No doubt some readers unfamiliar with the source material will dismiss Books of Magic as a blatant Harry Potter ripoff. That’s unfair, since the original comics predate Harry Potter by a number of years, but the simple fact is that the popularity of this franchise was long ago dwarfed by that of the Potterverse. Heck, spend much time on Twitter these days and it becomes painfully apparent that some people have never read a book not penned by J.K. Rowling. This new series needs to do all it can to distinguish itself and find a unique spin on the “magical boarding school” archetype. It doesn’t. The basic formula remains as appealing as ever, but this series seems content to retell a story we’ve read before.
Perhaps the fundamental flaw here is that the new Books of Magic is an almost complete reboot of the franchise. It alludes to the events of the original miniseries (which revolved around Tim being guided through the magical realm by four different supernatural heroes), but the much lengthier second volume appears to have been retconned out of existence. That seems counterproductive given that the rest of the Sandman Universe line is either a direct continuation of past Vertigo works or an attempt to add something wholly new to that mythology.
Books of Magic fails to emphasize the new. And it limits its own appeal as a result. Newcomers will have no reason not to judge the book against the gold standard that is Harry Potter, while fans of previous Books of Magic volumes will be annoyed to see the franchise circling back to almost the very beginning. So whom is this new series for, exactly? That tiny segment of readers who have no exposure to either franchise?
That all being said, there’s a reason this archetype works so well in the first place. Who isn’t enthralled by the story of an ordinary, put-upon kid discovering that they’re a chosen one destined to wield great power and reshape the world? It’s as pure an example of wish-fulfillment as Star Wars or Spider-Man. So as much as Books of Magic is guilty of rehashing a familiar formula, at least it does so well.
This issue delivers a breezy story that introduces Tim and his magical ties while emphasizing his troubled home and school life. It’s a quick read that’s over too quickly for its own good, but one that accomplishes what it needs to. Tim isn’t a particularly well-defined character in the original miniseries. At the time he was treated more as a tool for shining a light on characters like the Phantom Stranger and John Constantine than a fully realized protagonist in his own right. So with only that book as a foundation, it’s clear that Howard’s first and most immediate goal is showcasing Tim as a person.
There are some welcome shades of gray to his characterization here. He’s a sympathetic character who deals with identifiable childhood struggles like bullying, the loss of a parent and the nagging sense that he’s meant for something grander in life. At the same time, there’s an obvious darkness to Tim. It becomes clear he’s prone to bouts of selfishness and not altogether worthy of the power he’s been exposed to. Again, while this first issue follows a very predictable and well-trodden path, the execution is at least strong.
Fowler’s art also goes a long way toward giving the series its own flavor. Fowler shows an impressive degree of versatility in this first issue. He renders certain scenes almost like pages out of a story book, alluding to the much bigger world of myth and magic lurking just beyond Tim’s reach. Conversely, many pages emphasize the crushing bleakness and mundanity of Tim’s world. But even here, Fowler brings a certain energy and sense of humor to the book with his slightly exaggerated figure work. The clash between high fantasy and bland realism is exactly what this sort of story calls for.