The Books of Magic (1993-2019)

Books of Magic v1Books of Magic

Original series and recent “Moveable Type” trade paperback

Back in 1991, DC decided to let one of their successful new writers, Neil Gaiman, fresh from his success with The Sandman, an opportunity to play in the sandbox with a bevy of their silver age B list characters, weaving them into the origin of what they hoped would be a new success, The Books of Magic.

It concerned the big four of these lot, and their concern and involvement on what the universe handed them was a new disciple of the mystic arts, and whether he was up to standards and was either to be allowed or eliminated, depending on this trial phase.

Books of Magic introduced Timothy Hunter, a young English lad thrust into a world of magic and mysticism, that would later perhaps influence another English writer into “inventing” a similar character, with similar attributes, with an owl familiar with whom most of you know of already. That DC’s parent company, Warner Bros., would have huge success producing a series of movies based on the best selling books of the later incarnation, would give us the pathway of what turns the money world and how it forms decisions at a corporate level. If Tim Hunter were privately owned by Gaiman and not work for hire, Harry Potter’s place in history might have turned out to be a very different story.

Warner Bros.’s handling of the situation is illuminated well by the almost thirty years that have passed since his first published tale.

Books of Magic, a four issue, prestige formatted book given four different and highly talented artists, was indeed a good vehicle for keeping Gaiman busy and happy at DC, an exercise in giving him reign over some of the mystical “heroes” and incorporating them into Timothys story, allowing him access to, and eventual “certification” to belong and influence events in this portion of DC’s universe.

The books themselves took young Tim on a journey throughout each book, with the b list characters leading the way, showing him bits and pieces of what came before him in the DC supernatural mythos, and whether he wanted to or even could assume his place among them.

Here is Gaiman’s strong suit as a writer of comics, his love of English fictional lore, and his ability to take previously invented characters and weave them successfully into the tapestry of the DC Universe, yet still giving him some freedom to pick and pull at the characters, reinventing them for a new modern feel, giving them relevance they really didn’t have before as B listers of the past.

And weave them he did, much like the Sandman before him, Books of Magic, while not reinventing the wheel, provides a decent respite from the previous ham fisted depictions of magical lands and environment that had escaped DC before. Each of the four comics more or less completes a chunk of Tim’s introduction, along with the weight of deeper roles Gaiman obviously enjoyed depicting.

By the series end, Gaiman brings it all around, and with the help of the artists, completes a grand tale that pretty much satisfies the hunger of readers of such things, and more importantly, brings forth and refreshes another portion of the DC portfolio to explore and publish stories about.

While I must confess, fairies and mythical monsters aren’t my sort of thing, but I got the set of them cheap at a comics fair during my hunts, and wanted to see what the fuss was about in a manner that allowed me to sample them inexpensively. All in all, I thought it was a successful series, imbued with solid visual storytelling skills from the artists (the Charles Vess issue is outstanding), and Gaiman’s writing, while not my cup of tea, kept me interested, and by its finish, I felt none the worse for having read it. My time invested didn’t exactly enhance my experience with comics, but I didn’t feel there was a couple of hours of my time wasted either.

Many years later, DC Comics would move its offices from New York where it had been since the invention of comic books themselves, to the west coast, incorporating itself fully both in it’s physical and etherial presence within the sconces of the Warner Bros facilities proper.

In the meantime, Books of Magic had gone on to an aesthetically successful run of seventy five issues and numerous appearances in the DC comics canon. I noticed while attempting to acquire a collection of this run through my local library that a collected book of the most recent series published after their move was available, so I reserved it and read it.

Now according to the cover blurb, Tim is published under them banner along the top as part of the “Sandman Universe” with the Vertigo imprint still used as a differential label to distinguish itself from the rest of their mainstream properties. Gaiman’s name is listed as a co creator, but really none of his presence other than utilizing his regurgitated universe seem to show evidence of his presence here.

The six issue mini series that is collected here pretty much goes through the tropes of once again revisiting and reintroducing the characters, perhaps to make it more accessible to a new audience, which is a solid goal for these things. The problem is, after reading it, I’m no closer to actually reading an actual story than I was when I started. We seem to be going through the chore of not just reintroducing characters, but one of plot as well. You can checklist this book entirely through its more or less stereotyped events that comics of this sort have already demonstrated; sadly this comes off as if you’re watching an old rerun of a television show you’ve already seen many times. Worse yet, after six issues and almost identical page count to the earlier saga, we are woefully short of an actual story and no closer to one by the series end. It has served merely as a prologue to a larger event that continues on in what I imagine will be the next volume.

