Neil Gaiman

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Steve Erickson (essay date 3 September 1995)

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SOURCE: Erickson, Steve. “Dreamland.” Los Angeles Times (3 September 1995): 14.

[In the following essay, Erickson discusses Gaiman's career as a graphic novelist and the development of the Sandman series.]

Neil Gaiman never remembers his dreams. They are devoured by his imagination before consciousness can reach them. If he has one recurring dream, it's of a house. “I think it's always the same house,” he says, “but I don't think I've ever visited the same room twice. And the house continues for practically forever, and it's, you know, not really a house at all—it's a life.” It doesn't seem to be the house of Gaiman's childhood in England, or the house he lived in outside London before he moved to the United States, or even the old red-brick Victorian house he lives in now, an hour outside Minneapolis, that looks like it could be from a dream. The glass gazebo in back, where the hill begins to slope into the woods, could be from a dream as well. Isolated, incommunicado, there Gaiman writes about dreams all the time—not his, because he doesn't remember his, but yours, because yours he remembers before you have them.

He writes about them in a comic book. The Sandman, published by DC Comics, is Gaiman's rapid-eye almanac of a “place” called The Dreaming. This is a landscape of psychic rather than physical borders, with a topography as amorphous as mist. It's a little like a five-dimensional chessboard, time being the fourth dimension and memory the fifth, over and across which all of us move every night. Every night each of us returns to the Dreaming in our most primal form, perhaps as the little boy or girl we once were and never completely left behind, perhaps as a cat we once held or a raven that once perched outside our window, perhaps not as an animate object at all but a particularly lovely knoll, green and shady, that we saw as a child for only a few moments. Perhaps as a long-buried secret about ourselves that we never knew or wanted to know. But sooner or later in The Dreaming, we bump into him. He's never actually called the Sandman. The more classically bent would prefer to know him as Morpheus; to the populists among us, his name is just Dream. At any rate, he runs the joint.

Well, not really. Neil Gaiman runs the joint, and over seven years and nearly 2,000 pages he has moved over and across The Dreaming in seemingly every direction at once, teetering on occasion but never toppling. 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 people's eyes. Literate and sophisticated by any measure, let alone that of comic books, The Sandman is complex to the point of labyrinthine, non-linear to the point of vertiginous. Reading the whole thing, the reader wants to lay out all the pages in a field somewhere, and look at...

(This entire section contains 5337 words.)

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it from the vantage point of a bird circling overhead.

Besides being the best monthly comic book in the world, The Sandman is also one of the most popular. Many of its most devoted fans are people who don't otherwise read comics, and it has won not only the praise of literary big shots (“A comic strip for intellectuals,” Norman Mailer declared a few years back, “and I say it's about time”) but more prizes than Gaiman can find room for in his house, including four straight Eisner awards—the comic book Oscar—and the World Fantasy Award, the only time this has gone to a comic. Immediately afterward, the World Fantasy people changed the rules so such an outrage could never happen again. Sandman has inspired college doctorates and songs by Metallica and Tori Amos, it is the primary text for classes on myth at the University of California, and a film is in the works to which Gaiman has offered his blessing though nothing else. Gaiman claims, and DC does not dispute, that the Sandman is the company's third-most popular character after Batman and Superman, and at L.A.'s Golden Apple store it is consistently DC's best seller; in college towns it sometimes outsells “X-Men,” published by DC rival Marvel Comics and the single biggest title of the last 20 years. The entire run of Sandman has been collected in deluxe bound volumes (start with Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll's House), with comments by Stephen King, Clive Barker, Mikal Gilmore, Peter Straub and Gene Wolfe genuflecting before Gaiman's brilliance. …

Enough, you must be saying at this point. Enough, Gaiman may well agree. Because this fall, with issue number 75, he is quitting the magazine that he has written since December, 1988. This happens all the time in comics, blazingly successful writers burning out on a book and handing it off to someone else. Except this isn't the case. Gaiman isn't burning out, and he isn't handing the book off to anyone, and in defiance of the universal corporate law that says no one is irreplaceable, DC has made a creative decision flatly in conflict with its profits. It is killing The Sandman off and closing The Dreaming down.

Like many people who live in the world of their imaginations, Neil Gaiman doesn't quite seem to belong in the real one. A little lost in his big red-brick Midwest house, still sleep-disheveled at noon and tending the baby until his wife Mary gets home, he yearns for England “only about 90٪ of the time.” The first thing he wants to show you is the garden in back, recounting its various vegetables with that inexplicable enthusiasm for gardens to which the English must be genetically disposed. More dishevelment abounds. Shambling around the house, he knocks over stacks of old comics looking for one in particular; upstairs in the TV room, he rummages among the rubble of videos for an obscure Czech fantasy to put in the VCR. “Lorraine will kill me,” he shrugs, surveying the new mess. Lorraine Garland has graduated from being Neil's assistant to serving as the all-purpose Gaiman family assistant, managing the schedule and answering the telephone and returning messages and helping to tend the three children. Picking up everyone's comic books.

Watch Gaiman long enough and you'll notice he reminds you of someone, and then of course you realize it's the Sandman himself, allowing for the liberties taken by the 33 artists who have visually interpreted the character over the years. On the Sandman, for instance, Gaiman's dark unruly hair is a detonation of black smoke that makes him look like that guy who sings for the Cure; but then Gaiman cultivates a rock-star persona of his own, always dressed in black and never appearing in public without a leather jacket and sunglasses. He's a lot funnier than the Sandman, but then everyone's funnier than the Sandman. Charming and charismatic, affable and gracious, at once warmly empathetic and distantly ironic, Gaiman can also seem a little full of himself at first; when his celebrity suddenly rose five years ago, he came to Los Angeles on a promotional tour and brashly held court for a bunch of sullen journalists at a restaurant on Melrose shaped like a hamburger. In fairness, it wasn't his idea. One doesn't write something as absurdly ambitious as The Sandman without at the very least a sense of mission. He's cheeky without ever being brash, and eventually the cheek gives way to a more nuanced sense of proportion about his life and work, inevitably followed by an outburst of outright self-deprecation: “Remember,” he reminds you when the discussion gets a little inflated, “I write comics.

“I remember once at a party running into the editor of the literary page of a major newspaper.” You can already tell that, pushing back in his chair behind the desk of his office, he really likes telling this story. “And he was asking me what I did, and I said, ‘I write comics.’ And I could see him turn off—it was like, This is somebody beneath my nose. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘which comics do you write?’ and I told him this and that, and then I said, ‘I also do this thing called Sandman, and he went, ‘Wait, hang on, you're Neil Gaiman!’ He said, ‘My God, man, you don't write comics, you write graphic novels.’ And I suddenly felt like someone who had been informed that she wasn't a hooker, that in fact she was a lady of the evening.

“I loved comics when I was growing up,” Gaiman says, “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.” At the age of 9 he read his way through the entire children's section of the Sussex library where his mother, a pharmacist, and his father, the owner of a vitamin company, would drop him off on their way to work. “When I finished the children's library,” he remembers, “I moved on to the adult's library. I started at A.” Some of his favorite authors were C. S. Lewis, Michael Moorcock and a Virginia writer named James Branch Cabell, whose strange oeuvre presently occupies three shelves in Gaiman's office. “Ghosts, space,” Gaiman sums up his childhood interests, “anything indicating the imagination,” and when his teen years coincided with a new wave of science-fiction writers as incorrigible as they were literary, Gaiman's own sensibilities crystallized. His heroes included Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny, all of whom went on to become Neil Gaiman fans, sometimes littering the covers of Sandman books with blurbs or composing those effusive introductions.

The first stories Gaiman wrote, around the same time he was at the local library lost between A and Z, were about a day in the life of a penny; a professor, his young assistant and their pet white mountain lion; and an alien Gaiman distinctly remembers looking like a frog, with a spaceship he distinctly remembers looking like a football. At the age of 20 he sold his first article to a small newspaper—a review of a 10cc concert—stepping in for a rock-journalist friend who couldn't make the gig. Over the following years he wrote features about science-fiction for Time Out,Punch and Penthouse, while submitting short stories to anyone and everyone. Waiting for success, it crossed his mind that perhaps he had no talent, “a conclusion which,” he says, “for reasons of arrogance I declined to believe though, looking back, it now occurs to me there may have been more to it than I thought.”

He really didn't have so long to wait: Within a few years he was writing comics on both sides of the Atlantic. If part of success' secret is timing, Gaiman's was about to prove perfect. He came along just as American popular culture was mid-whiplash on the subject of comics. While in Europe and Japan comics have long been read by everyone from proles riding the Metro to intellectuals in cafes, in the United States the form had been mired for 50 years in the adolescence of its audience, and the not-entirely unfounded biases of grown-ups who think nothing of watching one inane TV sitcom after another but assume that comics are beneath them. Then in the early '80s appeared a book called American Flagg! written and drawn by Howard Chaykin. Set in a future bluntly polarized between authoritarianism and anarchy, American Flagg! was comic-strip Godard in its visual density, frantic energy, jagged jump-cuts and subliminal story logic. For the next several years there was a renaissance in American comics, led by hip, smart writers and artists usually from England or the more disenfranchised pockets of American society, who had come of age with comics but brought along with them everything else they had come of age with as well—the excitement of movies and the passion of rock ‘n’ roll and the influences of novelists from Dostoyevsky to Orwell to Chandler to Pynchon.

“We were suddenly in a world,” recalls Gaiman, “where comics could be as good as anything. It was simply another medium with its own set of strengths and its own set of weaknesses. You could have words and pictures counterpointing each other, and you could get to a level of complexity that might be difficult in a film, for instance, because in a film you have no control over time, whereas in a comic you can go backwards and forwards” In a blur rushed one landmark after another: Alan Moore's Swamp Thing; Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's Love and Rockets; Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus; Jamie Delano's Hellblazer; Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which resurrected Batman from camp and turned him into a multizillion-dollar phenomenon; and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' epochal Watchmen, with its not-very-pretty conclusions about why we need supermen, and how the childish innocence of that need curdles to something pathetic and fascist.

Then the renaissance ended. Looking back, it's surprising how abruptly it ended. Inspiration gave way to the frustration and fury that the best writers and artists felt from dealing with the creative limitations, commercial demands and corporate bureaucracy of the mainstream—which is to say DC and especially Marvel, the monster of the business. Most notably Miller and Moore veered sharply toward the margins, where they would not have to accommodate a market still driven by 14-year-old boys, and where other gonzo geniuses, led principally by the Hernandez Brothers, were waiting. The work they have done there, like Miller's noir Sin City and Moore's Jack-the-Ripper saga From Hell, has been as exhilarating as it is subversive. But on the margins of the business it remains.

In the late '80s, after other people kicked down the doors, Neil Gaiman happened to wander through. He found he practically had the mainstream to himself, as well as a new market created over the preceding few years that wasn't just 14-year-old boys. The first project that got him attention in America was Black Orchid, a bold if not entirely successful metaphysical title influenced by Swamp Thing. After that he went on to Miracleman and Books of Magic, the graphic novels Violent Cases and Mr. Punch, and the particularly fine Signal to Noise, about a dying filmmaker. As well, he co-authored Good Omens, one of those novels published from time to time with lots of words and no pictures whatsoever. No one, however, including Gaiman, would contest that The Sandman is his masterpiece, and almost immediately he began testing the boundaries of what he could get away with.

“You can sort of see in the earliest stories,” points out artist Dave McKean, who has done the fabulously spooky, id-wracked covers for every issue of Sandman, “that when he first started out there was just this expectation of, Well, I'm doing this thing for this huge company, and this is the sort of thing they usually do, and you can only go so far. And then I think very quickly Neil decided, Well, why? Why shouldn't I just do what I want?”

He did what he wanted. If at first Gaiman didn't know exactly what that was, within a year he knew in meticulous detail. A comic book script is not unlike a movie script, except that the writer is also the director, giving directions to the artist that may be loose or specific, depending on the comic and the writer and the artist. Gaiman's scripts, which often run 40 pages or more for a 24-page, 135-panel story, are precise down to describing not just the action in every panel but often how large and dominant the panels are, what's in the foreground and what's in the back, what the overall visual tone of the page is, what the characters look like, and what the juxtapositions are between image and dialogue.

While he has breezily broken comic book traditions right and left, writing narratives that spiral back into each other from the proximity of years apart (the seed for the upcoming final issue, number 75, was laid back in number 19), it may be that Gaiman's most daring creation has been the main character himself. Dream is a willfully unlikable master of ceremonies. His brooding mystique not withstanding, he is pompous and morose, harsh and utterly self-absorbed, bound to a code of honor (“the rules,” he calls them) as capricious as it is mysterious, and he has all the social tact of the Velvet Underground's “Sister Ray” cranked to maximum volume at a baby shower. His conduct tends toward the extreme. Having banished the love of his life to eternal torment in Hell for nothing worse than simply being wiser than he, he never considered the malice and injustice of his action until thousands of years later, when his sister finally pointed out how rather horrid it all was; at that point he turned the waking and dreaming universe upside down to rectify the matter. Hell, Heaven and everything in between are still sorting out the mess. He has no sense of humor whatsoever; in 69 issues, unless it was with a subtlety that would make Noel Coward look like Sam Kinison, he has never made a joke, let alone a witticism or an aside that might be considered vaguely sardonic.

Of course, he did have a rather lousy stretch there for the first 90 years or so of the 20th Century. An Aleister Crowley sort, trying to conjure and trap Death in his cellar in 1916 England through black magic, got his spells crossed and snared Dream instead. This happened in Sandman No. 1. There in that basement, Dream waited, a prisoner for decade after decade while all over the world people slipped into a dreamless sleep, sometimes for their whole lives; the evidence of the 20th Century, from human lampshades and the Cultural Revolution to Richard Nixon's presidency and Michael Jackson's new CD, is that the collective subconscious has been out of whack ever since. No sooner did Dream escape his predicament than he ran into its intended captive, Death, who happens to be Dream's big sister, the one with all the free advice on how her brother should conduct his affairs. Lively and level-headed, in her tight black leotards with her pixie mouth and wanton hair, Death is as unsettlingly appealing as Dream is a pill, not a god or a ghost or a demon but, like her brother, an Endless, one of seven siblings—along with Destiny and Destruction and Desire and Despair—in eternity's most dysfunctional family.

From her first appearance in Sandman No. 8, Death threatened to run away with the comic. She became so popular that not only did she make frequent return appearances but even had her own graphic novel, The High Cost of Living (with another, The Time of Your Life, to come next year). Gaiman immediately understood that Death was a creation he had to make discriminating use of: “I've always tried to treat most of my characters as though I'm paying them,” he notes. “Death is a superstar. She costs a lot.” Soon enough, however, the spotlight was stolen from both Dream and Death by their littlest sister, Delirium, a cloud-addled punkette with green and pink hair who walks an airborne goldfish on a leash and is accompanied by a yammering dog named Barnabas—“George Burns,” as Gaiman says, “to Delirium's Gracie Allen.” Delirium trills on and on in musical non sequiturs that, in the midst of all their surreal nonsense, contain unexpected bits of poetry and revelation.

