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.

Dollar Binging

Spider-Boy Team Up #1
Amalgam Comics, June 1997

Hawkman Comics #12
DC Comics, Feb/Mar 1966


Spider Boy Team Up  1997  1Spider-Boy Team Up #1

Probably the last of its ilk, Amalgam Comics will be known as the final example of Marvel and DC co-publishing anything. The 12 one shots that made up this line were all amalgamations of concepts of both companies, complete in single issue stories, and a couple of them stood out.

The story here, penned by “R.K. Sternsel”, is obviously an amalgam, I’m guessing Roger Stern, but thats all the thought I’m going to put into it. While “Stern” does a decent job of hitting all the right notes of this sort of thing, including a horseshoeing in a bit of the Christmas Carol, I’m giving him extra points for the five hundred or so of the Legion of Superheroes look a-likes and their catchy names, keeping it moving yet inventive and fresh for this usually mind wiping of exercises. All the different costumes gave a great new jazz too, but that was up to-

Penciller Ladronn, with some great embellishments by Juan Vlsaco. These two were working themselves up to quite a frenzy previously in Cable, but here they are fully ensconced, full steam ahead, with an inventiveness and attention to minute detail that Geoff Darrow would poop his pants about.

This 20 page pablum, packed with a dense, continuously moving and bright script by “Roger Stern”, and the offspring of Ladronn and Vlasco at the peak of their collaborative powers make this one a steal at a buck. Smoke some weed and read this.


Hawkman  1964  12Hawkman #12

While a lot of the Silver Age hasn’t aged well, Gardner Fox, one of DC’s sci-fi writers itchin’ to write comics in his spare time, lays out the usual paces in this 24 page, 3 chapter melodrama, its once again it’s the work of the visual end, Murphy Anderson, to pull the weight needed here for me to be able to finish this.

Fox has pretty much stretched out your basic superhero plot, complete with holes, not much story development (I don’t think this was a prerequisite in the 60’s), but given just enough characters and action to keep Anderson busy.

And busy he is. Every panel of this eye candy is beautifully rendered with what can only be labeled some of the most graceful human figures to grace a comic book. While backgrounds are not common in action scenes, when an establishing shot is needed, Anderson shows why he is one of the masters of the silver age. We would be so lucky to look like the macho Katar Hol and the gorgeous redheaded Sheyera. In their masterful poses, they make humans dressed like hawk people a normal and wonderful thing to witness.

Call me an old reprobate, but there is so much drawing here that I think most modern comics artists would puke if they knew how much time and effort was spent on this. Hawkman stories are generally a snooze, but our fearsome duo flying around in their wonderfully designed costumes and masks is worth the buck alone.

Shadow of the Batgirl (2020)

Shadow of the Batgirl  2020

Shadow of the Batgirl is a bit of a bummer, though I’m not exactly sure why. It’d be nice if it were good. It’s not bad… not if you’re getting it from the library versus spending the sticker price. And there’s a big library subplot in the book so it’s appropriate. It just feels stretched out. The chapters are very contained and the break between them messes up the pacing. There’s also a lack of immediate danger in the middle chapters, which is kind of… a lot to accept given the protagonist is a teenage girl experiencing homelessness living in a crime ridden city’s public library while her father the international assassin sends agents out to find her.

The tone writer Sarah Kuhn and artist Nicole Goux is fine but… only if you forget how dang traumatizing being in that situation would be. It wouldn’t be cute and Shadow of the Batgirl is often pretty cute. Cassandra’s a likable protagonist, even if her character development arc is sort of spotty. It never seems like the character is going to realize around other people—because she’s such a loner—but Kuhn and Goux always make it happen. The book’s got its successes and they can be impressive.

They can also be Cassandra’s sidekicks, Barbara Gordon, librarian, and Jackie, tea shop owner, who aren’t particularly impressive. They’re fun. They’re sometimes really fun. But they’re not particularly complex characters. Even if you ignore the nagging questions about how Barbara got in the wheelchair and what happened to the previous, retired Batgirl. The book even has some thoughtful exploration of heroism in the superhero world. It’s just for a bit and it’s not too deep, but you can tell Kuhn’s thought about a lot of it.

But also about how to make it aspirational, which shouldn’t be such a concern. It makes Shadow feel methodical. And, after a certain point, something’s always going wrong with Cassandra to move the plot forward. Just anything to get her to run away, spy on Barbara and Jackie, come back and be forgiven, everyone understands she’s a confused teen assassin. It would actually be a great structure if the comic were at all psychological but… it’s not.

Kuhn’s dialogue is good and she can get to heartfelt scenes, but the plotting always seems forced. Goux’s art is solid. Nice changes in style depending on the distance. No real fighting stuff—it’s not a kung fu comic—but it’s professionally executed.

It just never feels like it isn’t product. It’s competent and inventive, but it’s brand product.