Now this is where some modern published comic books seem to have hit a wall, both in terms of garnering a new audience, and giving value in the time spent reading it. The creators here, I imagine through no fault of their own, shall remain nameless because a creative person needs to work. They have turned in what looks entirely like an editorially mandated exercise, checking off the points it needs to hit, along the way to offering a product that lives off its own previous success. It doesn’t provide any new creativity or invention, and is produced to seek out the most common denominator in finding a customer, giving them the impression something is actually going on here, hooking them into investing themselves in the next volume to continue or perhaps complete the story.

At short of twenty dollars with tax included, readers would be better served by studying and referencing other comic stories and creators, an easy task these days with as much access to information as we have, and searching out material that has been vetted and written about to give inspiration to find such things.

This current volume of Books of Magic isn’t about introducing the reader to a new fascinating character and mythology, but more about the numbing of creativity, franchising a copyrighted product and fooling its consumer into buying something that looks like the real McCoy, but sure doesn’t taste like it, akin to eating a fast food burger and wishing it were made with real ingredients by someone that puts creativity, invention, and love into it. Sadly, the hour it took to experience this book gives neither satisfied taste buds, and the impression my time could have been better spent elsewhere. The dearth of invention displayed here makes it look like an undernourished imitation of the version that came before it. How sad.

Sorry Harry, oops, I meant Tim.

Better luck next time.

Upload (2020) s01e08 – Shopping Other Digital After-Lives

The episode opens with Robbie Amell getting Andy Allo in trouble for their relationship. Except she can’t let him know she’s in trouble so when she gets sent home… he assumes she’s still at work. Only it’s her boss, Andrea Rosen, who shuts him down. See, he’s ready to commit to their romance.

He gets so upset at the rejection, he decides he’s going to leave the afterlife he’s in and shop around. He never wants to see Allo again. Also there’s the whole “fiancée Allegra Edwards pays for Amell’s afterlife and he wants to be independent” thing, which gets a lot of talk but never figures into much.

Until Edwards finds out Amell has left the afterlife of her choice and she teams up with Allo—who’s flown across the country (only a half hour though, right)—to let Edwards know about Amell “checking out.” So they confront his mom, Jessica Tuck, and try to get everything sorted out.

Even though there’s some shady person following them.

Sadly there’s no subplot involving Zainab Johnson. Instead it’s just Edwards, who’s not good, and Tuck, who’s not good. Edwards messes with Allo, Tuck messes with Amell. All the show ever tries to have going for it is Amell and Allo being cute together, looking like catalog models. Well, unless it’s Johnson. Then it seems to know it can do more.

But this episode isn’t just thin, it’s thin for “Upload.” It’s memorable because of the character team-ups, but we never really get to see anything interesting. When Allo starts perving on real-life and dead for a while now Amell’s clothes? The show doesn’t know how to make Allo cute when she’s creepy.

Because the show doesn’t really know how to do anything.

For “Upload,” it’s an engaging episode. It just never delivers on the comedy or the romance. And it really just puts the latter in a “do-over” position… the episode’s fairly pointless overall.

“Upload” would do better with less episodes.

Doctor Who (2005) s03e03 – Gridlock

Really nice direction from Richard Clark this episode; really nice. It’s a strong episode overall, because it’s set out in space in the future, which are usually the best “Who” episodes (so far), but this episode manages to do it with a bunch of regular humans.

Well, not regular humans. 5 billion years removed new humans. This episode is another in the “The Face of Boe” subplot, which started in the first season with the Face of Boe (voiced by Struan Rodger) just appearing in background then figuring in last season (in an episode involving cat person nurse Anna Hope, who appears here again) and it finally gets something of a conclusion here.

But the Boe stuff is overarching—and seemingly for future episodes in at least the season—while the main action has Tennant deciding he’s not dropping off Freema Agyeman yet (with her consent) so they go to the far future and off to another world. Only it’s New Earth, which we didn’t get to see last time and this time it turns out it’s gone all dystopian and people are traveling on the freeway for years to go ten miles to the promised lands of the suburbs.

Pregnant young persons Travis Oliver and Lenora Crichlow kidnap Agyeman so they can get in the three-or-more lanes, which forces a panicking Tennant—he really does bring disaster to those around him—to travel through layers of flying cars. He’s got to drop between cars, which means introducing amusing supporting characters, and he’s got the cars he spends more time in, which means lots of good dystopian melodrama.

There are also kittens.

So it’s a very cute episode in some ways and terrifying in others, as Agyeman and Tennant discover the secrets of the New New York, which involve giant monsters.

