Neil Gaiman:

The Early Years, The Magician’s Choice in The Books of Magic

The Books of Magic was published from 1990-1991, at a time when Sandman was underway and gathering steam but the Vertigo universe was still forming, and demarcations between Vertigo and the DC Universe had not yet been formally drawn. During this creative flux, Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and works like Black Orchid were able to move in a nebulous, highly charged zone of possibility, drawing on aspects of DCU continuity and characterization without toeing a strict line, and innovation in handling these elements was the rule of the day. As noted in Prince of Stories, this enabled The Books of Magic to partake of a “unique design, connected inextricably” to many of Gaiman’s other works (192). Examining The Books of Magic enables readers to trace many of the elements that bind Gaiman’s works together, both before and after the series’ publication. It was produced in long-format prestige editions in four parts, each drawn by a different collaborator, many of whom would go on to work with Gaiman again. From Gaiman’s early days collaborating with Dave McKean, bringing in artists with remarkable personal visions for fantasy storytelling became a defining aspect of Gaiman’s career, and The Books of Magic sets the tone for that expansion with John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson.

The four-tier collaboration also has a unique impact on the thematic values of The Books of Magic, and its central questions. It’s a series that poses a specific challenge for Gaiman and the artists involved: defining what exactly magic is within this proto-Vertigo world and within the DCU. By presenting magic visually in the hands of several different artists, the series suggests the diversity of possible definitions for magic and just how difficult it is, and possibly should be, to compose a single, definitive statement about magic. Finding steadier footing for talking about magic revolves around one clear locus, the role of the magician. Though a plethora of examples of practising magicians are brought into the storyline, mirroring the diversity in magic more widely expressed, a common feature helps draw these magicians together as a thematic unit, and that is the role of choice. It is also the central issue facing Timothy Hunter, the focus of the story, which arguably poses a choice at the beginning of the story, and concludes with the finalization of that choice by Tim.

Whether it’s the Phantom Stranger, John Constantine, Mister E, or Doctor Occult, each of these DCU magicians are aware of the significance of choice as the major defining aspect of becoming a magician, hence their “Trench Coat brigade” mission to educate Timothy Hunter on the crucial subject. It’s also clear to other magicians brought into the story, like Zatanna, just how important the lesson is for Tim. It’s considered the beginning of a more or less irreversible path, a turning point which attracts the attention of the Brotherhood of the Cold Flame, who wishes to prevent Tim from ever making this choice. It’s also significant that having made the choice, the magician then self-identifies as such to others, making he or she a target for conflict and a player on the magical stage of the DCU. Some of the classic reader responses to The Books of Magic, and not at all unfounded in nature, are that it’s a tale of coming of age, a metaphor for ascending to adulthood, and a reflection on the nature of reaching the age of majority, when one is responsible for ones choices and actions.

Those are all valid interpretations of the story, and part of what makes it universal and appealing for readers. But to appreciate the depth and nuance in the series it is even more necessary to examine what definitions of magic the story presents and how that relates to the all-encompassing question of choice for Timothy Hunter. Each magician who acts as Tim Hunter’s tutor and guide presents a different perspective on magic, and possibly hopes that Tim will lean toward this interpretation of magic should he choose to become a magician. Like most tutors, they hope to leave a lasting impression on Tim, imbuing him with a little spark of their own philosophy when it comes to magic. Whether they think, or know, that Tim will, in fact, choose to become a magician regardless of their tutorial is a matter of argument. They hedge their bets, some more obviously than others.

Magic is the stuff of Creation

The Phantom Stranger is responsible for taking Tim into the past to reveal the history of magic, but in doing so, he really presents the creative aspects of magic and its enduring principles. He presents a great deal of wonder to Tim, more positive than negative, and opens up a world Tim has been unaware of, magic as a first principle present in all creation. He takes Tim to “no place”, “the void, the space before there was any where to travel to, the time before there was change”. And yet magic is there. It’s pre-existent and transcends change. It witnesses the painful birth of “light…time…heat…life”. It is associated with the “dark” that the Stranger encourages Tim to touch and feel. But in that darkness is the first “rebellion” and the fall of the angels. Creation is not only painful but it carries a trademark accent of conflict. This era is referred to by the Stranger as the “dream-time” also, with its demons, angels, and eventually “lizard kings”. This is followed by a forgotten era of mages, an Atlantean “symbol” civilization that will recur. Tim also learns that the “art”, magic, is the birthplace of civilization, a principle at work not only in natural creation but also in human endeavor.

