Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic further explored the magical side of the DCU and in the process may have changed it for years to come.
Magic in the DC Universe has always held an appropriate amount of mystery and allure. It was defined by looser rules rather than a hard magic system and lots of improvisation. But Neil Gaiman’s, The Books of Magic (by Neil Gaiman, John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson) brought a more fairy tale sensibility to certain magically inclined characters as well as exploring a side of the DC Universe usually left more to the imagination.
The Books of Magic tells the story of Timothy Hunter, a 12-year-old boy with a striking resemblance to Harry Potter, who is approached by the Trenchcoat Brigade. This is a team of magical characters consisting of John Constantine, The Phantom Stranger, Doctor Occult, and Mister E. They believe him to have incredible magic potential, and they endeavor not only to teach and guide him but to test and observe him in case he becomes a threat.
Through his adventures, Timothy learns a little more about each of the trench coat-clad wizards, although much of it is still quite obscured. He learns about the nature of magic and the rules therein. He learns of different realms, different types of magic, where certain magic comes from, and the potential cost of using it. Gaiman’s inspirations are on clear display throughout these stories. It is evident that he is a student of the occult himself and is well-versed in British folklore. He uses his knowledge to excellent effect when exploring the realms of the Fae and the importance of a name. There is also some classic existential pondering of how a being can hold an unborn universe in their hand and offer it up for trade.
The Books of Magic have the tone of a classic fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm. Not the stories we see in animated Disney films, but rather these stories harken back to the older tales where Cinderella’s stepmother is a cannibalistic ogre and Hansel and Gretel are in real danger of being cooked alive by the witch in the forest. This is a much more authentic tone, where fairy magical tales are concerned, and they certainly read as much more believable. it's almost as if Gaiman is educating the reader as to the other side of the veil just as the Trenchcoat Brigade is educating young Timothy.
Many people are ignorant of the more graphic nature of original fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm collected their stories by traveling the countryside and recording the tales woven by whoever would humor them. They then went over their collection and made some alterations. Many cultures have similar tales, so these were either consolidated into a new amalgam or the most exciting version was presented as the most “official” telling. Only in the modern era have children’s tales been softened with the originals are long forgotten. This is a shame, as the original tales hold great purpose. The harshness of these stories is present to drive home important lessons of how to survive in the wilds or how not to be tricked by a fairy, and it is exactly these lessons that Timothy must learn.
The Books of Magic do a great service to the DC universe by expanding it in ways that are still being utilized to incredible storytelling potential. There is a depth and complexity present in DC Comics today when it comes to magic. Especially in the modern trend of playing with multiverses, DC often uses magic devices to explain characters coming back to life, moving between realities, or setting things back to the status quo. Modern DC is a much more magically inclined place than it was before, and we have The Books of Magic partially to thank for that.