The fourth and final debut issue of the inaugral Sandman Universe slate has one of the oddest legacies with which to contend. The Dreaming is effectively a direct sequel to The Sandman, House of Whispers is all new and Lucifer stands in the mighty shadow of the Mike Carey/Peter Gross/Dean Ormston run, but Books of Magic carries forward the story of Timothy Hunter, whose initial four-issue, Neil Gaiman-penned tale is widely read…but whose multiple long-running follow-up series have been largely forgotten and left out of print for quite some time.
Novelist Kat Howard (Roses & Rot), artist Tom Fowler, colorist Jordan Boyd and letterer Todd Klein get a tidier reset button handed to them, then, with an iteration of Tim Hunter who is magically destined but who hasn’t yet figured out what that entails. Howard takes to the medium with ease, while Fowler proves yet again that he’s one of the most underrated cartoonists in the business right now. With cameos from Sandman stalwarts and a plot that’s set to actually explore the titular Books for once, Books of Magic gets off to an accessible, intriguing start, and may just prove to be the Sandman Universe’s best ambassador book for newcomers to the larger mythos. With the first issue hitting stores this week, we exchanged emails with Howard to find out more about her entry to comics, her background with Neil Gaiman and what it’s like writing Tim Hunter in a post-Harry Potter world.
Paste: Before we dive into Books of Magic itself, I’d love to know about your transition to comics. Prose authors can sometimes lean a little too wordy in their first issues, but you’ve given the art team a lot of room to tell the story. Are you a longtime comic reader? Was it intimidating to enter the medium under the Sandman banner?
Kat Howard: I am a big comic-book fan, and so I was familiar with the medium as a reader. Plus, writing for comics has definitely been a goal for me since I started writing, so I’ve paid attention to the way the form works. I also put myself on a crash course before I started writing, just to be sure that I was really thinking about what would work on the page. Even with that, it was somewhat intimidating to begin in the Sandman Universe. Sandman has long been a favorite work of mine, one I reread regularly, and one that means a lot to me. Being trusted in that world is a real honor.
Paste: How did you find yourself involved with the Sandman Universe? Were you familiar with Neil Gaiman from prose circles, or was the New Orleans brainstorming retreat your first major interaction with him?
Howard: I’ve known Neil for about a decade now—he was one of my instructors at the Clarion Writers Workshop (as was Nalo Hopkinson!), and he and Al Sarrantonio bought the first short story I sold. The fact that he’s been a friend and mentor to me for this time has made working on this project even more special. Still, I was shocked to be contacted by Molly Mahan, my now-editor at DC Vertigo, to be a part of this. I sat on the floor and laughed in sort of stunned disbelief after our first phone call.
Paste: Si Spurrier talked a bit about this in regards to The Dreaming, but the approach to how these new books fit in with their forebears seems to be: those older comics aren’t going away, but they’re not part of the story you’re telling now. Beyond the initial Neil Gaiman & co. series, have you taken any inspiration from Tim Hunter’s previous Vertigo adventures? Should we consider that original mini-series “canon” or is this all a totally fresh start?
Howard: We definitely refer to Tim’s past adventures at the beginning of the first issue, but this is also a Books of Magic that’s set now. So it’s not a totally fresh start, but it’s also not taking Tim’s previous adventures as being set in stone. It’s… maybe a flexible canon is a good way to put it.
Paste: Dedicated comic readers know that Tim Hunter predates Harry Potter, but was it at all daunting to pitch the story of a magically destined, brown-haired, glasses-wearing British boy with owl connections in a post-Potter world? Does your Tim play off of that dynamic at all?
Howard: I mean, yes, Tim Hunter does have those things in common with Harry Potter, and I love the Harry Potter books and the magical world that Rowling built. At the same time, those connections that you mentioned are details, not major story points. Tim and Harry are very different characters with different experiences—there is room for a lot of magical stories, even magical stories with owls, and I’m glad to be able to help tell one of them.
Paste: How has your collaboration with Tom Fowler and the rest of the art team evolved since you began? You’re presumably a few issues deep now—are you starting to leave more up to Tom, or steering the story to his strengths at all as you go along?
Howard: The thing about Tom’s art, as far as I can tell, is it’s all strengths. He and the rest of the creative team (Jordan Boyd on colors, Todd Klein on lettering) are doing amazing work, to the point where I can put a direction in the script about how the scene should feel, and they nail it.
Paste: Your first issue spins pretty directly out of the prelude from The Sandman Universe one-shot, and features a few familiar faces fleshing out the cast. How much of a Vertigo deep-dive did you do in preparation for Books of Magic? And should we expect brand-new characters added to the mix?
Howard: In terms of reading for possible characters to bring in to the story, I’ve stuck pretty close to The Sandman and the Sandman Universe titles. So readers of those will see some familiar faces in upcoming issues. And yes, there are definitely brand-new characters as well. It’s been fun writing both familiar characters, and bringing those new faces in.
Paste: Based on this initial chapter, the “books” of the title will play a pivotal role going forward. How did you conceptualize the rules of magic in the world? And will Tim’s search for additional books remain in the U.K. or take him around (and out of) the world?
Howard: One of the things that I really loved about the original Books of Magic was that Tim was the sort of character who could cross into other magical worlds. So I will definitely be taking advantage of that as the story progresses. As for the rules of magic, I wanted to be sure that Tim’s abilities wouldn’t suddenly make his life perfect—that even with magic, he’ll make mistakes and face consequences for his actions. So most of the magic system is built with that at the foundation. It makes things somewhat difficult for Tim, but hopefully also makes a good story for readers.