Death and Delirium only partly account for the extraordinary appeal of The Sandman to female readers. In a market that is 90٪ male, Martha Thomases, DC's publicity manager, guesses that nearly half of the book's readership is female, something that Golden Apple's manager Tony Edwards confirms. To some extent this is a function of age: 18 years, when kids start to outgrow other comics, is about when Gaiman's readership starts; and the maturity of the comic, as well as the emphasis on fantasy rather than fistfights, particularly appeals to young women on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood. Distinctly adult not so much for its sexuality and violence, though there is some from time to time, but for what it demands of the reader, Sandman portrays adult matters (such as sex and violence) in a fashion as unsensational as it is unsentimental, with sometimes ruthless consequences. All of this speaks to female readers and more mature male readers who are drawn to the moodiness of the stories as well as the insight Gaiman invests in all his characters, so many of whom, along with Death and Delirium, are young women, or girls aging faster than they want to. Among male writers in comics, only the Hernandez brothers write women as well.

Gaiman plainly values and believes in the archetypal myths that Frank Miller and Alan Moore smashed in the late '80s. “That's the reason,” suggests rock ‘n’ roll singer Tori Amos, who wrote the songs “Precious Things” and “Tear in Your Hand” after reading Sandman, “that people are waiting for the next issue. Neil is giving myth back to them. Some of them know it, some of them don't.” Amos discovered Gaiman five years ago when she stumbled on “Calliope,” the story of a Greek muse abducted from Mount Helicon in the 1920s and locked in a room by a desperate, washed-up writer. For years, used and deceived and lonely, Calliope waits heartbroken for the freedom that has been promised to her and which, she finally realizes, will never be delivered. “Writers are liars, my dear,” her captor finally explains. “Surely you have realized that by now?”

“We don't remember our myth anymore,” Amos says. “And what is myth? It's just truth that has happened and that we've forgotten, but that's still happening now.” Gaiman's reconstruction of comic book myths has wound up something very different from Batman or Superman. Dream may be the most morally neutral comic book hero ever, defined not by righteous revenge or nihilistic fury or messianic purpose, creating nightmares as easily as reveries because, in the Dreaming, there has to be both. The Sandman is not about heroism or justice or redemption; Amos thinks it's about “wholeness,” about fragmented, busted-up people finding their common bond and becoming cohesive. But given the melancholy that pervades the book, it is also about loss. A sense of loss has gripped the comic from the beginning, when Dream lost his freedom within the prison of that English cellar. Ever since, it's been one loss after another: loss of faith, loss of friendship, loss of love, loss of innocence, loss of certainty, loss of identity, loss of the past, loss of the soul, loss of our dreams every time we wake, with Dream the agent of all our life's losses, until Death transacts the last and greatest loss of all.

Almost from the beginning of The Sandman, there were rumors the end was near. By issue 20 Gaiman began suggesting in interviews that he would be finished with the story by issue 40, “and then as I got on I said, ‘Well, it isn't going to be done by 40,’ and then I said, ‘Well, probably 50.’ And then, when we got into the early 50s, I started saying, ‘Well, if we're still going by issue 70, I'll be very surprised.’”

He finally killed Dream in issue 69, with so little theatrics one had to read it twice to realize it happened. “I think I knew all along I was going to kill him off, but I didn't know if I would have the guts when I got there. So I built escape holes and trap doors. All through the structure of Sandman there are dozens of trap doors, to get me out of it if that really wasn't where I wanted to be when I got there.” It was Gaiman's idea that DC Comics simply discontinue The Sandman when he was finished. Gaiman doesn't legally own the character; some version or other of the Sandman dates back to the 1940s, having gone through three or four incarnations before Gaiman created his. At first the company flatly rejected the proposal, before acceding to Gaiman's wishes. No one in the business can recall something like this ever happening: a major company making a purely artistic decision that will lose it money. “When someone has created such an outstanding and phenomenal piece of work as Neil,” says DC executive editor Karen Berger, “it would be counterproductive for us to just say the hell with you and we're going to do whatever we want.”

In other words, it apparently occurred to DC that Gaiman himself is a potentially more valuable commodity than The Sandman will ever be. At the annual Comics Convention in San Diego in July, the line of people who brought their posters and books and comics for him to sign snaked through the cavernous convention hall out into the lobby; scheduled to last an hour, the signing was still going on after two, when Gaiman finally had to tear himself away for another commitment. At an event called “Spotlight on Neil Gaiman,” with the aplomb and command of a brilliant monologuist, he regaled a standing-room-only, turn-away crowd for 90 minutes with Tales of Gaiman. These included the story of his first comics job, offered him by a guy in a bar who claimed to own a company that Gaiman finally discovered months later didn't exist; and his encounter, at the age of 15, with the stunned school career counselor who could only greet the boy's announcement that he wanted to write comics with the reply: “Have you ever considered accountancy?” For his convention performance Gaiman dressed in his customary black, though the leather jacket and the shades came off soon enough, and he laughed as much as everyone else when the first question from the audience was, “When you look in your closet in the morning, how many colors do you see?”

This year's comic convention came in on the heels of the outgoing Harley-Davidson convention, whose attendees hadn't yet all roared out of town. At the hotel next door, comic conventioneers mingled with Harley conventioneers, and you didn't have a lot of trouble telling which were which; the comic people were the geeky teen-age boys in shorts and backpacks. Inside the convention hall, aisles and aisles of booths and booths selling and buying and promoting comics were overrun with costumed superheroes and superheroines, some of them fans and some bountiful models hired to tuck themselves into flimsy red Vampirella outfits and hope that with one wrong move they didn't come spilling out, an epiphany the geeks awaited rapturously. The comic convention also had a startling and inordinate number of people in wheelchairs, for whom flight into a comic book world of the physically superempowered might be more than just a diversionary escape. In contrast to the rest of the convention, Gaiman's fans were older and punkier—painfully shy college girls dressed in Death clothes who silently thrusted their books in front of the author for a signature and perhaps a heart-fluttering word or two. Gaiman's star status as he walked through the hall was obvious even to those few who had no idea who he was. “Are you Tim Burton?” someone wanted to know.

In a medium where the story inside has always been written around the cover that sells the magazine, and where the superstars have always been illustrators (or illustrators who incidentally happen to be writers, too), Gaiman's superstardom is anomalous. The only other name comparable—besides Stan Lee, who revolutionized the business at Marvel around the time Gaiman was born—is that of fellow Brit and mentor Alan Moore. Ten years ago Moore was in a position similar to Gaiman's before the business made him nuts, or at any rate nuttier than he already was, which is reportedly pretty nutty. If Gaiman is in danger of anything, it's a marketplace that's willing to turn his endless creative energy into a brand name; like Stephen King or Clive Barker, he's already plastered across the covers of other companies' comics, such as “Neil Gaiman's Lady Justice,” “Neil Gaiman's Mr. Hero” and “Neil Gaiman's Teknophage,” with the truth of Neil Gaiman's actual involvement to be found in the credit box inside, which reads, “Based on a Concept Created by Neil Gaiman.” Soon it will be, “Based on a Fleeting Notion Neil Had One Day Sitting Around His Gazebo Watching the Squirrels Frolic in the Woods,” or “Based on a Whimsy Neil Himself Didn't Take Particularly Seriously for More Than Two or Three Seconds.”

When someone at the convention asked if he ever finds himself writing “for the wrong reasons,” Gaiman could still truthfully answer, “Not yet.” But he would be the first to admit that none of his upcoming comic projects suggest a passionate purpose on the order of Sandman, and most are, rather conspicuously, Sandman offshoots: the second Death novel, a Delirium miniseries, a series called “The Dreaming” that will be another of those things Gaiman “conceives” without actually writing. Beyond the comics, spoken-word CDs and songs for a local folk group and a TV series for the BBC, which currently absorbs most of his effort and enthusiasm, as well as all the admirable time and money he contributes to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund for fighting censorship. By his own admission, a passionate purpose isn't what he's looking for at the moment: “Something I can finish by tea time” is the way he puts it. Gaiman's future is now as open and invisible as the Midwest night, with its fleeting fireflies providing the only glimmer; and lately, talking on the telephone with his 1-year-old daughter in his arms, he almost sounds weary—a little at loose ends perhaps, and depressed by the recent death of his early science-fiction idol Roger Zelazny. He is intelligent and insightful enough to suspect that, whatever the triumphs of the future, he will probably never have more fun than he's had the last seven years; he will probably never have a better dream.

Counting off the latitudes and longitudes, stranding himself smack in the middle of the New World, Neil Gaiman hides out there. Whether he hides not only from the loopy past and the frenzied present, represented by tremulous teen-age girls dressed in black with Delirious hair, but also from the insomnia of the future, where there is no more dreaming and one writes for the wrong reasons, only he can say. Yearning for England as he does only 90٪ of the time, he misses the Old World's layers of age and meaning, forced on top of one another by the constraints of space. “In America,” he says, “if you want to find something, you get in a car and drive. In England, you go down into the ground, through a thousand years.” His new series for the BBC, Neverwhere, takes place in two Londons: one the London of daylight and wakefulness, the other a shadow London that exists underground, under the feet of all the somnambulists above. So in a sense nothing has changed; going down into the ground, going down into a thousand years of dreams, Gaiman is still exploring the subterranean side of consciousness, and the Sandman isn't dead after all. But now, having finally awakened from your dream, he is left to dream his own.

Frank McConnell (essay date 20 October 1995)

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SOURCE: McConnell, Frank. “Epic Comics: Neil Gaiman's Sandman.Commonweal 122, no. 18 (20 October 1995): 21-2.

[In the following essay, McConnell assesses the Sandman series as a whole and discusses Gaiman's central thematic concern with myth and storytelling.]

A few years ago I wrote a column for Commonweal (February 28, 1992) on comic books and how they had become a refuge for some very fine, and very serious, storytellers. And I signaled that Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman, was not only a wonderful comic but one of the best bits of fiction altogether being produced these days.

Now I have to make a correction. Sandman is not one of the best pieces of fiction being done these days: as it approaches its conclusion, it emerges as the best piece of fiction being done these days. And that, not just because of the brilliance and intricacy of its storytelling—and I know few stories, outside the best of Joyce, Faulkner, and Pynchon, that are more intricate—but also because it tells its wonderful and humanizing tale in a medium, comic books, still largely considered demimonde by the tenured zombies of the academic establishment.

And never mind also that Gaiman has won awards and admiration and, most important for a writer, envy, from the whole civilized world. What he 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.

Not that he doesn't have antecedents, and not that he doesn't acknowledge them. Will Eisner and Jack Kirby in the forties, Wally Wood and Carmine Infantino in the fifties, and lately Frank Miller and the superbly gifted Alan Moore—all of whom have been demonstrating that comics are a legitimate fictive mode—or, in Gaiman's simpler, better phrase, a machine for storytelling, no less rich, and no less exciting, than any other.

There are nods, throughout the issues of Sandman, toward all of those strong precursors: Gaiman is not the sort to forget or pretend to forget his guildmasters.

Nevertheless, with some excitement, I have to announce that Sandman, at issue number 71 as I write this in September, and with maybe three or four more issues to go, is a new thing. With the conclusion of the series, which began on a monthly basis in 1988, Gaiman will have created a single, massive tale—as long as a Henry James novel—which works both as an allegory of the storytelling imagination (a “metafiction,” if we must use the word) and as—a term I do not use frivolously—a tragedy. And when I say “tragedy,” I am thinking of Lord Jim and Lear and Gilgamesh: stories that exist to remind us of the terrible cost of being human.

Here's what happened. In 1987, DC Comics approached Gaiman to revive, with changes, an old DC character from the forties. Gaiman chose a relatively obscure character, the Sandman, who in the forties was a guy who would dress up at night in a gas mask, zap bad guys with his gas gun, and leave them to sleep it off until the cops came to pick them up next morning.

All Gaiman used was the name: “Sandman.” The master of dreams; the master of stories; Morpheus, whose name means both “god of sleep” and “shaper of form” (make no mistake, when it comes to recondite allusions, nobody has a patch upon our scarily well-read lad). So he invented a theogony—a Family of more-than, less-than gods, the Endless as he calls them, anthropomorphic projections of fundamental human perceptions. In order of age, the family includes Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium (who was once Delight).

The point of this psychic genealogy, is that Dream is at its center. We tell stories, create myths, write gospels of every sort, because we cannot tolerate the irrational. Absurdity offends us, as Norman Mailer says in Oswald's Tale, just because it attacks our sense that there is a reason for our pain. Is all this sadness for nothing? we ask. And the human answer comes back, again and again, no: it's for something but it may be for a little bit more than what you were expecting.

Sandman, in other words, is about failure: about the failure of the imagination successfully to encompass the chaos of ordinary human life, about the failure of all our stories to explain to us why we are such an unhappy people. Some critics—those at least smart enough to recognize the fineness of Gaiman's work—have described him as a “postmodern” writer, and that phrase, stupid as it innately is, may begin to catch the special quality of his work; but only glancingly.

I won't detail for you the plots, subplots, and skerries-within-subplots that are the tapestry of the work: like the best of Dickens, this is serial storytelling, and part of the fun of the thing is seeing how many more balls the author tosses into the air each month, and whether he can keep them all aloft. He (Charles and Neil) does.

But I will—and now, with the series approaching its end, I can—give you a sense of its grand design.

Dream of the Endless, the Lord of Stories, is imprisoned in 1916, by a necromancer in England. He frees himself in 1988 (coincidentally the year of the series' beginning) and regains his kingdom, only to find that he has become somehow tainted—spoiled—altered—by his captivity. Humanized, in fact. From that beginning, the rest of this great and discursive series of tales is all about Dream—Story—discovering that he is intimately involved with the fate of human beings, and can in fact not exist without them.

I don't want to belabor this but in fact Sandman fascinates us so just because it is a parable of the epochal transformation of the human imagination that began right around the time of the Renaissance. In that age, our myths began to be humanized: beginning, say, with Shakespeare, we began to realize that the gods had not invented us, but that we were in the process of inventing our gods. By now in the series Dream of the Endless has died—or committed suicide—but since stories cannot cease, anymore than the mind can stop thinking, Dream of the Endless has also been reborn—but this time as the exaltation of a human child, rather than as an anthropomorphic configuration. Gaiman is too subtle to say it, but I'm not: as the series ends, the Word is made Flesh, and from now on our stories will be the stories of the gods among us, rather than the gods whose chief characteristic is their apartness.

