Gaiman’s Books of Magic: Vertigo’s Magical Mystery Tour

by Fae Awareness staff member, KV Taylor

Part 1: The Books of Magic Review

In 1990, Neil Gaiman scripted a four-part series called The Books of Magic for DC/Vertigo, meant to feature their huge crop of magical-types. It eventually led to an ongoing series of the same name, but we’re just talking about the Gaiman miniseries, here–now available in graphic novel form, of course.

The overarching plot is simple and cool: the Phantom Stranger, Doctor Occult, Mister E, and John Constantine–jokingly referred to by the latter as The Trenchcoat Brigade–get together to help a twelve-year-old boy decide whether or not he wants to embrace magic. The boy, Timothy Hunter, has the potential to be the greatest magician in the world, and now he’s been discovered, everyone and their mystical brother are after him for their own nefarious purposes. (Perhaps) luckily, the Trenchcoats got there first–though there’s some dissention in the ranks about how wise the plan is.

The Trenchcoat Brigade

Tim’s happily skateboarding around his housing estate when he’s nabbed by these guys. Thus begins his journey–or rather, a series of four journeys, one with each of them through a different aspect of the world of magic, supposedly meant to help him make an informed, safe decision.

It’s divided into four parts, each illustrated by a different artist. In his foreword, Roger Zelazny points out that it mirrors the path walked by Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces–but there’s more to it than that.

Book I: The Invisible Labyrinth, Illustrated by John Bolton

“We are adrift in time, child,” the Stranger tells little Tim as he drags him into the past, making a proper Billy Pilgrim of him. (Okay, that’s unstuck, but it works, believe me.) This book serves to both to set up the complicated DC cosmology in a coherent way, and to allow for a brief history of human magic, once they get past that whole Birth of the Universe thing and into Earth itself.

In each human culture they encounter, every magical figure of import warns Tim not to say yes to magic, that it comes with a price he won’t want to pay. Many of them–or in some cases their works and/or progeny–return in later books.

Book II: The Shadow World, Illustrated by Scott Hampton

John Constantine gives Tim a tour through the magical underworld in the good old US of A–cue well-intentioned, obnoxious Americans badly approximating Cockney accents and lots of references to “that Monty Python guy.” Here we meet the vast majority of DC’s magical types,  culminating in a long visit to Zatanna–whose father Tim saw with the Stranger.

The ante is upped here. Now that Tim’s been found out, the assassins and kidnappers are on the lookout, and apparently someone’s started a war over him in Calcutta. Constantine zips off to help sort that out for a few hours, leaving Tim in Zatanna’s care. And Tim gets his tour of present day magic.

Book III: The Land of Summer Twilight, Illustrated by Charles Vess

After a narrow escape from a mean party in San Francisco, Tim’s entrusted to Dr. Occult for a walk through, you guessed it, Faerie. I’ll talk about how this is handled in depth later, as it’s my chief interest in this post, but the basic idea is that it ties together both your typical conception of Faerie and a very Gaiman/Vess specific conception. You guessed it, Tim gets to see The Dreaming as part of the package.

It’s effectively a tour of the liminal magics, the otherworlds, the AUs, I guess, as comics would term it. But we’ll come back to that.

Book IV: The Road to Nowhere, Illustrated by Paul Johnson

Mister E, who’s been campaigning to end Tim and spare the world the possibility of him going power-mad, takes him into the future to show him what happens (could happen) if he does. In true DC cosmos-happy fashion, we go not only to Tim’s future, but the ultimate future of mankind, and then forward, forward to the Death (yes, capital D–I wouldn’t forget to capitalize her name) of the universe itself.

Meanwhile, the Trenchcoat Brigade is freaking out, since they lost track of Tim and E long before they got that far. Maybe they shouldn’t have left the kid with E after all, huh?

I won’t spoil the end, but let’s just say that Tim’s choice is made.

The book features not just recurring DC characters, but recurring important archetypes–particularly as codified in the tarot–that generally make these Hero Tales tick. That seems to speak to Zelazny’s dissection along the lines of the Hero’s Journey, and I don’t think he’s wrong there, but to me it seems more a straight up Ghost of Magic Past, Present, and Future issue, with one addition.

