Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Many Lives of Tim Hunter: Uncollected Books of Magic

Throughout it's 25-year existence, Vertigo Comics has produced some of the best comics of its time.  I have enjoyed its long-running ongoing series, like Hellblazer, Lucifer & Y: The Last Man, and some short term projects like Brubaker & Phillips Scene of the Crime & Grant Morrison's minis WE3 & Seaguy.  One of my favorite series through its several incarnations is The Books of Magic, which, like most of the great early Vertigo stuff grew from deep roots in the DC Universe.  I am super excited about its imminent relaunch - as part of Vertigo Comics' 'Sandman Universe' imprint - and the opportunity to once again follow the adventures of Books' protagonist, the young mage, Timothy Hunter!

Tim Hunter, not to be confused with that other bespectacled master mage-in-training (let's call him 'He Who Must Not Be Named'), has had a fairly decent publishing history & there have been several attempts to relaunch the concept of the inexperience magician, prophesied to the the 'greatest of his age,' learning the ropes & growing into his role as master of the mystic arts - some of these attempts finding more success than others.  As my favored topics here include uncollected comics, to celebrate the latest incarnation of Books, I thought I'd take a brief look at a trio of Books of Magic relaunches: the Peter Gross-written run of BoM from issues 51-75 of the 1st ongoing series, Hunter: The Age of Magic, and Books of Magick: Life During Wartime, almost all of which have yet to be reprinted.
Tim Hunter debuted in the 1990 prestige format 4-issue series The Books of Magic written by Neil Gaiman, who along with 4 painter/illustrators introduced us to young Tim, a boy in his early teens with the potential to do either great good or great evil after his first destined encounter with the magic of the DC Universe.  The prestige series was not a Tim Hunter character study, nor was it meant to be - BoM was more an introduction to the magical realms of the DCU, where readers were introduced (along with Tim), via guides The Phantom Stranger, Dr. Occult, John Constantine & Mister E, to such denizens of the darker side of DC as The Spectre, The Demon Etrigan, Mordru & Dream of the Endless.  By series end, it's implied Tim would choose the path of good magic.

It wasn't until Tim graduated to his own title (by way of the Vertigo imprint's Neil Gaiman-scripted x-over event The Children's Crusade), the 1994 ongoing Books of Magic series, that readers got to know Tim as a more well-rounded character.  A lonely English child - motherless, immature, perhaps a little whiny, but always possessing the potential for greatness - during the first 4 years of Tim's series, worlds began to open to him, as he learned the benefits & costs of magic.  He shared many adventures in Heaven, Hell & everywhere in between with a strong supporting cast led by young Molly O'Brien, Tim's 1st love, and favorite of series writer John Ney Reiber.  Each of Reiber's series scripts were previewed by Gaiman, who made himself available in a consultant's role - and these tales of a child coming to grips with his destiny were drawn by a variety of artists, with the bulk of the illustration work done by Peters Gross & Snejbjerg.  The first 50 issues of the BoM ongoing (and the Gaiman mini) have seen multiple printings of TPB collections and are well worth seeking out.

Tim's 'Other,' an evil doppelganger intent on killing 1,000 Hunters & absorbing their magical energy
Books of Magic #s 51-75, Annual 3, Vertigo Winter's Edge 3 (1998-2000)

When Reiber decided to leave the title after 50 issues, a couple Annuals & a short story or two, series artist Peter Gross took on the writing chores and immediately breathed new life into the adventures of Tim Hunter.  Neil Gaiman curbed his involvement in the series at this point, though his spectre still loomed large in Gross' stories, as concepts & characters introduced in Gaiman's seminal Sandman series (like Titania & Auberon of Faerie, Lucien, Librarian of the Dreaming & The Deadboy Detectives) continued to appear & tie Tim Hunter into the shared fabric of the DC/Vertigo universe.  One of Gross' most important contributions to the Books of Magic was the idea of Tim as 'Opener' - a being of immense power capable at a young age (even infancy) of 'opening,' or unconsciously creating thousands of new alternate realities.  Certain inhabitants of Tim's fabricated universes were more self-aware than others & worshiped their young creator like a god.  Each reality had it's own multiversal version of Tim Hunter - some of these alti-Tims were good, some were bad, and one in particular - Tim's 'Other' - becomes acutely aware of his 'otherness' & begins a crusade to eliminate all versions of the young mage (and their respective universes), assume their power, and take - let's call him 'Tim Prime's - place as heir apparent to the legacy of magic.