It is the history of Western storytelling altogether, and especially of the stories we like to call “modern.” It is profoundly incarnational but also—Gaiman is very learnedly Jewish—wisely melancholy about the giant cost of moving from the transcendent to the immanent. If you can really read, it is simply magnificent metafiction, a story about story.

I hope DC will have the good sense to publish the entire run, but they probably won't. I know of nothing quite like it, and I don't expect there will be anything quite like it for some time. How often is a new, and deeply human, art form born? (How often do we invent a new—a really new—sin?)

If Sandman is a “comic,” then The Magic Flute is a “musical” and A Midsummer Night's Dream is a skit. Read the damn thing: it's important.

Sybil S. Steinberg (review date 22 July 1996)

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SOURCE: Steinberg, Sybil S. Review of Sandman: Book of Dreams, edited by Neil Gaiman and Edward E. Kramer. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 30 (22 July 1996): 231-32.

[In the following review of Sandman: Book of Dreams, a collection of short stories by various authors inspired by the Sandman series, edited by Gaiman and Edward E. Kramer, Steinberg asserts that the book includes some powerful writing about the realm of dreams, but that the quality of the collection as a whole is uneven.]

Though he won the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction in 1991, Gaiman is best known as the writer who transformed the WWII-era DC Comics character the Sandman from a Batman-style detective/vigilante into the much darker Morpheus, aka Dream, the being who presides over the realm of Dreaming. One of seven siblings who represent various states of consciousness—Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Despair, Dream and Delirium—Morpheus is head of the allegorical family called the Endless. Here [in Sandman: Book of Dreams], popular fantasy writers expand upon Gaiman's original concepts, with mixed results. Colin Greenland's bittersweet “Masquerade and High Water” and Barbara Hambly's “Each Damp Thing” provide insights into the backstage workings of the Endless. Tad Williams's “The Writer's Child” is a finely crafted story about loyalty and the value of innocence. Weak spots include George Alec Effinger's resurrection of a saccharine Little Nemo for “Seven Nights in Slumberland,” Lisa Goldstein's bland “Stronger Than Desire” and B. W. Clough's vignette “The Birth Day.” Susanna Clarke's “Stopp't-Clock Yard” and a lyrical meditation on Death by songwriter Tori Amos close the anthology on a strong note; a b&w drawing by Clive Barker opens it on a garish one. Though perhaps most interesting as an example of media-crossover, this collection presents some powerful writing about, and memorable images of, the other reality wherein we while away a third of our lives.

Charles De Lint (review date April 2000)

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SOURCE: De Lint, Charles. Review of Sandman: The Dream Hunters, by Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano. Fantasy & Science Fiction 98, no. 4 (April 2000): 32-3.

[In the following review, De Lint asserts that the graphic novel Sandman: The Dream Hunters is an exquisite and evocative story by Gaiman which meshes perfectly with the illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano.]

It strikes me that writing an illustrated book presents a real risk for the author, something that requires a certain measure of bravery to undertake. The reason for that is simple.

The illustrations have the potential to undo the compact between author and reader inherent in a book, intruding into that no man's land between the page and the eye where the imaginations of the participants meet to create a greater whole. As readers we make movies in our heads from the raw data of the words on the page, and there's really nothing that can compare to that magic. It's why the movies based on our favorite books often fall flat: they simply don't—can't—match the pictures we call up in our own heads as we're reading.

Now, sometimes the illustrations and text are so entwined in our consideration of the experience that we can't imagine the one without the other. Ernest Shepherd's drawings for The Wind in the Willows and the Pooh books are like that for me. But mostly illustrations tread that same uneasy path as do film adaptations.

When they work, they enhance the experience. When they don't, nothing can bring the words to life. And the sad truth is—readers on a whole being so subjective in their likes and dislikes—what works and doesn't work is different for each one of us. So I'd think a writer would be cautious entering into such a project.

Neil Gaiman doesn't seem to worry overmuch about it. I suppose his bravery comes from his long association with the comics field. Having written scripts for so many years, the combination of pictures and words must seem completely natural to him. And even in regular books, his collaborators have certainly been high-end: British artist Dave McKean on any number of projects, World Fantasy Award-winning artist Charles Vess on Stardust, and now the evocative work of Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano for the book in hand [The Dream Hunters].

The Dream Hunters is Gaiman's first visit back to the Sandman mythos in many years and doesn't require any familiarity with that long-running comic book series to work. The story is based on the Japanese folktale “The Fox, the Monk, and the Mikado of All Night's Dreaming”—something Gaiman discovered while researching Japanese history and mythology in preparation for the work he did on the English dialogue for the film Princess Mononoke. In his afterword to The Dream Hunters, Gaiman remarks on the similarity between the folktale and the Sandman series, and it really is eerie how well the folktale fits in.

It begins with a wager between a badger and a fox, the prize being the monk's temple that the winner will use as a den. But the fox falls in love with the monk and later, when she discovers that a lord of a nearby estate means him ill, she goes into the land of dreams and strikes a bargain with the Japanese counterpart of Morpheus to save the monk's life. How it all works out is for you to discover, but I will say that this is one of Gaiman's most exquisite and evocative stories to date.

Equal praise must go to Yoshitaka Amano's artwork. Profusely and gorgeously illustrated throughout—in many styles, but always with a stunning sense of design and rendering—this slender volume is as much of a delight for its art as for its words. The two mesh as perfectly with each other as did Gaiman's prose with Vess's art on Stardust. But that reminds me of something else. We can only hope that, down the road, Gaiman won't market a prose-only version of The Dream Hunters the way he did with Stardust. In a case such as this, it's just not necessary.

Kurt Lancaster (essay date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Lancaster, Kurt. “Neil Gaiman's ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’: Shakespeare Integrated into Popular Culture.” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures 23, no. 3 (fall 2000): 69-77.

[In the following essay, Lancaster discusses Gaiman's award-winning story “A Midsummer's Night Dream,” based on the play by William Shakespeare, in terms of cultural divisions between “high” and “low” art. Lancaster asserts that Gaiman's story successfully integrates the mythic qualities of Shakespeare into a popular modern medium.]

How this particular man produced the works that dominate the cultures of much of the world almost four hundred years after his death is one of life's mysteries—and one that will continue to tease our imaginations as we continue to delight in his plays and poems.

(Mowat and Werstine 1993: xxxv)

[BILL Moyers:]
But, Shakespeare has no audience, today, to speak of. He really doesn't.
[PETER Sellars:]
Well, our audience has been taught that Shakespeare is not theirs. Our audience has been taught that Shakespeare belongs to the British and to the Royal Shakespeare Company […]. What is maddening in America is most people have been separated from their culture. They've been told there's a special privileged class of artists—they have a special insight. A normal person doesn't have this insight and is not on the inside track of this work. That is a monstrous lie and it is hideous, because it is taught to us early on as we grow up in this system.

(Moyers 1990)

The twentieth century saw about three hundred and eighty-five film and television adaptations of Shakespeare's plays—two hundred and thirty-four for film and one hundred and fifty-one for television (IMDB). Thirty-six of these films were made in the 1990s, the largest amount in any decade, except for the 1910s, when fifty-two of Shakespeare's plays were adapted to film. The most popular Shakespearean films of the 1990s in America most notably correspond with Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989), which led a Branagh-Shakespearian renaissance through such films as Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Othello (1995), and Hamlet (1996), all of which (except Othello) he directed. This popular British resurgence of Shakespeare on film also included Ian McKellen's adaptation and lead role in Richard III (1995) and Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night (1996). Also, other popularizations of Shakespeare's plays adapted to film in the 1990s revolved around the popularity of movie stars, beginning most strikingly with action movie star Mel Gibson's appearance in the title role of Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet (1990), as well as Leonardo DiCaprio and Clair Danes in Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1996), Al Pacino's documentary-postmodern rendition of Richard III in Looking for Richard (1996), and Calista Flockhart's, Kevin Kline's, and Michelle Pfeiffer's appearances in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999). The 1990s Shakespearean film renaissance seemed to peak with Shakespeare in Love (1998), which earned an Academy Award for best picture in 1999, indicating not only the “high brow” sensibility of the Academy, but also the film's popularity in the larger public, a popularity not seen in America since the first half of the nineteenth century.

Interviewer Bill Moyers, talking to theater director Peter Sellars, mused about how he was fascinated to learn that “in the nineteenth century, great American actors would roam the countryside in the small towns. In Marshall, Texas, they would get off the railroad and they would perform Shakespeare for mill workers, for saloons, in mining camps, and they were speaking to an untutored, but appreciative audience” (1990). In fact, researching popular novels, playbills, and newspapers of the nineteenth century, historian Lawrence Levine discovered that Shakespeare's works were so integrated into American culture during the time period Moyers speaks of that he drew the following conclusion: “Shakespeare was popular entertainment in nineteenth century America” (Levine 21)—a view lost to most of the twentieth century, as Sellars bemoaned in the interview opening this essay.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the plays of Shakespeare, Levine observes, were “presented as part of the same milieu inhabited by magicians, dancers, singers, acrobats, minstrels, and comics. [His works] appeared on the same playbills and was advertised in the same spirit” (23). Spectators didn't see Shakespeare as someone to revere, but as “part of the culture they enjoyed, a Shakespeare rendered familiar and intimate by virtue of his context” (23). Indeed, Richard Penn Smith even wrote a play, which, like the recent film, was also called Shakespeare in Love—about a “poor, worried, stumbling young man in love with a woman of whose feelings he is not yet certain” (23). A vaguely similar plot occurred in the 1998 film, in which we see Shakespeare getting the inspiration for his stories from the life he lives as he falls in love with a royal woman who wants to be an actor, which, at the same time, allows for the development of a parallel plot line with Romeo and Juliet, and, to some extent, Twelfth Night. The fact that both of these stories, focusing on the historical figure of Shakespeare, occurred during the height of Shakespearean popularity in their respective time periods cannot be understated.

If the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are on the tip of a new Shakespearean popularity wave—which the evidence of these Shakespeare films seem to suggest—then it is important to note how Shakespeare lost his popularity during the second half of the nineteenth century. During this period, Levine observes, Shakespeare evolved into a figure of “high brow” culture, and because of this cultural invention that the twentieth century inherited, Shakespeare lost his status as a figure of popular culture—the consequences of which I will state in the conclusion. However, suffice to say, as Levine contends, when Shakespeare remained a part of “free exchange” and was assimilated in popular culture, this process reflected the values and tastes of a “heterogeneous audience,” but when cultural elitism removed Shakespeare from an atmosphere of “shared culture”—from a “mixed audience and from the presence of other cultural genres” (popular culture)—and as Shakespeare and his works were “removed from the pressures of everyday economic and social life” and placed within elite “cultural institutions,” then that was when Americans were “taught to observe” Shakespeare “with reverent, informed, disciplined seriousness” (229-30), a view that most Americans, today, still share. Shakespeare and his works, according to the cultural elite, are essentially meant to be worshiped in a special place, cut off from the practice of everyday life that other works of popular culture seem to enjoy.

Such directors as Sellars, as well as the filmmakers mentioned above, have tried to make Shakespeare popular again at the end of the twentieth century. And that is why Sellars, in a 1990 interview with Bill Moyers, called Shakespeare the “great American playwright.”1 Even more telling was Moyers's response, who, usually cool, could not help being taken aback by Sellars's arresting statement, and blurted out, “The great what?—wait a minute” (Moyers). And this reaction reveals the bifurcation of Shakespeare in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century: one that places him on a pedestal, as a man of genius whose works must be revered with awe; and another that integrates Shakespeare into American popular culture. However, in the nineteenth century, a person making such a statement would not have received the same kind of reaction, as noted in James Fenimore Cooper's declaration—more than one hundred and sixty years before Sellars's claim—that Shakespeare was “‘the great author of America’ and insisted that Americans had ‘just a good a right’ as Englishmen to claim Shakespeare as their countryman,” because there was not the same level of cultural bifurcation (Levine 20). Although the late twentieth century is nothing like the first half of the nineteenth century—especially in regards as to how we view and consume Shakespeare in our culture and society—we do find a similar parallel, one that marks a small resurgence of Shakespeare being re-integrated into 1990s popular culture. We see evidence for this not just in the medium of film, the desire to see the historical figure of Shakespeare performed, and artists declaring Shakespeare as an American playwright, but we also see an integration of Shakespeare in the popular culture form of the comic book.

Neil Gaiman's graphic novel series The Sandman is one of the most important works of fiction written in that medium. Born in England and now living in Minnesota, Gaiman's seventy-five monthly graphic-novel stories were published between 1988 and 1996, selling over a million copies per year (Heidel 1).2 However, as Shakespeare is looked up to by the cultural elite as a genius and high brow author, many look down on the comic book form as “low art” popular culture. But, by doing so, we are giving in to the logo-centric belief that the written word and only the written word is the best way to convey ideals of humanity through art. There are many different ways to enter an author's imaginary environment: through text, image, aurally, moving pictures, and a combination of these. Each one takes the participant into that imaginary universe in a different way, from a different perspective. And by privileging one form (text) over another betrays a gross ignorance about the nature of art and culture itself. Is the written word more “artistic,” more superior than image art or a combination of image and text, as we find in the medium of comic books? The following event is revealing: In 1991, Gaiman's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” earned the World Fantasy Award for best short story, making it the first (and only) comic book ever to be awarded a literary award (Heidel 1). However, the following year members of the rules committee responsible for establishing the procedures on voting—apparently shocked that a “comic book” could win a literary award—changed the rules so only “literature” (text-only short stories) could be nominated. This kind of reaction reflects similar attitudes towards Shakespeare found at the end of the nineteenth century, but it certainly doesn't reflect the quality of alternative cultural creations found in diverse forms usually beyond the cultural elite's attention or understanding.

Because of this, as Shakespeare became relegated to “High Art” status and therefore “less accessible to large segments of the American people” by the end of the nineteenth century, most people had to satisfy “their aesthetic cravings through a number of new forms of expressive culture that were barred from high culture,” Levine contends, which included such accessible forms as “the blues, jazz or jazz-derived music, musical comedy, photography, comic strips, movies, radio, popular comedians”—and it was these forms which “contained much that was fresh, exciting, innovative, intellectually challenging, and highly imaginative” (232). All of these qualities are reflected in Gaiman's work, despite the gatekeepers of literary awards and other elitists who would never examine works of art outside conventional literary forms.

