The Books of Magic (1993-2019)

Books of Magic v1

Books 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.

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

Mr Boop Volume 1  2020

Mr. 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.”

Teknophage (1995) #1-6

Neil Gaiman s Teknophage  6

Let’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.

Pulp (2020)

Pulp  2020

Pulp is good. I would’ve liked it a lot more with a different ending, instead of the same ending writer Ed Brubaker has used at least once before—but it’s such a distinctive, painfully obvious a reveal it sticks with me a decade after I first read it in Criminal. Though maybe he’s just trying to make the twist work, doing it over and over until it does the work it needs to do.

Real quick, the reason it doesn’t work is because it requires the narrator to be unreliable for the entirety of the piece. The narrator’s reveal is just another ruse, another manipulation and it keeps Pulp locked in its genre, a mix of a Western (though barely, just some flashbacks) and a pre-WWII crime thriller.

The narrator’s name is Max Winter; it’s so much from his perspective, I didn’t even realize he had a name until I got to the back cover. I guess people are always yelling out, “Max,” when he has heart attacks. Max has multiple heart attacks in the comic because Max is an old, breaking man. Hard-living is finally catching up, only in 1939 New York City when Max has got a wife at home in his tenement apartment and he wants to at least get her out of there before he dies. Hard-living didn’t catch up with him, for example, when he was an outlaw some forty years earlier.

Brubaker does have some nice narrative tricks, like how he introduces some of the story between Max and his brother (they led a gang or something) with Max talking about his Western stories and his plans for them—the Pulp in the title refers to Max writing for a story magazine in the Golden Age of story magazines—before actually introducing the brother, before explaining Max’s first-hand knowledge of the Western stories.

It’s nicely done, with Brubaker keeping just the right balance with the present and the flashback. Max narrates in a mix of past and present tense, just enough so you don’t know how it turns out. I don’t think Brubaker’s ever done a Sunset Boulevard but there’s a first time for everything. But whatever Brubaker does with the narration—and he does a good job of it, old man in 1939 experiencing that era—gets derailed with the twist at the end. Even with Brubaker muting it, putting it off as long as possible, trying to get to a… Pulp ending.

A lot of the plot concerns the American Nazi movement in 1939. The biggest action set piece involves them, they’re in the background to all the action, they even have to do with one of the twists. Because so many twists. Some of it is how Brubaker structures the narration, which gets to be personable while still writerly thanks to the narrator being an experienced writer.

The writer stuff doesn’t figure into Pulp much. There’s this initial impetus with Max having to write more stories to make up for getting mugged and losing the previous book’s pay. But he just effortlessly cranks them out, even though his wife mentions his all-nighters. Brubaker wants him to be a writer but isn’t really interested in him being a writer. Outside some interludes with the editor, which turn into a C plot by the end.

The wife’s extant but not present. Again, Brubaker makes it work by just making it about fitting in the genre.

Pulp would’ve worked better as a longer limited series. It’s rushed.

But good enough. High highs, not too low lows. Fantastic art throughout from Sean Phillips. Making it a series would’ve meant more Phillips 1939 New York art, which is gorgeous. Great colors from Jacob Phillips too.

Maybe twenty pages into Pulp, I started getting more invested in it because I thought it was going to be really good, like maybe Brubaker had really figured it out this time. So I was an extended disappointed… not to mention that familiar final “twist.” But it’s good. Like, real good. It’s beautifully paced, looks great, and has a strong first person protagonist.

It’s just not singular and it seems like it should be.

Nailbiter Returns (2020) #1

Nailbiter Returns  2020  1

I jumped shift halfway through the original Nailbiter series, so I think I missed the part about the serial killer antihero (the Nailbiter) having a daughter with the hero of the series. It’s been so long I can’t remember if the first series felt like a pitch for McFarlane Toys, but Nailbiter Returns feels it. Complete with play sets.

All of a sudden I’m reminded of that “Mentalist” quote, “If you don't get horny reading Fangoria, I'm Britney Spears.”

