“The Books of Magic” is basically about a bespectacled British kid from a dysfunctional family situation finding out he’s a powerful wizard from benevolent adult wizards. Sound familiar? But this boy wizard’s name is Tim Hunter and he technically lives in the DC universe (well, a more mature version of it called “Vertigo” where various magical things happen more often, and people can drop unbleeped f-bombs: a little like the HBO of the DC universe). He meets a couple DC magicians, and Morpheus and Death from Gaiman’s Sandman series, but other than that this is more of a picaresque trip through various magical realms that Neil Gaiman must have drudged from Bulfinch’s Mythology, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and old issues of The Phantom Stranger than an actual comic book story in the DC universe.
Like a lot of Gaiman’s comic book work, he makes the story soothingly plotless, and is more of an opportunity for him to throw in about two mythological allusions per 3 panels rather than tell a story with actual rising action, climax, and falling action. Tim Hunter’s questioning attitude keeps it real throughout, though, and Gaiman doesn’t let the non-plot get away from him too much to lose good character moments and sneak in a good joke. It also works great as a story of Tim’s maturity, through its chronicling of his acceptance of his magical destiny. Some standout sections include when Tim meets Merlin which portrays the famous wizard as a hormonal teenager, Doctor Occult bringing Tim through the various magical realms, and his interaction with perennially foulmouthed curmudgeon John Constantine, who seems to always be slinking in and out of Gaiman and other Vertigo writers’ work, and here, he adds a bit of salty flavor to the ponderous orations on magic that the other characters make.
The part where Tim travels to the future with DC soothsayer Mister E would be less irritating and more interesting, if Mister E wasn’t a self righteous jerkface who spends his whole segment browbeating Tim about morality and his destiny. Other than that, the art was good, but some of it was painted weirdly, which was off putting, and a standout was former Sandman artist Charles Vess. Overall, an ephemeral, but ultimately charming coming of age tale.