Within his overall opus, Gaiman created a mythology that includes the seven sibling Ds: Death, Dream, Desire, Delirium, Despair, Destruction, and Destiny, who evoke in a palpable way the eternal nature of what it means to be human. Gaiman physicalizes these eternal forces of humanity and gives them personified weight, embodying in the character of the Dream Lord, for example, humanity's desire for dreams and the cost of attaining that desire. This is seen clearly in Gaiman's “Men of Good Fortune,” issue twelve of the series. Here, we see Shakespeare at the start of his playwriting career talking to Christopher Marlowe: “I would give anything to have your gifts. Or more than anything to give men dreams, that would live on long after I am dead. I'd bargain like your Faustus for that boon” (12). The character of the Dream Lord, overhearing Shakespeare's conversation with Marlowe, comes up to him: “I heard your talk, Will. Would you write great plays? Create new dreams to spur the minds of men?” and Shakespeare replies, “It is.” “Then let us talk,” is the reply of Morpheus, the Dream Lord (13). We would not see the use of Shakespeare in Gaiman's stories again until “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” issue number nineteen, which takes place four years after the “bargain” insinuated in “Men of Good Fortune.”

In Gaiman's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” he not only weaves his mythology through the historical figure of Shakespeare, but also through his play, A Midsummer Night's Dream (c.1590s). In brief, Shakespeare's story is set in the world of Athens, containing English tropes, including European fairy myth, and contains four plots: the Athenian Lord Theseus's marriage to the Amazon, Hippolyta; the love triangle among the lovers Lysander-Hermia and Demetrius-Helena; the argument between the Fairy King and Queen, Oberon and Titania (who wants to keep an Indian boy that Oberon desires); and the Athenian workers who practice and put on a poorly performed play for Theseus's upcoming wedding.

In Gaiman's story—a work richly layered with a plethora of meaning on art, beauty, family, and otherworldliness—he provides a parallel meta-commentary on the action and plot of Shakespeare's play and his personal life. It opens with a troupe of actors, including Shakespeare and his eight-year-old son, Hamnet, traveling along the rolling countryside of England on June 23, 1593. We see an energetic and curious Hamnet asking his father where they will be performing “the new play tonight,” “if not at an inn?” His father annoyingly replies that he has “no idea” and tells his son to “keep your eyes on the road ahead” (“Midsummer” 1).

As his son is about to ask him another question, one of his actors, Will Kemp, requests that Shakespeare consider allowing him to put in a new bit of stage business in the play. As Shakespeare refuses this request, Hamnet notices a figure standing on a hill: “Look. Will he be our audience?” Shakespeare asks Hamnet to “go and wait with Condell and the other boys” as he goes alone and speaks with this mysterious figure. In the second panel on page two, we see a close-up of a sad and dejected Hamnet in the foreground as his father, in the background, walks away, his back to Hamnet—a telling image that connects the reader to Hamnet's plight, and concretely conveys the theme of Gaiman's story.

As Shakespeare talks to the Dream Lord, the players and Hamnet get ready to put on their play, which will be performed “on the downs of Sussex” (Gaiman 3). For the audience, Morpheus has invited the real fairies depicted in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to watch the first performance of that play. Gaiman intercuts between the fairies watching and commenting on the performance, the performance itself (which draws on text from Shakespeare's play), and the actors backstage. For example, one of the fey spectators, comments: “What's this? What means this prancing, chattering mortal flesh? Methinks perhaps the Dream-Lord brought us here to feed?” Another larger fairy, looking like a blue potato-head figure, humorously replies: “Nar. Issa Wossname. You know. Thingie. A play. They're pretending things. … Issa love story. Not dinner” (8).

One of the backstage scenes reveal a quaking actor (playing Hermia), talking to Shakespeare (who plays Theseus): “But Master Will, they are not human! I saw boggarts, and trolls, and, and nixies, and things of every manner and kind”—to which Shakespeare replies: “Aye, and they are also our audience, Tommy. Calm yourself” (9). Gaiman's tale focuses on several characters, such as the comic-relief faeries, the Dream Lord's conversation with the “real” Queen Titania and King Auberon (as Gaiman spells the name of this character), as well as Auberon's interactions with the “real” Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck: “Ohh. … How I do ache to make sport of them” (9).

In a telling moment, we see a conversation between Titania and the Dream Lord. As she watches the play, she notices Hamnet, who happens to be playing the orphaned Indian boy. This is the character that Oberon wants from Titania: “I do beg a little changeling boy / To be my henchman” (2.1.123-24). To which Titania replies: “[The mother], being mortal, of that boy did die, / And for her sake I rear up her boy / And for her sake I will not part with him” (140-42). In Shakespeare's text, the Indian boy never appears as a part in the play. However, Gaiman weaves the character in as a device to parallel the desire between the “fictional” Titania of the play and the “real” one watching the performance: “That child—the one playing the Indian boy. Who is he?” The Dream Lord replies, “He is the son of Will Shekespear,3 the author of this play.” Titania: “A beautiful child. Most pleasant. Will I meet him?” (Gaiman, “Midsummer” 11). And in these lines, we see the regard the Fairy Queen gives the boy, which contrasts with Shakespeare's unwillingness to give any attention to Hamnet.

Just before Titania meets Hamnet, we see a backstage conversation between Hamnet and Tommy (the actor afraid of the fairies). In this conversation, we see the history of the strained relationship between a father and his son, through Hamnet's eyes. In fact, we learn that “Mother ordered him to have me for this summer. It's the first time I've seen him for more than a week at a time” (Gaiman 13). The scene opens with Tommy stating, “You must be very proud of your father, Hamnet” (13). But Hamnet complains that his father is “very distant, Tommy. He doesn't seem like he's really there any more. … I'm less real to him than any of the characters in his plays. Mother says he's changed in the last five years. … All that matters is the stories” (13). And here we see how Gaiman wields dialogue with a brevity that yields deep characterizations. According to writer Joe Straczynski (the creator of the television series, Babylon 5), Gaiman, who wrote an episode of the series, “does things with words, simple yet elegant tricks that can explain an entire character in a few carefully selected words” (Straczynski, “Introduction” v). With these lines from Hamnet, “All that matters is the stories,” we begin to see the Faustian cost Shakespeare has paid in attaining his dream.

In history, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was eighteen, after she became pregnant, and, according to biographer Park Honan, Shakespeare's “mother, no doubt, wished him to acquit himself well,” and Shakespeare “had no choice but to take on abrupt responsibility—to be a husband, a father” (Honan 82). Gaiman seems to tease out the fact that Shakespeare sacrificed his entire family for the dream of attaining immortality through his plays: “I'd bargain like your Faustus for that boon,” is the desire Shakespeare expresses to Marlowe in Gaiman's “Men of Good Fortune” (12). By having Titania speak to the Dream Lord about the “beautiful child,” Gaiman sets up a two-edged tension of subtle horror in the reader: the cost accrued to Shakespeare in attaining “a wonderful play, … Most enchanting and fine,” as Titania exclaims to the Dream Lord (“Midsummer” 19); and the consequences of letting this happen. We know that Hamnet dies when he is eleven, and, within the fictional setting of Gaiman's story, we see the Fairy Queen—who in Shakespeare's tale takes an orphaned Indian boy—play out the desire to take Hamnet for herself, giving him the attention that Shakespeare neglects, who, in a sense, orphaned4 his son to her charms.

So, when the “real” Titania speaks to Hamnet during the intermission, it is through the wonder of a surrogate father's full attention—an attention Shakespeare sacrifices in order to create plays “that would live on long after I am dead” (Gaiman, “Men” 12). For Hamnet desires only the attention of his father, and the Fairy Queen, Titania, supplies this hope through a surrogate promise, holding out a fairy wish through a seduction of the young Hamnet: “and bonny dragons that will come when you do call them and fly you through the honeyed amber skies. There is no night in my land, pretty boy, and it is forever summer's twilight” (16). What eight year-old boy would not want to attain such a dream,5 where he can become a dragon-rider (all dragon-like fears tamed and attaining more wonders than his father could ever give him) in a land without darkness, death, or night—just the warm evening air of “summer's twilight,” a forever Bradburian Dandelion Wine, a summer of “June dawns, July noons. August evenings” (Bradbury 239)?

The childhood desire for summer's twilight is also seen in Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924). Here, the fairy twilight represents the past, the wonders and magic of lost childhood memories. The mortal Alveric wins the hand of the Elf King's daughter, Lirazel. However, after giving birth to their child, Orion, she misses her immortal home, and returns to her father. When that occurs, the Elf king, not wanting Alveric to pursue Lirazel, pulls the borders of Elfland away from Earth, leaving behind a desolate rocky plain in places where the two borders previously met. Alveric, on his quest to find his wife, comes across these abandoned fields that once caressed Elfland. While there, he finds an old toy of his, cast aside when he grew up. He “saw again and again those little forsaken things that had been lost from his childhood. … Old tunes, old songs, old voices, hummed there too, growing fainter and fainter” (68). Unlike Alveric, Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, in Gaiman's story, has yet to create any significant memories with his father, other than observing him work: “I'm less real to him than any of the characters in his plays. … I don't remember him any other way” (Gaiman, “Midsummer” 13). And thus it is Titania's promise of the creation of such memories that enamors Hamnet so. By making that seduction occur through a fairy-tale type setting, Gaiman ironically and metatextually juxtaposes Hamnet's desire against Shakespeare's concerns for his own stories.

For example, during the intermission, the “real” Puck has caused Dick Cowley, the actor portraying Puck, to fall asleep. He steals the actor's mask and Puck portrays Puck onstage. Shakespeare watching who he thinks is the actor in a scene between Puck and Oberon, comments almost to himself: “Dick Cowley acts well tonight. I have never seen him feign a finer Puck. He seems almost two-thirds hobgoblin” (Gaiman, “Midsummer” 17). As he muses in wonder, Hamnet approaches: “Father?” Shakespeare replies: “Not now, child. I must see this.” Shakespeare's character, Puck, amazes him more than his son—which is the danger of the fey—luring mortals to pursue desires that they would normally fear. And as Shakespeare looks at the events unfolding on stage, we see Hamnet, sad of face, talk quietly to his father, who ignores him: “She was such a pretty lady, father, and she said such things to me” (17). Shakespeare doesn't realize the danger, and his ignorance furthers the subtle horror, when we discover Hamnet's early death linked with Titania's seductive promise.

The panel following immediately this image of Shakespeare ignoring his son once again reveals Puck playing Puck, stating Shakespeare's lines from the play: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (Gaiman, “Midsummer” 17). Through montage, Gaiman's scene juxtaposes with Shakespeare's, and a new meaning arises. Puck's lines now represent a comment on the foolishness of Shakespeare for failing to give attention to his son who needs the dreams of a father before the dreams of the fey. So, Hamnet's dreams—as portrayed through the regard Titania pays to Hamnet, parallels the Titania of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which we hear about her “rescue” of a motherless child from mortality. Because of this, the question naturally arises: Will Gaiman's Titania take Hamnet away from Shakespeare?

Gaiman seems to carry this concern a step further when he depicts the Dream Lord wondering if he had done the right thing in allowing Shakespeare to make this kind of sacrifice: “his words will echo down through time. It is what he wanted. But he did not understand the price. Mortals never do. They only see the prize, their heart's desire, their dream. … But the price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted” (Gaiman, “Midsummer” 19). In this instance, the Dream Lord—as an anthropomorphic representation of the dreams of humanity, becomes Shakespeare's conscience. The desire of the poet's dream, however, wins out over familial responsibility. For Shakespeare's words live on, and Hamnet's memory of his relationship to his father is forever lost,6 only to be depicted through a historical mythology within Gaiman's story—a far more powerful tale than the Academy Award winning film, Shakespeare in Love. We see this crisis represented when Hamnet watches his father perform Theseus in the famous monologue about the similarity between lovers, madmen, and poets—“and, as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown the poet's pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” In an image drawn by artist Charles Vess and colored by Steve Oliff, we see young Hamnet looking on with adoration, a heart-rending image more powerful than text only could convey (20).

The actors finish their play and the fairies return to their world and the Dream Lord exits, with a promise from Shakespeare that he will give him one more tale “celebrating dreams” at the end of his career (which becomes “The Tempest” in Gaiman's final work of his opus fifty-six issues later in issue number seventy-five). Only Robin Goodfellow, Puck, has stayed behind to “confusticate and vex” mortals (Gaiman, “Midsummer” 22). The day dawns and the troupe wakes up from a disturbed slumber. Hamnet entreats his father: “I had such a strange dream. There was a great lady, who wanted me to go with her to a distant land.” Shakespeare, still not appreciating the dream-memories of his son, behaves as a typical father not wanting to be disturbed and rebukes him: “Foolish fancies, boy. On the cart today, you must practice your handwriting. Perhaps you could write a letter to your mother, or to Judith” (24). Shakespeare is too busy to give his son the attention he needs, and the words of actor Richard Burbage stirs on the work ethic of the creative Shakespeare: “Come on, you vagabonds! Stir yourselves! We can be in Lewes by late afternoon, and there's an inn I know will be glad of a troupe of actors with a new comedy to show” (24). The final panel, colored in the honeyed amber color of fairy twilight contains the following words: “Hamnet Shakespeare died in 1596, aged eleven. Robin Goodfellow's present whereabouts are unknown.” Here, through a semiotic code of color, fairy-dreams and death intermix, capping the story with gaunt sorrow and the realization that dreams—the magic of the fey—has a price beyond mortal understanding.

As a side note, Gaiman thematically ties this story with his work, “The Tempest,” in which he tells the story of Shakespeare writing his final play (solo) in 1610, while his twenty-five year old daughter, Judith—Hamnet's twin sister—looks on. Shakespeare pays attention to her, perhaps repentant for not giving Hamnet similar affections: “And will you read it to me, father, when it is done? And make the voices also?” Her father replies, “Aye. When 'tis done” (Gaiman, “Tempest” 2-3). Later in the story, Judith tells her father how envious she was when Hamnet “went with you that summer. He wrote letters home, and mother, or Susanne, would read to me what he said, and I would weep, for I could not be there with you. And mother also would weep. Mother wept most of all. Did you not think? Did you not care?” Her father replies: “I … followed a dream. I did as I saw best, at the time” (18). Although Gaiman's “The Tempest” deserves a fuller analysis, it can be said in this space how Gaiman ties his two stories together, bringing closure to the familial myth of belonging and sharing.

Throughout his tale, Gaiman blends the imaginary universe of his mythology with that of the Shakespearean imaginary universe of A Midsummer Night's Dream and a historical mythology of Shakespeare's life. By means of this, Gaiman is able to posit the same themes as Shakespeare does, who essentially asks, “What desires do we dream?” However, Gaiman carries the question one step further: “What is the cost of attaining that desire?” And Gaiman's answer—presented in the prophecy of the Dream Lord speaking to Titania—contains as sharp a truth as that of any written by Shakespeare: “The price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted” (Gaiman, “Midsummer” 19). In Shakespeare's play, we never discover the consequences of attaining the love that the lovers desire: the creation of children and the responsibilities that go with it.