But Nailbiter Returns tries so hard not to just be an exploitation comic. And suffers for not just embracing it.

If it were just exploitation, writer Joshua Williamson could get away with the new lead—the Nailbiter’s teenage normal girl daughter—not being able to shut up about Argento movies and Goblin scores. After some serial killer torture violence—which is only disquieting because of how blandly the comic executes it—Williamson does some exposition to catch us up, but with a whole bunch of horror movie talk thrown in.

Scream has been old enough to drink for three years and we’re still at the Scream level of pop culture references.

Not to get into a whole thing about how pop culture references do and do not add to a narrative work but it’d almost be more interesting than talking about the comic.

Nailbiter Returns is almost middling. Williamson’s does a thorough job, albeit without any nuance. Mike Henderson’s art either feels rushed—lots of empty backgrounds, ill-defined character physiologies—or forced.

The double-sized first issue, which barely has any story and I think I’m remembering what helped me jump on the first series, doesn’t do anything to make me think jumping was the wrong choice.

Ginseng Roots (2019) #3

Ginseng Roots  2019  3

Okay, this issue is even better than last issue and not just because creator Craig Thompson has Black Jesus, White Yahweh, and a Chinese Holy Spirit, which is an amazing panel. Lots of amazing illustrative panels this issue, in fact, because the main plot isn’t about Thompson working on his comic or anything with his family—it’s about the history of ginseng.

Thompson starts with a creation myth straight out of The Phantom Menace and those other virgin birth stories. Except instead of doing the Jesus thing, this guy spends his life figuring out how best for folks to live off nature and to be healthy. Thompson has this absolutely glorious transition where the guy, Shennong, has to find the missing cute ginseng root, which has gotten successfully hunted because the hunter is worthy. Shennong is 28th Century BCE, so pre-Jesus, post-Anakin. Shennong then has to try to find his ginseng friend, which brings him to the twenty-first century and Thompson at a ginseng rally in Wisconsin. It’s beautifully executed. Just stunningly good work.

But then Shennong discovers the ginseng isn’t his old friend, it’s American Ginseng or whatever and how did it get there and we don’t get to find out because it’s the cliffhanger. The educational element of Ginseng Roots is the cliffhanger. It’s stunningly good. Like, if issue two was better than it seemed issue one could ever get, three’s just as much an improvement over two. It’s an exemplar comic.

There’s some great American political commentary, with Thompson managing never to come off sarcastic when he’s doing something sarcastic. A lot of it comes from Thompson’s understanding of comic book and comic strip mechanics; even the beginning treats the origin of Shennong like a sensational seventies Marvel book. Thompson’s got a lot of chops and is showing them off here.

I’m loving this book.

Ginseng Roots (2019) #2

Ginseng Roots  2019  2

Confession time—I never read Blankets, creator Craig Thompson’s first big work. And it now turns out Ginseng Roots is a somewhat direct sequel.

This issue opens with Thompson going back to Wisconsin—he’d been living in Portland, OR (of course), which makes the questionable L.A. cartography last issue more permissible—and meeting up with his younger brother, Phil, to drive to the family farm house. Not farm, but farm house amid other people’s fields.

On the way, Thompson introduces a second sibling, sister Sarah, who was left out from Blankets; there’s a bit about the fallout from Blankets, both in terms of the parents and the sister. The parents didn’t like it because it’s about Thompson’s fall from Evangelical faith and Sarah because she wasn’t in Blankets. She even wonders if it won’t be too confusing to include her in the ginseng comic, which Thompson is talking over with his family.

How’d it turn out? She’s on the cover of this issue.

And the parents have at least accepted Thompson’s previous work to the point there’s a copy of Blankets on the bookshelf, which is bare of books other than Thompson’s creative output. Presumably there’s a Bible around somewhere.

Creating a comic lionizing Red State farmers in 2019 is going to be something, but Thompson seems to be aware he’s going to have to address some things. It’s not like Portland is the bastion of social justice one would’ve assumed in the aughts.

The parents aren’t enthused about the ginseng project simply because they were laborers, so Thompson and his brother (who loves the idea of the comic) go to visit some farmers and former employers.