From the shamans, Myrddin (Merlin) among them, forward, Tim learns that magic has played an inescapable role in the development of the world as he knows it. It’s essentially inescapable. Can something inescapable really be chosen? It would be nearly impossible for Tim to reject the truth of what he has witnessed firsthand via the Stranger’s tour. The other truth, of course, that Tim receives, concerns the nature of choice. From the example of Myrddin, who “knew his life wasn’t going to work out” and yet “he was going to do it anyway”, Tim grasps the nature of the trap. Seeing magic as the stuff of creation suggests to Tim that it has its own will, and direction, and at least some unavoidable outcomes. Creative forces move forward, driven by their own energy, and those who dabble in their magic are likely to be towed along with them. Tim, nevertheless, says, “Show me more. I want to see it all”. His desire for knowledge, at least, is not deterred by these revelations. Once he witnesses the ambiguous rewards of modern magicians, however, he’s a little less certain. He “doesn’t know” when given a pre-emptive opportunity to make his choice. The creative power of magic enthrals Tim, but he draws back from the impact it can have on mortal beings come too close to the flame. Even the Stranger’s tour, which is the most positive presentation of magic in the series, gives Tim pause. This is because magic is essentially amoral as a pre-existent thing is bound to be, and it guarantees no safety. Tim’s sense of self-preservation is only human, something that the Stranger calls a “sensible attitude”.

Magic is Hidden in Plain Sight

When John Constantine takes over to guide Tim through the permutations of magic in the present day in Book II, known as “The Shadow World”, one might expect Constantine’s cynical attitudes to dominate the episode and drag Tim toward a rejection of magic. Constantine is all too aware of the massive losses and unequal exchanges he’s experienced, so, surely, given the opportunity to steer a young person clear of his own mistakes, he’d go for broke. Instead, he handles the responsibility with remarkable neutrality, and hands Tim off when possible to someone else. Perhaps he’s aware of his struggle with bias, but he’s also fulfilling his typical role of combat magician by placing Tim somewhere safe while he engages with Tim’s own hunters. Constantine initially informs Tim of just how dangerous his enemies are becoming, and advises him, “You gotta take care of yourself”. Once magic becomes an offensive force rather than an ambivalent one, does Tim really have a choice not to use magic as a defensive barrier? What can fight magic except magic? But Tim’s too busy observing new revelations to pay attention to what choices are underway. He breezes through customs upon arriving in the USA, and thereby sees in shorthand that magic operates everywhere, in banal as well as spectacular ways, and part of its nature seems to be to go unnoticed. It’s hidden in plain sight at all times. It’s insider knowledge to those who are observant, and Constantine is teaching Tim to observe.

When Madame X, the Cartomancer, gives Tim a tarot reading in Greenwich Village, she presents four cards related to the stages of Tim’s journey. He has already wandered the past with The Hermit, is currently on The Wheel of Fortune with Constantine, and will yet encounter The Empress and Justice. The cards suggest that Tim’s journey is predetermined and that magic is still operative in a fairly orderly fashion within the small details of daily life. Magic also reveals itself to have its own kind of interrupting agency, a fail-safe system to correct and guide its own course, when The Spectre arrives to save Tim from an assassination attempt. The Spectre intimates that there are forces of light and forces of darkness in operation within magic and seeking balance within their struggle. Tim’s existence, and his choice, has bearing upon that potential balance, and so the Spectre operates as a correcting force to keep Tim from dying at that point in his journey. Magic is not only hidden in plain sight, but also a system of checks and balances that self-regulates, and it has a vested interest in Tim. After the “light” aspect of magic has stepped in to preserve Tim, the “dark” aspect ramps up its strategy to do away with him. This is fraught with implications. Why would the “dark” aspect of magic try so hard to kill Tim unless it was likely that he’d not only choose to become a magician but pursue a “light” magic career? Bets are being placed, it seems, throughout the magical universe.