In this way, Gaiman, through his mythic tale, creates anew what scholar Joseph Campbell says has been lost in the classical myths, which used to be “in the minds of people,”7 allowing them to “see its relevance to something happening in [their] life,” giving them a sense of “perspective” on what is occurring in their lives (Campbell 2). Campbell identifies four functions of myth:

  • • mystical—“realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery”;
  • • cosmological—science “showing you what the shape of the universe is”;
  • • sociological—“supporting and validating a certain social order”; and the
  • • pedagogical—“how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.”
  • (Campbell 38-39)

Gaiman layers this story with these four functions of myth by revolving them around four layers of fiction that continually shift through the work: the mystical is represented as the otherworldliness of European Fairy and Gaiman's own mythology through the character of the Dream Lord; the cosmological is represented through the historical world of Shakespeare, his contemporaries and Hamnet; the sociological is found in the European world-view as projected through the Athenian characters in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream; and the pedagogical weaves itself throughout the themes of love conveyed in both stories.

In fact, Gaiman provides the reader a new kind of myth for the Western European and American contemporary, one that attempts to reveal and, perhaps, challenge how many people today sacrifice their families for work-day life (a system needed to generate money in order for many to survive)—and not, as in Shakespeare's case, for a work of art that will live on for ages of humanity. Gaiman's tale provides—in a popular mode—the artistic depth and mythic function which “high art” cannot instill, for, if Shakespeare, for example, remains ensconced away in “cultural institutions”—cut off from everyday practice—where audiences are, instead, “taught to observe” Shakespeare “with reverent, informed, disciplined seriousness” (Levine 229-30), then such an aesthetic placement of art can never provide for a people what art is supposed to instill: an integration of the visionary ideals of an artist into a person's everyday life.

Scholar Daniel Mackay contends that, like Greek myths, the medieval Christian church provided an integrated social and cultural praxis where a unified belief system structured not only the daily praxis of its followers, but even their art and entertainment were an extension of that unified belief system. Art and culture, he notes, were “wedded” to a “religious/efficacious mythology” (146). But, beginning with the Renaissance, Mackay believes, there was a “divorce of the self-evident presence of a single, collective, cultural imagination from the daily lives, practices, and structures of people” (145). In other words, if art is to be found only within the cultural elite's narrow definition and delineation of where and how to experience art, then people could never experience what both Campbell and Mackay believe has been lost in contemporary society—the mythic function of art, which requires integration into a daily praxis.

Instead, as anthropologist Victor Turner has noted, theater is, today, “set in the liminoid time of leisure between the role-playing times of ‘work.’ It is, in a way, ‘play’ or ‘entertainment,’” (114). However, as Turner correctly ascertains, theater “is one of the abstractions from the original pansocietal ‘ritual’ which was part of the ‘work’ as well as the ‘play’ of the whole society before the division of labor and specialization split that great ensemble or gestalt into special professions and vocations” (114). So, when theater was integrated into the social fabric—and not institutionalized as the cultural elite did to Shakespeare in America by the end of the nineteenth century—it had the power to resolve “crises affecting everyone,” Turner contends, and assigned “meaning” to “events following personal or social conflicts” (114)—a lived practice that many audience members experienced with Shakespeare's works during the first half of the nineteenth century in America.

Shakespeare was not just popular culture for many nineteenth century Americans—he was mythology. His art provided ideals that were socially and culturally integrated into everyday life.8 Today, however, as Levine contends, we can only find the mythic function of art within works of popular culture. And when we see the “high art” of Shakespeare brought down to the level of popular culture, then Shakespeare, once again (as in the nineteenth century), has the potential to be seen and practiced as he was really meant to be—his artistic ideals breathing through the daily praxis of everyday life. For example, in an October 19, 1999, newspaper clipping we find a sports article comparing game five of the 1999 National League baseball play-off series between The New York Mets and Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium to “the soggy battlefield of Agincourt in Shakespeare's Henry V” (Bruinius). During the fifteen-inning game (spanning five hours and forty-six minutes)—aside from the “steady drizzle”—Robin Ventura of the New York Mets hit a grand slam in the fifteenth inning. However, as he neared second base, his fellow players “mobbed” him, so he never reached home plate and his grand slam was “ruled a single” by the technically-minded referees. Bruinius, marking the game “legendary,” closed the newspaper story with an altered line from Henry V (similar to how nineteenth century Americans shaped Shakespeare to fit their own needs), including a “politically correct” re-phrasing of the masculine article: “will gentlemen and women, now a-bed, think themselves accurs'd they were not here, when Ventura's slam became a single?” (Bruinius). The year 1999 also saw the publication of Shakespeare on Management (HarperBusiness) and Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard's Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage (Hyperion), works which are marketed to business managers.

Similarly, in Gaiman's “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” we find Shakespeare palpably integrated into a popular medium for today's fiction, a work that instills Shakespearean themes by evoking wonder not because it is popular—which just means that a work is widely disseminated and appreciated—but because the artist has tapped into contemporary concerns and metaphorically provides answers to deep mythological questions still haunting the lives of humanity: What does it mean to love? How do we attain it? And what are the consequences of attaining it? The search for answers to such questions discloses the mythic function of art that needs to be practiced in everyday life.

As Straczynski wrote in the television series Babylon 5 (1993-1998), truth is a three-edged sword: your side, my side, and the truth. As resolved through the high art and low art debate, we have on one side the elite high art world of Shakespeare; on the other side lies the popular/low art world of Gaiman's comic books; and on the third side is edged the truth an artist creates (as revealed in both Gaiman and Shakespeare), who write from their own perspectives on life in the medium that affords them the best tools to create artistic truth irrespective of what other people may think. For, like Puck, the truth behind the theme of love and how this theme is played out in art and culture continues to confusticate and vex mortals. Thus, in that last panel of Gaiman's story, the dreams of Hamnet get encapsulated in a dry text recording his death set against the promise of a “forever summer's twilight” of a “honeyed amber sky” in the otherworldliness of fey, a mythological promise for the eternal paradise of childhood innocence sacrificed for the eternal words of the mighty Bard.


  1. Shakespeare “wrote all about America,” Sellars contends, because he “wrote about a country that was a world power that was in charge of commerce and that the grip was slipping. … America is the adolescent that Elizabethan England was.” Sellars believes that many of Shakespeare's plays were “addressed to a nation to provoke the question of, How do you want to grow up, now?” (Moyers 1990).

  2. On the bottom page of the last work of this series, “The Tempest,” Gaiman indicates that he wrote The Sandman between October 1987 and January 1996 (38).

  3. Reflecting, perhaps, the historical record of the many versions of how Shakespeare spelled his name, Gaiman uses both Shaxberd in “Men of Good Fortune” (13) and Shekespear, here.

  4. The idea that Shakespeare orphaned his son came from one of my students, Dara Jeffries, in my MIT Shakespeare class on October 27, 1999.

  5. Thanks to my friend, Earl Cookson, for this insight during a conversation on October 27, 1999.

  6. Hamnet mentions how his sister Judith told him, that, if Hamnet died, his father would “just write a play about it. ‘Hamnet'” (Gaiman, “Midsummer” 13), yet Hamlet is not the memory of Hamnet.

  7. For example, in the plays and tales of ancient Greece, the stories of Odysseus, Hercules, and the Greek gods were so integrated into daily life that they became mythologies—ideas structuring, defining, and unifying, within the minds of a people, a cultural and social polis.

  8. This kind of integration into the daily practice of nineteenth century Americans included Jim Bridger, an illiterate Rocky Mountain explorer, “hiring someone to read the plays to him” so he could “recite long passages from Shakespeare.” Further, the teen-ager William Dean Howells “memorized great chunks of Shakespeare while working as an apprentice printer in his father's newspaper office.” And steamboat pilot George Ealer would spend hours reading Shakespeare to his apprentice, Mark Twain, who noted that Ealer “did not use the book, and did not need to.” Further, politicians would quote Shakespeare as a part of “political discourse” (Levine 18, 36, 37).

Works Cited

Bradbury, Ray. Dandelion Wine. New York: Bantam Books, 1976 [1957].

Bruinius, Harry. “Amid the Mist, Mets and Braves Craft a Hardball Legend.” The Christian Science Monitor 19 Oct. 1999.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. With Bill Moyers. Ed. Betty Sue Flowers. NY: Doubleday, 1991 [1988].

Dunsany, Lord. The King of Elfland's Daughter. New York: Ballantine, 1999 [1924].

Gaiman, Neil. “Men of Good Fortune.” The Sandman: The Doll's House. New York: DC Comics, 1990.

———. “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” The Sandman: Dream Country. New York: DC Comics, 1991.

———. “The Tempest.” New York: DC Comics, 1996. Collected in The Sandman: The Wake, 1997.

Heidel, Andy. Press release to Stardust. New York: Avon Books, 1999.

Honan, Park. Shakespeare: A Life. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Internet Movie Data Base ( Accessed under the search heading of “people: Shakespeare,” subheading, “author,” 2 Nov. 1999.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Mackay, Daniel. The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.

Mowat, Barbara A., and Paul Werstine, eds. A Midsummer Night's Dream. NY: Washington Square Press New Folger Edition, 1993.

Moyers, Bill. “Peter Sellars: Exploring the Avant-Garde.” Video. World of Ideas with Bill Moyers. Princeton: Films for the Humanities and the Sciences, 1994 [1990].

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Pocket Books, 1993.

Straczynski, J. Michael. Babylon 5. Television series, 1993-1998. Warner Brothers.

———. “Introduction.” Day of the Dead. Neil Gaiman. Minneapolis: DreamHaven Books, 1998.

Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: PAJ Publications, 1982.

Kera Bolonik (review date 29 July 2001)

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SOURCE: Bolonik, Kera. Review of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. New York Times Book Review (29 July 2001): 16.

[In the following review of American Gods, Bolonik asserts that Gaiman is a masterful storyteller.]

Neil Gaiman's new book is a noirish sci-fi road trip novel in which the melting pot of the United States extends not merely to mortals but to a motley assortment of disgruntled gods and deities. Early in American Gods we are introduced to Shadow, a man who has been released from prison only to learn that his wife has died in a car crash. With nothing to return home to, Shadow accepts a job protecting Mr. Wednesday, an omniscient one-eyed grifter. Then the going really gets strange. Soon the ex-convict finds himself in an alternate universe, where he is haunted by prophetic nightmares and visited by his dead wife. As he cruises the country with Mr. Wednesday, Shadow begins to realize that he is not dealing with ordinary oddballs: Mr. Wednesday reveals himself to be Odin, the chief Scandinavian god, for example, and Mr. Nancy, one of Mr. Wednesday's sidekicks, turns out to be Anansi, the African spider trickster. Americans, it seems, have been trading in these legends for newer deities—“gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone … gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon,” who are “puffed up with their own newness and importance.” Shadow's comrades are terrified that “unless they remade and redrew and rebuilt the world in their image, their time would already be over.” Mr. Wednesday and his legions wage an underworld-wide war against the new regime. This might all sound like a bit much. But Gaiman—who is best known as the creator of the respected DC Comics Sandman series—has a deft hand with the mythologies he tinkers with here; even better, he's a fine, droll storyteller.

Neil Gaiman and Linda Richards (interview date August 2001)

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SOURCE: Gaiman, Neil, and Linda Richards. “January Interview: Neil Gaiman.” January Magazine (online magazine) wysiwyg://119/ (August 2001).

[In the following interview, Gaiman discusses the comic book industry, his development as a writer, and the significance of the Sandman series to his career as a whole.]

There's a boyishness about Neil Gaiman that makes you doubt the 40 years he claims. A bad boyishness, complete with a mop of unruly dark hair and—on the day I met with him—a black leather jacket. He wears sunglasses the whole time we speak: modishly pale ones that only just mask the intense green of his eyes. He is, he tells me at one point, the father of three: an 18-year-old, a 16-year-old and a seven-year-old. And so 40 makes more sense but, even so, you wonder at the magic he's woven to maintain his youthful mien. On the other hand, consider the work: the fantastic worlds he's created that surely require the outlook of someone who sees a universe filled with wonder everywhere he looks.

And there are compensations for 40. For one thing, he is the author of an impressive body of work, the seminal Sandman series of graphic novels chief among them. But there is more: much more. The novel Good Omens, co-written with Terry Pratchett that is now being made into a movie to be written and directed by Terry Gilliam whose screen credits include darkly comic classics like 12 Monkeys and Brazil. There are the novels Neverwhere and Stardust and even children's books. Most recently, however, Gaiman penned the epic novel that will most likely place him even more highly in the ranks of serious novelists. American Gods has been well received by critics. January Magazine reviewer, David Dalgliesh, called the book Gaiman's “best and most ambitious work since The Sandman.

Born in the United Kingdom, Gaiman has made his home in the United States for the last nine years. In Minneapolis, the Midwest he draws so skillfully in American Gods, near his wife's family, where the couple's children could be near their grandparents and where Gaiman could satisfy one of his American dreams: “I thought,” says Gaiman, “you know, if I'm going to leave England and go to America, I want one of those things that only America can provide and one of those things is Addams Family houses.”

At present, Gaiman is looking forward to the publication of Coraline, a children's book expected in mid-2002 and the film version of Good Omens.

[Richards]: There's been a lot of muttering in the UK press about J. K. Rowling “borrowing” ideas for her Harry Potter books from you. Would you care to comment on that?

[Gaiman]: Last year, initially The Scotsman newspaper—being Scottish and J. K. Rowling being Scottish—and because of the English tendency to try and tear down their idols, they kept trying to build stories which said J. K. Rowling ripped off Neil Gaiman. They kept getting in touch with me and I kept declining to play because I thought it was silly. And then The Daily Mirror in England ran an article about that mad woman who was trying to sue J. K. Rowling over having stolen muggles from her. And they finished off with a line saying [something like]: And Neil Gaiman has accused her of stealing.

Luckily I found this online and I found it the night it came out by pure coincidence and the reporter's e-mail address was at the bottom of the thing so I fired off an e-mail saying: This is not true, I never said this. You are making this up. I got an apologetic e-mail back, but by the time I'd gotten the apologetic e-mail back it was already in The Daily Mail the following morning and it was very obvious that The Daily Mail's research [had] consisted of reading The Daily Mirror. And you're going: journalists are so lazy.

What was it of yours they were accusing her of stealing from you?

My character Tim Hunter from Books of Magic who came out in 1990 was a small dark-haired boy with big round spectacles—a 12-year-old English boy—who has the potential to be the most powerful wizard in the world and has a little barn owl.

So there were commonalties, for sure.

Well, yes and as I finally, pissed off, pointed out to an English reviewer who tried to start this again, I said: Look, all of the things that they actually have in common are such incredibly obvious, surface things that, had she actually been stealing, they were the things that would be first to be changed. Change hair color from brown to fair, you lose the glasses, you know: that kind of thing.

