As a wonderful indulgence for my love of Neil Gaiman, I was given a beautiful deluxe edition of Gaiman’s The Books of Magic by a friend: all four books, bound together in a hard cover, with a fantastic collection of apocrypha at the end: sketches, notes, scripts and letters. It’s a fantastic way to absorb The Books of Magic, an adventure into a very Gaiman world, where magic parallels every past, future and present moment, if only you choose to know about it.
Timothy Hunter is a 13-year-old boy, skulking, smart, skateboarding. “The Charge of the Trenchcoat Brigade” – four mysterious, magical men – identify the unknown, untapped power the boy has, and take it on themselves to educate him in the world of magic. Pulled off his skateboard, his cynicism shattered as his yo-yo transforms into an owl, he gets taken to past, present, parallel and future worlds, showing him the power, adventure, and price of magic.
These are wonderful stories with such a depth of detail, and the four men taking Tim into different aspects of the worlds of magic is a strong framing device for Gaiman’s immersion into the subject. There are references to The Sandman characters, making Gaiman somewhat like Terry Pratchett or J. R. R Tolkien: with a whole, fully envisaged, known fantastical world in mind, each story written is just one aspect or moment being captured. As we wove through the different stories, there are also cloying references to fairy tales, inherited myth knowledge, smart alec re-writings of contemporary magic knowledge (including tarot, magicians, and artefacts), and I swear I saw Rupert Bear in the markets. This feels like very classic Gaiman: a multi-layered, cross-referencing world, where there is an entertaining story on the surface and significant dark depths underneath.
But the real beauty in this collection is the art: illustrators Vess, Bolton, Johnson and Hampton have one book each and with their own distinctive style they bring both diversity and continuity to the narrative. What surprised me is that they are all so painterly: this is not flat graphics or sketching but lushly detailed artworks. The stories pop out of the frames, bursting across double pages, pulling us into massive scenes. There are actual paint strokes across the page, blurring a character as their intentions become cloudy. The physical construction that has been undertaken is apparent on the pages, and the thick glossy copy is a lush medium for transposing this.
Across all of this though, The Books of Magic just seem like an introduction. Through four volumes, Tim is taken through four different worlds of magic, and as his tours conclude – leaving him to decide whether he wants to tap into the worlds of magic – so too does the story. This is both satisfying and frustrating. The dryly self-proclaimed “Charge of the Trenchcoat Brigade” are mysteriously intriguing, and the four books are just long enough to get a taster of this world and the possibilities in it; for a short tour of magic, Tim manages to get himself into many, many adventures. There are multitudinous supporting characters who you just know have full and detailed stories behind them – some of The Sandman characters for example – and you want Gaiman to allow Tim to go back there, to set him on his journey into magic and to explore these places more. Some of the glimpses into potential elements of Tim’s future also tease and tempt: the power that his four guides see in him could manifest into either a massive strength or enemy of their world.
This abundant realm framed by this adventurous story is wonderfully captured in this deluxe edition book. Especially with the curious apocrypha at the end, it’s a gratifying insight into graphic novels and the worlds that Gaiman creates. This special edition of The Books of Magic is beautiful and indulgent, and so good that you just need more to completely satisfy.