Zatanna turns out to be the best representative of Tim’s journey through the present day, and not Constantine. Constantine is the “gambler” who clings to the amorality of the Wheel of Fortune, but Zatanna is the principle of magic inhabiting modern reality in amenable form as a stage magician. While Constantine doesn’t try to dissuade Tim from pursuing magic as much as a reader might expect, perhaps he knows that simply by showing Tim the darker aspects of modern day magicians he’ll make his point. Zatanna is not one of those examples: she’s appealing, upbeat, wily, and harks back to the creative aspects of magic. But regardless of that, she stumbles with Tim into some serious situations where magic is called for to preserve Tim’s life. If Tim is being treated to a view of magic in the modern world, he’s seeing a panorama of firmly dividing lines of conflict, a war zone which magicians cannot escape. Tim concludes that among modern day magicians, “all of them except Zatanna are about as well-balanced as upturned eggs” and that “they don’t live in the same world that most people do”. Tim defines their world as a “shadow” version, deeply connected to the visible world. It’s a shadow world where conflict rages, just as it did when magic created the world.

Magic is only Natural

In Book III of the series, Tim is guided into “The Land of Summer’s Twilight”, the realm of Faerie, by Doctor Occult, who is himself a dual figure. On this journey Tim learns that magic is based upon dualism, a dualism that reaches into a macrocosmic/microcosmic relationship of “as above, so below”. Or, perhaps more appropriately in spatial terms when discussing the relationship between objective reality and Fairyland, “as there, also here”. Fairyland, as Doctor Occult explains to Tim, operates on a series of rather entrenched rules governing all beings, just as the laws of nature seem to apply with equal stricture on the physical world Tim comes from. Tim must obey Doctor Occult unquestioningly, ask no favors or questions of those in Faerie, receive no gifts, remember manners implicitly, and never stray from the path they are taking. Beyond these rules, chaos looms for Tim. Of course, like most tales of journeying in Fairyland, setting up rules is as good as predicting that they will be broken, with astonishing consequences for wayward mortals. The reader also learns that there are many “common” locations that bridge between the two worlds of Faerie and the mortal sphere. They form a connected system, and the structures which govern their relationship are as much natural as supernatural, depending on one’s perspective. Just as Doctor Occult is also his female counterpart Rose in Faerie, so the two worlds may be closer to one entity than we think, merely differently presented. The Faerie market Rose and Tim explore is a manifestation of many natural impulses, the magical side of nature, and therefore seemingly chaotic to Tim. The rules that govern it, though, have already been stated. Magical ecosystems have their own principles and need to maintain balance of their own. There are wardens and traders, servants and masters, and a complex web of relationship between them all. Tim briefly becomes part of that system and has to learn, by trial and error, its rules.

Tim’s journey into Faerie seems to reinforce that magic is not a free-for-all, though his journey into the present with Constantine may have suggested it to be. Underlying that seeming chaos is a deep structure of systemic function. In many ways, Faerie is the antidote to the “shadow” world of magic in the human sphere, a balancing reality. Duality is more apparent in Fairyland, something natural to be accepted. Wading through a “sea of blood” may be horrifying, but it’s also a “fertility” mystery that must be accepted as natural to created beings. When Tim meets Thomas the Rhymer and views King Arthur asleep, awaiting the hour of need, he learns that rules govern this principle also, a rule of threes whereby a sleeping king must have a sleeping minstrel and magician by his side. Breaking the balance in Fairyland has consequences, of course, like stepping off the path and facing possible death at the hands of Baba Yaga. These seemingly terrible forces that wait for those who break rules are a salient lesson for Tim.

Magic corrects itself, and often does so harshly in the interest of balance. Tim’s guides and protectors are hard-pressed to preserve him against these consequences in The Books of Magic, and yet they seem to have inside influence on the operations of magic. Do they represent higher forces at work within magic? Doctor Occult/Rose know Tim’s significance within the evolution of magic and so trump the lesser activity of magical principles, even within the realm of Faerie. Is this because they have accrued a great deal of magical power themselves, or because they are allowed

by magic to break the rules? It’s even more likely that because Tim is not officially a

magician yet, he is allowed to avoid the consequences of his actions, but not forever.

The Queen of Faerie challenges this loophole. She has the stature to oppose this indulgent attitude and insists on keeping Tim for herself after he foolishly accepts a gift from her, breaking the rules he’s been taught by Doctor Occult. Doctor Occult’s response to the situation is interesting. He says he will return and find a way to free Tim, because “It is—you are—our responsibility”. What is the “it” that he refers to before changing his phrasing? Is “it” magic itself? Tim’s future rather than Tim’s existence per se? But even he acknowledges that “rules are rules” and he can’t get around Tim’s misdemeanor. When Tim manages to get himself out of the jam by giving Titania the Mundane Egg he previously acquired, an unborn world, Tim may be engaging in his first magical act, restoring balance in Faerie and correcting his mistake. He’s learned by then that the nature of magic is in earnest, defined, functional, demanding balance in its own operation, even if those rules are not the ones which Tim was raised to know and accept.