At one point, Tim finds refuge in a new identity: Mary
Throughout Gross' 25-issue run, Tim Hunter divests himself of all his magic, is forced to abandon his life (such as it was) due to the aggressive actions of his evil doppelganger, and finds refuge in a new identity (as a girl!), a new location (Gaiman's Inn Between Worlds), and a new supporting cast before wresting his life & power back from his evil twin.  Gross' stories are sympathetic to the importance both Gaiman & Reiber placed on pantheons of mythology in the adventures of Tim Hunter, but I think they also did the best job yet of presenting Tim as a boy - muddling his way through some pretty dark situation (but not without a touch of humor) and a burgeoning maturity.  Tim is also presented here for the first time clearly choosing the path of good magic, whether it be by subtly altering the mission of 'The Wild Hunt,' when he became involved with that millennia-old band which has tracked & killed gods, thinning out the ranks of pantheons worldwide, or - in a dramatic epilogue to the run - forcefully metamorphosing longtime demon foe, Barbatos, eliminating his evil forever in a surprisingly literal way.  Gross pulls double duty during his time writing the series, handling most of the artwork & lending his run a bit of an 'auteur' feeling - and with Michael Kaluta illustrating almost all of the covers, this 2-year story, which closed out Tim Hunter's 1st ongoing series, makes for a very attractive package.  This wonderful coming-of-age saga, so important in the development of Tim Hunter's character, has yet to be collected or reprinted (no digital, either!) - it really does deserve to find a new audience.

In HTAOM, Tim's at the cusp of his 20s - and experiences all the awkwardness involved with that
Hunter: The Age of Magic (2001-2003) 

Tim Hunter returned in the 2001 5-issue mini-series The Names of Magic by the team of writer Dylan Horrocks (please check out Hicksville) & artist Richard Case (ditto, Case's excellent run with Grant Morrison on Doom Patrol), which was a great primer for the same crew's ongoing, Hunter: The Age of Magic.  Picking up shortly after Gross' BoM run, Names of Magic finds Tim Hunter once again in encounter with his 4 guides from the original mini (Constantine, Stranger, Occult, Mr. E), once again on the run through the world of distinctly English magic and in search of his true name (the importance of names has been well established in DC/Vertigo's occult-ish books).  Names of Magic also maybe/perhaps/possibly settles the long-standing, hazy mystery surrounding Tim's true parentage.  The new mini ends with Tim's enrollment in the mysterious White School, which promises to formalize his education in magic.

Horrocks & Case curiously begin Hunter: The Age of Magic (HTAOM) at the tail end of Tim's time at the White School, just as he's about to apply what he's learned there in the 'real world.'  It seems there's a lot of story potential in Tim's 'Hogwarts Years' that was squandered, but fast forwarding through time a bit allowed Horrocks & Case to tell the story of a more experienced Tim Hunter - he'd been taught at the White School to better harness his incredible magical energy & also developed a bit of reputation as a celebrity on campus (which through various portals & gateways, traversed several realms including Earth & Gemworld).  So it's actually a slightly arrogant Tim Hunter which greets us at the outset of HTAOM, at the cusp of his twenties, confident in his abilities & in high demand - whether if be for the affections of pretty students at the school, magical artifacts dealers looking to exploit Tim's talents, or Mr. Lily, the Agent Smith-like representative of the Golden Lotus organization who wishes to enlist Tim in his quest to unmake the world, giving it the reboot needed to completely eliminate evil & return the planet to a Garden of Eden-like state (even if this sounds like a bit of overkill, to me).

The caricature-esque Mr. Lily - one of the Books of Magic's creepiest villains
Dylan Horrocks' scripts are dripping with Olde English magic (or what at the very least reads like it to the uninitiated like me - in this respect it reminds me quite a bit of Paul Jenkins' run on Hellblazer - one of my favorites of that long-running series), as Tim Hunter encounters a race of Faerie, Merlin himself, ley lines & the network of vagrant 'walkers' tasked with guarding the sacred sites of England.  In Lily, we have what I think is Tim's creepiest villain - supercilious, misguided in his 'good' intentions - mostly due to the way Richard Case draws him: a twisted caricature . . . and that chin . . .  Everyone else in the series is beautiful, though - you'd expect nothing less from Case & Steve Bird, who inked almost every issue.  The one demerit I'll give this series is for the covers: apart from a very few, I wouldn't consider any of the 25 cover paintings 'beautiful,' and though the last several are by Chris Bachalo (whose Vertigo work I generally like), I can't include these Hunter covers among his best.

