Magic and Makeup: Two Random Trades

One of the best things about a trade paperback is coming back to it so many years later that, upon opening it up, you totally forget what the story was. I have a few trades that fit under the “What happened in this?” category and I thought I would discuss two of them this week.  

The first book concerns a teenage boy, who is apparently destined to be of of the most powerful magicians in the world. He wears glasses, he’s got messed up hair, and his best buddy is an owl.  His name–Tim Hunter, the hero of The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman.  I picked this series up long ago–early 90s long ago–and realized that I had missed the first few issues, so this is the first and only trade of the series that I have.  I must say, I was pretty impressed with my early 90s self; this books is pretty damn good! (And I had the same glasses as a kid, so this book really resonated with me, I guess.)

The first four issues basically set up an inside out Christmas Tale story. The books opens in the middle of a meeting between four powerful magical beings (they end up calling themselves “The Trenchcoat Brigade” – Mister E, Doctor Occult, John Constantine and The Phantom Stranger), which actually reminded me a bit of Bendis’ Illuminati group, discussing the future of Timothy Hunter, the aforementioned hardcore-magician-to-be.  They each agree that Tim’s important, though at least one of the four just feels they should kill Hunter outright, that he is too dangerous to exist. The Phantom Stranger (a favorite character of mine) insists that Tim Hunter must be allowed to choose his fate, that each of them just explain an aspect of magic, it’s past, present and future to give Tim an idea of what he would be getting into (or avoiding). Basically, each of the four gets an entire issue to walk with Tim through their experiences with magic, introduce him to all that is great and horrible about a life of Magic.

Sounds pretty basic, right? It is, and refreshingly so. Neil Gaiman is working with some terrific artists here, including John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson, and each artists adjusts to the specific aspect of magic really elegantly.  I was really surprised just how solid and beautiful this art was, very painterly at times, sketchy at others…all of the artists had a similar style but were obviously unique at the same time.  There were some pages where the text and the art style really worked in tandem with each other. There were some great sequences where the words would tell one story, then, as your eye would track down the page, the image would actually reflect what the words would be talking about. For example, there was this great page with Zatarra, Zatanna‘s father, talking about his life: at the top of the page, the magician looked nice and handsome, powerful and the words reflected that. However, as you followed the words down, you could see his life was not all that great and, as your eye tracks down, you see the bunny in his hat is covered in blood, with another slaughtered bunny falling to the floor, also covered in blood and guts. It was gorgeously done, the art serving as a living scroll for the words, in a way.

Each book has a different focus, as I say, but each story reinforces to Tim that he is the actor in this story, that he will be asked to make a choice about all of this. Throughout it at all, there are attempts on his life that are thwarted by Boston Brand, aka Deadman (another one of my absolutely favorite characters) that Tim actually learns to take in stride. We also get a chance to learn more about his guides, and there are some really nice moments with John Constantine that really reinforce why he’s just one of the great characters in the Vertigo Universe.  Interestingly, Tim ends up staying with Zatanna, who introduces him to the hidden world of magic that is always around us, hiding in plain sight.  She’s a great character and her relationship with John is really something I would love to see explored in a story someday. I just love that she has been involved with John Constantine and Bruce Wayne, you know?  I wanna hang out with her. (The image to the right is from the book, which should give you a nice idea of the quality of the art, in this case by Scott Hampton.)

This being a Nail Gaiman book, we are treated to some fun moments in the land of Morpheus, who suggests they leave as soon as possible, and a glimpse into the far flung future, where science, magic and life are all beyond definition.  Totally crazy, trippy stuff, so far flung that Mister E almost has a hard time bringing Tim back to the present moment, only to get some help from…well, let’s just say she always seems to show up at some point. This book is so visceral, the images so finely wrought, that they stick into your brain long after you put the book down…you are being taken on this journey to, in a very real way. At the end, Tim is not the only one forced to make that choice, to practice magic or not–you, as a reader, are given the choice of whether or not you are going to continue to read more of what happens to Tim.

As I read this, over a decade later, I realized that this book was also a great sampling of the  Vertigo universe–many of these characters appear in other books. The whole feel of it, from the scenes in modern London, to a chance meeting with a 16 year old Merlin, to a discussion with the one Endless that needs to be present at the end of all time, this is a Vertigo book through and through.  Very highly recommended. I think I might take a look and see if I can’t find the subsequent trades.

There is a lot more to discuss about Gaiman’s book, but maybe we can talk about the points you want to talk about in the comment section.  I wanted to make sure I go to the other book I picked up, The Human Target: Final Cut, by Peter Milligan with art by Javier Pulido, colored by Dave Stewart.

I don’t know much about Christopher Chance, the hero of the story, but I like the concept a lot. Basically Chance solves crimes by transforming himself into another person, not by magic but by makeup, who is trouble. For example, at the beginning of the story he becomes an actor who has been the target of some death threats, and when he does get attacked, he takes the down the attacker, thereby solving the crime–he becomes the target to save someone else — for a fee, of course.  He sacrifices his self for his client, and by the time this story begins, he is having a hard time with the emotional consequences of getting so much into another person’s character.  Just as Mister E. goes so far into the future that he can’t seem to get back to the present, Chance gets so into the other person’s psyche that he has a hard time remembering whom he was in the first place.