Lots of good material for both Agyeman (who realizes the possible consequences of her time-traveling on a whim) and Tennant. And the way writer Russell T. Davies is developing their relationship is rather nice. Agyeman has to figure it all out on her own here, making her much more of a partner.

The thing about Tennant lying to Agyeman about his home planet being destroyed is a little bit of a stretch though. It’s like Tennant’s biggest concern—she’s going to die before he can tell her the truth, not she’s going to die.

Mr. Boop – Volume 1: My Wife is Betty Boop (2020)

Mr Boop Volume 1  2020Mr. Boop is about being married to Betty Boop. The protagonist is Boop creator Alec Robbins, who is presumably not actually married to Betty Boop in real life because otherwise it’d be a series of photos not comics.

Robbins, the comic protagonist, is very happy to be married to Betty Boop, who’s the hottest woman ever, which might be where I (first) fail in the Boop demographic. There’s literally nothing else to Betty Boop. Is there nothing more to Betty Boop, the character? I haven’t seen any of the cartoons since childhood and the last Betty Boop appearance I would’ve seen was in a Roger Rabbit rewatch. A decade or so ago.

So not the target audience. If there is such a thing, because Robbins isn’t doing Boop for the classic Hollywood cartoon crowd. There’s an “18+” on the cover for a reason, as protagonist Alec gets over his performance anxiety and soon learns he and Betty are going to have to have a lot of threesomes if he’s going to want to stay alive. This volume—of fifty-two strips—has four major “plot gestures,” first involving protagonist Alec’s performance anxiety, then Bugs Bunny wanting to kill Alec and take his place in Betty Boop’s bed—Alec and Bugs work together at Subway but it’s unclear how Betty Boop knows Bugs—needless to say, the Boops come up with a solution to Bugs’s murderous machinations and it all works out.

At least until they don’t invite Sonic the Hedgehog—who bartends locally—to one of their soon infamous threesomes and it slowly drives him into a violent rage.

I mean… it’s all right. It probably shouldn’t open with a fake Jim Davis intro to the book because Mr. Boop then just reminds you of when Garfield isn’t quite funny enough either and it’s in a similar way to Boop. It probably reads better as a strip (Robbins published it daily). When part of the gag is there only being the one gag….

Well, it might just read better in single doses (or even limited ones) than a full dump. Though good cliffhanger.

And there are some funny strips in the backups from the guest cartoonists. Not the “Steven Universe” one, unless the point is never to want to watch “Steven Universe.”

Doctor Who (2005) s03e02 – The Shakespeare Code

I was expecting more from The Shakespeare Code. Dean Lennox Kelly’s Shakespeare is rather wanting. The characterization of it all seems more Knight’s Tale than anything historical or original. There are numerous quotations throughout, usually David Tennant making a quip and Kelly saying he’s going to keep it and Tennant (or Freema Agyeman) worrying they gave Kelly the idea. There are more time travel timeline conundrum conversations in this episode than there have been in the previous twenty episodes. “Doctor Who,” we find out, operates on something akin to the Back to the Future model.

It’s one of the numerous shrugs in the episode, along with Kelly’s womanizing Shakespeare setting his sights on Agyeman, excited by her being a Black woman. We’ve also already had the “is it safe for me to be a Black woman here” conversation, which the show blows off awkwardly, especially given it’s about to be an issue with Kelly. Had “Doctor Who” really not had to think about race on the show until 2007? It’s striking since “Star Trek: The Animated Series” dealt with almost the exact same fetishization thing in the seventies.

The story involves witches trying to use Shakespeare’s words to unlock the end times. It’s a “magic is just science you don’t understand” bit of melodrama, with some occasionally rather scary witch sequences.

If Kelly were better and Gareth Roberts’s script were better, director Charlie Palmer might’ve had a winning little horror episode but it doesn’t really work out. It goes too big for the finale—they’re a tad too comfortable with their CGI—but, otherwise, the witch stuff is good. Christina Cole’d be a great villain if the episode didn’t waste so much time with Kelly.

What’s particularly funny about it is painfully the show wants to make Shakespeare cool and he’s really just a bro.

It makes Tennant fawning over him a little odd.

Speaking of fawning… the show name-drops J.K. Rowling quite painfully.

Anyway.

Agyeman and Tennant are fun on her one trip in the TARDIS—she’s not a companion yet—but it’s more of a fail than not.

Upload (2020) s01e07 – Bring Your Dad to Work Day

As a streaming sitcom, filler doesn’t feel the same way in “Upload” as it does in a regular sitcom. “Upload” is not chasing that syndication deal, which in theory wouldn’t affect the A plot—dead guy Robbie Amell falling in love with his living virtual—actual—assistant Andy Allo—much but the B plot involving Amell being murdered and his fiancée Allegra Edwards somehow being involved… the B plot seems like it’d be important since there are only ten episodes.