Change the owl to a gecko.

Yes. Or to a peregrine falcon. And I said to her that I thought we were both just stealing from T. H. White: very straightforward. But then I saw an online interview with the mad muggles lady where they were asking her about me and they said: what about Neil Gaiman? And she said: Well, he's been gotten to. [Laughs]

By the Harry Potter conspiracy? [Laughs]

I guess, yes.

Where do you live now?

In Minneapolis.


I have an American wife whose family all live in Minneapolis. We decided that it was time to move over so that her family could meet the kids and that was where we went. And also because I really wanted an Addams Family house. I thought, you know, if I'm going to leave England and go to America, I want one of those things that only America can provide and one of those things is Addams Family houses.

And so you have one?

I do. Yes: with the big pointy tower and wrap-around porch. It's fun. The only thing that's weird is kids do not come trick or treating at Halloween. Every year we used to buy the candy and stuff like that and we'd wait, but they'd never come.

Does it have a reputation as a haunted house?

I don't know. Somebody once told me that somebody had actually hung themselves in the tower but I've never been able to find anything about that anywhere else so I suspect they probably didn't.

How long have you been there?

About nine years now.

So it has affected your writing. It gave birth to American Gods, I would think.

Completely. It was what American Gods came from: discovering that America was a much more complex place than I thought it was and that the Midwest was a much more complex place. There was a review that came in from a Seattle paper that said how strange it was that the Midwest was much better drawn than the scenes in L.A. and New York in the novel. Which is probably because there's 500 pages of the Midwest and about 80 New York and probably about 80 L.A. But it's also because I figure everybody knows New York. Everybody knows L.A. There's not an awful lot of painting that one needs to do. Whereas nobody has ever written about [some of these] weird Midwesterny places. So that was part of the fun.

Were Americans more than you expected? Were you surprised?

It took me a couple of years. There were really interesting things going on under the surface. You wind up having to understand history and then come forward, to figure out who came where and what they did and what was going on economically and what the cultural patterns were and then you come back forward. Which again was stuff that I tried to get into the novel.

How many kids do you have?

Three. One just turned 18, one 16 and one seven.

The older two are Brits?

Well, yes. But they all have dual nationality. Two sets of passports.

Sandman was, I think, life changing for its genre. Or even perhaps created its own genre. It's been very important, anyway.

I don't know to what extent. At the time that I was doing it, I was very much hoping that it would change things for the medium of comics. Looking back on it, I don't think an awful lot. It did an awful lot for Sandman in that graphic novels are still out there, they still sell 80,000-odd a year, year in, year out in America alone. But what I was definitely hoping would happen was the same kind of thing that happened when I read Alan Moore was doing on The Swamp Thing. I went: Well, hang on. Here is someone writing stuff for adults and writing stuff with as much imagination and verve and depth as anything else out there: any other medium out there. I wasn't going: Oh, I want to write Swamp Thing. I was going: Oh, I want to create my own one of these. It will be interesting to see if in a few years time, the generation that was raised on Sandman do actually start creating more literary and more interesting comics.

I think it's happening.

Oh good.

I mean, it seems that every time a new prominent graphic novel comes out, The Sandman is what is referenced.

I think it's good. It's going to be very interesting to see where comics go over the next couple of decades. And the success of the Jimmy Corrigan book heartened me enormously and the fact that it's a book that simply got reviewed as itself. And nobody obviously went: Oh, we've already reviewed comics two years ago, we don't need to review this. I thought [that] was really good and really important.

As far as I'm concerned, comics are a medium. That really is the most important side of them.

Where would you like to see the medium go?

I just want it to be one medium amongst many. I would like it to be a commercially viable medium in that I worry a lot that comics has the potential to go the way of poetry. If it keeps shrinking commercially … I'm talking about poetry in terms of, you know, Byron used to bring out a poem and everybody read it. Kipling would bring out a book of poetry and everybody read the book, read the poems and quoted them to each other and knew them and these things were read. These days, poetry gets written by a very few people who are fundamentally hobbyists, for a very few people, who are fundamentally also hobbyists who want to see what the other people are doing. And I doubt there's a poetry book written more than once a decade that could financially sustain its author despite Guggenheims, Pulitzers and what have you. And there are some brilliant poets out there but, at the end of the day, it's become hobbyists exchanging [poetry] and little poetry magazines exist for other poets to buy and hope that their poems can be in them. I really hope that comics do not go that way. I think it [would] be very sad if comics did go that way. And I can see that happening. If the readership base gets small enough, if you get to the point where comics are things created by people who do comics for people who do comics … and I think that would be sad.

Sandman is your benchmark. Everything you've done since, people always compare to The Sandman. How do you feel about Sandman all this time later?

It's the biggest thing I've ever done. People would say—like with Stardust—Well, it's great, but it's not Sandman. And I'd say: Well, Sandman took me seven years to write, it's 2000 pages long, over 10 volumes, it's enormous. It's impossible, as far as we can tell, to try and bind the complete Sandman as one book because it would be the size of a family Bible and impossible to read and bind. Stardust was barely 60,000 words. Why are you comparing these two? [Laughs]

I'm pleased with American Gods. It's not as big and it's not as complex as Sandman partly because it took me two years to write rather than seven going on eight. But I think it's the first thing I've done that could actually spare to stand up against Sandman.

It's a whole different thing. It's a big ol' novel. How many words?

187,000 words.

Do you think it's your most important work to date?

I'm never quite sure what's important and I'm not sure that authors are meant to know what's important. And I'm not sure that anybody gets to make the call on the whole importance thing until a long time afterwards.

1930. Probably the most prominent English essayist was A. A. Milne. The editor of Punch, famed for his comedic essays and a man with several plays running in the West End concurrently. A man who had bestselling books with titles like The Daily Round and hilarious collections of essays and sketches. One of the funniest writers of his generation and an accomplished playwright. I did an Amazon search several months ago just out of interest to see just what of his was actually in print. And it listed 700 books: all of which, as I went down page after page, were variant editions of the two Winnie the Pooh books and the two books of comic verse for children that he wrote. And that's all that we have left of A. A. Milne and he's in better shape than most of his contemporaries whose names we do not remember at all. I can't point to the other guy who was the biggest playwright in the 1930s because we don't know who that was and if I said his name, you'd be blank. The fact is, those two books of children's stories and two volumes of children's verse are what posterity, rightly or wrongly, has deemed the important thing to remember about what A. A. Milne did.

Actually, that's not true: there's one other thing we remember him for. His attempt to revive something forgotten which, again, worked brilliantly. To the point now where we didn't even know that it ever was forgotten. He wrote Toad of Toad Hall as a stage play, because he loved [it] and was furious that it had been forgotten—The Wind in the Willows [which was written by Kenneth Grahame]. And Kenneth Grahame's book came out and was a huge dud. Kenneth Grahame's other two books—Dream Days and The Golden Age—now completely forgotten. Portraits of sort of being a child in early Edwardian, early Victorian days—were seized on and loved by the Edwardians as these beautiful, sentimental portraits of childhood. These were Grahame's bestselling books. And the Wind in the Willows was a dud: it was completely forgotten to the point where A. A. Milne wound up writing an essay in the 1920s saying: Let me tell you about one of the best books in the world and you have never heard of it. It was called the Wind in the Willows and [A. A. Milne] went on and did Toad of Toad Hall, the theatrical adaptation, which then revived the book to the point where it's now considered one of the great children's classics. And if I'm burbling on about this stuff, I'm also burbling to point out that if Milne had not been a huge fan of this one book, there is no particular reason to think that The Wind in the Willows would have gone on to become the classic that it is.

It's quite possible that in 100 years time, people will say: You know that guy who wrote the book The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish? He did all this other stuff too? And people will say: No.

And the guy who did the biography of Duran Duran.

[Laughs] I can't see that one ever getting …

But you did do a biography on the group?

Yes, yes. That's the kind of thing you do when you're a 22-year-old journalist and somebody offers you money. It was great. Not only did I pay the rent, but that biography bought me an electric typewriter.

When was it?

I think it was written in 1984 and published in 1985. What was funny about that, of course, was the fact that it came out at a point where they were still hugely hot and promptly became an instant little minor bestseller. The first printing sold out in days.

Fun. So you did more than buy an electric typewriter. You bought linoleum as well.

No. I didn't. Because, what happened then was the publisher, before they could go back for the second printing, was taken into involuntary bankruptcy. Proteus Books. And that was that. And that was a really good thing, actually. I look back on it, because I got the advance. I got my 2000 pounds up front. But I never got any of the royalties I should have gotten and it never went on to make me any money which meant that I sort of got to stop and take stock. And I went: OK, so here am I and I spent several months writing a book that I wouldn't have wanted to read. I don't think I'll ever do that again. And I learned a lesson that every now and then the universe conspires to remind me of. It's like my one lesson and if somebody, while writing my life as one of these comedic tragedies, people would point to it as one of those recurring themes that he's needs to be every now and again retaught this one, which is: Whenever I do things for the money …

Whenever I do things because I want to do it and because it seems fun or interesting and so on and so forth, it almost always works. And it almost always winds up more than paying for itself. Whenever I do things for the money, not only does it prove a headache and a pain in the neck and come with all sorts of awful things attached, but I normally don't wind up getting the money, either. So, after a while, you do sort of start to learn [to] just forget about the things where people come to you and dangle huge wads of cash in front of you. Go for the one that seems interesting because, even if it all falls apart, you've got something interesting out of it. Whereas, the other way, you normally wind up getting absolutely nothing out of it.

The best thing about the Duran Duran book was, because I own the copyright on it and because the company went bankrupt, later they were actually taken over by somebody else who wrote me a letter saying: We want to bring it back into print. I got to say: No thank you.

You were a rock journalist?

No, I was a journalist. The rock bit simply happened because I had a friend named Kim Newman, with whom I was already writing a book called Ghastly beyond Belief. And Kim was writing a book called Nightmare Movies for these people and he mentioned me as somebody who could write. I got a phone call from Proteus saying: OK, we have three books that need to be written very, very urgently. Pick one. I said: Great. Who are they? And they said: Duran Duran, Barry Manilow and Def Leppard. I figured Duran Duran had done much less. Barry Manilow I figured I was going to have to listen to, you know, 40 Barry Manilow albums.

I still leave the Duran Duran book off of biographies, more for fun than anything else, but one day in 1996 I was—due to a series of strange coincidences—on a yacht in the Mediterranean with Simon LeBon as part of the crew. Simon loves to sail. He's a big 'round the world yacht guy and stuff like that. He'd come out to crew the yacht for a week and I was there as a land loving passenger and we were friendly, we were chatting and about day three I thought: I can not keep this one, I have to say it. And I said: Look, I have to tell you. I wrote a Duran Duran biography once. And he said: Which one? And I said: The Proteus one. And he said: The one with the gray cover? We liked that one, it was great.

So you hadn't met him? It wasn't the kind of biography where you tour with the band for half a year or anything?

No. It was the kind of biography where you go down to the BBC and you say: Hello, BBC press cuttings library? I would like to buy everything you have with the words “Duran Duran” in it. And you pay 150 pounds for all their photocopying and you take it away and you take all of these press clippings and you write it into a book. And you listen to the albums.

The other thing that I learned at the same time was, lots and lots of my friends were writers in London. Writers may be solitary but they also tend to flock together: they like being solitary together. I knew a lot of writers in London and many of them were award-winning writers and many of them were award-winning, respectable writers. And the trouble with being an award-winning, respectable writer is that you probably are not making a living.

If you write one well-reviewed, well-respected, not bad selling, but not a bestseller list book every three years, which you sell for a whopping 30,000 pounds, that's still going to average out to 10,000 pounds a year and you will make more managing a McDonald's. With overtime you'd probably make more working in a McDonald's. So there were incredibly well-respected, award-winning senior writers who, to make ends meet, were writing film novelizations and TV novelizations under pen names that they were desperately embarrassed about and didn't want anybody to know about. You know, the sort of secret knowledge that was passed on: Did you know that so-and-so wrote that casualty book? It's actually by such-and-such, you know? And, the thing that became very apparent as I became a writer was these people were selling out—and I do think of that as selling out, because they'd put pen names on because they didn't want to acknowledge them—for 1800 pounds a book. 2000 pounds a book. 2500 pounds a book. And I thought, then: It's not the selling out that's bad. It's that these people are selling out for absolutely nothing. You know, if you're going to sell out, sell out for a million dollars. Sell out for 10 million. Don't sell out to the point where you look at yourself in the mirror going: Oh my God, I'm a hack. Why am I doing this for 2000? For 1500? For heaven's sake!

There's a strange and wonderful alternate history of the London literary world of the 1970s and 80s and for all I know 90s, where you'd go and say: This famous writer wrote this episode of a novelization or this person wrote Highlander III and you could go and figure it all out.

Speaking of selling out, I hear that Good Omens is being turned into a movie. [Laughs] Isn't that an awful way of putting it? But I wanted a sellout segue.

I think it's a lovely sellout segue. What makes it a lovely sellout segue is that for 10 years, Terry Pratchett and I had a bad experience right at the beginning with that film. And then we spent eight years, nine years simply saying no. Every two or three months another major Hollywood entity would come along, clear its throat and say: We'd like to buy Good Omens. Expecting us to say: All hail! Give us money. And we would say: No thank you. And they would say: No, really. We mean it. We actually want to buy Good Omens and give you money and we would say: Please go away.

That went on for a long time until the Samuelsons came along and said: Look, we want to make Good Omens because this is what we feel it's about and furthermore we're talking to Terry Gilliam and we want Gilliam to write and direct it. At which point, Terry [Pratchett] and I said: Absolutely. Go with it. We took significantly less than we had been offered by many of the people to whom we'd said no because we liked the idea of Terry Gilliam doing it. If anybody is going to do Good Omens, I want it to be Gilliam. And then people say: Are you and Terry [Pratchett] involved [with the project]? And we say: No! Because we want to see what Terry Gilliam is going to do. We wrote the book. It's Terry Gilliam. I'm very happy to see whatever he does.

What was the bad experience you had at first with the film version of the book?

Terry and I were approached by these Hollywood people. They phoned us up and told us that they loved us. We went out to Hollywood and we had the kind of Hollywood experience that people joke about. I wound up transmogrifying our Hollywood experience into a short story in the Smoke and Mirrors collection called “The Goldfish Bowl and Other Stories” much of which was taken from literal things that were happening back then, Terry and I sort of watching this with horror.

Essentially what happened is we went out there, we spent a week going in for meetings around a big table, while people who couldn't write told us what they thought the movie should be. We'd go away and do an outline and hand it in the next day and nobody would have read it and we'd go in for another meeting and they'd tell us a whole bunch of different things and we'd say: That's essentially in the outline. And they'd say: Well, we haven't read the outline.

