Let me tell you about a bespectacled young schoolboy with a pet owl who finds out one day that he’s a wizard – and no, I’m not talking about Harry Potter! Timothy Hunter is the star of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Books of Magic, which tells the story of a young boy who has the potential to become the world’s greatest sorcerer. Despite the striking superficial similarities between Timothy Hunter and Harry Potter, The Books of Magic actually came into being several years before J K Rowling’s creation was released on an unsuspecting world. The similarity was once noted by a journalist from The Scotsman newspaper, who asked Gaiman if he thought Rowling was aware of his 1990 comic, to which Gaiman replied that he ‘wasn’t the first writer to create a young magician with potential, nor was Rowling the first to send one to school’. Gaiman’s view, with which I tend to agree, is that whether or not Rowling had read The Books of Magic, the similarities most likely result from both it and the Harry Potter series being inspired by similar works, in particular those of T H White (author of The Once and Future King). The idea that Rowling and Gaiman were were both simply ‘drinking from the same well’ is supported by the prevalence of common archetypes from myth and fantasy in both their works.
Gaiman is an incredibly gifted creative talent, probably best known for his Sandman graphic novel series, which revolutionised the format in the eighties and nineties. His talents extend far beyond comics, however, and he has also written bestselling novels (e.g. American Gods), landmark television series (e.g. Neverwhere) and blockbuster movies (e.g. Stardust). He was therefore an obvious choice for DC Comics when they wanted someone to helm a new graphic novel series that would highlight the more mystical elements of their fictional universe. Leaving aside the Harry Potter comparisons, Gaiman said that The Books of Magic was inspired by drawing on a childhood spent working his way through the children’s section in his local library and a childhood love of magic and fantasy stories. Gaiman created an everyman character in the form of a twelve-year-old boy called Timothy Hunter, who had the potential to become the world’s greatest magician but whose allegiance to good or evil was undecided. This quickly makes young Tim a person of interest for a number of the DC Universe’s more prominent magicians and fantasy characters, such as The Phantom Stranger, Doctor Fate, The Spectre, Madame Xanadu, John Constantine, Zatanna, Cain and Abel, Dream, Destiny and Death. Encounters with these powerful beings early on in his career teach Tim about the possibilities – and the price – of wielding magic before he decides whether to embrace his destiny. Following his misadventures, Tim reaches the decision that the price is too high… only to find that everything he has learnt from his supposed mentors has made it impossible for him to turn away from magic.
Tim is an appealing hero and iconic central character for The Books of Magic. He starts out as just a gawky teenager embarking on a long journey of self-discovery, which helps to keep his story feel grounded when it could otherwise feel too distant and fantastical. In so many ways the challenges that Tim comes up against, although dressed up in magic and the trappings of fantasy, could just as easily be faced by any young person starting out in the big, bad world. He falls in love, feels loss, is sometimes led astray, grows angry and afraid and through it all tries to hang on to what makes him Timothy Hunter. Author Roger Zelazny is one of those who has noted that the structure of The Books of Magic bears some similarity to the mythic structure identified by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces – although he did allow that this might come from Gaiman’s intimate knowledge of the same source material rather than a deliberate attempt to follow Campbell’s guidelines. Whilst Gaiman laid the foundations and first floor of the story, it should also be recognised that a number of other equally talented individuals carried on with it after he left the series. Among these was John Bolton, whose mesmerising artwork did so much to create the unique feel of The Books of Magic, a kind of ‘modern mysticism’ which made Tim’s encounters with fantastical beings seem almost everyday. Also worthy of a mention are John Ney Reiber and the other writers who continued Tim’s story into adulthood with more mature themes and storylines.
Rieber utilized his own teenage confusion and delight in writing Tim, while introducing his first girlfriend Molly as a counterpoint: Molly was the opposite of Tim in nearly every way, someone ‘who’d already figured out the best thing you could possibly do with your life was live it’. This provided an interesting contrast with Tim who, certainly early on, was something of a passive character, who tended to be pushed along by events rather than actively taking control of his own destiny. There was a perception among readers of The Books of Magic that Reiber was more interested in Molly than Tim, which perhaps led to a decline in its popularity. With the departure of Reiber (and Molly) from the series, first Peter Gross and then Dylan Horrocks took over responsibility for Tim’s destiny. Horrocks re-launched the series with a storyline that ended with the character learning his true heritage and enrolling in a school of magic. This allowed Horrocks to show a more mature version of Tim in the ongoing series, set after Tim’s graduation from the school, and deal with real-life issues that hadn’t been previously covered in The Books of Magic, like bills, hangovers and Tim’s love life (re-introducing Molly). Finally, in the last reboot to date, the series distanced itself from the previous iterations of the character and marketed itself towards a more adult audience. The newly re-named The Books of Magick (the variation on the title’s spelling intended as a signifier of that distance) featured Tim coping with a magical war and finally getting to grips with his destiny to become the champion of good… or evil.
There is so much more to say about the series – which visits mystical lands, features ancient myths and in the process covers almost every legend and magical tradition in the world – but so little space here. If you like comics, or even if you don’t normally, I’d encourage you to give it a try. Like many readers who followed the original run of The Books of Magic I feel to some extent like I’ve grown up with Timothy Hunter and, although the series looks to be on hiatus for the time being, I for one look forward to what future holds for him and any other spectacle-wearing boy sorcerers out there.