Neil Gaiman

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.

Teknophage (1995) #1-6

Neil Gaiman s Teknophage  6Let’s see how long it takes me to describe Teknophage. Our reality is just one of an infinite (I think) number of realities, a multiverse woven together through the will of one single creature—the Teknophage, or Mister Henry Phage. He’s a giant dinosaur. On his planet, through mutation, he became hyper-intelligent and then discovered how to access the quantum realm and create a multiverse (or so Phage says during an interview). Sixty-five million years later, Earth is experiencing its 20th century and Phage is kidnapping humans to work in his giant mobile skyscraper hell building as it roams the planet Kalighoul. I think it can jump through the dimensions and go anywhere, they just happen to be hanging out on planet Kalinghoul.

Phage’s empire runs as a commercial enterprise, where his vice presidents scramble up the corporate ladder, hoping to someday be worthing of becoming… Phage’s dinner. Phage doesn’t eat very often because he’s got this special nap he takes as he digests his subordinates and seems to absorb them in some way. It’s unclear. Phage doesn’t like doctors so it’s entirely possible he’s never been fully diagnosed. Sometimes when Phage doesn’t like things he zaps them with his heat vision. By things I mean his “employees”—it’s unclear if middle management makes any actual money. They clearly live better than the many enslaved people who man the proverbial oars, but the upper management at least seems to enjoy their position having reached it. Though we don’t see what they do for leisure. Probably something awful.

The “hero” of the story is real estate developer Rob, who’s out at a farm he’s swindled from an old lady when he gets zapped to planet Kalinghoul. We’ve already seen Kalinghoul, with writer Rick Veitch and artist Bryan Talbot introducing it in the framing device, with this Oldish English narration cryptically describing the situation with Phage and so on.

It’s like “Monty Python” and, I don’t know, Dickens or something. I’m not English enough to know the specifics. Teknophage is extremely British; it’s about some dystopian steampunk revolt against a giant dinosaur ruler; it’s like a 2000 AD story but unqualified in its success. Talbot and Teknophage creator Neil Gaiman are English, Veitch is not. Neither’s Rob. In fact, Rob being an American figures into his behavior.

See, once Rob gets to planet Kalinghoul, he tries bartering his Earthly possessions for local money and gets ripped off. He also gets married to the woman ripping him off, which is sort of just desserts because it turns out she’s the alien abducted daughter of the old lady whose farm he just swindled. Her name is Clarissa and she’s a revolutionary in addition to being a con artist. She runs with Boog, a rough old British guy trope, who’s her surrogate father. When Clarissa goes on mission, Rob decides he’s got to save her—he’s suffering intense guilt over swindling her mom–even if it screws up her mission, which involves getting taken in for conversion, where they boil down your soul and turn you into a robot.

The writing on all the fantastical steampunk stuff is great. When the comic gets to an expository section, it’s a delight thanks to Veitch’s enthusiastic prose. It’s always entertaining.

Will Boog get Rob to realize being a capitalist maybe isn’t the greatest idea on Kalinghoul (or anywhere else)? Can Clarissa survive her undercover assignment as Phage’s new secretary (tasked with recording his life story)? Will Phage ever digest his meal? The meal who yells at him for quite a while and provides Veitch with some great comic relief.

Though there’s a lot of great comic relief amid the great comic.

Outstanding art from Talbot. His figures aren’t the greatest, unless he’s doing a little more caricature, but the settings are amazing and Teknophage himself is just as delightful visually as narratively. He’s an amazing antagonist. He’s kind of an anti-hero but also not.

Despite being from a comic book company I hadn’t heard of–Tekno Comix—until reading this title, Teknophage is actually in print (collected) as well as digitally so it’s readily available and well-worth the read.

Enough for me to continue on into the non-Veitch issues… not sure yet.