We went away and we wrote to script and we handed it in and they said: It's too much like the book. At which point Terry Pratchett very wisely said: I've had enough. I'm quitting. I'm off. And he quit. I said: I want to see what happens next. So I didn't quit and they said: This is what we want in the story. So I wrote a story that was what they said they wanted, wrote a script—actually, a very nice script. I'm still proud of it. It was very much what they said they wanted. And I handed it in. And they read it. And they said: Well, it's not like the book, is it?

I actually didn't get the pleasure of quitting because the day after that they went bankrupt. So that was one of those moments again when not only was it this strange sort of weird sellout, but I also didn't get paid.

Are you working on something now?

The next thing that will actually happen which should be fun is a children's book called Coraline and that's the next book to come out.


As in made of coral and as in Caroline, spelled wrong. For years I thought it was a name I'd made up and then I've actually discovered now that it's a real name. Which is always what happens when you make up a really good name. [Laughs] You discover other people made it up too.

Charles De Lint (review date September 2001)

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SOURCE: De Lint, Charles. Review of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. Fantasy & Science Fiction 101, no. 3 (September 2001): 97-8.

[In the following review, De Lint offers high praise for Gaiman's American Gods, calling it a wonderful, superbly written novel that effectively balances the light and dark elements of the story.]

Let's get this out of the way first: I'm sure a large number of Gaiman's fans (who came to his prose by way of his excellent work on The Sandman and other comic book projects) are otherwise unfamiliar with the fantasy field. They'll think that the underlying conceit of American Gods—that immigrants, however unknowingly, brought over with them the beings from folklore and myth who are now living hidden amongst us in North America—is terribly original. But it's not. We've seen it many times before, admirably handled by everyone from Roger Zelazny to, well, Mark Wagner, creator of the comic Mage.

Now before anyone protests, I know that Gaiman is aware of this as well. One of his characters even talks about something very like it in the book itself, though that character is referring to peoples' lives when he talks about “… the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived, and then, by some means or another, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life.”

Fantasy, though older, is often considered to be the mentally disadvantaged younger sibling of science fiction, which prides itself on being “the fiction of ideas.” But let's face it, new ideas are far and few between in any sort of fiction these days. The thing that's important is what the author does with an idea, and in that sense Gaiman has done a superb job, proving in the process (if it should be required after such successful books as Neverwhere) that he doesn't need an illustrator to bring his fascinating characters and stories to life.

American Gods is a big, sprawling book that seems to take forever to get to its point, but what a wonderful journey it is to get there. We enter the hidden world of forgotten gods through the viewpoint of a character named Shadow whose life, after three years in prison, seems about to take an upturn. But that wouldn't make much of a story. So in short order, he's released a day or so early from prison because his wife has died, while cuckolding Shadow with his own best friend. The job he was supposed to have (as fitness trainer with said best friend) is now also gone.

Enter Wednesday, a rather enigmatic figure whose true nature we figure out before Shadow, and all too soon poor Shadow is drawn into a struggle between the forgotten gods (brought over to North America by their believers and then abandoned) and the new gods: the gods of technology, of cell phones and the Internet and every other modern contrivance. And along the way he needs to find some meaning and balance to his own life, one that for all its emotional ups and downs it seems he's been living by rote up to this point.

There are few authors who can manage to balance the light and dark aspects of a storyline as effectively as Gaiman does. There are charming, utterly whimsical moments here, and others filled with doom and dread. The mythic characters are earthy and accessible without losing their godlike stature. The plot, while rambling, never strays into uninteresting territories and, more to the point, most of the seeming asides and subplots prove, once we reach the conclusion, to have been necessary to the principal storyline after all.

Another pleasure of reading Gaiman is that he has such a light touch with his prose. One gets the impression that it simply flowed effortlessly from his mind to the book we hold in hand, though that, of course, is one of the hardest tricks to pull off in the business of writing.

It's still early as I write this (the beginning of April), but it wouldn't surprise me if American Gods proves to be the Big Book of this year. It'll certainly be difficult to match in its paradoxical mix of broad scope and small intimacies.

Neil Gaiman and Ray Olson (interview date August 2002)

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SOURCE: Gaiman, Neil, and Ray Olson. “The Booklist Interview: Neil Gaiman.” Booklist 98, no. 22 (August 2002): 1949.

[In the following brief interview, Gaiman discusses whether his stories may accurately be categorized as horror fiction.]

English fantasist Neil Gaiman's big breakthrough was the spooky graphic novel series Sandman, one of the most lauded works of its kind. He spent eight years writing it, and it keeps on selling—all 10 volumes' worth. It often looks like horror fiction, and so, at times, do Gaiman's novels Neverwhere,Stardust, and American Gods. His new book, Coraline, is a children's novel about a girl who visits an eerie parallel world in which she meets a sinister alternative mother. Still, debate persists as to whether Gaiman really is a horror author. At the delightful April 2002 World Horror Convention in Chicago—within relatively easy reach of his home in western Wisconsin—Gaiman reflected on that issue and expanded on it later in conversation with Booklist.

[Booklist]: So, what's the answer to that nagging question—is Neil Gaiman a horror writer?

[Gaiman]: Every now and then I get these horror awards. The first one was when [the story collection] Angels and Visitations won the International Horror Guild Award, the most recent last Saturday night [June 8] when American Gods walked away with the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers of America. Do I think of myself as a horror writer? No. I don't, except that I love horror. I think of horror as a condiment rather than as a meal. I run into people who consider Neverwhere a horror novel. Obviously there are ways in which American Gods could be read as a horror novel. It has sequences [that] are viewed by horror people as proper horror. It gives them the buzz that they get from horror. Well, they gave it the award. … On the other hand, it's also nominated for [an award] for mythopoeic fantasy, and for a Hugo award for best sf novel. I love to put more, to put everything, in the pot. I cook rather like those nice people in New Orleans. You want the tastes not to mingle.

Coraline is the nearest to a horror novel in the conventional sense of anything you've written.

I agree.

Might Alice in Wonderland have been in mind as you wrote Coraline?

Alice I read first when I was 5, maybe, and always kept around as default reading between the ages of 5 and 12, and occasionally picked up and reread since. There are things Lewis Carroll did in Alice that are etched onto my circuitry. Coraline isn't Alice in Wonderland, which is fundamentally formless, as plotless as any dream. … In Coraline, I'm taking some of what I got from Alice, but form-wise, there are other very odd influences. The most forgotten is a lady named Lucy Clifford. … One [of her stories], “The New Mother,” [is] about these children who are evil. They behave badly because they want something another kid has, this pear drop. Their mother keeps saying, “Please, please, please, don't misbehave, or I'll have to go away, and your new mother will have to come.” And they do misbehave, and when they go home, their mother's not there. But they look down at the end of the road, in the dark, where they see coming toward them the flames of their new mother's eyes and hear the swish, swish, swishing of her wooden tail. That definitely stuck with me. Here was somebody writing children's fiction, at the same time Alice was written, who was willing to go all the way, into something really disturbing and primal.

Does horror need a supernatural element?

No, not particularly.

Or a magical element?

No. … [though] in my fiction it tends to.

Sandman is a serial, but, unlike so many fantasy writers, you haven't spun off sequels since.

I have too many things in my head and only a limited amount of time to get them down. I have one other story with the Stardust characters. I have a sequel that hasn't finished gelling to Neverwhere. I could write a story about Mr. Nancy from American Gods tomorrow. But it's much more likely that when I start the next novel, it will be something else again. I suppose in some ways it's very perverse of me. … The joy of Sandman was, because I was doing a comic, and comics are their own little ghetto, nobody minded that I moved through every single variant of the horror genre, and pretty much every variant of the fantasy genre, and a number of mainstream genres on the way just because I wanted to, because I enjoyed it. Nobody ever said, “You can't do that cuz that's not a Sandman story.” When I decided I wanted to do a political commentary in the form of a synoptic gospel, well, I did. You get that freedom, but I also knew that it was going to be difficult to transfer that to book publishing.

Tom Easton (review date October 2002)

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SOURCE: Easton, Tom. “The Reference Library.” Analog Science Fiction & Fact 122, no. 10 (October 2002): 130-35.

[In the following excerpt, Easton provides a brief overview of Adventures in the Dream Trade, a volume of miscellaneous writings by Gaiman.]

Neil Gaiman established himself with remarkable graphic novels (Sandman). In February 1991, I reviewed favorably his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Last year, he published American Gods to an excellent reception, and this year he was guest of honor at Boskone, the Boston-area SF con. To honor the occasion, NESFA brought out Adventures in the Dream Trade, a major part of which is Gaiman's “blog” (weblog) chronicling the proofreading, touring, and autographing chores that went with Gods.

That is perhaps enough for Gaiman fans or would-be Famous Writers. For the rest of the world, Gaiman includes a number of poems, song lyrics, short stories, and essays (most written as introductions to other folks' books). The overall flavor is quite charming, for Gaiman is witty, inventive, congenial, and fond of making things “story-shaped”—and nowhere more so than in a poem he did not include here.

Last winter, I heard him recite “Crazy Hair” at a performance at MIT, where Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, and Peter David entertained a large audience for hours. He wrote it, he said, for his daughter, and it was astonishingly full of fancies about what lives or nests in, visits, tours, and adventures in his expansive hair.

Maybe in his next book …

Neil Gaiman and Joseph McCabe (interview date October 2002)

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SOURCE: Gaiman, Neil, and Joseph McCabe. “Hanging Out with the Dream King: Neil Gaiman on Comics and Collaborating.” Science Fiction Chronicle 24, no. 10 (October 2002): 42-6.

[In the following interview, Gaiman discusses the process of collaborating with other artists and writers on his graphic novels and illustrated novels.]

[McCabe]: I'd like to talk a little bit about your collaborations. You've worked with numerous individuals over the years, and the breadth of your collaborations is very impressive: artists, writers, musicians, and even, with the film Princess Mononoke, animator Hayao Miyazaki. I'd like to begin by just naming some of your collaborators, and getting your thoughts on working with them. Let's begin with some of the artists you worked with on The Sandman, starting with Dave McKean, who did the cover of every issue of the comic.

[Gaiman]: Well, Dave was one of my first collaborators, and he's still the one who is most exciting for me to work with. I think I said yesterday on the panel interview that the thing about Dave is that I never know what I'm going to get. But it's always cool, and it's always different than whatever I imagined. A Charlie Vess [“A Mid-Summer Night's Dream,” “The Tempest”] or a Craig Russell [“Ramadan”] are lovely examples of people who are brilliant and they will give you something that's like the kind of thing you thought they might do only it's better, but what Dave gives you is something that's nothing like what you had in your head, but it's still cool. In fact often it's cooler than the thing you had in your head. So I'm always fascinated by that. But I think very often there's a sort of creative tension with Dave that I don't necessarily get with other people because he's not doing it in the way that I expected it to be done, or would have done or just naturally have assumed he would have done it. It's always done off of this sort of ninety degrees in Dave World, which gives you a weird kind of stretch.

Charles Vess.

Charlie's brilliant. Charlie's just fun. I mean for me Charlie's a lot like getting to collaborate with Arthur Rackham or somebody. There is this delight to dealing with Charlie as a creator, as an artist, and as a thinker. Because I know what his influences are and I know where he's coming from, a wonderful sort of Heath Robinson, Brandywine, Rackhamesque tradition. What was actually fun with Charlie was when we collaborated on the comic mini-series Books of Magic. He was throwing in much stuff in musical terms. He put together a tape for me of music he thought I should hear, all this English folk music that I didn't know, which I thought was lovely, a feeling of informing the thing. And that's with all of the collaborations with Charlie. I'd write something for him, he'd do something, and I'd say, “Oh, that's cool, I have to do more of that.” The little hairy man was just meant to come on and go off, and I saw the drawing Charlie did of him in the first issue of Stardust, and it's like “Oh, great, we need more of him.”

Artist Marc Hempel [The Kindly Ones].

Marc was lovely. Marc was my second choice for The Kindly Ones. My first was Mike Mignola, and when it became apparent we weren't going to get Mike I said, “Well, Marc Hempel.” I wanted a sense of form. I wanted a sense of everything reducing to light and shadow, of everything reducing to simple shape.

His work almost looks like stained-glass windows.

And what is interesting is that, as a monthly comic, it didn't work at all. Because as a monthly comic coming out over a period of about sixteen months, you have a month to read a bunch of other stuff, and then you pick up the Hempel and the artificiality of it—not that other styles aren't artificial—people would find it distancing. With the Kindly Ones story collected in a book, you're in there and it may be distancing for the first couple of pages but as it goes on, you are in that world. Everything becomes form, everything becomes shape. It becomes these stained-glass windows.

It's beautiful work. How about Jill Thompson [Brief Lives]?

Jill was just so much fun. Jill may well have been my favorite collaborator on The Sandman.


Just from a personal point of view, the sheer amount of fun and delight we had working together. It was enormous fun. She'd send me these great little faxes. At one point—it was actually the only time this happened on Sandman—but she came and stayed with my family. And at one point she was drawing on one end of the sofa and I was writing several pages ahead on the other end of the sofa. Incredibly fun. And she brought a lot of herself to it, which I loved. And I also loved the fact that, when she began, nobody knew how good she was. She was sort of considered a minor Wonder Woman artist, and I just saw some of her stuff and I saw so much potential and so much that was interesting about what she was doing and what she could do. And I feel like we got a lot out of the work we did together. I think, these days, her talent really has flowered completely. With things like her children's book, Scary Godmother, people can see for themselves what she does and how good she is. I loved working with her. She drew me women who looked like women, which made me very happy.

Yes, it was exciting to watch her find herself in Brief Lives. Whenever I think of Delirium, Jill Thompson jumps into my head.

Jill put a lot of herself into the character.

With all the praise that's been given it, do you feel you achieved everything you wanted to with The Sandman?

Well, you never achieve everything you wanted to. It's the simple act of writing. You begin with a platonic ideal that is a shimmering tower carved out of pure diamond, that is this perfect thing that stands there unfouled by gravity and the weather. And then, the thing that you build is this thing that you have to build out of whatever is to hand and you use empty sushi boxes and chairs and get friends to hold it up and try to make it look like it's standing. And at the end of it, people look at it and they say, “It's amazing.” And you say, “Yes, but if only I could have done the thing that is in my head.”

What makes a good comic book collaborative team work?

In terms of comics, the joy for me is always looking at an artist, looking at what they do, what they do best, and what they don't do very well, and how I can write best to play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. For me, the perfect example of that would be Alan Moore writing his story “Pog” with Shawn MacManus [A Game of You].

That story was in Swamp Thing.

