Pages 6 and 7 of this newsletter are dedicated to a biography of Neil Gaiman “The Perfect Guest?” written by David Cake. At the bottom of page 7 is a selected bibliography which is presumably well out of date, and the quote:
“I feel I have proved one of two things: either I have fully recovered … or a hole in the head is no handicap to a science fiction writer.”
Robert A Heinlein, regarding his brain surgery
Neil Gaiman is the most influential and critically acclaimed comics writer to have emerged in the last decade. Best known for the enormous success of Sandman, a comic that is a triumphant revival of dark fantasy as a comics genre (and some of the best fantasy in any medium, as evidenced by the World Fantasy award it won), he has also written short stories, superhero comics, some quite unclassifiable comics, and books both fiction and non-fiction. With his black clothes, hair and sunglasses, and the success of every project he turns his hand to these days (even when his involvement is peripheral), he is the epitome of cultural cool. But inside this stylish exterior is the heart of a fan, a man who has written books on the Hitchhikers Guide (The Official Guide to the Hitchhikers Guide) and the joys of really bad SF (Ghastly Beyond Belief, with Kim Newman). Yes, Neil Gaiman is my kind of a guy. I have a theory that he is actually preparing for a career as the perfect convention guest of honour – first he lays the groundwork by gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of important random information (the two books above, the comics history and mythology displayed in Sandman, and the ability to ‘swear in several different centuries’), writes some of it down to establish his fannish credentials, and then his only remaining barrier is become famous enough to be regularly invited – so then comes Sandman. And when you consider his dress sense and his nocturnal lifestyle, it is obvious that he is going to fit in fine at a WA Con!
His first comic (he had already had books published) was Violent Cases. A complex piece about the author recollecting his boyhood meetings with Al Capone’s osteopath, through a veil of memory and childish imagination, it was also the first of his many fruitful collaborations with Dave McKean, the phenomenal artist who would later be responsible for the Sandman covers. McKean combines painting, pencil drawing and collages of found art and objects into an expressive evocative work that complements the splintered narrative well, and their reputations are assured. The pair go on to collaborate on Signal to Noise (a story about a dying filmmaker contemplating his last film, about the hysteria that accompanied the turning of the last millennium), first published in a yuppie style journal The Face, and on The Black Orchid (a story set in the DC Comics superhero universe, featuring Batman as well as the plant-woman of the title). The Black Orchid must have pleased DC a lot – shortly thereafter McKean got to revisit his unique image of Batman in Arkham Asylum (written by Grant Morrison), and Neil Gaiman got his own series, Sandman (covers also by McKean).
And it was with Sandman that Gaiman really exploded. More accessible than Signal to Noise or Violent Cases, with the freedom of creative control over the main characters, and the security of an ongoing series allowing either one issue or long stories, he created a superb fantasy series. It won a World Fantasy Award (for the story “A Midsummer Nights Dream”), and it became hugely popular. Other Gaiman projects have been just as successful. Almost everything he has ever done in comics form has been collected into graphic novel format. His non-comics fiction has been extremely successful, both his own short story collection (Angels and Visitations) and his collaboration with Terry Pratchett (Good Omens). Alan Moore has granted him the huge vote of confidence of allowing him to continue his Miracleman series. There are now several comics series that he has only peripheral involvement with, starring characters that he has created – including The Books of Magic for DC Comics, and Mr Hero and Teknophage for Tekno comics. This (and the number of single issue Sandman stories that might have easily been stretched to much longer by a lesser author) gives you the impression that he has story ideas in such creative abundance that he cannot hope to use them all as fast as he gets them.
Why is Gaiman so successful? There are a lot of reasons. One reason is that there is a shortage of good fantasy, especially in comic form – sure, there is plenty of (usually formula driven) swords and sorcery around, but not enough of the stuff that transforms and intrigues. Sandman is good fantasy that is never to a formula. Another reason is that, like many great artists, Gaiman is not afraid to steal ideas – from mythology and folklore, from his favourite authors (James Branch Cabell and Jonathan Carroll, for example – or in the case of G.K. Chesterton, actually inserting him as a character), from the rich back log of past DC Comics (far more Sandman characters are old DC characters revitalised than most people realise. Part of the fun of reading Sandman is trying to catch all his allusions and references). But when he steals, he always does it with respect for the original, and gives the old ideas new twists rather than simply recycling them. And another reason is that Gaiman is someone who knows and loves comics, and uses the conventions of the genre innovatively and well. But perhaps the real reason Gaiman is so successful is simply that his work is so damn good.
Who will enjoy Neil Gaiman’s work? Anyone who likes good fantasy, good comics, or simply good writing will enjoy some of his comics work, and his non-fiction is great fannish material. And who will enjoy him as a guest? Anybody who is in random* should be able to find at least one reason to find Neil Gaiman a great choice.
* Yes, it says random. Presumably should be fandom? Ed.