Neil Gaiman Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Neil Gaiman 1960-

(Full name Neil Richard Gaiman) English graphic novelist, novelist, short-story writer, editor, children's writer, television writer, radio play writer, and screenplay writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Gaiman's career through 2004.

Gaiman is a central figure in the emergence of the “graphic novel,” a genre which combines novelistic storylines with comic-book graphics. Gaiman has won numerous awards for his bestselling, critically acclaimed graphic novels and illustrated prose novels that combine elements of science fiction, Gothic horror, dark fantasy, age-old legend, ancient mythology, and biblical allegory in modern-day settings. His stories have been hailed as myths for the modern world, exploring with sophistication, complexity, and a postmodern sensibility the enduring power of dreams, storytelling, and the imagination in life at the turn of the millennium. Gaiman is best known for his epic graphic novel series The Sandman (1990-97), depicting episodes in the adventures of Morpheus, the Dream Lord, a mythical character who rules over the realm of human dreams and nightmares. The immense popularity of Gaiman’s works has earned him a cult-like celebrity status among his many adoring and enthusiastic fans and spawned a host of product tie-ins, such as T-shirts, posters, calendars, and toys. Jeff Zeleski quotes Gaiman’s film agent, Jon Levin, as saying that Gaiman “is able to synthesize ancient mythology with the current zeitgeist. His characters, no matter how fantastical the world, are essentially human.”

Biographical Information

Gaiman was born November 10, 1960, in Portchester, England. His father owned a vitamin-pill factory and his mother was a pharmacist. As a child, Gaiman was a voracious reader. “I loved comics when I was growing up,” he told novelist Steve Erickson in an interview, “and I never saw any reason why they should be considered inferior. I thought they could have as much power and passion and elegance as any other medium.” While influenced by British fantasy novelists such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, Gaiman found American comic books more compelling than their British counterparts. As a teenager, he became disillusioned with the comic book medium as a whole, feeling it had nothing new to offer. However, with the emergence of the graphic novel form in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gaiman was inspired by the possibilities of this new development in the comic book genre. He was especially influenced by the comic book series The Swamp Thing, written by Alan Moore and published during the mid-1980s. Gaiman graduated from Whitgift School in 1977, at age sixteen. Intending to one day become a comic book writer, he decided to work first as a journalist, in order to learn more about the publishing industry. During the 1980s, he lived in London and worked as a freelance journalist and editor. Before making a name for himself as a graphic novelist, Gaiman wrote several nonfiction books on commission, such as Duran, Duran (1984), a history of the popular rock band of the same name, and Don’t Panic (1987), a companion guide to the satirical science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. He collaborated with his friend Dave McKean, an artist, on Violent Cases (1987), his first comic book publication. Violent Cases was soon published as a graphic novel, and Gaiman was invited by DC Comics, the purveyor of many of the twentieth-century’s classic comic book heroes, to write a comic book based on one of their already-created superheroes from the 1940s. Gaiman thus wrote an updated story based on the classic comic book heroine Black Orchid. He next turned to the little-known DC Comics character of the Sandman, completely reinventing this classic superhero on his own terms. Gaiman has since authored numerous graphic novels, short stories, prose novels, and children’s books. He served as Chair of the Society of Comic Strip Illustrators from 1988 to 1990 and sits on the advisory board of the International Museum of Cartoon Art. He is a major contributor and active fundraiser for the Comic Legal Defense Fund, an anti-censorship lobbying organization. Gaiman lives in Minnesota with his American-born wife and their three children.

Major Works

The Sandman series comprises seventy-five volumes, totaling over a million words of text, which were originally published as individual comic books between 1988 and 1996 and republished in ten multi-volume hardcover books. The eponymous hero of the Sandman series, who is also called Morpheus, the Lord of the Dreaming and the Prince of Stories, is a member of a family of seven supernatural beings, known collectively as the Endless, each one representing different states of mind: Death, Delirium, Desire, Destruction, Despair, Destiny, and Dream. The figure of Death is depicted as a good-natured young woman dressed in the fashion of punk-rock, while Delirium is depicted as a loquacious girl with green and pink hair who walks around with a pet fish on a leash. The Sandman himself, called Dream, is depicted as a scrawny, sallow man with deep sunken eyes and a shock of black hair. Dream rules over The Dreaming, a fantastical realm which humans can enter only when they sleep. The accoutrements necessary to his powers include a pouch of magical sand, a helmet, and a ruby dream jewel. Gaiman informed DC Comics that he wished to end the Sandman series while it was at its height, rather than continuing it indefinitely. He thus describes the death of the Sandman in issue sixty-nine, although the series continued for six more issues before the epic tale was complete. Gaiman has since published several spin-off graphic novels that feature the Sandman but are separate from the storyline of the original series. One such spin-off is Sandman: The Dream Hunters (1999), which is based on a Japanese folk tale and features a badger, a monk, and a female fox. The fox falls in love with the gentle monk, and she enters the realm of the Dreaming ruled by the Sandman in an attempt to save the monk from harm. Sandman: Endless Nights (2003), another Sandman spin-off graphic novel, comprises seven tales, each focused on one of the seven siblings in the Endless family, with each tale illustrated by a different artist. In addition to the Sandman opus, Gaiman has authored numerous other graphic novels. Violent Cases chronicles episodes from the nightmares of a young boy and is based on tales he heard of the Depression-era gangster Al Capone. The adult narrator of Violent Cases looks back on these childhood dreams in an attempt to make sense of the adult he has become. Gaiman won the 1988 Eagle Award for best graphic novel for Violent Cases. The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch (1994), another stand-alone graphic novel not part of the Sandman opus, is the coming-of-age story of a young boy, chronicling his encounters with a mean-spirited puppeteer of the classic Punch & Judy puppet shows and a woman costumed as a mermaid. 1602 (2003), planned as an eight-issue graphic novel published by Marvel Comics, is a science fiction story about mutants living in Elizabethan England.

