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Books of Magick: Life During Wartime #1
writer: Si Spencer (co-plotted by Neil Gaiman)
artist: Dean Ormston

Poor Tim Hunter. For years, he has had to struggle, unfairly, in the shadow of his literary doppelganger Harry Potter. Fans of either fixated on their similarities, which admittedly were once startling, but failed to notice just how different the characters are - and how different their directions could be.

Leave it to Tim's creator, Neil Gaiman, to prod another writer, Si Spencer, into pushing the limits and changing the spelling of Tim's title, too. With its subtitle evocative of ordinary folk just trying to get by during a period of chaos, the story is anything but ordinary.

Opening on a battlefield, the caption boxes immediately tip us off that something is wrong. The soldiers are starving, eating their dead but also feeding off of centaur meat. Clearly, the siege on this otherworldly castle has gone too long. It should come as no surprise that the officer ordering soldiers killed for minor infractions (thus providing fresh meat for the others) turns out to be John Constantine.

And yet it's still a surprise, because this can't quite be the Constantine we know. For he is smack dab in the middle of faerie, with the slightest of nods toward Fables, and has been there for fifteen years. The war over magicks has gotten out of hand, and only one young man can save them all: the greatest wizard in all the lands.

Unfortunately, he has been hidden, and Constantine had something to do with it. Not just Constantine, actually, for Zatanna pops up here, too, and it's possible other somewhat familiar supernatural characters will weave in and out of the series. But how could this have been going on for fifteen years, and where is Tim anyway?

The answer is brilliant and provocative, leaving no doubt as to why the supernatural world cannot find him. It also has the effect of a time anomaly in an episode of Star Trek; Spencer gives in to trying to explain something that dissipates the closer you look at it. Still, it's the last place even the reader would think of looking.

It's been a while since I read The Books of Magic, so I don't know if any of this fits in with how the previous series ended. Thankfully, it doesn't matter. Spencer has created a situation so immediate that you don't have time to ponder where it might fit in Vertigo continuity, if there even is such a thing. Even the presence of Constantine partially defies questioning; if there's crap going on in other planes of existence, chances are Constantine is involved. If you go back to the first Books of Magic mini-series, you'd note that Gaiman considers him an eternal trickster type.

But it's both a strength and a weakness, because Constantine here seems at odds with his surroundings. It's hard to make a case for how easily he has ascended to magical military power. Spencer could have just as easily created a new character, and we could have possibly bought it.

Artist Dean Ormston also seems a little out of place. His work has a rough and scratchy look, intentionally exposing the ugliness of faerie. But it also leaves little room for a sense of wonderment and maybe even awe; the deliberate primitivism is too distracting. In some places, the dark forces gathering seem no less malevolent than the human friends of Tim Hunter themselves.

Still, this first issue drops enough complex ideas to have me hooked. Once and for all, it should clearly prove that Tim Hunter and that other glasses-wearing boy wizard are separated by far more than an age difference. Tim can go anywhere, and Life During Wartime aims to take him to exactly that destination.

Rating:

Derek McCaw

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