I freely admit that it is probably because I have spent so much of my life focused on acting and talking about the concept of character that I settled into this conceit rather quickly, though I must stress that as far as I know, most actors don’t really have this problem. Indeed, if you look at movie and TV actors, they are not really playing a character–they are playing an aspect of themselves put into different situations.  Like, Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford in whatever movie, whatever role he takes on, whether it be archaeologist, president or space smuggler.  One usually hears about putting on a character when you are doing stage work, where there really is more of an effort of a full transformation. It’s not Mike being sad in a Russian countryhouse, it’s Mike doing his best to be Uncle Vanya, sad dude in Russia.  In stage, the goal, at least how most people are taught, is to immerse yourself in the character, which is hopefully the best way to serve the script. Even as I write this I wonder if this is as valid as it once was…I will ruminate on this on my personal site, I think.

But I digress.  Peter Milligan’s well-crafted story is at its core a simple whodunnit, with some nice if not unpredictable twists and turns.  Milligan keeps this book oddly timeless, this could easily be set in the 40s…or 80s…or 90s…he really represents the plastic timelessness of Southern California–youth, in all its many facets, is the only real commodity here, and this subtext provides a compelling environment for Chance to struggle with his life. When a person makes his life shifting from mid 20s to late 60s in an afternoon, his relationship to age can be pretty perplexing.  

The art really shines in this book.  Like, honestly, it’s gorgeous, in that Marcos Martin elegant simplicity kind of way.  Javier Pulido handles character, action and setting in a way that just flows from page to page, and Dave Stewart’s coloring is as outstanding as ever…much of the book looks like it was shot in that “golden hour” when the sun has just set and the California light really takes on such gorgeous hues–perfect for a story set in “the biz”…

Though the book covers the noir gamut of romance, passion, betrayal and revenge, with a smattering of pop culture references just to remind you that this is Peter Milligan after all, it really is a story of identity, or lack thereof.  We all put on costumes, every day. We all use some kind of makeup (be it cosmetics, clothing, attitude, whatever) for a variety of reasons, usually to get something we want. We might pretend to be interested in things while we are at work that we would never care about in our weekend life and force ourselves to be conversant with folks that we would just assume never interact with at all.  We are all Human Targets, or, at least, can end up feeling that way, especially if, like Christopher Chance, our makeup gets harder and harder to remove.  There are so many people out there who are doing what they are doing because they got used to it, they got comfortable, or were too scared to do what they really wanted to do. It’s an interesting stress, and I wonder if the upcoming TV show will touch on this at all. I have a feeling it won’t; I hear he won’t be making himself up as others, that he will be more of a hired gun, which is really missing the whole point.

I picked up both of these books because I hadn’t read them in years (Human Target came out in 2002, ten years after I picked up Magic), I can’t help but think they go together rather nicely. Tim Hunter is at the beginning of his adventure, faced with a choice that will change his life forever, that will have ramifications that he can never have imagined. Christopher Chance is in the middle of his life, and if feeling the repercussions of his choices rather forcefully. Tim Hunter is beginning to define his sense of self, Chance is wonder if his will ever return.  These are classic arcs in a hero’s journey to be sure, so I guess it’s not surprising, but it’s fun to find those commonalities.

Reading these trades makes me appreciate not only the stories but the medium itself, too.  I know that I have Human Target and Books of Magic single issues somewhere but I have no idea where they are and there is no way–none–that I could just randomly pick them up and start reading them without concerted effort (at least not until I move, create decent shelving, etc, etc). I makes me wonder what other stories are just waiting for me to rediscover.

Have any of you out there been surprised what you found when you re-read a trade or a single issue?  I must admit, I didn’t remember The Books of Magic storyline at all–I am sure I just read it once–and I am thrilled that I enjoyed it as much as I did. We’ll have to do this again sometime…

Mike Romo is an actor in LA and is three weeks behind in his books. You can make him the target of your email, facebook, or track his movements on twitter.


  1. Three weeks behind is nothing, my friend.  I’m so far behind that I have my unread books organised by week. I’m currently reading the books I bought the weeks of 8 April.  Feel better.

    I also read Books of Magic when it came out and remember it fondly.  And all the art is gorgeous.  I read it again a few years ago and thought of Harry Potter (owl, glasses, the general look of Tim) but done with Gaiman’s class and darkness.  Fantastic stuff.  Time to read it again I think. 

  2. I was loaned Books of Magic about ten years ago by a friend who was furious that Neil Gaiman wasn’t persuing legal action about that whole Harry Potter similarity. I still don’t know anything about the Potter books, so I still take his word on it.