Secret Origins Special (1989)

Secret Origins SpecialI always forget how much Neil Gaiman threw himself into the DC Universe when he’d write in it. This Secret Origins Special is all about Batman’s villains; a TV investigative journalist has come to Gotham to do a special. Gaiman seems to enjoy writing those scenes–the ones with the behind the scenes, the Batman cameo, the anecdotes about living in Gotham City and the DC Universe in general. He doesn’t do well with the characters though, not the TV reporter and his crew. These framing scenes have art by Mike Hoffman and Kevin Nowlan. They do better at the start than they do the finish. By the finish, they’re getting tired and the detail from the opening isn’t there anymore.

Alan Grant writes the Penguin’s origin story, which isn’t a straight origin. There’s something modern to all of the Secret Origins here. Penguin’s grabbed a childhood nemesis–who just happened to grow up to be a gangster too–and Batman’s trying to find the guy while the Penguin’s torturing him. It’s an okay script, not great, but the Sam Kieth artwork is gorgeous. Kieth does action, he does Batman, he does Penguin, he does gangsters–he does kids. The best part of it is the tenderness Kieth shows when he’s doing the kids. I always forget Kieth really does know what he’s doing.

A self-reflected Riddler. Art by Bernie Mireault and Matt Wagner.
A self-reflected Riddler. Art by Bernie Mireault and Matt Wagner.
Gaiman handles the Riddler’s origin, which ties in a lot to the framing plot. The TV crew goes to interview him. Bernie Mireault on pencils, Matt Wagner on inks. Gaiman’s enthusiastic but misguided. Lots of monologue from the Riddler, but never particularly interesting. The details about the giant objects used in Gotham’s advertising in the past is more interesting than the Riddler teasing the TV crew with the truth. The art’s solid though and gets it over the bumps.

Then there’s the Two-Face story. Mark Verheiden writing it, Pat Broderick and Dick Giordano on the art. Broderick’s pencils are full of energy and light on restraint. It’s a messy story and a fairly cool one, focusing on Grace Dent (Harvey’s wife) and her side of the story. Verheiden doesn’t write the TV crew well and Grace Dent’s a little too slight, but it’s a solid enough story. The art is brutally violent and full of anger. Everyone looks miserable and angry about it.

Harvey Two-Face and Batman graphically wail on each other. Art by Pat Broderick and Dick Giordano.
Harvey Two-Face and Batman graphically wail on each other. Art by Pat Broderick and Dick Giordano.

The issue would’ve been better with stronger art throughout from Hoffman and Nowlan and either more or less from Gaiman. The TV crew ceases to be characters after the introduction, like one of the stories came in a page or two short and Gaiman was padding it out. But the Penguin story is good, the Riddler story could be a lot worse and is technically strong, the Two-Face story is super-solid mainstream DC eighties stuff. It’s good stuff.

CREDITS

Writer, Neil Gaiman, Alan Grant and Mark Verheiden; pencillers, Mike Hoffman, Bernie Mireault and Pat Broderick; inkers, Kevin Nowlan, Matt Wagner and Dick Giordano; artist, Sam Kieth; colorists, Tom McCraw and Joe Matt; letterers, Todd Klein, Albert DeGuzman, Mireault and Agustin Mas; editor, Mark Waid; publisher, DC Comics.

Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham 4 (January 2016)

Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham #4Here’s the concept for the issue (Gaiman loves his concepts)–Miracleman sells his sperm. Women without children can get the sperm and have star children. Saves the trouble of monoliths and killer computers. You can get a star child real easy.

Some of the issue is about this woman who has a star child and she has a boyfriend who has a regular child. If there’s some deeper message in Buckingham drawing the lady and star child as white and boyfriend and boyfriend’s son as black….

I mean, Gaiman’s Miracleman is on the nose. For what should be an indie comic book, it’s really on the nose. But I can’t believe it’s so desperately on the nose. And, if the comic didn’t go terribly bad at the end, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about the interracial romance aspect as far as Gaiman’s protracted symbolism goes. There’s so much of it elsewhere in the issue, one can only look for so much.