“Upload” doesn’t worry about it, instead turning in a more traditional sitcom episode. It fits the basic trajectory—Allo’s dad, Chris Williams, is slowly dying from his vape cancer (despite occasionally reminding, favorably, to the future news in Robocop, “Upload”’s predictions are usually basic and desperate)—and Allo has Amell show him around the virtual afterlife because she wants Williams to meet her potential fella.

It’d be amazing if they’d gotten someone with some charm for the Williams part. Or if they’d gotten someone with some chemistry opposite Amell, instead of the pair in a very forced class and maybe race clash and it’s unpleasant. “Upload” doesn’t have the capacity to ask hard questions; it’s outside the scope, something show creator Greg Daniels probably ought to remind the writers.

Speaking of writers… this episode’s script is from Owen Daniels, one of the regulars. He plays the virtual world’s A.I. assistant. It’s never as funny as it ought to be. Interesting how Daniels doesn’t give himself anything significant to do in this episode, instead plays it straight and subjects us to way too much Williams.

Some big subplot items this episode too, but the funniest thing ends up being Zainab Johnson. As usual. She loses a customer’s flash drive or whatever—containing the person’s data—and has to find it or else.

Allo’s got her investigating subplot, which is… eh. Though it certainly seems like it’s going to get moving given a sabotage subplot.

Allo’s been fine on the show—very likable, sometimes cute—but she has to carry her scenes with Williams and does a fairly admirable job of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make the episode any better. It’s just nice to see her developing as an actor. Someone ought to get something out of “Upload.” Other than William B. Davis, relishing his performance as an eternal, ever evil Koch brother.

Doctor Who (2005) s03e01 – Smith and Jones

New only-other-billed actor (but technically not the new companion yet) Freema Agyeman guest starred at the end of last season but is playing a different character here. Thank goodness. Agyeman is a medical resident, so it’s going to be the Doctor and a doctor going forward, which is a lot better than a vague IT tech (her previous role). She’s just trying to go about her very regular day—running into an energetic David Tennant on her way to work—and then finding him again when she’s doing her medical rounds. Only he doesn’t remember her.

Or does he remember her. It’s unclear. We’ve spent the episode setup with Agyeman—meeting her entire supporting cast, in what seems to be the show promising they’re going to be entertaining and not annoying like a certain someone’s supporting cast—and the episode does take a while to shift the narrative distance back to the familiar Tennant one. The much bigger emphasis is on Agyeman. And it’s great.

The show itself seems thrilled to have her. Meanwhile, Tennant’s still sad about Rose going—the episode’s an indeterminate period after the Runaway Bride special—but then the episode’s like, look how much more fun we can have with Agyeman and Tennant than we ever did with Tennant and Billie Piper. Why is Russell T. Davies all of a sudden writing a much stronger female character? Well, basically because it’s the character establishing and it’s a lot easier to establish a stronger female character than to build one up from “shop girl.”

The story’s also great—a bunch of intergalactic mercenaries has transported Agyeman’s hospital (including Tennant) to the moon so they can search it for a rogue alien. Presumably not Tennant. It could also be evil patient Anne Reid, who’s absolutely fantastic. The mercenaries are rhino-faced aliens, which works out awesome (especially the budgetary gymnastics).

Not great special effects but sometimes quite good direction from Charlie Palmer, and a great energy thanks to Agyeman—and to the more fun approach to the action.

Now, hopefully they can keep up the momentum.

Upload (2020) s01e06 – Sleepover

Just as Allegra Edwards gets a redemption arc—two of them in fact—dead but living in a virtual reality simulation fiancé Robbie Amell starts getting close to his actual (vs. virtual) virtual assistant Andy Allo. Amell and Allo confide in one another about their suspicions regarding the A plot, which doesn’t usually get a lot of attention in “Upload” because the scripts are poorly plotted but whatever.

It’s “Upload,” there’s never much heavy lifting. Like when we find out Allo’s dad, Chris Williams, who’s dying from vape lung (no one knew it was dangerous until it was too late) and doesn’t want to be uploaded because he’s a Ludd (Luddite) goes on VR excursions using a joystick controller like it’s 1992. Because he just has to do the VR thing so much. It’s a weird (read, thoughtless) character detail and it doesn’t help Williams still isn’t very good. He’s better this episode. But he’s not good.

Edwards, on the other hand, is closer to being good than she’s ever been. She hangs out with Amell’s niece, Chloe Coleman, and ends up forming something of a human connection.

