Over the course of his decades-long career, Neil Gaiman has redefined what it means to be a comics writer. He has blurred the lines between “genre” work and “literary” work, and he has broken down the old model of the solitary writer through a unique relationship with his fans.
Born this day in 1960, Gaiman spent his childhood largely in the library. His family was Jewish and Scientologist, but he went to a series of Church of England schools, and as he prepared for his Bar Mitzvah, he would talk the rabbis into telling him obscure stories from the Talmud and Mishnah rather than just focusing on his rote Torah portion. Between the exposure to all of these different faiths and their attendant stories, and his own time clocked reading every mythology book he could get his hands on, by the time he reached his teenage years he could speak myth and legend as fluently as English.
Like a lot of people who went on to work in SFF, his discoveries of Lewis and Tolkien are mythological events in themselves:
…when my seventh birthday arrived I had dropped enough hints that my birthday present was a boxed set of the complete Narnia books. And I remember what I did on my seventh birthday—I lay on my bed and I read the books all through, from the first to the last. For the next four or five years I continued to read them. I would read other books, of course, but in my heart I knew that I read them only because there wasn’t an infinite number of Narnia books to read.
But maybe even more important than the stories themselves was the revelation that came as Gaiman read: “C.S. Lewis was the first person to make me want to be a writer. He made me aware of the writer, that there was someone standing behind the words, that there was someone telling the story.”
I came to the conclusion that Lord of the Rings was, most probably, the best book that ever could be written, which put me in something of a quandary. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. (That’s not true: I wanted to be a writer then.) And I wanted to write The Lord of the Rings. The problem was that it had already been written. I gave the matter a great deal of thought, and eventually came to the conclusion that the best thing would be if, while holding a copy of The Lord of the Rings, I slipped into a parallel universe in which Professor Tolkien had not existed. And then I would get someone to retype the book—I knew that if I sent a publisher a book that had already been published, even in a parallel universe, they’d get suspicious, just as I knew my own thirteen-year old typing skills were not going to be up to the job of typing it. And once the book was published I would, in this parallel universe, be the author of Lord of the Rings, than which there can be no better thing.
As he got older he added G.K. Chesterton, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, and Gene Wolfe to his library, and started trying to figure out how to become a comics writer. Like many interesting British geeks of his generation, he also put in his requisite time in punk band. Since there weren’t any schools that offered degrees in comics, he turned to journalism to work his way into a writing career. His first book was a (surprisingly, pretty good) biography of Duran Duran that traced both the band’s New Wave roots and their sci-fi connection. He wrote a book called Don’t Panic that acted as an intro to the world of Douglas Adams, who became a friend, and collaborated with Terry Pratchett on the hilarious Good Omens. He was all set to embark on a career writing droll British fantasy. But then, because every good story needs a serendipitous turning point, he had a chance meeting with Alan Moore that would change his life forever.
Or maybe he travelled an arduous road, climbing rocks and fording rivers, to meet the ancient and grizzled Moore in a cave? And learned how to write comics by firelight, as Moore drew thumbnails in the cave’s dirt floor with a sharply whittled bone?
Or, what actually happened: Gaiman knew Moore slightly, and one night at a bar he asked him to explain comics scripting. So Alan sketched out his technique on a bar napkin—armed with that, Gaiman began his decades-long collaboration with Dave McKean. Their first comics together are already weird subversions of the form: Violent Cases is a semi-autobiographical story about shifting memory and fathers, Signal to Noise is about a group of people preparing for the end of the world in 999 C.E., and the translucent Black Orchid is about a pacifistic superheroine who, spoiler alert, dies on the first page of the book. These books convinced Karen Berger to ask the team for their takes on other DC characters. The one that stuck was Sandman.
Or, Morpheus himself came to Gaiman in a dream one night, met him at a crossroads buried within a dark forest filled with twisted trees, touched Gaiman’s cheek, and murmured, “You will tell my story.” When Gaiman woke he remembered a dream of walking through an endless forest. There was something he was supposed to find.
There were two things that were revolutionary about The Sandman. The first was that Gaiman decided that the story would come to a real end point, and that DC agreed to this. There have been prequels and mini-stories since, of course, but it’s notable that they are all written by Gaiman. The second was that, from the start, this story was diverse, inclusive, queer-friendly, girl-friendly. Everyone was welcome. There were references to the larger DC pantheon, but they were glancing enough that even someone who had never picked up a comic could comfortably join the story. And if his career had ended there, he’d be known as one of the all-time great comics writers, but instead he decided to branch out.
He wrote a script for the BBC, Neverwhere, which he then turned into a novel, and wrote an “illustrated novel,” Stardust, before tackling a full, original prose work with American Gods. But rather than jumping from comics to prose, or from genre to literary work, he has successfully moved between all of these media, making it clear that he sees them all as equal modes of storytelling. His three adult novels, American Gods, Anansi Boys, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, vary wildly in tone, but all meld literary prose with fantasy tropes. American Gods is a picaresque, a road novel about a father and son coming to understand each other better, that just happens to co-star Odin. Anansi Boys is a Wodehousian comedy of errors and mismatched love, whose catalytic event involves the trickster god Anansi. And Ocean is a delicate coming-of-age story about a gentle misfit boy, with witches. His two longer children’s works, Coraline and The Graveyard Book, are truly frightening horror stories that are also suitable for young minds. His script for the Doctor Who “The Doctor’s Wife” turned the TARDIS into a woman, and his script for Beowulf turned the classic story into a tale of hubris and fall. By melding literary and genre conventions, he helped usher in the new age of work by people like Michael Chabon, Colson Whitehead, and Kelly Link, that can be read and loved by people who consider themselves fantasy die-hards as well as those with lifetime New Yorker subscriptions.
Or, Gaiman is working off a debt to a pantheon far, far older than any he has written. They salvaged his sanity, true, and they gave him this gift of words, but is this truly a gift? How many words will it take to win his freedom? And why…why do they need his words?
And this is the next big turning point, because Gaiman, noticing this, encouraged it. When people came to his readings, he stayed until every book was signed. (He may actually be a book-signing record holder.) He cultivated a personal relationship with fans, both by enthusiastically attending cons and building an online presence. He recorded his American Gods book tour through a blog that soon became a daily destination for writers and SFF fans. Expanding beyond simply reporting his own adventures in bookstores across America, he was soon answering fan questions, weighing in on public events, and lifting the curtain on what it was to be a working author in the 2000s. He’s continued his life as a public author through Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter, and participated in several reddit AMAs, which is obviously becoming de rigeur for public figures. But what I would say is revolutionary about this is that he’s never dumbed down his thoughts, never altered any of his messages. He has documented the changes in his life: a move to America, three children growing up, a separation from his wife, a (very public) relationship with his now-second wife, Amanda Palmer, the deaths of his father and several close friends, plus many more stories, books, and literary events, but he’s done all of that while keeping his messages of inclusion and artistic encouragement at the forefront.
Or…his fans are feeding from his energy like so many succubi. Or maybe he’s feeding from his fans’ energy like an old-school Polidorian author/vampire? Or…maybe he’s created a multifaceted and inspiring career through years of hard work? Maybe he forges an emotional connection with his fans because he’s willing to write honestly about difficult truths? And maybe he appreciates his fans, because they participate in an ongoing conversation about life and death, myth and magic, and what it means to be human?
I like that story.
This article originally appeared November 10, 2014.