Gaiman has authored a number of fantasy/science-fiction/horror novels that place mythological characters and stories in settings familiar to contemporary life. Some of these works, though written in the prose form of the novel, are accompanied by extensive illustrations by some of the same artists with whom he has collaborated on his graphic novels. Good Omens (1990), co-authored with Terry Pratchett, is a satire based on the biblical prophecy of Armageddon, the apocalyptic battle described in Revelation, the final book of the Bible. Gaiman’s story concerns the fate of a reluctant child Antichrist at the hands of Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demonic serpent, who battle over his soul. Gaiman offers humorous juxtapositions of biblical mythology and modern society in Good Omens, with such elements as the Four Bikepersons of the Apocalypse, a riff on the biblical figures of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere (1996), adapted from his teleplay for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television miniseries, concerns the adventures of Richard Mayhew, a young businessman who helps a bizarre homeless girl and is subsequently drawn into “London Below,” a fantastical underworld that exists beneath the city of London. Stardust (1998), written by Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, is an adult fairy tale narrated in the manner of British children’s stories published during the 1920s. Set in Victorian England, Stardust follows the adventures of seventeen-year-old Tristran Thorn, who journeys to Faerieland on a quest for a fallen star which he hopes to bring back to Victoria, the girl he is in love with. Gaiman received the 1999 Mythopoetic Award for best novel for adults for Stardust. American Gods (2001)—at some 450 pages Gaiman’s longest and most novelistic prose novel—follows the adventures of Shadow, a man who is released from prison only to find that his wife has died in a car accident. Shadow aimlessly takes a job as a bodyguard to Mr. Wednesday with whom he sets out on a road trip across the American Midwest. Mr. Wednesday eventually reveals himself to be the Norse god Odin, while his companion Nancy is revealed to be Anansi, a trickster spider from African mythology. In their company, Shadow finds himself in an alternate reality where he is drawn into a war between the old gods of mythology and religion and the modern gods of technology and mass media. Gaiman’s American Gods was the first work ever to win all four of the major “speculative fiction” awards for best novel: the Hugo Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Nebula Award, and the World Fantasy Award.

Gaiman has published several picture books for young children, such as The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (1996), The Wolves in the Walls (2003), and a short illustrated novel Coraline (2002), aimed at young adult readers. Coraline has been compared to the classic children’s story Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and relates the adventures of a girl who discovers a magic door in her house, which at first opens onto a bricked-up wall but later allows her to step across its threshold into an alternate reality. In the world inside the door, Coraline finds that she has two creepy alternate parents, with pale complexions and black button eyes, who wish to keep her. She struggles to escape back through the door and into her house but finds that her real parents have been taken into the alternate world, and she must go back in to save them from the nefarious alternate parents. Gaiman received the 2002 World Science Fiction Society Bram Stoker Award for best work for young readers and the 2003 Hugo Award for best novella, both for Coraline.

Critical Reception

Gaiman’s graphic novels and prose novels have been almost universally acclaimed. Many reviewers applauded Gaiman’s inventiveness as well as his skill at maintaining complex, multi-layered storylines throughout the Sandman series. Gaiman is further credited as having a significant impact on the elevation of the comic book genre to the status of serious literature. As Frank McConnell noted, “What [Gaiman] has done with Sandman is establish the fact that a comic book can be a work of high and very serious art—a story that other storytellers, in whatever medium they work, will have to take into account as an exploration of what stories can do and what stories are for.” Steve Erickson noted that Sandman is “literate and sophisticated by any measure, let alone that of comic books,” as well as being “complex to the point of labyrinthine, non-linear to the point of vertiginous.” In portraying the narrative breadth and wide-ranging complexity of Gaiman’s tale, Erickson described the Sandman series as “an open-ended epic[;] the narrative, and the stories within it, and the stories within the stories, move from the atriums of ancient Greek myth to the veldt of African folklore, from the French Revolution to modern-day Manhattan, from the tale of a man who has decided never to die to the bodiless head of Orpheus begging someone to kill him, from Shakespeare making the terrible bargain that will transform him from hack to genius, to Thomas Paine muttering in his jail cell about the ideal that betrayed him, from a novelist who locks his muse in his attic, defiling her for black inspiration, to a convention of serial killers in the American South with a guest of honor who swallows peoples’ eyes.” In his book Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” and Joseph Campbell (2003), Stephen Rauch drew on the theories of mythical archetypes put forth by Joseph Campbell (in his 1949 study The Hero with a Thousand Faces) to demonstrate the ways in which the Sandman series is a work of modern mythology. Rauch argued that in Sandman Gaiman draws on existing mythological concepts to create a new mythology which speaks to modern experience. Rauch asserted that the Sandman series ultimately fulfills Joseph Campbell’s definition of myth as serving four main functions: “First, Sandman is full of wonder, both overt and subtle. Second, it tells us about the structure of the macrocosm, what the universe is like and who rules it. Third, it provides a sociology, telling us how to be good, or human, to each other. Finally, fourth, it tells us how to move through the stages of our lives, from birth to the various rites of passage of puberty, marriage, and old age, and finally death.” Gaiman’s construction of The Sandman as a meta-narrative, commenting on the role of storytelling in modern society, has also been widely praised. McConnell observed that the Sandman series as a whole represents “the history of western storytelling altogether, and especially of the stories we like to call ‘modern,’” adding, “it is simply magnificent metafiction, a story about story.”