Vertigo

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.

Deathbed #2 (May 2018)

Deathbed #2Deathbed still has pacing issues. Williamson does a lot better without exposition on the girl. The first issue pretended she was the protagonist. This issue reveals she’s the sidekick. She’s a good sidekick, but just the sidekick.

And it’s not even because the lead guy–Luna (the aged but still virile adventurer–seriously, how long has it been since Tom Strong established the old man adventurer in comics); anyway, its not because the lead guy gets more to do. He obviously does, because there’s a big fight at a funeral. Artist Rossmo’s comedy chops exceed his action. The action is good. A little busy but good. The comedy is great.

The comedy art will need to be great because Deathbed isn’t just about Luna and his biographer having adventures. It’s about Luna growing as a person. Williamson writes Luna the grower better than Luna the shower. Oh, sorry, I must still be thinking about how fixated Deathbed is at showing Luna nude. It might be funny if the biographer cared but she doesn’t. Instead it’s weird. Is it a machismo thing?

Anyway. Much improved second issue.

It does still read too fast.

CREDITS

Writer, Joshua Williamson; artist, Riley Rossmo; colorist, Ivan Plascencia; letterer, Deron Bennett; editor, Amedeo Turturro; publisher, Vertigo.

Deathbed #1 (April 2018)

Deathbed #1I’ve been reading indie books so long I forgot what Vertigo pacing feels like. Besides the pacing, Deathbed actually doesn’t feel too much like a “Vertigo book.” Sure, the witty, buxom female protagonist feels like a Vertigo book–oh, no, am I going to regret saying it didn’t feel like a Vertigo book–but the subject of the book doesn’t feel like a Vertigo “hero.”

Deathbed is about a failing writer who agrees to ghostwrite the autobiography of some guy she’s never heard of. But he’s rich. And it turns out he’s a monster hunter. It’s never clear whether or not the protagonist–Val–is aware there are monsters. It’s a problem, but writer Joshua Williamson skips over it. He’s got the issue to finish.

It’s going to be six issues, which is probably fine. Nothing much happens here–not in terms of establishing the protagonist (though it’s entirely possible she’s not going to get any more character than she’s got at the end of issue one)–except there’s eventually mummies attacking a naked old (but astoundingly fit) guy and him killing them all.

It’s not a spoiler. It’s kind of the point of the book. He’s on his final quest–rid the world of bad guys until one of them kills him. Val, ghostwriter, will be there to watch.

Riley Rossmo’s art is all right, but the book’s so rushed there’s not a lot of time to appreciate it. There’s a strange reliance on double page spreads, which just hurry things along even more.

Deathbed needs to slow down.

CREDITS

Writer, Joshua Williamson; artist, Riley Rossmo; colorist, Ivan Plascencia; letterer, Deron Bennett; editor, Amedeo Turturro; publisher, Vertigo.

Frostbite 1 (November 2016)

Frostbite #1You know what, Frostbite would be a perfectly fine graphic novel. Maybe not with the colors–Luis NCT adds a bunch of fake perspective with the pointalized coloring and it takes even more personality out of Jason Shawn Alexander’s art, but as a single sitting commitment, it’d be fine.

It’s about some post-apocalyptic wasteland with an artificially created atomic winter complete with a mysterious plague called frostbite. Freezes the body into an ice cube. Can’t you just see it on a TV show? I feel like the CW just needs to commit to a Vertigo anthology TV show and then we could get back to more interesting comics from them. But maybe not.

There’s a plucky, but dark, Han Solo-type leading this group of ice mercenaries or smugglers or something. Doesn’t matter. There’s an annoying scientist the team has to save so the world can be saved. It’s like when a TV pilot just doesn’t do it. I don’t care. The hook isn’t in. Not with the art; even though Alexander’s got the right setting, he doesn’t have fluid enough lines. His art doesn’t move.

And he’s really cheap on backgrounds.

Maybe I’ll read the first trade.

CREDITS

Writer, Joshua Williamson; artist, Jason Shawn Alexander; colorist, Luis NCT; letterer, Steve Wands; editor, Maggie Howell and Jamie S. Rich; publisher, Vertigo.

Suiciders 1 (April 2015)

Suiciders #1Because no one remembers Escape From L.A., it’s time for Suiciders. But people do remember Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome–or at least the Thunderdome. Writer and artist Lee Bermejo rips off one of those movies, or just any other movie where post-apocalyptic guys fight in an arena to do the death for the enjoyment of the masses. Wasn’t it in a Zorro too?

There’s nothing original about Suiciders, except maybe bringing illegal immigration into it except it’s probably something Judge Dredd did thirty years ago.

But the comic’s extremely readable. Bermejo’s not a good writer, but his dialogue’s passable (maybe editorial actually did some work on the comic) and it’s a gorgeous looking comic book. Suiciders gets away with everything because it looks gorgeous.

When will the stupidity outweigh the gorgeous art? Depends on how much cool stuff Bermejo gets to draw.

It’s a desperate attempt from Vertigo though.

CREDITS

The Brutality Malady; writer and artist, Lee Bermejo; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Jared K. Fletcher; editors, Gregory Lockard and Will Dennis; publisher, Vertigo.