Magic is the Stuff of Destruction

In a series that presents a series of episodes that each contain their own epic scale in perceiving the nature of the cosmos, with Timothy Hunter as a humanizing influence at the center of each to bring the increasingly esoteric message home to readers, Book IV, “The Road to Nowhere” presents the largest vista on human existence of the four books. Mister E takes Tim into “tomorrow”, the future of the universe, and though he is only supposed to take Tim to a navigable distance, he goes further than even magic allows for humans to go. What Tim sees are mysteries bigger than ordinary magicians are usually permitted to encounter, and only the direct intervention of perhaps the most powerful regulating principle in the universe, Death, can bring him back.

It is within the biggest epic sweeps contained within The Books of Magic that the series comes closest to a holistic mythology with the Sandman series. Though Dream appears in Faerie to greet Tim, and confirms that Faerie and The Dreaming have a direct relationship, the presence of Death as a universally governing figure forms a cohesive cosmology within these proto-Vertigo comics. If Dream and Death interact with Timothy Hunter, the figure at the center of magical principles in his own universe, does that mean that magic plays just as significant a role in the Sandman universe? Titania previously referred to Dream as “Lord Shaper”, and Sandman readers will know that he consistently bends the rules that seem to govern realities, though he does find some rules unbreakable despite his best efforts. Death, too, is governed and has her duties. But what is it that governs them? Are they more pre-existent than magic? Tim did not meet them when he beheld the time before creation. It’s not an easy question to answer, but if magic is the force of creation in this permeable pre-Vertigo universe, then it predates even The Endless.

Mister E, as the reader learns throughout the series, has increasingly dark thoughts about Tim, though it’s true that from the very beginning he suggested killing the boy. He lives in fear of what Tim could become in terms of “dark” aspects of magic and does not wish to gamble like Constantine. He is unable to imagine the wider implications of a “light” magician like Tim, or at least unwilling to let that sway his decision. He glorifies the time of relative purity before decision-making, looking back to his own experiences of abuse in childhood. To pre-empt decision-making is, for Mister E, to preserve goodness. But he is glorifying goodness as an inactive force. It is possible, within this paradigm that Mister E represents the misgivings of magic itself in giving Tim a chance to grow up, aware that it might be launching a terrible imbalance in the universe. Mister E is only one of four magicians, however, suggesting that he’s a less dominant perspective, but he is, in fact, Tim’s last guide and the one with the greatest chance of doing away with Tim.

The principle that Mister E teaches Tim is that magic is destructive and something to be avoided if possible. Constantine comments, as Mister E leads Tim away that he’s “not exactly well-balanced”, the second notable use of the phrase “well-balanced” in the book. No, he’s not. He’s on one side. He may not even be interested in balance, but the prevalence of the “light” side of magic. That too, would be an imbalance, and therefore a cosmic mistake. Mister E shows Tim the way in which he will be (translate “could be” since Mister E is one-sided) corrupted and bring about great destructive himself because of magic. Mister E comments, looking upon a constant apocalyptic struggle caused by magic’s war with itself, “It’s sad but true that the dividing line between good and evil blurs, in the realm of magic. Sometimes I think that I alone am pure”. Inadvertently perhaps, Mister E is confirming the biggest lesson that’s been forming for Tim all along, that magic is in a state of internal struggle. It’s a truth Tim needs to firmly grasp, even if stated through a veil of mania by Mister E. In a cut away to John Constantine and the Stranger discussing the situation while Tim is led further down a dangerous road by Mister E, Constantine worries about Mister E’s influence and the Stranger replies, “Balance, John Constantine…There must always be free will”. This could be the most confusing line of the series in context, but only if it’s applied to solely to Tim’s journey into the future and not the outcome of his return.

