The Boys Who Might’ve Been Harry Potter

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An everyday bespectacled teenage boy from Britain suddenly discovers that he is destined to become the most powerful magician of all – oh, and that he has a surprising affinity with owls. It’s the formula that made JK Rowling’s Harry Potter a massive success, but seven years earlier, Neil Gaiman was doing exactly the same thing for DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint in The Books of Magic – and two years before that, British anthology comic 2000AD had beaten both of them to the punch with a series called Summer Magic. What is it about teenage boys that make writers want them to be wizards?

Of the three creations, Summer Magic stands apart, both visually (Its lead character, Luke Kirby, may be a thin white British teen with brown hair, but he doesn’t wear the glasses of Harry or Tim) and in terms of the story, which is a period piece set in creator Alan McKenzie’s own childhood of 1960s Britain. The 1988 strip, which lasted in different incarnations until 1994, was also tonally very different than Potter or Gaiman’s creation, being less given over to adventure and wonder and more to mystery and foreboding. Never a massive success in even 2000AD terms, Kirby was nonetheless one of a number of series from the anthology to be considered for TV and media adaptation by then-owners Egmont Fleetway in 1996, a year before Rowling’s first Potter book was published (The plan fell apart when McKenzie refused to sign away his rights to the character): If a Luke Kirby series had materialized, could it have stolen Potter‘s thunder?

While Kirby was toiling away in relative obscurity in British comics, Neil Gaiman was tasked with coming up with a series about DC Comics’ magic-based characters. The resulting series, The Books of Magic, didn’t just outline the history of magic in the fictional DC universe, it also introduced a new character who’d go on to star in three different series over the next decade or so: Tim Hunter. Hunter was inspired, in part, by Gaiman’s love for TH White’s The Once And Future King, and visually by artist John Bolton’s son – who happened to be a skinny white boy with glasses and brown hair… a similarity that didn’t escape fans when Harry Potter arrived on the scene.

For his part, Gaiman doesn’t believe that Rowling was even aware of The Books of Magic or Tim Hunter when she came up with her character:

Back in November I was tracked down by a Scotsman journalist who had noticed the similarities between my Tim Hunter character and Harry Potter, and wanted a story. I disappointed him by explaining that, no, I certainly didn’t believe that Rowling had ripped off Books of Magic, that I doubted she’d read it and that it wouldn’t matter if she had: I wasn’t the first writer to create a young magician with potential, nor was Rowling the first to send one to school.

The only real effect it had on Hunter, it seems, was changing a proposed Books of Magic movie that never happened and aging Hunter to late teens in his final series, Life During Wartime.

(Warner Bros., owner of DC Comics, might have been more litigious about the similarities if it wasn’t also the studio behind the Potter movies – Indeed, Diane Nelson, the executive who brokered the deal between Rowling and Warners, is now DC Entertainment President.

Now, of course, the success of Harry Potter has meant that teenaged boy wizards are off the memestream for the time being, bespectacled or not; anything that even has a whiff of Potter risks being branded a knock-off, whether it is or not. But it’s possible that Harry Potter’s creation was an idea whose time had come, even as all the kinks had been worked through in different characters without anyone knowing it.

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