This series was more isolated from the grand Vertigo shared continuity than any previous BoM effort, with fewer Sandman-related references per page than anything Tim Hunter had appeared in before - and maybe it's that ability to stand on its own (at least for 25 issues), along with the general excellence of the material (discounting the covers) that contributes to making this my favorite BoM series.  With no collections of HTAOM in existence (digital or otherwise), I can only recommend tracking down this series in single-issue format.

Lots of drink, drugs & sex in this series - all evident in this sequence
Books of Magick: Life During Wartime (2004-2005)

In 2004, Tim Hunter was reunited (sort of) with his creator Neil Gaiman for the 1st time in over a decade in the series Books of Magick: Life During Wartime.  Gaiman helped craft the story of Tim being drawn into desperate alternate-dimensional religious warfare, with series writer Si Spencer and is back to being listed in the credits of each issue as 'consultant.'  Life During Wartime - conceived as a blank slate for Tim's character, free from previous continuity - in some ways continues the coming-of-age direction of Tim's previous series - but there's a grittiness here which is owed as much to the 'pulled from the headlines' holy war in the book as to the stylized illustration of Dean Ormston.

The gist of the series is this: sometime after the conclusion of Hunter: The Age of Magic, Tim is warned by an alternate reality version of old mate John Constantine of an evil faerie queen and her desire to unmake the universe - all universes, really (shades, here, of Mr. Lily).  She seeks to do this by killing her world's messiah - The Hunter, otherwise known as our Tim, who's worshiped as a god by humans & faerie-folk alike on this cracked-mirror earth.  It's on this world that a holy was is being fought between the evil queen's faerie army and a coalition of resistance fighters led by that universe's John Constantine & Zatanna.  Constantine counsels Tim to go into hiding - and hide he does - in a completely new world of his own making (thinking here of Peter Gross' Tim as 'Opener').  Much of the action in the early issues of this series occurs in this world Tim has created from scratch - it's ultimate wish fulfillment for an early-twenty-something.  Tim creates a home life, complete with dearly departed mother, a group of new friends & a new version of his greatest love, Molly.  He's down the pub every night with his friends partaking in drink, drugs & sex - there's lot's of sex in this series.  A side effect of this great effort of magical world-building is a bit of amnesia - Tim's previous life is (almost) completely forgotten as he exhibits a complete obliviousness to the war being waged in his name a universe away.  Tim's living fantasy eventually breaks down, however, as the war begins drawing Tim out of his daydream-made-real.

Un-making Tim's hipster fantasy
The layers of reality (including our own - the violence seen in the series like golems of mass destruction & suicide spellcasters hit very close to home in the immediate wake of the Iraq War) make Life During Wartime a dense read - I was only feeling comfortable with the material on the 3rd time through; on the other hand, I think this is a series which rewards repeated visitation.  Si Spencer, coming off his time writing for 2000AD & for Brit soap 'Eastenders' knows his way around episodic fiction.  His characters are well rounded, his bar scenes particularly authentic, and his John Constantine (though not exactly the same character known & loved for years) was as direct, harsh & two-timing as you'd expect.  Dean Ormston is a quintessential Vertigo artist whose stylized artwork graced the pages of several 2000AD mags before drawing almost every one of LDW's 15 issues.  His monsters are fearsome, his violence bloody and his wide, sharp features on these characters provide a perfect look for this series.  Covers by Frank Quitely & Duncan Fegredo don't hurt this book's attractiveness, either.  The 1st 5 issues of this series - setting the table for the war between the followers of the faerie queen & The Hunter, and introducing Tim's hipster h(e)aven - were collected in this series' lone trade paperback, leaving 2/3 of the story available only in single issues.  Though obviously not a sales success, and as inaccessible a read as Books of Magick: Life During Wartime can be, it can be as equally rewarding for resilient Vertigo readers or fans of the Books of Magic.

This series would be the last we'd see of Tim Hunter for quite some time - which is too bad, as I found these series' to be the most interesting Books of Magic material.  Tim Hunter was allowed to grow up under the guidance of Gross, Horrocks & Spencer - they were fascinating reads that  tracked Tim's maturation process, and I'd have followed the adult adventures of Tim as long as Vertigo was able to publish them.  A young Master Hunter did pop up in DC's New 52 Justice League Dark for a bit . . . and the recent Sandman Universe special & the new Books of Magic series by Kat Howard & Tom Fowler will hopefully spell the dearth of Tim Hunter stories - it looks like we'll get to watch him grow up all over again!

Thanks for taking the time to read my post! 

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