr Gaiman in a 2001 interview ardently denied that Ms Rowling copied his work – see And Mr Gaiman himself recycled part of The Books of Magic, specifically, the magic market of Faerie, in Stardust, years later.)

Does it work? It was very exciting at the time, especially to Mr Gaiman’s devotees. But, from the vantage point of a sophisticated contemporary market in 2024, and despite the beautiful covers and pages from each of the four talented artists, the title flaps in a circle. Mr Gaiman deployed his trademark references to British mythology throughout the title which, as with The Sandman, provides a reference point to those unfamiliar with DC Comics’ peculiarities. It also coats the story with a veneer of high literature so as to communicate to those new readers, “Look! Don’t be snooty! Shakespearean concepts!” There is some time travel, which seems inevitable in American comic books, and a deal with the devil. Mr Gaiman also drags in one of his most famous creations from The Sandman, Death of the Endless, to both plug a plot hole as well as reveal the mystery of the end of everything. He tries to bring some 1990s order to the silly fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, as if he was a lepidoperist with a net and pins in a field of aimless butterflies.

Consumers of pop culture want a grand universe, an explanation as to how these characters coexist and interact. This is part of the appeal of concepts such as the Marvel cinematic universe, Star Wars and One Piece, where the concepts unfold and expand, occasionally threading back into earlier waypoints. But Mr Gaiman, dealing with someone else’s patchy franchise and with the additional fabric of English folklore, was not so much world-building as world-quilting. Or, to return to our original metaphor, Mr Gaiman was beachcombing. That was, after all, his mandate.

There is little which is new here. Constantine’s survival at the end of the universe, achieved by turning himself into something awful but which could survive, demonstrates that he is the universe’s cosmic cockroach: Nabu, sitting in Dr Fate’s helmet, in centuries to come will grow foul like 1950s tinned asparagus. But there never was going to be anything radical. It was polished fan fiction.

Ben Schultz at Comic Book Resources, writing in 2022, disagrees with us on the significance of Mr Gaiman’s work:

“DC often uses magic devices to explain characters coming back to life, moving between realities, or setting things back to the status quo. Modern DC is a much more magically inclined place than it was before, and we have The Books of Magic partially to thank for that.”

And who are we to thumb our nose at commercial success? The Books of Magic went on to spawn an ongoing series with John Ney Riber and then Peter Gross as writers, and Mr Gaiman as creative consultant, which lasted from 1994 to 2000. A thirtieth anniversary deluxe edition was published by DC Comics in 2019. In April 2022, the tide receded again: The Books of Magic ongoing series was relaunched (written by Kat Howard as part of Sandman Universe – Vertigo Comics’ final, sad gasp), and cancelled along with most of the rest of that line. Stacking driftwood is a weekend endeavour, and not much of a creative accomplishment.