The Imaginary Forces of Neil Gaiman
The internet was buzzing when it was announced that Neil Gaiman’s Coraline would be made into a film by stop animation master Henry Selick. But it wasn’t just fan boys online––tween girl sites, literary blogs, music zines, and more were paying attention. That’s because for the past two decades, Gaiman has carved out a niche for himself by swallowing whole genres, media and audiences into his vast creative output. But Gaiman’s talent rests not simply with his versatility, but with ability to bind the fantastic with the real, the bizarre with the banal. As Laura Miller wrote in Salon, Gaiman’s “great gift” is “his ability to blend the archetypal elements of myth and folklore with the grit and comedy of everyday life.” Indeed as others have pointed out, Gaiman’s fantasies are not escapist. Quite the opposite, Gaiman’s uses fantasy to explore the real world around us.
Growing Up In Fantasy
Growing up in a small town of East Grinstead, England, Gaiman admits he read everything he could as a child. “I was one those kids who had books on them,” he told KAOS2000 Magazine. “Before weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, funerals and anything else where you're actually meant to not be reading, my family would frisk me and take the book away. If they didn't find it by this point in the procedure, I would be sitting over in that corner completely unnoticed just reading my book.”
More likely than not the book Gaiman would be reading would be fantasy. He read the masters, like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Ursula K. Le Guin, and marveled at the depth and breadth of their imaginative worlds, as well as the subtle ways their wove complex ideas into their adventures. Gaiman’s taste, however, encompassed work in many similar genres, such as H. P. Lovecraft’s mystic horror tales, or Harlan Ellison’s transgressive sci-fi, or Robert A. Heinlein’s classic pop parable, Stranger in a Strange Land.
By his early twenties, Gaiman turned his reading into practice when he started working for the British Fantasy Society in the early ’80s, reviewing existing works and interviewing up-and-coming writers as well as some of his heroes. Some of the contacts Gaiman made during this time included Terry Pratchett, the hugely successful writer of humorous fantasy novels, and comic book writer Alan Moore, the groundbreaking author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell. Unfortunately such piecemeal work hardly paid the rent. His natural ability to shift style and focus came in handy as he picked up extra money writing for the behind-the-counter “gentleman’s magazine” Knave, as well as handling contract literary work, like a biography for the ’80s pop group Duran Duran.
By the mid ’80s, Gaiman was getting his own fantasy stories out into the market.
His first piece of fiction, the short story "Featherquest", was published in Imagine Magazine in 1984. In 1986, he began writing comic-book stories, becoming a contributor to the seminal magazine 2000 A.D. (the magazine where Judge Dredd first appeared). And in 1987 he teamed with illustrator Dave McKean on the graphic novel Violent Cases. Using post-modern effects, Gaiman built his novel as multiple stories within other stories, all corroded through by the unreliable narration of childhood memories. In Violent Cases, a young man from Portsmouth (Gaiman’s own childhood town) recounts tales of his dad taking him to an osteopath who, while treating the boy, recalled the experiences he gained working for Al Capone. Gaiman often uses children’s perspective in his books, partially because children can find fantasy in what adults see as ordinary. For Gaiman, fantasy is not a world separate from reality, but a different perspective on it. In his review of Violent Cases, critic John Regehr extols how “Gaiman has a gift for describing something that most of us have forgotten -- how strange the world of adults looks to children.”
Now, when every other film seems to have been based on a graphic novel, it’s hard to remember how new the genre was 20 years ago. But for Gaiman, the chance to mix classic literary traditions with the dime-store aesthetic of comic books open up his career and imagination.
In an interview for Wild River Review, Gaiman recounted to Tim E. Ogline the excitement he felt:
“One of the joys of comics has always been the knowledge that it was, in many ways, untouched ground. It was virgin territory. …I felt a lot of the time that I was actually picking up a machete and heading out into the jungle. 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.”
A Graphic Breakthrough
In the comics world, Gaiman was gaining more and more prominence. In 1988, DC Comics employed him to produce a limited series of comics, which rebooted the Black Orchid series, a minor series of three super heroines. The following year, Alan Moore picked Gaiman to take over Miracleman series from him. However the major breakthrough for Gaiman came in 1989 when he launched his Sandman series for DC, a monthly comic about Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, and his quest to gain revenge on those who had imprisoned him. The series, which began as horror, increasingly drew on other mythologies as Morpheus left his own land of The Dreaming for the mythological realms of Asgard, Hell and Faerie.