They’re a cute old couple who bitch about Americans not wanting to work anymore and how the environmentalists are ruining things. Turns out at the end ginseng can only be grown on a plot so I’m not sure an economist would agree with their take. But it’s a very nice, very informative sequence.

There’s a lot about how excluded Sarah felt from growing up with the brothers, which is awesome, unpleasant if genial work.

The first issue was good comics but this issue is outstanding comics. Hopefully Thompson can keep it going.

Ginseng Roots (2019) #1

Ginseng Root  2019  1

Creator Craig Thompson has a hell of a hook for the first issue of Ginseng Roots—he gets to be interesting. Thompson grew up in Wisconsin in the seventies and eighties when the state was the number one grower of ginseng in the world. According to Thompson; I’m not going to check it because you’ve got to trust your creators.

So Thompson and his brother helped their mother weed ginseng fields as kids. They got paid a dollar an hour, which eventually bought comic books. And Thompson goes into how they weeded the fields and why they weeded the fields and it’s all very interestingly done. Even though the ginseng market crashed in the nineties and ruined some lives, Wisconsin still makes it; they should’ve hired Thompson to do them a pamphlet talking about it. Just great educational comics right here.

Alongside Thompson’s story of growing up in a working class Wisconsin farming community and the associated troubles. In the present—he’s got a very quick and effective way of jumping the narrative ahead forty years—he still suffers class anxiety as he finds himself with all the artsy types.

A chance walk through Los Angeles’s Koreatown and Chinatown—okay, this one I checked and it’s not geographically accurate (hrm)—but on this chance walk narrator Thompson sees ginseng shops and communes with a particular barrel of roots and it tells him to “go home.”

It’s the adorable ginseng creator Thompson has had as gentle comedy relief throughout the comic, offering asides on multiple pages and so on.

The comic’s gorgeous; Thompson’s on not white paper, which gives the mostly black and white art a lot of personality. There are occasional colors, mostly reds. There’s even a letter page, where creator Thompson talks about the plans for the comic—twelve issues—so either the whole thing’s about his journey back home or some of it will be. His brother, who’s a character in the comic, also draws a couple pager about how he picked too much ginseng when rooting.

It’s a very nice comic; very nice reading experience.

Friday (2020)

Friday  2020

Friday is actually Friday #1. Or “Chapter One.” I went into it cold, only aware it was Ed Brubaker writing and Marcos Martin on art. I figured it was a done-in-one, but it’s actually the start of a new serial.

The titular Friday is one Friday Fitzhugh, who’s just come home from college to her New England town and found herself immediately in pursuit of some kid who’s run off with a sacred knife from an archeological dig.

The comic’s set in an indeterminate past, pre-cellphone, looks to be pre-laptop too. There’s not a lot of time to reflect on the seventies or eighties as quaint because it’s mostly action as Friday and her partner but he’s really the Batman to her Robin, Lancelot Jones, are in this pursuit. With the sheriff driving them. Sheriff answers to Lancelot.

There are lots of allusions to Friday and Lancelot’s “partnership” before college, though not as many as references to some cataclysmic rift in their relationship the night before she left for college. Did one of them get amorous and get shot down? Don’t know. Friday wants to talk about it, Lancelot instead ignores her and ditches her after picking her up—in the sheriff’s car—from her train to go on their mission.

There’s a lot of precedent for teen and tween boy detectives having tomboy female sidekicks (Encyclopedia Brown did, didn't he) and Brubaker seems to think there’s gristle in examining them after they’re able to buy cigarettes but….

Friday #1 ends with a postscript from Brubaker explaining its origins in the proto-YA novels of his childhood (mentioning Edward Gorey just makes you wonder how it’d read if Martin’s art were eerie in any way), which kind of constrains the whole thing and gives it some padding.

It may turn out to be worthwhile.

But a comic called Friday about a literal girl Friday (the reference just seems to target a forty-something, middle-class White male audience) and so far disinterested in examining its gender tropes by going all-on traditional? Eh.

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