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass (2019)

Harley Quinn Breaking Glass  2019

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is a Young Adult graphic novel reimagining of Harley Quinn, set in high school, with Harley making friends and enemies while living with a delightfully supportive group of drag queens, fighting gentrification and 1% incels. It’s also almost two hundred pages of Steve Pugh art. It’s the new Mariko Tamaki too, bring real YA graphic novel cred to the project, but it’s two hundred pages of Steve Pugh art. It doesn’t get cancelled halfway through. We don’t have to wait three years for a third issue, it’s just… lots of Steve Pugh art. All at once.

It’s glorious.

And Pugh’s even able to keep a straight face in the denouement, which introduces all the possibilities of the future. See, Breaking Glass is realistic (enough). Ivy is a Black girl in a “progressive” White school, trying to force them to drop the quotation marks. Their nemesis, John Kane, is the rich White kid who runs the film club. He’s basically Ferris Bueller if Ferris got a car instead of a computer. He only shows White men—Tamaki gets in some great digs about film noir but I feel seen with the Kubrick—anyway, the first act of the book is the high school stuff. It’s overly dramatic but not soapy; Tamaki and Pugh both have this focusing style and it plays well in the high school environment. The scenes focus on conversations, Pugh focuses on the speakers. Tamaki and Pugh are most in sync when Harley’s with other normal people—Ivy, the drag queens—not when she’s with the Joker.

I forgot the denouement. Okay, so after pushing for some kind of realism throughout, the denouement turns it into a CW teen show. But checking in on the possible familiar face of Breaking Glass’s Gotham City. So kind of like a teen drama version of “Gotham,” next year on HBO Max. Though, in all seriousness, the comic companies ought to launch a monthly subscription reading club and center them around a single release (but with old stuff too). I got Breaking Glass from the library, read it on a whim, but definitely would’ve paid five to seven bucks to read it on my iPad. Getting to zoom in on the Pugh art? Homer Simpson drool. There’s not a lot of action–or it’s rushed action—but the level of mastery Pugh’s working at in Breaking Glass is stunning.

And it’s a good read. Tamaki’s narration is just the right amount of too cute without ever being cloying. It’s occasionally a little wordy, which has a fun resolution in the third act.

Not a fan of Ivy and Harley’s friendship getting shortchanged as far as page count—once Ivy brings up race, the comic runs away. Knowingly and responsibly, but it runs away. Into the Joker, who’s problematic. It’s fine. But pretending the Joker is the best mainstream comics can do has gotten exhausting. Tamaki also cops out on really showing Harley’s infatuation because the comic’s not willing to go that subjective. The Joker’s objectively a shit-heel, even viewed through a fifteen year-old’s lens, which also becomes a bit of a plot point.

Thankfully it’s not a Joker comic, it’s Harley’s and it’s good. She doesn’t get too annoying until just before the end, which is more about Tamaki’s hammering of the foreshadowing finale events. Or racing to get them.

But Breaking Glass is a good comics read. Finite. Successful without too many qualifications. Hundreds of Pugh panels.

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (2019) #1

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen  2019  1

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen has fairly unsurpassable creator pedigree. Steve Lieber’s mainstream superhero outings are always visually delightful since he’s able to infuse a bit of Silver Age glee into his otherwise hyper-realistic (but still very artful) style. There’s this great page where Lieber drops the background at the Daily Planet newsroom for some effect (comedic effect, actually) and it’s all the better since every panel around it has extreme detail on the setting. It’s also a fun scene because you get to see Perry White have to praise Jimmy over Jimmy’s viral popularity. Updating the Daily Planet for new media always seems like an iffy proposition but of course writer Matt Fraction can do it.

Even though Jimmy Olsen doesn’t have a grandiose story yet—in his latest stunt Jimmy destroys a bunch of the city and has to get out of town; they can’t fire him because he’s so popular his YouTube ad revenue is keeping the lights on, so they fake his death and ship him out to Gotham, presumably to reveal the stunt later on for hits. The Gotham stuff gets summed up in three panels out of a three page scene with Jimmy’s new landlord terrifying him. It’s unclear it’s Gotham until the last page, which is fine. On first blush it seems obvious, but then it seems smart. Fraction’s got a simultaneously grounded and outlandish (which Lieber does exceedingly well) reality for the series and it’ll be interesting to see what they do with Gotham. Though it’s not a really satisfying last page reveal. It sets up the series but, depending on if Jimmy’s actually staying in Gotham or going on a DCU road trip… the issue feels like someone left a window open. It’s simultaneously constrained—Fraction does it in little Silver Age-esque chapters, all have their own epical structures (very neat, it’ll be interesting to see if he can keep them going for eleven more issues)—and a little too open. The reveal at the end manages to be narratively solid but thin; it’s good for the series, not the comic. The jump from Perry plotting Jimmy’s working exile (to keep insurance down but views up) to the new location and then the further jump to the fake death? Too many hops. Efficiently done, just… leveraging a lot on shock value and goodwill.

But the book does generate a bunch of goodwill, every page, almost every panel. Fraction knows how to write this comic, Lieber knows how to visualize it. Jimmy Olsen is a can’t miss so it remains to be seen how far Fraction wants to rock the boat. Is he going to try to do anything he knows he can’t get away with… and does it matter either way. It’s still going to be Lieber and Fraction doing a Silver Age Jimmy Olsen homage. That setup is more powerful than a locomotive.