When Tim views the increasingly bizarre reaches of human existence, and finally the city where archetypes exist in stark form, gradually folded up into more and more dense incarnations of the human psyche, it’s fair to say that he has seen terrible things, if astonishing ones. It would be understandable if, at this point, he asked himself, “Why bother” and so walked away from magic. He’s seeing the end of the story, so why read the book? Would it really matter, in fact, if Mister E killed Tim at the end of the world? What significance could one human child have in that narrative after all? But that’s not Tim, or Mister E’s, decision to make, thankfully. Death and Destiny step in to tell them they’re out of order, literally. It’s clear that there are rules governing the end of created things, too, and they are “cluttering” the place up, as Death says. Mister E tried to convince Tim that magic is destruction, but Tim’s journey illustrates it for him, including the ultimate destruction of the universe. It was a lesson beyond the balancing hint that Constantine and the Stranger hoped he’d receive. Constantine and the Stranger also learn a lesson. Fearing Tim dead, they believe another child will come, and next time they will do better. Even they haven’t been able to outwit the destructive powers of magic, but Death has, sending Tim back, in tact, to the present.

Conclusion: Magic is Choice

The struggle to define magic in The Books of Magic is tied up in the necessity to define a magician for Timothy Hunter. How can he become one, or not, if he doesn’t know what one is? How can he make a choice based on “free will” without information? So, his journey as a witness to the accordion-like unfolding of aspects of magic folds back on itself to push him toward the moment of decision. This series, like the universe at the end of time presided over by Death and Destiny, focuses to a pinpoint of increasing density: the magician’s choice. But can Tim choose? In fact, the rules of the journey broke down under Mister E’s tutelage and it all went too far. That may be Tim’s only trump card. There are many ways to interpret the end of the series, but one thing that’s certain: Tim does become a very great magician, as attested by the long running multiple series featuring his exploits from Vertigo. But he appears to reject magic after returning home from his ordeal. He rejects the “path of magic” which chosen does not allow one to “step off it”. The reason Tim gives for rejecting magic is that it comes with a terrible “price” which he has witnessed in many guises. He’s seen that magic has its own system of exchanges, checks, and balances, and that it’s complicated and dangerous for the unwary. He immediately recants his decision, though it appears to be too late. An epilogue of sorts between the remaining members of the Trench Coat Brigade sets the story straight. The Stranger believes that Tim “made his choice when first we met” by agreeing to go on the journey. He became a magician by making the journey, in fact. Constantine rejects this “lie” to Tim and feels free will was undermined on a large scale.

So is magic choice itself, or the illusion of choice, in The Books of Magic? If Tim was already a great magician during his journey, that explains why forces at work on behalf of magic were prepared to step in, protect him, and make allowances for his missteps. What’s important to the story is that Tim learns to accept magic as a pre-existing force that has implications for his life and regrets turning away from it, rediscovering it when he chooses to “believe”. He has to reach a point where he can deliver an affirmation rather than a rejection, and reaching that point may simply be a matter of time and a matter of perspective.

What does this mean for the reader, who has followed Tim and observed all the same phenomena that he has observed? Magic may need moments of choice to operate fully, moments of choice whereby magicians become magicians and choose to influence the struggle for balance within the magical sphere. But the choice for magic or against magic is only important insofar as it affects the actions of individuals in that struggle. Magic wants Tim on the team, the team for balance, not for “light” or “dark”. The real question was not whether he would choose to be a magician but what kind of magician he will choose to become after his ordeal. In that decision every bit of information he received counts. Choice, like magic, is creative, everyday, natural, and destructive. It determines the shape of reality. Tim made his first choice when he agreed to go on the journey, and that apparently, made him a magician. He made his first step toward affecting the trajectory of his own reality, and once you’ve started choosing, you can’t step off that path. If magic asserts its will on the universe in The Books of Magic, and that will is for balance, choice is its main mode of operation, however much that throws free will into question. But it’s not a question that continues to bother Timothy Hunter, the Magician.

Coming up Next Time: “A Storm of Collaboration in The Books of Magic”

Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil (w.), John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, Paul Johnson (ills.), Todd Klein (l.). The Books of Magic. DC Comics: New York, NY, 1993.

Wagner, Hank, Christopher Golden, and Stephen R. Bissette, eds. Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman. St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, NY, 2009.

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Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar, medievalist, and the Editor-in-Chief of She has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book for Sequart Organization about Alan Moore. She is @HannahMenzies on Twitter.

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Also by Hannah Means-Shannon:

How to Analyze & Review Comics: A Handbook on Comics Criticism


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