That of Faerie, the ghost of Magic Beyond Reason.

Part 2: The Summerlands

Since this is a fae awareness post, a little more in-depth discussion of how Tim’s journey through the lands of the fae work seems necessary. While all four books culminate in Tim’s decision–which of course led to the ongoing Books of Magic series  that ran for years after–Book III: The Land of Summer Twilight gives us events that are both the most ambiguous, and possibly the most important to Tim personally in the long run.

Gaiman and Vess (oh, how those two names together make graphic novel lovers squee) show us a Faerie both familiar to students and lovers of the fae and altogether new. The rules Dr. Occult imparts to Tim before they cross the stream are typical: no iron, don’t accept favors or gifts, don’t ask questions, mind your manners, and stay on the path. They’re not sure where they’re going, but the path will take them where they need to be.

The Goblin Market

It takes them to the first of many familiar places: The Goblin Market. The noise of the eager goblin sellers is almost audible through the wonderful illustration, and of course, Tim narrowly avoids being taken for a fool (and a slave) by a little thief. Their encounter there ends with Tim, Occult (transformed into his feminine form, the anima to Occult’s animus, Rose), and Tim’s owl (once his yo-yo) each winning a prize from the goblin’s barrow as restitution. Prizes that, of course, come in useful–as these things must.

The path takes them through a river of blood next, prompting some interesting discussion of moon power from Rose, and a good deal of disgust from Tim. After a riddle game with the Maugys –which they win thanks to Rose’s goblin prize–they’re allowed to follow the path into the Hollow Hill, to the sleeping court of King Arthur.

Thomas the Rhymer

We’ve already met Merlin in Book I, but here, Thomas of Erceldoun makes up (often bawdy, we’re led to believe, as he’s somewhat preoccupied) songs over his sleeping king, waiting for him to wake, because, “Things happen in threes. When a King sleeps, then a wizard must also sleep, and a minstrel, too.”

Baba Yaga and Her HouseAs they’re leaving the Hill, the path becomes too dark, and Tim is separated from the recently re-transformed Dr. Occult. He loses the path and staggers out the other end–only to immediately encounter Baba Yaga. He ends hanging upside down beside a very charming hare and hedgehog, and this time it’s Yo-Yo the Owl’s goblin prize that helps to free them all.

Baba Yaga herself is wonderful in this bit, riding around on her cauldron looking for herbs to make her prey taste better in a stew, fretting over her beautiful chicken-legged house.  The balance of darkness and light-heartedness that makes Gaiman and Vess such a fabulous pair is magic, just here. Their ultimate escape only comes when Occult catches up with them–again, transformed into Rose–and threatens the witch with her true name.

And then, in perhaps the most telling episode, Tim and Rose meet with Queen Titania on the road, who takes them to her palace.

Queen Titania

(To which question Tim replies, “… No.”)

Here Tim makes his second mistake, taking the key she tosses toward him as a gift before thinking. The key allows them to explore some of the other “worlds beyond reason” that are part of, alternate to, or rub up against Titania’s Faerie in the DC/Vertigo mythos and otherwise: Skartaris, Gemworld, The Dreaming, and Hell, for example.


Naturally, they escape Titania’s plot to keep Tim for her own through a technicality of Faerie Law (which, as we know, is the only way to escape, particularly if you break one rule, let alone two like our little hero) and Tim’s own prize from the goblin barrow. Even so, Titania’s parting words, for us alone, lead us to believe Tim will always be tied to Faerie in ways he can’t yet imagine.

One could argue that anyone who sets foot in the Summerlands ends that way, of course. But we’ll talk more about that next time, when I come back at you with a review of some of the spinoffs that continue in this vein: The Books of Faerie, which deal with Titania’s rise to power, and Auberon’s Tale, the same for her king.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: More Comics, With Bonus Oscar Wilde | KV Taylor
  2. Trackback: Fae Awareness: The End and Index « Fae Awareness Month

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