Most of the issue is this “in-world” storybook (with really lame interludes of the lady reading it to the two kids–the star child being, you know, a little flying god) about Miracleman’s baby’s journey across the universe. It’s kind of fun. The storybook aspect. Gaiman does a lot better at writing a pseudo-storybook than he does doing a pseudo-Moore.

Then the reveal. The dude is leaving the lady and her star child told her because her star child has superpowers. It’s all about how this woman thought having a baby would make her life whole and it hasn’t because she had a Miracleman-brand star child.

It’s offensively dumb. When Gaiman was just doing lame characterizations to get to the storybook insert, it was fine. But when he’s doing that storybook to kill pages and take a load of Buckingham and he’s really got some message? One he tries to get through with inept manipulation. At least competent would’ve been interesting to experience. Inept just makes it annoying.

I might be done with Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham.

CREDITS

Book Four: The Golden Age; writer, Neil Gaiman; artist, Mark Buckingham; colorist, D’Israeli; letterer, Todd Klein; editor, Cory Sedlmeier; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham 3 (December 2015)

Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham #3Well, it’s easily the best Miracleman from Gaiman so far. Still no Miracleman, but the comic is pretty solid. It’s pretending to be high concept but isn’t (it’s actually the template for lots of the standard, and acceptable, Vertigo series of the early nineties). Gaiman tells the story of Hades in Miracleman’s Golden Age… it’s where the aliens bring back famous dead people.

The lead is the sixth Andy Warhol android. Gaiman avoids the “mystical” skillfully, maybe more skillfully than anything else he does in the comic. A big character reveal in the last few panels changes the comic a little. For the better.

Unfortunately, Gaiman’s Warhol is a weak narrator. The story of an Emil Gargunza android hanging out with Warhol–and Gaiman doing some really obvious looks at how “celebrity” functions–is actually something. Gaiman’s choices are interesting, because Buckingham is more than willing to indulge–and Warhol’s so technically predictable (as an artist), it works for a comic. It’s all on the nose, but it’s a good nose.

Gaiman’s writing of the characters in scene–not that narration–is good. His reserved approach forces involvement and investment from the reader.

It’s a good issue. Even if a solid quarter of Buckingham’s full page spreads are technically wonderful but narrative eye-rolls.

CREDITS

Book Four: The Golden Age; writer, Neil Gaiman; artist, Mark Buckingham; colorist, D’Israeli; letterer, Todd Klein; editor, Cory Sedlmeier; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham 2 (November 2015)

Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham #2Funny thing about this issue of Miracleman–Gaiman lets his didactic storytelling take it over. The issue has a couple stories, both showing the lives of “regular people” living in Miracleman’s “Golden Age.”

How regular? Well, one is a lighthouse keeper who has a secret affair with Miraclewoman. He’s a dumpy British jackass who only wants to date supermodels and has to dump women as they age, or when he discovers any physical imperfection.

Gaiman’s trying really, really hard with it. Does Miraclewoman cure him of his problem? Sure. After giving him superhero sex on multiple occasions and once with her alter ego. It’s painful, watching Gaiman go for something so desperately. The obviousness makes it awkward.

The second story is about kids living in the Miracleman future. There are a couple fun ideas, but nothing for a story. Though Buckingham certainly has a good time with it.

So far, Gaiman isn’t bringing anything special to Miracleman. By not telling Miracleman’s story, he gets to delay any significant action and judgement.

CREDITS

Book Four: The Golden Age; writer, Neil Gaiman; artist, Mark Buckingham; colorist, D’Israeli; letterer, Todd Klein; editor, Cory Sedlmeier; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham 1 (November 2015)

Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham #1Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham. Will it be the classic always promised? Given how much Marvel butchered its reprints of the Alan Moore issues, will Neil Gaiman–when finishing the comic after twenty-five years–tone it done to make the Mouse happy?

And what do we–the readers–get for a happy Mouse? Not Miracleman, the movie. Do we even get Miracleman the quality collection, with unedited original writer issues?

