Page 45 Review by Stephen
Magic grants no freedoms, friend pupil. Everything it buys must be paid for.
Science is a way of talking about the universe in words that bind it to a common meaning. Magic is a method of talking to the universe in words that it cannot ignore.
In which Neil Gaiman explores what magic means and what it can do; the myriad legends that it has already created, to which Neil now adds another. With almost impossible dexterity Gaiman gently folds DCs established tall tales and occult-orientated characters into the wider mix of fantasies outside that specific setting, and binds them together while embracing all aspects, all variations on a theme, so that Christian stories of Heaven and Hell with their angels and archangels and its celestial city sit comfortably and compatibly alongside Egyptian, Chinese, Greek and British mythologies as well as DCs own demons and The Dreaming et al. Its a pretty neat trick to pull off.
Magic is the power of mans imagination so, as ever with Neil Gaiman, this is also about stories: about the art of storytelling by conjuring carefully chosen words, so shedding light on the darkness. Its about communication, and there is a great deal to be communicated here with some sense of urgency, for a young boy called Timothy Hunter has been identified as the most powerful mage of modern times, potentially. Whether he will be a power for creation or destruction is unclear, which is why the Phantom Stranger, Dr Occult and Mister E have taken it upon themselves to educate Tim Hunter, and dragged a reluctant John Constantine in too.
Just what the worlds been waiting for. The Charge of the Trenchcoat Brigade.
I heard that, John Constantine.
Constantine absolutely makes the book, so well is he played by writer and artists alike. DCs cheeky chappie and ultimate rogue, he is neither a team player nor strong on reverence. He is reckless, he is dangerous, but in some ways hes the safest pair of hands you can imagine. Although try telling that to the ghosts of his friends. Such is his history that hes made welcome nowhere here except by Zatanna, and theres a single-panel, snort-inducing sight-gag by Scott Hampton, which if you blink you will miss, after John visits the restroom and returns with a stinging, livid-red slap on the cheek.
A pomposity-puncturing iconoclast who rankles at authority, Constantine is immediately drawn to Tim Hunters cynical, sceptical and spirited defiance: Tims initial instinct is that his new mentors are a bunch of mack-wearing pervs. It is Johns role to introduce Tim Hunter to the contemporary cast of the DC universe: the Spectre, Jason Blood, Madame Xanadu, Baron Winter (Boston Brand AKA Deadman introduces himself, several times over, in a riotous running joke), and all of them have something to say about magic including Dr Fate, he of the hungry helmet:
The imposition of order on formless chaos, the release of joyous chaos into the grey monotony of order
This is the true magic. All else is shadow.
Hmm. Id caution against judging until you learn the destiny of Fate.
This is the DC readers crowd-pleasing chapter, without once alienating those whove never bought one of those books before. Instead Neil neatly slots these characters into the story he wants to tell within its own context. Painted comic art was relatively rare in those days, so that helps set the alternative tone too. Almost everyone he encounters has dire warnings for Tim about the price he would pay, as do they all in the past.
The past is the province of the Stranger, illustrated by John Bolton who did a bang-up job of maintaining yet blending the pairs physicality with the limbo-like nature of what they half-glimpse around and beyond them. There are layers and layers of painting art here, executed long before they could be all shot separately then blended by computer like ALICE IN SUNDERLAND. So much of it will have been in the script but not in the dialogue, so letting your eyes wander pays dividends.
As to Charles Vess who depicts Tims journey with Dr Occult through the rule-ridden, trap-laden land of Faerie, his line is as solid as his washes are ethereal; his colours so soft, yet as sharp and bright as you like. There is a spectacular, shepherd-delighting, early evening sunset over a lake that goes on forever; his Goblin Market is as fine as anything you saw in STARDUST; and Queen Titanias palace is an exemplary essay in architectural jade.
Gaiman is perhaps at his finest in Faerie. Its appearance in SANDMAN: DREAM COUNTRY won him a World Fantasy Award in 1991, while he returned to the etiquette involved in INSTRUCTIONS, both also illustrated by Charles Vess. Theres something about Neils writing when it comes to these legends and lore which is far from portentous but Demanding You Pay Close Attention a bit like capitalised phrases in AA Milnes Winnie The Pooh!
It is here that a naïve Tim makes his most worrying mistakes, proving beyond doubt his need for both education and guidance; and it is here that we return to the vital aspect of magic as mind-altering alchemy in the hands of wordsmiths worldwide. Heres Queen Titania:
You wish to see the distant realms? Very well. But know this first: the places you will visit, the places that you will see, do not exist.
For there are only two worlds your world, which is the real world, and other worlds, the fantasy. Worlds like this are worlds of the human imagination: their reality, or lack of reality, is not important. What is important is that they are there.
These worlds provide an alternative. Provide and escape. Provide a threat. Provide a dream, and power, provide refuge, and pain.
They give your world meaning. They do not exist; and thus they are all that matters. Do you understand?
No, Tim doesnt, not yet. He may never get a chance to understand if other forces succeed. Hes yet to see the future his possible future and those far beyond but hell be led there by a blind man fixated on the darkness around him: the darkest aspects of the human heart. Youll be alarmed by whom Tim meets in his future; but you will love it when you see who turns out the lights. Who does turn out the lights at the end of the universe? Its not necessarily who you think, but sleep tight.
Comparisons have been made between this and the subsequent Harry Potter books by JK Rowling. Some would say consequent, but not me. Not in those scolding terms, anyway, for both writers have been charitably generous and, besides (totally besides), this too is a book based on (and informed by) stories which have gone before. That is its whole raison dêtre.
Searchers will see by just one look that the opening sequence shows the two poles apart. However unloved, Harry Potter is lured from his relatively safe suburban surroundings into the privileged life of a boarding school, whereas Timothy Hunter is first seen skateboarding alone and vulnerable round the concrete jungle of a deserted industrial-estate market, its closed shops desperately crying about Crazy Price Clearance sales. It is bleak, it is barren, and the jaws of its pitch-black underpass gape wide.
Into the abyss, Tim Hunter. Into the abyss.
Timothy Hunter will need to make some smart and swift choices, not least of which will be whether to accept magic at all. He will hear conflicting stories of fortune and free will. He will see things which no fourteen-year-old was ever meant to see. And he will need to make those choices informed not by The Truth (for there is no such singular thing) but by truths, and by stories.
As Uncle Alan Moore once famously pronounced, All stories are true.