It’s too obvious and Edwards is too thin, writing and acting–but it’s a nice change. Especially since the episode otherwise just wanted to make simultaneously unpleasant and obvious jokes about how rude Edwards’s family members are to her and Coleman. And how rude Edwards is to her family members. It’s “Upload” doing social commentary and it’s a fail.

Much better is Zainab Johnson and Kevin Bigley’s pure comedy subplot. It makes absolutely no sense as far as the show’s established technology but whatever. At least it’s amusing. Johnson’s great. The show wastes a lot of performances, but Johnson’s able to succeed in a way no one else in the cast can manage.

Allo’s got a subplot about dating living real guy Matt Ward, but it’s mostly time killer. “Upload”’s middling comedy is a big improvement over its flaccid melodrama.

Doctor Who (2005) s03e00 – The Runaway Bride

How does the Doctor (this time David Tennant) usually respond to his companion leaving the show for, presumably, their own projects? Does it matter if you inherent your companion from the last Doctor? Have English school teachers been reading themes on this subject for decades now?

I’m vaguely curious about “Who” canon stuff. Not enough to Google. I’m willing to go into it as tabula rosa as possible.

So I didn’t know there was a Christmas episode between seasons two and three and I gave myself a bit of a spoiler for next season (but not worse than the preview at the end of Runaway Bride).

Runaway Bride does not feature a new companion for Tennant, rather a done-in-one sidekick, in this case the Bride (who’s not actually running away), played by Catherine Tate. The episode does not feature any appearances by anyone left behind last season, but it does take place immediately following the climactic events. So Tennant’s in a seriously bad mood this episode. Presumably. Again, we don’t get any idea how he’s experiencing the loss, not really.

But Tate’s the perfect foil for his mourning. We get to see Tennant acting opposite a much fuller performance than usual, getting to see that the Doctor and the guest star chemistry only with the companion. Tennant’s did his best with sidekick slash love interest slash ward slash protege Billie Piper but the show never delivered on the pair’s initial promise.

So it’s an inglorious postscript farewell to Piper.

Like she got her farewell two-parter and it was nice and all but give them a few months and writer Russell T. Davies is showing the promise of a stronger female character opposite Tennant.

Tate and Tennant are great.

The story’s about her getting transwarp beamed from her wedding to the TARDIS. Tennant gets Tate back to groom Don Gilet all right—albeit a little late—and then it turns out there’s a giant star-looking space ship (you know, for Christmas) attacking the Earth and Tennant’s going to need her help to save the world.

Bad villain though. It doesn’t seem to be Sarah Parish’s fault as much the part itself. Parish’s an energy vampire. Might have to do with the special effects too.

But a good, fun episode. The show’s got a much less lethargic tone than it did towards the end of last season, lot more slapstick. Davies has finally decided it should actually be fun instead of pretending to be fun.

Upload (2020) s01e05 – The Grey Market

Does “Upload” have a show bible the writers ignore—in this case Mike Lawrence, who at least writes a funny enough episode even if it completely breaks with the show’s established future logics-or does the show not have a show bible. Because it doesn’t lean heavy enough into the sitcom to not have its utterly broken reality not appear utterly broken.

And it manages to do it on multiple levels.

The Grey Market is where Robbie Amell takes fellow Upload (dead person’s consciousness uploaded to The Matrix ™) Rhys Slack to the shady digital app vendor spot. Where you can get unofficial patches and upgrades to your Upload avatar, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but hey, it’s been long enough “Chappelle's Show” rips can be homage and not rips.

Slack is a kid—who fell into the Grand Canyon, making him a YouTube hit—whose parents keep him the same age as when he died even though he wants to go through puberty. It’s the foulmouthed kid trope, but at least it’s funny? This episode’s got more laughs than any other episode of “Upload.”

It also has a decided lack of Allegra Edwards, which works out. It shouldn’t be such a boon given the major reveal in the previous episode’s cliffhanger but Edwards is such a energy suck it’s better to skip the A plot than involve her.

Anyway. Amell’s babysitting Slack and Kevin Bigley—who oscillates from as bad as he seems to less bad than he seems—convinces him to go to the grey market so they can get hacks to go to the VR floors, where living people have avatars, and have virtual sex with real women… only without letting these real women know they’re dead guys.

It’s charming.

The episode does get to the right places eventually—surprisingly so—but it’s cheaply done. But also funnier than usual and without Edwards. Plus more Zainab Johnson, who’s at least good, even if her writing is thin.

Andy Allo’s got a subplot with her dad, Chris Williams, who’s nowhere near good enough in what should’ve been a stunt cast. But Allo’s effective even with the bad future setting writing.

And the cliffhanger is genuinely distressing.

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