8:00am PT by Graeme McMillan
Before Harry Potter: Meet the Other British Boys Who Explored the World of Magic
A boy magician, bespectacled and plucked from a mundane life in England, destined for great things in the future — if he can learn the right lessons and survive, of course. That might be a description of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, but it also describes DC Entertainment's Tim Hunter, a character that predates the Boy Who Lived by almost a decade, and shares more than a passing similarity with Mr. H. Potter, Esq.
Hunter debuted in 1990's The Books of Magic, a four-issue comic book series that was ostensibly a spinoff from Neil Gaiman's critically acclaimed Sandman. Written by Gaiman with art by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson, the series was intended as a primer on the supernatural characters inside DC's wider mythology. Hunter was intended as little more than an audience stand-in, guided through different eras and realms by more familiar characters under the pretense of his learning the history of magic so that he could decide whether to become the most powerful magician in existence, but readers became attached to the kid, and he lived on.
He actually lived on for some time; a second series of The Books of Magic — centering firmly around Hunter and his pet owl Yo-Yo, because obviously bespectacled teenage Brit boy wizards have to have owls — ran for 75 issues, followed by The Names of Magic, Hunter: The Age of Magic and The Books of Magick: Life During Wartime. Throughout the first three series, Potter matured and came to grips with his destiny, including attending a magical school, which … sounds familiar, to say the least. (Life During Wartime reimagined the character and dealt with alternate timeline versions at war with one another.)
The parallels between Tim Hunter and Harry Potter were often remarked upon by fans, although Gaiman has publicly referred to any accusations of theft as being "silly", noting that both he and Rowling were "both just stealing from T.H. White." (White's 1958 novel The Once and Future King follows a child Arthur coming to grips with his destiny as the future king of England.) Peter Gross, who wrote the second Books of Magic series for a number of years, made passing fun of the connection by having Tim's step-brother catch a train at Platform 9 1/2 at King's Cross station in London, a nod to Potter's Platform 9 3/4, in one issue.
Hunter, however, had a comic book predecessor of his own, albeit a far less commonly known one. Luke Kirby was another English boy destined for great magical things, although he lacked both glasses and a contemporary sensibility. Debuting in the strip Summer Magic in British anthology comic 2000 AD back in 1988, he would go on to appear irregularly through 1995 in a number of storylines given the collective title The Journal of Luke Kirby.
The creation of Alan McKenzie and artist John Ridgway, the mythology of Luke Kirby was at once more restrained — he was merely to be the heir to the "Kirby legacy," and the greatest alchemist ever, not overall magician — and more melodramatic than either Potter or Hunter; trained in the ways of magic by a local tramp, the young Luke grew up in 1960s England dealing with vampires and traveling to Hell to save the soul of his dead father. Lacking the visual signifiers of Tim and Harry — no friendly owls for Luke, sadly — Kirby has been more or less consigned to pop culture limbo following his final appearance in 1995's 2000 AD No. 972.
That was almost not the case, however; around the era of Sylvester Stallone's Judge Dredd movie — which is to say, the late-1990s — the then-2000 AD owners were looking at developing other properties for screen, including The Journal of Luke Kirby. The project went nowhere when McKenzie refused to sign his rights to the character away, and instead of the big screen, Luke ended up headed to obscurity just one year before the 1998 release of the first Harry Potter book.
As Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them prepares to prove the long-term viability of the Harry Potter franchise, both DC and 2000 AD should be watching closely, in case revamps or resurrections of their predecessors suddenly seem like good business decisions. If nothing else, collected editions of the existing material should be easy to rush to market quickly if need be. Watch the catalogs in upcoming months to see what apparates, just in case.