Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, February 23, 2023


 The Invitation  (The Books of Magic #1) by Carla Jablonski (2003)

If you are a DC Comics freak, this is a book for you.  The Books of Magic began as a four-issue comic book written by Neil Gaiman to bring together a number of DC's magical/mystical characters, including the Phantom Stranger, John Constantine, Doctor Occult, and Mister E.  Along the way, Gaiman also brought in Merlin, Zantanna, Doctor Thirteen, Madame Xanadu, Death, and Destiny, and a host of other characters -- and made the entire Books of Magic mini-series a subset of Gaiman's The Dreaming, the world of Gaiman's Sandman.

The Books of Magic proved popular enough that DC turned it into an on-going series in its Vertigo line of comics, adding a number of cross-overs and other titles to the main sequence.  Although Gaiman was placed as a "creative consultant" to the series, when he made comments on the scripts he was told that it was too late to change anything.  After issue #50 Gaiman quite the series for which he was being paid $200 an issue to be its creative non-consultant.

In 2003, DC hired Carla Jablonski to write a six-book young adult series based on the comics.  The first of these, The Invitation, adapted Gainman's original four-issue series.  The following five books were based on various story arcs from later in the series.

The Invitation introduces the main character, a thirteen-year-old boy named Tim Hunter, who (we learn) has the potential to become the greatest magician of them all.  Tim is a geeky kid with geeky kid glasses and a habit of being picked upon by school bullies.  He is an only child, living in East London with his father, who had lost an arm and the will to do anything except sit in front of the television, watching old black-and-white movies and drinking beer after Tim's mother was killed in a car crash three years earlier.  Tim's best friend is Molly, whom he previously thought of as a pest but is now becoming attracted to as adolesccnce rears its head.

Four of the most powerful mystical characters in the DC Universe have decided to join together to aid Tim in deciding whether he will embrace or reject his destiny in becoming the world's most powerful. magician.  They are the Trenchcoat Brigade:  The Phantom Stranger -- an occult superhero of unknown origin who battles occult forces (but usually serves as a back-up character to many in the DC Universe), Jophn Constantine -- a cynical, working-class warlock, Doctor Occult -- an occult detective and private eye who (in this book, at least) can change his sex when he enters other realms, and Mister E -- a psychotic fanatic who seeks out and fights what he perceives to be evil.  (Mister E had his eyes torn out in childhood with a spoon by his father.  In The Books of Magic, Gaiman played fast and loose with the character of Mister E, and it has been Gaiman's version of the character that has been part of the DC Universe ever since.)

To convince Tim that magic is real, The Phantom Stranger transforms Tim's plastic yo-yo into a live owl, named (naturally) Yo-yo, who then joins Tim on his adventures.  Each member of the Trenchcoat Brigade takes Tim on a journey, echoing perhaps Scrooge's journeys with the ghosts in the Dcikens' tale.  The Phantom Stranger takes Tim into the far past to Atlantis, then to the not-as-far past to meet a young Merlin, and finally to the Dark Ages where witches are tortured and burned at the stake.  Magic, it seems, exists only for those who want it to exist and as more poeple believe in science, magic dies off.

John Constantine takes Tim to meet others who practice magic, including Madame Xanadu (who gives a cryptic tarot reading for Tim) and Zatanna (the magical showgirl who casts spells by talking in reverse), as well as Doctor Thirteen (who debunks all magic).  Tim learns that he is targeted for death (or worse) by the Cult of the Cold Flame, who fear his potential power.

Doctor Occult takes Tim into the land of Faerie.  (On entering this land, Occult takes a female form, whom Tim labels "Rose.")  There Tim must follow the rules strictly or he will suffer dire consequences, not the least of which is being trapped forever in that land.  They enter a fairy market and meet all sorts of creatures who want to enslave him.  Lured to stray from the path, Tim falls prey to Baba Yaga (the old witch with the walking house), who wants Tim for her supper.  Escaping from there, Tim meets the Queen Titiana, who tries to trick Tim into becoming her page for eternity.  After returning to London, Tim has only vague memories of his time in Faerie, but realizes that true magic has consequences.

Finally, Mister E takes Tim into the future, or, at least, one future where magic is defeated by science and among its victims are John Constantine and Zatanna.  They then move further into the future, so far that none of the other members of the Trenchcoat Brigade can follow them.  In fact, they have travelled to the End of Time, where they meet Gaiman's Sandman characters Death and Destiny.  There, Mister E attempts to kill Tim, only to be stopped by Death.  Since there is no longer a future, Destiny dies.  Death sends Tim back to his own time in England, but curses Mister E to return by walking backwards through time on foot.

When the three remaining members of the Trenchcoat Brigade ask Tim whether he has decided to take up the mantle of a magician, Tim opts out, and heads back to his East London housing estate.   Because there are five more novels in the series, it's NOT A SPOILER to point out that Tim's decision has no effect on his fate.

The remaining novels in the series are Bindings (2005), The Children's Crusade (2003), Consequences (2004), Lost Places (2004), and Reckonings (2004).

I was never a big DC fan, or, more accurately,  a fan of DC's major characters --- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Green Arrow, and so on (well, I have actually warmed to Batman in my dotage, but the others...meh), but the minor characters that DC had popping in and out of various titles were a completely different story.  These characters could be squirrelly and I really liked that.  And I really like The Books of Magic (I've only read Gaiman's original four-issue series) and I really like Jablonski's take in The Invitation.  If there's a thirteen-year-old geeky kid lurking inside you, you could do much worse.


  1. Marvel seems to have left DC far behind. Is the writing not as good, the characters not as interesting, the universe building less imaginative?

  2. Both Dc and Marvel have their adherents, Patti. Marvel seemed to have taken the lead in popularity through their Marvel Universe films by focusing on their (at the time minor characters); their major characters (Fantastic Four, X-Men, and others) appear to have been wasted for the most part by other studios -- both Iron Man and the Avengers were not the greatest sellers before the film franchises. DC has focused more on their major characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder woman, etc.) in their major films but have not really been able to excite the public, despite fairly good box office. Marvel may be making a mistake with their latest CGI-heavy "multiverse" films, which can be overblown and confusing. Time will tell. For now, I think Marvel still has the edge, if only because their characters do not take themselves seriously all the time.

  3. Indeed, the writing tended to be a little less annoyingly pseudo-hip at DC than Marvel in the early '70s, when I was reading them as a kid, but aside from a few examples (such as Jonah Hex stories in WEIRD WESTERN, or the Spectre in the briefly retitled WEIRD ADVENTURE, or the occasional Batman story), the writing of both at that time tended to be inconsistent at best...and I noted then how much more fun the horror comics' 1950s reprints (from both DC and Marvel's corporate ancestors at Timely, etc. as well as the somewhat overpraised EC) were than most of their contemporary heirs. But DC, with their investment in the '90s in the Vertigo line of relatively sophisticated comics. really stepped up their game, so that more work of the level of Neil Gaiman's and Alan Moore's, and such creators as the Hernandez Bros. and Roberta Gregory and Mary Fleener, whose work had mostly been published by smaller concerns ("indies" and "underground" lines such as Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink, among many others). Marvel has indeed been more canny and at times better in producing films (DC's done a bit better, perhaps oddly, in animation and tv series, where somewhat less in gross receipts can be made, in part by a dogged insistence in investing their film projects in mostly second-rate or worse talent).

  4. So, Jerry, are the prose items better than the comics? Or just a good way to further enjoy the narratives?

    1. The comics win hands-down, Todd. But the books are fun and are more tighly focused than the comics.

  5. I'm ordering a bunch of these based on this fine review! I'm way behind on DC stuff!