How The West Was Really Won. At Least In Comics

DC Showcase #76

DC Showcase #76, Bat Lash #1–7
DC Comics, 12–15 cents ea. 1968

Ah, Westerns.

For me, Westerns have always been that convenient, handy, all purpose source of fiction that utilizes Americans utopian, noble, and utterly romantic interpretations of ourselves and our history. A uniquely North American period of time, Westerns give forth the vision of how we wish to depict ourselves, generally in the best fashion, to the rest of the world. Filled will grandiose stories featuring our self imposed spirit, they can be not only ironic, but a glimpse into to the American psyche itself.

The timing of their popularity comes in the 50’s after the Second World War, and was solidified in pop culture by films, the expanding cultural icons of television, and the handy and cheap format of the comic book.

While it could be said the best representations of the American Western themes succeeded the most where the big money was, with films by John Ford far out-lapping the rather pedestrian fare found on episodic television shows.

Comics tread a similar path, with the best of the form saved for the better paying, self copyrighted newspaper comic strips, with outstanding examples being Rick O’Shay by Stan Lynde, or The Cisco Kid, by Jose Luis Salinas. This level of craft was later supplanted by the Belgian/French series Blueberry, by Jean Michel Charlier and Jean Giraud, their mastery of the American Western period perhaps the apex of the form for me.

In 1968, while the popularity of superhero comics was hitting its peak, DC and Marvel were expanding their empires of comics publishing, adding ever more titles to compete with each other and starve off rack space from the second tier publishers. They tried a lot of odd, sometimes goofy approaches to comics, throwing lots of stuff at the walls to see what would stick.

While many of the “bronze age” of American comics were still mired in commercial and semi conservative boundaries, this was a good time to grow, trying many avenues of approaches to see if there were readers of comics outside the tried and true superhero genre.

And among these oddities was Bat Lash.

Brainchild of gag writer Sergio Aragones (of the Mad magazine border cartoon fame), scripter Denny O’Neil (whose English and command of dialects was better than Aragones), and house artist Nick Cardy (whose art style didn’t need to change no matter what he was drawing), came yet another attempt to revisit the Western comic book.

Bat Lash, neither fish nor fowl of the typical Western epic and characters, brought a new game to it. While most American Western comics were visually flat and dull as dirt with leads and stories to match, Bat Lash always gave his cowboy a chance to shine, utilizing the typical attributes of the old west, yet adding some spice to it. Bat Lash was a handsome devil, he had an unerring direction towards the ladies, providing a continuous weak point for his goals, as well as being a bit of a selfish cad. As much as he liked the females, Bat Lash never prioritized them over the creature comforts of money and the opportunity to move on to the next one. In fairness to the apparent misogyny here, it can be said that most of the females depicted had the same attitude towards Bat, moving on once his usefulness to them was over with.

The world of Bat Lash is populated with a stereotypical cast, but one used effectively in relation to the lead, who was selfish in the extreme, yet highly appreciative of beautiful women and a gourmet meal. While demonstrating a typical Western drawl, he also possessed a vocabulary far beyond the yoklesque townies.

First published in an issue of DC’s anthology title Showcase, he then went on to a short lived seven issue series, each one a complete tale, but giving clues about Bat and his history along the way. Aragones provides great plots as only a lover of the Western genre can, O’Neil flourishes it with dialogue thats genuine and unique to each character, and Nick Cardy’s art perfectly compliments the proceedings, utilizing a messy brush that depicts the dirtiness of the old west, but also using fine pen lines to soften Bats features and give the women a delicate sweetness that put Bat Lash’s weakness on constant display.

Another feature in this series that gave it spice was its constant dedication to humor, an almost non existent entity in Westerns, at least on this level. Never quite taking itself too seriously, yet also providing grit in the realistic manner of how life could be cheap and over soon. It balanced the inevitable violence of the drama with a warm sense of humor that smoothed out the edges and make it an entertaining, positive read.

While not quite on the aesthetic level of Blueberry, this is one commercial comic book with a sense of identity in its hands that was consistent throughout. It’s never overly serious, yet always fully involved in its need to tell a story compellingly. You can’t accuse it of being a work of high art, but Bat Lash is certainly a work of high craft. Lovers of Westerns will recognize all the familiar elements here, mixed with added ingredients that provide fresh zest for the meal, as Bat Lash would surely appreciate.

Of the eight issues produced, my faves were issue two with Bat as a reluctant father figure, along with some of the best art found in a commercial comic; issue five, with a mirror themed antagonist comically named and depicted as Sergio Aragones with double crosses supreme, and the sixth issue, featuring none of the usual humor in a story that relates how Bat Lash come into being, with an ever present sadness that’s absent in the rest.

Perhaps the best thing about Bat Lash is that you really don’t have to have a soft spot for Westerns to enjoy it. But while its execution in style and craft overwhelm any need to adhere to a genre formula, it instead relishes in its submersion and loves it.

Good Oaters…

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