Neil Gaiman, by his own admission, is "a storyteller," though not one likely to be brought up in conversation during stuffy cocktail parties where George Plimpton's most recent acerbic anecdote holds sway. He's not that sort of storyteller. He's better than that, or, at the very least, far more influential. Eschewing labels is difficult sometimes, so for the moment let's just call the man a fantasist. Not a sword-and-sorcery scribe along the lines of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien or any of that lot, but a fantasist who pulls away the veil of the commonplace to expose the magic -- good and bad, treacle and sod -- behind the mist, whether that involves sexy anthropomorphic representations of Death and her brother Dream, aka The Sandman, or miraculous, disturbing adventures beneath London's cobbled, fog-bound thoroughfares. The guy's a pip of a writer, whatever genre you choose to slot him in, and in his just-shy-of-39 years he's become something of a cottage industry, having spent the last 10 or so years penning one of the most successful comic book series of all time, The Sandman, for DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. It's enlightening to scan the lineup of famous names who've offered up introductions to that series' 10-volume trade paperback collections: F. Paul Wilson, Peter Straub, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Claire Danes, others. Quite an assemblage of rank praise you've got there. And all that over a comic series that the author originally feared wouldn't make it past issue number eight, way back in 1989. Gaiman's wonderfully poetic saga of love, loss, and redemption has been countless times acknowledged as less of a comic book and more of a powerful work of fantastic fiction, albeit one with plenty of lovingly rendered illustrations to pore over on a soggy Sunday afternoon. Brilliant stuff, by all accounts.
Gaiman, who is British and therefore entitled to favor an all-black wardrobe and an equally dark mane badly in need of a trim, probably needs a new mantelpiece these days, seeing as his current one is doubtless sagging from the weight of eight or so Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards his work on The Sandman has netted him over the years. Not to mention the Harvey Award and the World Fantasy Award he won in 1991 in the category of Best Short Story (that award, for The Sandman #19, was the first, and to my knowledge, only comic book ever to be awarded a prestigious literary award). There are tons more, of course, and Gaiman is known for many other things besides his work on The Sandman, but it is as good as any place to start, I think.
(First, though, this telling quote from Norman Mailer, purposely placed here to lightly chastise those among us who still believe that the comic medium is the sole province of children and slope-browed slow learners, Harlan Ellison's "great unwashed": "Along with all else," says Mailer, "Sandman is a comic strip for intellectuals, and I say it's about time." There. You see? Now back to the Gaiman already in progress.)
"All that I hoped for," says Gaiman, "the biggest thing that I actually hoped for, was to become a mild critical success [with The Sandman]. Bear in mind that this is 1987, when a critical success and a commercial failure were synonymous. I had sort of planned this huge, arching epic, but what I also expected was that we would be canceled right off. Back then it was sort of a point of honor to go on with a comic book for a year -- not any more than that -- and so I figured round about issue eight they would phone me up and say, "Well, nobody's actually buying it. Can you wrap it up now and we'll go to issue 12?' I figured that I'd plan the first storyline to take me eight episodes and then I'll do four short stories or whatever."
Because Gaiman's work on the series was so spectacularly received by not only the general comic-book-buying public, but by critics as well, DC allowed the soft-spoken author unprecedented amounts of freedom to conduct his storyline any way he saw fit. This is unusual in a business where titles rise and fall on the precarious whims of the consumer; one day Superman is flying high, the next he's dead (and the next he's married). Still, the imprint knew something wonderful was going on with the title, and, thankfully, was smart enough to keep their hands off.
"I had free rein," says Gaiman, "because nobody knew what I was doing. And that made free rein very easy. Nobody had ever done anything like this before. At a time of gimmicks and alternate covers and whatnot, we just didn't do that. What got weird was that during the course of Sandman, the comics industry collapsed. We were selling 100,000 copies a month and we were down at number 70 or so, and the bestselling comic was selling in the millions. And then the bottom fell out of the industry and all of the sudden there we are still doing our 100,000 copies and we're now at number 25. And by the end of it, we were still doing 100,000 and we were at number one. We were beating Batman and Superman. And that was because we had readers. They weren't interested in gimmick covers and whatnot, they wanted to find out what happened next in the story. And that was the joy for me.
"The other thing that is completely unprecedented," adds Gaiman, "is the fact that we're still in print. If you had told me back in January of 1989 when we began that 10 years on the entire storyline would still be in print, I would have laughed at you. The whole point of comics was that it was a transient medium: It was disposable. You do things and you throw them away."
Things have changed somewhat in the interim, not the least being that the series finally did end and Neil Gaiman became -- deep breath -- a legend. Of sorts. Apart from his work on the 75 distinct issues that made up The Sandman oeuvre, Gaiman has also penned a number of novels (Neverwhere, Stardust), short stories and journalistic essays (collected in 1993's Angels and Visitations and the recent Smoke and Mirrors), graphic novels (Mr. Punch, Signal to Noise, et al.), children's books (The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish), audio plays, screenplays, and, presumably, laundry lists and telephone notepad doodles (the latter two available for record sums on eBay, one suspects).
