As befits a man with his undying work ethic, Neil Gaiman once said “Writing is flying in dreams. When you remember. When you can. When it works. It’s that easy.” One of the world’s most successful and versatile writers, Gaiman is a best-selling novelist (American Gods), an award-winning comic book writer (The Sandman), a popular children’s book author (Stardust) and a highly respected screenwriter (Neverwhere). The dazzling diversity of concepts produced by Gaiman’s fecund (some might say fevered) imagination has led many to ask him where he gets his story ideas from. His answer, more often than not, is that a few of them were written to amuse himself or, more precisely, to get an idea or an image out of his head and pinned safely down on paper: releasing demons and letting them fly. Other stories began in idleness: mere fancies and curiosities that got out of hand. In Gaiman’s richly imagined fictions, anything is possible: an elderly widow finds the Holy Grail beneath an old fur coat in a second-hand shop; under a bridge, a frightened little boy bargains for his life with a very persistent troll; a stray cat fights and re-fights a terrible nightly battle to protect his unsuspecting adoptive family from unimaginable evil, and so on and so on… The distinctive storytelling genius of Neil Gaiman has been acclaimed by writers as diverse as Norman Mailer and Stephen King. I’m sure, if you haven’t sampled Gaiman’s work already, that if you seek it out it will no doubt similarly dazzle your senses, haunt your imagination and move you to the depths of your soul.
Neil Gaiman was born in Hampshire, England, but now lives in what he describes as a ‘big house of uncertain origin’ in the USA. At the age of four, Gaiman discovered what was to become a lifelong passion: reading. As a child and a teenager, Gaiman read the works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, James Branch Cabell, Edgar Allan Poe, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, Rudyard Kipling, Lord Dunsany and G. K. Chesterton. He later became a fan of science fiction, reading the works of authors as diverse as Alan Moore, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Robert A. Heinlein, H. P. Lovecraft, Thorne Smith, and Gene Wolfe. His first professional short story publication was “Featherquest”, a fantasy story, in Imagine Magazine in May 1984, when he was 24 and from then there was no turning back. A mere four years later he went on to create (or more accurately re-create) The Sandman, a re-write of an old DC character, but with Gaiman’s own unique spin on it. The Sandman tells the tale of the ageless, anthropomorphic personification of Dream, who is known by many names, including Morpheus. The storylines primarily take place in the Dreaming, Morpheus’s realm, and the waking world, with occasional visits to other domains, such as Hell, Faerie, Asgard, and the domains of the other ‘Endless’ – The Sandman’s siblings: Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium. Originally the series was a very dark horror comic but later it evolved into an elaborate fantasy series, incorporating elements of classical and contemporary mythology, ultimately placing its protagonist in the role of a tragic hero.
Critically acclaimed, The Sandman is one of the few graphic novels ever to be on the New York Times Best Seller list, along with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, but impressively Gaiman did not stop there. In 1989, Gaiman published another award-winning graphic novel: The Books of Magic, a four-part mini-series that provided a tour of the mythological and magical parts of the DC Universe through a frame story about an English teenager who discovers that he is destined to be the world’s greatest wizard. Despite being a multi-media artist, comics really do seem to hold a special place in Neil Gaiman’s heart. This is perhaps explained by an experience Gaiman had when waiting for a train at Victoria Station in 1984. He noticed a copy of Swamp Thing written by Alan Moore, and carefully read it. Moore’s fresh and vigorous approach to comics had such an impact on Gaiman that he would later write: “that was the final straw, what was left of my resistance crumbled. I proceeded to make regular and frequent visits to London’s Forbidden Planet shop to buy comics”. When asked why he appears to like comics more than other forms of storytelling, Gaiman once said: “One of the joys of comics has always been the knowledge that it was, in many ways, untouched ground… I got to write in places and do things that nobody had ever done before. When I’m writing novels I’m painfully aware that I’m working in a medium that people have been writing absolutely jaw-droppingly brilliant things for, you know, three-four thousand years now… But with comics I felt like – I can do stuff nobody has ever done. I can do stuff nobody has ever thought of. And I could and it was enormously fun.”
All of this is not to diminish Gaiman’s achievements as a novelist. The best-selling novel American Gods tells the tale of a man named Shadow who comes to learn, soon after his release from prison for a crime he did not commit, that when people came to the USA from the Old World, they brought their gods with them. He encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural proportions threatens to break. The sort-of-sequel Anansi Boys is the story of the sons of Mr Nancy, better known by his soubriquet of Anansi, the African trickster-god, and sundry fates and mythological figures, some remembered and many forgotten. The ingenious idea for these books came to Gaiman when he asked himself the question – when immigrants move to their new homelands what happens to their gods and demons? Stardust was conceived as an amusingly contradictory ‘adult fairytale for children’, while The Graveyard Book pays homage to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
My own personal favourite work of Gaiman’s is Neverwhere, which first appeared as a UK TV series back in the nineties but has also appeared in subtly different forms as both a novel and a comic. In its own way Neverwhere is every bit as original and powerful as The Sandman or American Gods. Basically, Neverwhere is another name for London Below, a place that most people could never even dream of that exists under the streets of the London we know. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks – a place of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. It is the story of a young businessman, Richard Mayhew, who is catapulted out of his humdrum existence by a single act of kindness and thrust into the eerily familiar yet utterly bizarre world of London Below, which bears a strange resemblance to the London Underground. Time and distances have no meaning here and the names of Tube stations acquire new relevance: the Earl resides at Earl’s Court, the black monks are in Blackfriars and Islington is an Angel. The characters are a memorable cast of Dickensian grotesques and lovelies: the frail but sassy Door, last scion of a noble house; the nightmarish assassins Croup and Vandemar; and the brilliant, untrustworthy tour de force that is the Marquis de Carabas.
Although it first appeared at the end of the eighties, Neil Gaiman is probably still best known as the creator of the wonderfully dark and imaginative Sandman comic series. Whilst this approbation is undoubtedly well-earned, it does something of a disservice to this multi-media writer’s other fine contributions to literature, film and TV (which includes not only the works mentioned briefly above, but also some of the best episodes of shows ranging from Doctor Who to Babylon 5, not to mention his involvement in the formative stages of other landmark comics such as Spawn). I cannot think of another creative talent who has excelled in all of these areas as Gaiman has and for this reason I’m glad that we have him. I can’t wait to see what his imagination will come up with next…