Moonshadow 4 (December 1994)

Moonshadow #4This issue has Moonshadow and Ira getting forced into military service. It’s an intergalactic war, which gives Muth a lot of great stuff to draw. Moonshadow is conceptually low-tech and almost junky in how it shows extraterrestrial civilization, but Muth does find occasion for some really beautiful details. Space travel through individual bubbles, for example, is breathtaking.

DeMatteis has a lot about war, which he always tells from Moon’s romanticized point of view, even when Moon doesn’t think he’s being romantic. There’s a great little subplot for Ira too. DeMatteis tells it over a page or two–Moonshadow is told in summary, with short emphasized scenes. DeMatteis sometimes focuses these well, sometimes poorly. This issue he focuses them well throughout.

The most affecting part of the issue takes place in flashback, one of Moon’s mother’s memories. DeMatteis forces this flashback (as he does them all) but the content’s strong.

B+ 

CREDITS

The Crying of the Wind; writer, J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Jon J. Muth; letterer, Kevin Nowlan; editors, Shelly Bond, Laurie Sutton and Archie Goodwin; publisher, Vertigo.

Moonshadow 3 (November 1994)

Moonshadow #3Things get a little too slow this issue, with Moon stuck in an asylum and Ira, his combination sidekick and antagonist, has to break him out. Why? Because Ira needs Moon to work odd jobs to support them. In the meantime, Moon has some encounters with his fellow inmates and there’s a lovely sequence when he plays the flute for them.

Muth’s art for that sequence is gorgeous. It flows, which is sort of strange, since the second half of the issue has a lot of action and a lot of examples of Muth not flowing. He does straight action scenes, very realistic painted panels. They’re technically good, but a little too static. It doesn’t help DeMatteis’s script kind of runs around in a circle too.

If there had been something along the way, something significant for Moon, it would’ve worked out a whole lot better. Instead, it’s gorgeous, troubled.

B 

CREDITS

The Crying of the Wind; writer, J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Jon J. Muth; letterer, Kevin Nowlan; editors, Shelly Bond, Laurie Sutton and Archie Goodwin; publisher, Vertigo.

Moonshadow 2 (October 1994)

Moonshadow #2Moonshadow continues with DeMatteis going high sci-fi–Moon, his mother and his sidekick, Ira, investigating a desolate spacecraft–while also going absurdist humor. DeMatteis works emotion into both and one of the most startling things about the comic is how dark DeMatteis will take it. The humor and the fantasy never distract; in fact, DeMatteis uses them to amplify the importance of the emotional goings on.

It’s rather phenomenal. And very hard to take because DeMatteis doesn’t offer any relief. All the humor comes with the emotional weight.

Muth renders some fantastic visuals this issue, particularly with his mix of styles at the end. And his work on the spacecraft exploration is positively frightening. Even though Muth’s art often gets to be far more playful than the script, that element of dread still lurks. DeMatteis and Muth create beauty, hope, dread and fear and intricately tie them all together.

B+ 

CREDITS

A Very Uncomfortable Thing; writer, J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Jon J. Muth; letterer, Kevin Nowlan; editors, Shelly Bond, Laurie Sutton and Archie Goodwin; publisher, Vertigo.

Trillium 8 (June 2014)

Trillium #8Lemire has a great device in this issue–lots of small panels full of conversation to show a rapid-fire exchange. Not sure if it's his own creation but it's a wonderful tool for pacing the reader while still having visually dynamic panels. They're just smaller panels.

The good composition and pacing continues until about halfway through the comic, when it all goes to pot.

Lemire goes for a really cheap ending to Trillium; really obvious, really self-indulgent (he changes styles at one point and I think photoshops in panels from earlier issues, regardless where the panels are from–he photoshops badly). The ending reveals how the series's pacing problems disabled it too much. The characters have changed too much, too quickly and the ending Lemire goes after needs a lot of thorough work.

Lemire ignores the series's finest qualities for its finish.

Oddly, I liked his art here more than anywhere else.

D 

CREDITS

Two Stars Become One; writer and artist, Jeff Lemire; colorists, José Villarrubia and Lemire; letterer, Carlos M. Mangual; editors, Sara Miller and Mark Doyle; publisher, Vertigo

Trillium 7 (May 2014)

297641 20140305122523 largeUntil the hard cliffhanger, which is just too jarring both in the narrative and visually, Lemire finally gets back to fulfilling Trillium’s potential.

He makes a decision about his characters too. He’s been wishy-washy on assigning a protagonist lately–not just for issues, but for the whole series; letting his time and star crossed lovers share the position wasn’t working. He decides well.

What’s most impressive is how he lets himself go with the sci-fi spectacular visuals. Lemire’s been doing a lot with trying to dictate how the reader approaches the book (the vertically flipped pages, reading back to forth, practically choose your own adventure). This issue had grandiose visuals (many tying to previous issues’ imagery). It works beautifully without any artificial attempts to control how the reader digests it.

Lemire does well with the B plot too.

As far as penultimate issues go, this one’s outstanding.

A- 

CREDITS

All the Shadows Have Stars in Them…; writer and artist, Jeff Lemire; colorists, José Villarrubia and Lemire; letterer, Carlos M. Mangual; editors, Sara Miller and Mark Doyle; publisher, Vertigo.

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