I am not a Gaiman fan. I am a Moore fan. Going into Gaiman and Mark Buckingham’s Miracleman, I am slightly disinterested. I had forgotten they were going to do it. I had forgotten Marvel had been reprinting Miracleman. They’ve done such a bad job of it, the company clearly stretching its britches past the point of public appropriateness.

What does any of the above have to do with Miracleman by Gaiman and Buckingham? Not much. A little maybe. But definitely not much. Because, so far, there’s nothing to the comic. Miracleman is the granter of wishes. Gaiman writes about people who go see him. Miracleman makes it hard for people to come and ask wishes. But he installs toilets.

Buckingham’s art is cool. It’s an odd pairing with a superhero, but the comic isn’t a superhero book. It’s a pretentious outside-the-mainstream mainstream comic. And an okay one. But, if I were reading it twenty-five years ago, my thought would be the same–there’s only so much time Gaiman can ride on Moore’s steam.

CREDITS

Book Four: The Golden Age; writer, Neil Gaiman; artist, Mark Buckingham; colorist, D’Israeli; letterer, Todd Klein; editor, Cory Sedlmeier; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 8 (August 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #8Either the reader is going to buy into Gaiman’s setup for this issue or the reader is going to reject it. Even before Gaiman gets into the “meat” of the issue, which is basically a lengthy monologue from Dream about the importance of Death. Both as a natural event and as Dream’s sister.

The issue opens with them seeing each other for the first time after Dream’s escape from captivity and his quest. Gaiman goes really far on the self-aware dialogue, using Death to expound on the comic book and on its protagonist.

He also goes with an inanely cheap ending; many of Sandman’s worst moments are just ones cribbed from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (without any of the context).

Once again, Gaiman does a montage of regular people who he doesn’t care about. It’s slightly less tedious than the overdone immortal sibling dialogue.

Dringenberg’s art annoys too.

C- 

CREDITS

The Sound of Her Wings; writer, Neil Gaiman; penciller, Mike Dringenberg; inker, Malcolm Jones III; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 7 (July 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #7Ah, the big fight issue. Doctor Destiny versus Dream for control of the Dreamworld. Or whatever it’s called. After the two stand-off in the diner, after some glimpses of the world going mad, Doctor Destiny has a trippy dream he’s Caesar and then the big fight. It’s the two of them against a white background. Not the most visceral setting for a comic book fight scene.

Gaiman has a lot of problems trying to make this issue work as a comic. He’s so wrapped up in traditions, he doesn’t just not do anything new, he doesn’t do anything worthwhile. The glimpses to the world gone mad don’t create concern, they create distance.

Dringenberg’s pencils don’t help things. The awkwardly proportioned figures change throughout, without rhyme or reason. Sandman gives the pretense of thoughtfulness and depth, but it’s generic.

There’s no sense of scale or character. Gaiman avoids writing Dream.

C 

CREDITS

Sound and Fury; writer, Neil Gaiman; penciller, Mike Dringenberg; inker, Malcolm Jones III; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 6 (June 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #6The issue takes place over a day at a diner. Doctor Destiny is trying to bring about the end of the world and he traps a bunch of people in the diner and slowly drives them mad. Or not slowly.

Gaiman makes the characters distinct, horrific, pitiable. He doesn’t have time to establish them as sympathetic so he doesn’t even try. Some of them he plays for laughs, others for shock value. Dringenberg takes over the pencils; he doesn’t do a particularly good job. There’s no personality to the art, especially not in the horrific scenes. Some of the talking heads stuff is decent.

The issue feels so derivative, so manipulative, it starts to get boring before the halfway point. Gaiman’s using sensational human suffering. Even when he writes a good scene, it’s still just a cheap trick in a bridging issue.

All to avoid giving Doctor Destiny a personality.

C 

CREDITS

24 Hours Diner; writer, Neil Gaiman; penciller, Mike Dringenberg; inker, Malcolm Jones III; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

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