Book Marx: Books of Magick: Life During Wartime, Book One

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I don’t write reviews, mainly because I’m not good at them. My personal opinions too often overshadow anything constructive I might say, so what might initially start out as an unbiased look at a specific book ends up being yet another soapbox sermon from yours truly. That’s one of many reasons why I’m grateful to Frederik, who’s given me the opportunity to share my thoughts online. Maybe I can’t recommend a comic book without discussing at length how it fits into the whole mythology of heroes and creation, but Broken Frontier offers me an outlet anyway.

With that said, I’d like to unveil my first official review. I ordered “Books of Magick: Life During Wartime, Book One” because I’m a fan of Vertigo, I’ve read Neil Gaiman’s original “The Books of Magic” collection, and the price was good (it cost $6.47 through my online service, Mail Order Comics). I’m glad I bought it, and I’ll be getting the next volume once it’s solicited. But this isn’t a book that can be dissected in a rambling commentary. This is a book that needs to be reviewed.

So here goes nothing...

The Package

I’m not going to mince words. DC has done a miserable job with their line of trade paperback collections. Marvel gives all its titles the deluxe treatment, with thick, glossy pages bleached a brilliant white in order to display the artwork in the best possible light. On the other hand, DC reprints even its most noteworthy series on faded newsprint that starts deteriorating moments after being exposed to direct sunlight. As soon as you open the book, you notice the illustrations tend to bleed through the pages. You’d think a company owned by Time/Warner could afford to present its work more favorably.

Also annoying is how DC acknowledges other companies. When previous works by the writers and artists are listed on the back cover, DC titles are boldly printed in capital letters while other publishers’ book titles are reduced to lower-case limbo. This repulsive habit (which Marvel refuses to adopt) is petty and unnecessary. “Books of Magick” avoids this particular gimmick because neither Si Spencer nor Dean Ormston have a major history in comic books. But that doesn’t stop DC from trying other tricks.

On the front cover, Neil Gaiman is prominently quoted as saying, “An exciting new team doing captivating work.” Besides being somewhat generic, there’s a rather huge conflict of interest here. Neil Gaiman is the guiding source behind the series. He helped plot the story and is credited for his “consultation”. Does anyone at DC realize most of their audience already graduated from the third grade? Are they so desperate to promote their work they’ll quote the creators themselves and hope no one notices?

Even the design of the book feels half-hearted. The title is crammed into a cluttered and confusing logo, and the back cover is a dreary mess. The indicia says John J. Hill designed the publication. For the sake of the people who spent time and talent creating this book, I hope Mr. Hill won’t be designing future installments.

Grade: 2 out of 10 (three extra points are awarded for the low retail price).

The Artwork

Comic books are a unique medium, a fusion of words and pictures that combine to tell a story that couldn’t be told in any other way. Often a great artist can make the most mediocre stories shine, and when the writer is equally talented the results can be breath-taking. Unfortunately, if the artwork isn’t quite so impressive, even the best scripts can fall flat.

Dean Ormston is talented, but as a comic book creator he leaves a lot to be desired.

For one thing, he’s very inconsistent. The first time we see Tim Hunter, he’s got a tattoo on his left shoulder and another one on his right arm. Although we see him shirtless many times afterward, his skin is clear and unmarked. His friend Dog’s piercings have an annoying tendency to change from panel to panel. This sort of problem happens time and time again. While I don’t enjoy being so critical, this is extremely lazy work.

Ormston makes the more fantastical elements of the story look unearthly and creepy. He does a great job of conveying the surreal aspect of the book. But his human characters are often ugly, jagged edged sketches with slits for eyes. Even worse, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what is going on, something that should never happen in sequential art.

Fiona Stephenson does Ormston no favors either by coloring everything in sickly shades of brown and yellow. Earth tones can be used very effectively to give a book a certain style. Unfortunately, it can also make the pages look dingy and unappealing, and in Stephenson’s hands, the panels blur into an undistinguishable fog.

If I were ever given the opportunity to write a comic book, I would seriously consider quitting if Ormston was the artist selected for my series. However, since I can’t draw at all, I’m going to be somewhat lenient regarding the score.

Grade: 4 out of 10.

The Script

“Seven months since we ran out of meat and nothing grows within the walls. After we’d killed all the horses, we had to turn on the centaurs. I’d long suspected they were coalition collaborators anyway, or worse, spies of the Born. And besides, it had been weeks since I could look them in the eye without imagining their fetlocks in a Madeira sauce.”

Finally, the opportunity to stop bitching. This is how Si Spencer chooses to start off his story, and it’s hard to imagine a more evocative beginning. With lines like, “We had more chance of getting rescued by the tooth fairy... if his gummy head wasn’t over there on that spike,” Spencer grabs the reader by the throat and refuses to release his grip until the last page.

“Life During Wartime” revolves around Tim Hunter, a wizard so powerful he has created an entire universe in which to hide from himself. Meanwhile, the Faerie Queene wages a brutal and bloody war designed to destroy all of her enemies once and for all. For anyone not familiar with the character, the book doesn’t offer much in the way of background. Instead it plunges headfirst into the action and intrigue, and expects you to catch up as the story unfolds. Normally I’d resent that approach, but this book reveals just enough to keep you hooked while rewarding those who read it a second or third time.

Spencer knows how to create a riveting plot. Every issue contains at least one surprise, and by the end of the book, the twists are exploding like firecrackers. Like Michael Crichton or John Grisham, Spencer could care less about characterization. His people are pawns on a chessboard, blank slates designed to move the story lines onward and then fade away. He’s writing a soap opera where the only thing that matters is what happens next.

This approach can be costly at times. When Carlotta dies or Sirius reveals his true feelings, the impact would be far greater if the characters were more than just paper dolls. But Spencer isn’t trying to define human nature. He’s writing a story where nothing is what it seems and the status quo changes from page to page, and he’s doing a damn fine job of it. I’m genuinely interested in what will happen next, and I can’t wait to get back on the roller coaster when the second book is released.

Grade: 8 out of 10.

The Summary

When it comes to the quality of their trade paperbacks, DC sucks. But that’s not a legitimate reason to penalize “Books of Magick: Life During Wartime, Book One”. On the other hand, the inferior artwork justifies a low score. With Frank Quitely contributing gorgeous if uninspired covers, Ormston’s illustrations look even worse.

But Si Spencer (with the help of Neil Gaiman) is writing one of the fastest, most exciting books I’ve read in years. The fact that it’s a fantasy series makes his accomplishment even more amazing. If DC would bring in a more talented artist to compliment Spencer’s scripts, I think the series as a whole would easily merit a grade of 8 or even 9.

Until then, the final score has to be a combination of the dismal artwork and the exhilarating script.

Grade: 6 out of 10.

- Tommy Marx

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