Gaiman also co-authored the sly, wry novel Good Omens with good friend and fellow literary workhorse Terry Pratchett, a very amusing look at the angels, the Antichrist, and the End of Life as We Know It. Clearly, Gaiman is a man who loves his craft and knows it well.
"I have a tendency to overcommit myself," he says, "and then frantically try and dig myself out. The trouble is, I consider myself lazy. I consider myself lazy because I've worked with people who are genuinely prodigious. Terry Pratchett -- every day he writes his 4,000 words. The only way to stop Terry from writing books is to lock him up and chain his hands above his head. So I look at that and say that is prolific. Compared to that I'm this really lazy guy who doodles from time to time."
These days Gaiman can barely make his way around the odd comic book convention without being mobbed like, as he puts it, John Lennon. Fans of his Sandman stories as well as his other work surround him at every turn. At a recent book signing for his new novel Stardust at Powell's Books in Portland, the line out the door trumped the store's previous attendance record held (and this says quite a bit) by Martha Stewart. That's success for you.
With so many different media to work in and any number of non-fantastic tales to his credit, one wonders if Gaiman even considers himself a fantasist at all.
"It's all storytelling," he allows, "and that, for me, has always been what's important. I've never thought of myself as a "novelist' or a "comics writer' or a "film writer' or a "television writer' or a "poet.' I'm a storyteller.
"Every now and then I will tell a completely mainstream story because that's the story I want to tell. Most often, I like to use some kind of reflecting or distorting mirror. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. And I think that all fiction is fantasy: You're inventing the world whether you're inventing a world that looks like ours or inventing one that doesn't, it doesn't really matter. The important thing is to tell a true story, to tell a story that feels true."
Fantastic literature has been a staple of the cultural diet for, well, pretty much since language was created, if you choose to go back that far. Lately, though, there has been an upswing in the field, occasioned perhaps by the impending millennial rollover and the attending anxiety that the population seems to be feeling. That old warhorse, science fiction, is tapering off -- rocket ships, how, like, 1950! -- while trolls, elves, and fairies storm to the fore of the fantastic bestseller lists.
Gaiman, for his part, despises this trend toward cookie-cutter imagineering, and rightly so.
"The trouble," he notes, "is that you have a weird kind of irony currently going on which is that fantasy really ought to be the dream. Fantasy ought to be the magic, the fantasists ought to be the people who are going out there and dreaming the dreams and creating the myths. That is what we should be doing. When we're doing well, we are creating new little myths, saying things in ways that haven't been said before. Nobody who's ever read Shirley Jackson's story The Lottery will ever be able to forget it. It's part of your head, it's part of who you are once you've read it. That's important. The problem, as I see it, is that what should be the single most imaginative and most boundary-less form of literature has tended to become one of the most predictable. Fantasy novels are now pretty much as predictable as a pornographic movie. You know more or less what's going to happen where and to whom and with what. And I think it's really sad that what should be a celebration of the boundless imagination has tended by sort of being driven by market forces to become a bad clonal echo of Lord of the Rings. You're getting books these days which are not even bad rip-offs of Lord of the Rings, they're bad rip-offs of bad rip-offs of bad rip-offs of Lord of the Rings. It's like photocopying an image over and over and over: Eventually you just wind up with a gray sheet of paper. There's a lot of books out there that come out with the word "fantasy' on them that are really just gray sheets of paper.
"I think it is unfortunate but true," he continues, "that much fantasy has taken the place of much science fiction because as we head into the millennium, science fiction is not so much the comfortable, escapist place to be anymore. The sci-fi that is popular tends to be stuff like Star Wars, which, frankly, is fantasy to begin with. There's no attempt right now to say, "This is what life is going to be like in 20, 30 years, look how great it's going to be.' There's a nervousness lurking out there. Whether Y2K actually brings anything with it or not, I think it's significant that most of America is anticipating the point where the odometer of time rolls over not with an excitation but with a certain amount of dread. We're hoping that there isn't a disaster. And in that world, fantasy becomes more welcoming, it becomes a place that is safer."
Neil Gaiman's stories, be they traditional fantasies incorporating mythological creatures or literary archetypes, or modern-day tales of love fumbled and found, or murder mysteries, or even screenplays (an adaptation of Gaiman's Neverwhere, which first found a home as a BBC television series before making it to book form, is in pre-production with Jim Henson Productions and Dimension Films), remains rich with exotic promise, a wood-pulp and printer's ink gateway to other worlds that, in truth, are far closer to home than most of us realize.
"I think a good story is like a holiday," says Gaiman, "somewhere you've been that you come back from a slightly different person. If someone reads all 10 volumes of Sandman, I'd like them to come back to a slightly different life than the one they left. Somebody reading Stardust, or Neverwhere, or the short stories in Smoke and Mirrors -- I'd like to change them a little. And, you know, the joy of doing the occasional children's book like The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish is the idea that you are cheerfully and enthusiastically warping young minds."
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