  3. wow, thanks for reminding me about Books of Magic…I picked up some issues late 90’s, enjoyed them and promptly forgot about the series. I’d love to read it in trade from the beginning tho

  4. Books of Magic was one of my all time favorite ongoing series. To the point that my avatar on the forums is Tim Hunter. Its a wonderful story and I highly reccomend it to all

  5. Everyone should check out that Human Target graphic novel — great, underrated Milligan. And you’re right, Mike, the art and the book design are gorgeous.Milligan does a GREAT job of taking a cool high concept and really making it a thought-provoking study on identity.

    Like delphan, I read Books of Magic when it came out. At times it felt more like a tour of the magical DC universe than a proper origin for Tim Hunter, but it was still very well done. Good stuff. Great art.

  6. If you don’t immerse, you’re just someone playing someone… Although the film might be great fun, it’s far better with someone like Gary Oldman where you don’t know he’s in the movie at all becaue his performance is spot on.

    How much similar is Tim Hunter to Harry Potter? It seems to me that an owl is a common companion in old stories about witchcraft, and glasses is a nice twist – adding to his secluded nature, and is a visual sign of weakness for someone that turns out to be a great wizard. Does BrianBaer’s friend have a case or not? 

    Saying that having  an owl as a companion means it’s a rip-off seems like saying that having a cat and a flying broom is ripping-off. Rowling used so many established ideas it seems to be a big part of her books. It interests me.

    As for Human Target – I might pick up another TP, but I read and it seems to have the same basic plot – how many times can you use that "lose of identity" plot? What do the other TPs focus on? Also that TP is a bit confusing and short and didn’t really sell the character to me, but I love the concept. I’m interested to see the older material – to see him in something Len Wein has written.

  7. Re: Potter and Hunter – I believe Gaiman himself has even dismissed it as being coincidental. Both writers were drawing from similar sources, including arthurian tales like those written by T.H. White where the owl motif was used.

    @chlop – The Final Cut OGN that Mike refers to was, I thought, a bit better than the actual series that Milligan wrote (and you reference above). It’s very worthwhile, IMHO.

  8. Both sound interesting.  Both assure me that I will be even more broke.

  9. So, I followed the link to Amazon, and it seems that The Books of Magic was written by John Rey Nieber, not Neil Gaiman.  Also, it doesn’t mention the artists you mention in the article.  

    A little extra clicking lead me to this link, which seems to match what you wrote (  Is it a single trade that Gaiman did? 

  10. Sorry for the triple post peeps, but I wanted to mention that if you look up Human Target on Instocktrades, one of the volumes features art of none other than Cliff Chiang!  Me thinks I might have to purchase that…

  11. @daccampo – thanks. I’ll check that out.

    @Neb – according to Wikipedia, Gaiman wrote the four issue mini and it evolved to an ongoing series written by others. 

  12. Right. Neil Gaiman created the original Books of Magic mini-series, which was intended to be a kind of "History of the [magical side of the] DCU." It was four volumes, each illustrated by a different painter. To create this tour Gaiman brought together four mystical characters (Dr. Occult, John Constantine, Phantom Stranger, and Mister E), and they educate Tim on the various aspects of magic in the DCU. The miniseries was popular enough that DC/Vertigo tapped John Ney Reiber to write an ongoing series. However, this was after Vertigo had "split off" from DC, and thus the subsequent series really focused on Tim and the intrusion of magic in his life as he grew up.

    So, if you’re interested in Tim Hunter as a character, you can start with the Gaiman stuff, or really even just skip it and read the Reiber stuff. If you want some of Gaiman doing what he does so well — examining magic and myth in a "subtle" version of the DCU — then you can just read the original miniseries.

  13. @Neb — thanks for the note! I corrected the link. Sorry about that, the linking boogie that we do has a bit more steps than one might expect and I was super zonked when I started dealing with the links.


    As far as the whole Harry Potter/Tim Hunter thing, I wasn’t trying to imply that there was any kind of ripping off, I was just struck at the similarity when I started remembering Tim Hunter. Sure, it’s not unusual to have an owl, or glasses, or messy hair, but still, it’s worth a little nudge, if only to show how ideas can appear, again and again, from different authors and sources.


    @daccampo — thanks for the background.  I didn’t know that the miniseries was designed to be a romp of magikal history–that’s totally cool.  It’s true–the ongoing book is much more like a standard comic book, this miniseries definitely has a different feel.

     The best part about this site is being able to pick up a book, read it, post about it, and then realize that others have read the same book! So rad.

     hope you Wednesday is going well!



  14. I love what I’ve read of Human Target, I have a ton in issues but I think I’m going to have to pick them up in trade someday.  Books of Magic sounds really interesting and I’ll be picking that up once I have money again.

  15. @daccampo & chlop~ Thanks for the clarification.  I went ahead and added the Neil Gaiman mini to my wishlist.  It sounds great.

  16. At the shop today, I found the first Human Target trade.  It’s only $10 and has the same creators as the book mentioned by Mike.  I picked it up and will hopefully read through it soon.

  17. @Neb – oh, cool! If it’s set in LA and opens with an actor, etc…it’s the same one. hope you like it.