Sandman ran for seven years and was an incredible success. It was (and still is) the only ever comic to win the World Fantasy Award and was called "a comic book for intellectuals" by the late Norman Mailer. The series was repackaged in ten volumes, and subsequently appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. Despite its cerebral nature, it had massive appeal and by the end of its 75-issue run in 1996 was outselling DC’s flagship franchise, Superman. Even more startling was its audience: Moving beyond the traditional teen fanboy base, Sandman was picked up by women and college educated twentysomethings. (Plans to bring Sandman to the screen with Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary attached, have so far stalled in development.)
Throughout the period of Sandman’s huge success, Gaiman worked on a number of other comics, including The Books of Magic, again for DC, which was about an English teenager who discovers he is destined to become the most powerful wizard alive. (Eat your heart out, Harry Potter!) He has since continued to work regularly within the sphere of comic books, and in 2004 produced the bestselling comic of the year, the first part of the 1602 serial. He also loves combining his love of music with these creative enterprises, such as on The Last Temptation, the comic co-written with Gaiman by Alice Cooper to accompany Cooper’s album of the same name.
In 2007, Gaiman told the Guardian, "Given the choice between doing something successful I've already done, and doing something I've never done before and risk making a complete idiot of myself, I will do the something I've never done before." In 1996, as Sandman was riding high, he proved this point by shifting gears to make Neverwhere, a BBC television series about “London Below,” the magical metropolis below the British capital. In turning the story into a novel, Gaiman also shifted his attention to more traditional novels.
The one thing that has remained consistent as Gaiman moved from graphic novels to television to conventional literature, has been the loyalty of his fans. Gaiman followed up Neverwherewith Stardust (1997), an illustrated prose novel (first released in four parts by DC Comics but now sold in one edition) set in 19th century England which harked back to early 20th century fantasy stories. Since then, however, his novels – the multi-award winning American Gods (2001) and its companion piece, Anansi Boys (2005) –have merged the past and the present by infusing a pop-laced modern world with the traditions and denizens of world mythology. In his review for PopMatters, Sabadino Parker highlights how Gaiman (an Englishman) uses his otherness to understand contemporary America, to “comment upon his experience with America through wildly fantastical elements.” It is through these mythic ideas, the belief, for example, that ancient Greek gods are now working dead-end jobs in America’s heartland, that Gaiman comes to understand the truth of our own world—as well as behold its beauty. For Parker, “Gaiman's greatest achievement in American Gods is the manner in which one realizes how magical even the plainest portions of the country are.”
The constancy of success that Gaiman has had across a number of fields has seemingly given him the confidence to continue to explore new modes of creative expression. In the late 1990s, he wrote the English subtitles for the cult Japanese animation Princess Mononoke and wrote an episode of the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5, and demonstrated his first interest in cinema when he wrote and directed A Short Film About John Bolton in 2003. He has subsequently written screenplays for the 2005 movie MirrorMask (directed by his longtime illustrative collaborator Dave McKean) and Beowulf (2007), and has been involved behind the scenes on the film versions of Stardust and Coraline. What else? Gaimain maintains one of most prolific and oldest blogs and launched a clothing line called NeverWear.
Gaiman’s serious intent has certainly made it safe for adults to pick up his books without risking embarrassment. But he has also never lost sight that fantasy begins with children, and, in many ways, remains the purview of the child’s imagination. In books like Violent Cases and The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, he told the story from a child’s point of view. In 1997, with The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish, he created his first book for children. And his 2002 book Coraline was aimed at––and spoke to––children from 12 to 85. Since then he has created another five books for “children,” including his most recent The Graveyard Book. Indeed as one critic noticed, what is fantastic to a child’s mind is not goblins that go bump in the night, but the adult world itself: “The Graveyard Book has this strong, strange, wonderful metaphor about kids growing up, learning about the wider world …There's so much you can read into this book. I mean, aren’t all adults just ghosts to kids anyway?”