Yes. Shawn, at that time, couldn't draw very good people. They looked kind of lumpy and cartoonish. There was a lot of stuff he couldn't do terribly well. But Alan got Shawn to write a story that would break your heart. It's his Pogo story.

With beautiful lumpy people.

But rather than beautiful lumpy people, what you got was cartoon animals. It was a tale of these cartoon spacemen based on Pogo. And Alan completely avoided the issue of the standards of realism to which Shawn was working at the time. I still think it may well have been Alan's best-ever Swamp Thing, a remarkable piece of work. I always bore that in mind, that the smartest thing to do was to make an artist look good. To make them look good, because that would make you look good. To look at what they did. What do they do well? What can they do? And sometimes you'd do odd sorts of little extrapolative things. Looking at Michael Zulli [The Wake], who sprang to fame drawing animals in Puma Blues, and thinking, what is important about Michael is not that he draws animals but that he draws what he sees. He's actually coming from a different artistic tradition than most people doing comics. Because they learned how to draw comics from drawing comics, and Michael came from a fine arts background combined with a sort of weird, wonderful bohemian-going-from-town-to-town-painting-things-for-people background. Which made me think, I can do a historical story with him. He would be amazing at that kind of stuff. Just that sense of realism, the sense that somebody's there drawing what he sees, that became useful. With Kelley Jones [Season of Mists], Kelley's a brilliant artist, but there is this wonderful wayward streak to Kelley, which could work against him in comics, where each drawing exists almost separate from any other. Not in terms of not moving—the flow of the comic moves fine—but he was much less concerned about making sure that a character looked like the same character from one panel to another. So in Season of Mists I made damn sure that while the angel might not have looked the same from one panel to another, you were always sure that was the angel. Thor's beard may have changed between one panel and the next, but it was only one huge, over-muscled Thor.

How about writers collaborating with other writers?

Well, many of the great collaborative teams have been comedians, comic writers, which is because the hardest thing to know in comedy is whether or not something's funny. The joy of writing Good Omens was we were two guys writing it and you knew, if you could make the other one laugh, it worked. It was that simple. There are so many, many great comedy-writing teams, particularly in the UK. Going back to Frank Muir and Denis Norden; George and Weedon Grossmith, who wrote The Diary of a Nobody, an incredibly funny book; Sellar and Yeatman, who did 1066 and All That; Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan, who wrote Father Ted, a British TV series; and, of course, Galton and Simpson who, again, were English comedy writers who wrote Steptoe and Son and all the great episodes of Hancock. Comedy teams—Marty Feldman and Barry Took, who wrote an English comedy show called Round the Horne, which, as soon as Marty Feldman left, stopped working, although a lot of the funniest bits may well have been written by Barry Took. But it was the combination of sensibilities that worked. Even in Monty Python, you had two writing teams, because you had Palin and Jones as a writing team and you had Chapman and Cleese as a writing team, and then Eric Idle off on his own. Fawlty Towers was written by Cleese and Connie Booth. This isn't just meant to be a reductive list of names. My point is, particularly in comedy, collaborations are successful and easy because you're in a room with somebody and you can tell if the joke is funny or not. If the other guy laughs, it stays in. It's nice and easy. In novels, I'd be much harder put to find successful collaborations. A nice example of where a collaboration works is in The Talisman and Black House, by King and Straub. Where it works, it works because it is not written by two people, it is written by one two-headed person. Black House was not written by Stephen King and Peter Straub, it was written by Stephen King-and-Peter Straub, who together have written a book that neither of them could or would have written. Not that way.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts?

No, the whole is not greater than the sum, the whole is different than the sum. The whole is a new person. The whole is a different entity. And it has written a different book. Could Stephen King have written Black House? Yes. Could Peter Straub have written Black House? Yes. Would it have been that book? No. Why not? Well, partly because the act of collaborating gives you a specific audience. A lot of the time when you're writing your audience is either you or some kind of notion of the reader. The joy of collaboration is it's no longer you and it's no longer the reader, it is—in Stephen King's case—Peter Straub, and in Pete's case—Steve King. So all of the sudden, Steve is going to be sticking in jazz references to make Pete laugh. Pete will be doing some splattery stuff and he'll say, “Ah, Steve will like this.” My favorite moment in writing Good Omens was a bit where Terry Pratchett had written the first scene where Adam met Anathema. Terry sent it in, I read that scene, and I looked at it. He had just a line where Anathema mentions a book and I said, “My God, he missed the ultimate opportunity.” And I just went in and wrote a paragraph where Adam says something like, “I wrote a book once. It was really good, especially when the dinosaur came out and fought the cowboys.” I just stuck in a paragraph in the middle of something Terry had written, and I sent it back to him and he phoned me up and he said, “I nearly pissed myself laughing.” It was one of those perfect moments because I just wrote it to make him laugh in his bit.

What was it like collaborating with Terry Pratchett?

People arguing about and discussing Good Omens tend to pick the wrong thing to argue about and discuss, which is who wrote what and how much of us wrote which. Which tends to miss the point. The answer is of course that I actually wrote—and not a lot of people know this—ninety percent of Good Omens. But the trouble is that Terry wrote the other ninety percent. But what was it like for me, that particular collaboration? It was like going to college. Even at that point Terry was a master craftsman, like a Wedgewood chairmaker or whatever. He could do it. And I had never made a chair before, but I had some ability as a woodworker. So there was a lot of Terry and I talking about this thing that we were building, and Terry would send me off and I'd do my bits, and we'd talk about it. But it was very much a fifty-fifty collaboration between a journeyman and a master craftsman and that's very much how I viewed, and still view, Good Omens. It's not that it was my idea—at least fifty percent of it is mine—but for me it was an amazing learning experience: working with Terry, and the way that Terry worked, having no idea where the characters were going to go, stitching it together at the end. And it's not necessarily a method that I would ordinarily use. My tendency is to start at the beginning and then keep writing until I get to the end and then stop. Although it was fun with American Gods to have my little short stories on the side so I could go off and do something different.

Let's switch gears for a second and talk about an entirely different collaboration. I'm curious about the work you did with Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. You wrote the English-language script translation of his animated epic Princess Mononoke, and, in a way, you were presenting his work to America, yet there's a lot of you in that version of the film.

One of the joys of collaboration is knowing when to shut up and let someone else shine. The most important thing in collaboration is not standing in the middle of the stage, showing off. With Miyazaki, I figured that my role was to try and take the subtitles and the literal translation and turn it into dialog that people could say. The thing that always hurts in watching dubbings of foreign movies is when, all of the sudden, characters are trying to say things that sound stupid. Somebody's done some literal translation and you know, immediately, if you're listening to something or watching something that's been translated because characters are going to say something like, “Look! Watch! Over there! The things come! Their spears are raised!” You scratch your head and say, “What was that? What did he say?” A lot of what I was trying to do was twofold. One of which was just dialog that people could say, and the other was to try and fold in enough background surreptitiously. Like the moment when Ashitaka cuts his hair. For an American audience, that only meant one thing which is “He's leaving and he's thinking long hair will get in the way.” They completely miss that this is something a samurai does when he becomes a monk. This is an act that literally means: “Once I cut my hair, I am dead. I am no longer.” Which, when you understand that he is literally dead to the village, tells you why he doesn't come back to it at the end of the film. So I tried to fold in a little bit of dialog about “You will cut your hair and become dead to us” and stuff. Just little bits that Miyazaki wouldn't have thought necessary for a Japanese audience, but that I could slide in for an American audience.

Had you ever done any work like that before?


It must have been a pretty interesting experience for you.

It was a hugely frustrating, enormously fun learning experience. The frustrating side of it was I'd keep coming up with lines of amazing beauty and subtlety and tenderness and brilliance and grace and poetry, and if only the characters had opened their mouths one more time I could have used them. You were sort of limited to lip flaps.

But you were obviously very successful. Roger Ebert, after seeing Princess Mononoke, said it was one of the ten best films of 1999. I don't know of too many dubbed films that get that kind of praise in this country.

It was very nice, having Ebert and having Janet Maslin of The New York Times singling out the script translation. It was very lovely.

We've talked about books, comics, and movies, but you've also written songs for the goth-folk music duo the Flash Girls. How did that collaboration come about?

Well, I've known Emma Bull about fifteen years. I met her and Will Shetterly when they came to the UK for a convention. I first met Lorraine Garland in about 1991 at a convention in Amherst. The two of them came out to my very first-ever Guy Fawkes party, when I moved to America. A lot of people had brought guitars and violins along and had come out to the Twin Cities and were playing music, and I hesitantly said, “Well, I occasionally write songs. Here's one.” And I played them the song that they call “Tea and Corpses,” but that I still call “The Tea Song.” It was at that party that we tried to get a fire going. The fire didn't actually get going—I didn't know much about lighting fires at that point—and Will and Emma and Lorraine were sitting around playing music. Emma and Lorraine had already played together in Renaissance festivals and stuff, and somehow by the end of that evening Emma and Lorraine had formed a band. I said blithely, “Oh, you can have that song that I did.” After that I remember giving Lorraine some lyrics, and saying, “Here's a couple of things that I've written that I don't have tunes for.” And she went off. And some of the time, I'd write music myself, and sometimes it would be Lorraine, or Lorraine and Emma, doing it. The “All Purpose Folk Song,” for example, was just written because I was listening to them play one day at a Renaissance festival and I thought, they need a song that does this, this, this, and this, so I just wrote one, wrote the lyrics, handed it over to them and said, “Here you go.” And two days later it was already in the act. You'll have to ask them what it's like to work with me as a songwriter because, from my perspective, I'm easy-going and a delight to work with.

Utterly charming?

Absolutely. In every possible way. [Laughs.] And they, of course, would say, “Okay is this on or off the record? He's a monster.”

We're talking about collaborations. And, in a broad sense, every written story is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. And, I suppose, every reading is a collaboration between the reader and the listener. How important is the connection with the audience to you?

It's all-important, because if it's not there you're masturbating. There are writers out there who write for themselves. And while I write for myself in some sense—I get to be the first reader and I don't like writing things I don't enjoy—the audience and the existence of the audience is the most important thing for me. I am happier with a poem that gets printed in one of the Windling-Datlow anthologies and that 10,000 people will read than with a movie script that I'll get paid five-hundred times the amount that I get paid the poem for, but which will be read by three film executives and nobody else. It's always fun when it's read and there's that wonderful feeling of interaction, which does change what you're doing. It's fascinating for me doing any kind of live panel or live event or whatever, especially the ones where you just sit up there and you have no idea what's going to happen—you just do it. Because it is a collaboration with the audience. I did a question-and-answer last night, and it was completely a collaboration—you never knew where it was going to go.

As you become more and more successful you draw larger audiences and bigger crowds to your readings, and to conventions such as this one. Does that fire you up? Does it give you more inspiration when you're doing a reading?

No, it's much more fun when you're doing it out on your own and nobody knows you exist. This has been a very odd convention for me. On the one hand, Boskone is a lovely convention—great con, lovely people, well-run, a good convention—but on the other hand, it's very odd because I'm here but I'm thinking, I am not at this convention. Normally, if you come to a convention as a writer, you're at the convention. And I'm having to come to terms with the fact that “Okay, it's a convention I would love to be at, but I'm not here.” I'm working the whole time. If I wander into a room party, I'm not wandering into the room party as some guy wandering into the room party. I'm wandering into the “Hey, look over there … [mock-whispers behind his hand]” And I'm sort of thinking, well, okay fine, and having to come to terms with the fact that I will probably have to rethink how and when I do conventions in the future—this kind of SF convention. I figured I would have one kind of convention and I'm thinking, it's not working. If I'm going to do this kind of convention in the future, I may as well just do the equivalent of a World Horror or a World Fantasy, and then do things like the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts on my own time, where it's just academics and writers, and I can actually meet new people and have conversations in hallways without suddenly realizing that I'm drawing crowds. It's very odd. And not necessarily odd-bad, but odd in the sense of having to think, I can't do this anymore. I'm no longer one of the attendees. You know, Charlie Vess is having a wonderful convention. He's either at the bar or he's over at the art show or he wanders around the dealers room.

Or he's back at the bar.

Or he's back at the bar. [Laughs.] He's having the kind of convention that I used to have, and can no longer have. So I'm starting to think, okay, I might just have to rethink this one.

I heard Stephen King had similar experiences in the late seventies and early eighties.

I remember Steve telling me the deciding thing about him not going to conventions any longer. He was actually sitting on a toilet and somebody pushed books under the door for him to sign. In the men's room. I think, certainly for him, that was the deciding factor.

If someone told you that you could only work in one medium—comics, prose, screenwriting, poetry, music—what would it be?

Is physical survival an option? By which I mean, does it have to be something that will at least pay my mortgage, or can I work in anything? Because if paying the mortgage were not an option, it would probably be radio plays. I'd go straight over to radio drama. I would, of course, have to send the children out in the streets to dance for pennies.

Lemonade stands would probably be in order.

Absolutely. But I love the fact that in many ways you're moviemaking, but you can make a movie in a weekend. You get to fuck with the inside of people's heads just like you do in a novel, you get immediacy, the kind of immediacy you can only get with a comic normally. And it's fast and it's fun and it moves in real time. And it's evocative. And your special-effects budget is unlimited. For me the greatest line ever uttered in radio is in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent says to Ford Prefect, “Ford, you're turning into an infinite number of penguins.” But this is not a line that could or should ever be seen. They tried on the TV show. Suddenly the screen gets covered with penguins. It's like, “You know, that was stupid.” If I were directing it, I probably would have just had strange sort of blotchy, smudgy colors going on and close-ups of people's mouths.

You've mentioned numerous times that you love reading stories to your daughter. Do think this hones your ability to do public readings, for which you're quite well-known?

I don't know. It certainly keeps a hand in. But the weird thing is, an awful lot of what people, I suppose, think is charisma is in some ways confidence. And in some ways is the confidence of knowing that you haven't fucked up too badly in the past when you've done it. You can stick me up on a stage in front of five-thousand people and I will be nervous for the first thirty-five to forty seconds, and then it all comes back. And I can do it. And I don't know how I do it, particularly. I didn't do it this well fifteen years ago, I didn't do it this well ten years ago. A lot of it actually came from doing the Guardian Angel Tour stuff for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Actually having to get out there and fill up the air time on my own, and read stories to a theater full of people who had come there to see me and nothing else and it's like, “Wow!” And then doing question-and-answers with an audience and discovering that, on the whole, I could do it.

There are different kinds of panels. This morning's panel was great fun—me, Bob Sheckley, Emma Bull, and Ginger Buchanan trying to discuss the subject with not really a wish to reach a conclusion, although I think some conclusions were reached, but much more from a point of view of “There is a bunch of opinions from people who've done some of this and have something to say.” Which is different from “Get up there and talk about stuff.” Can I keep an audience entertained for several hours? Sure. How? I don't know. I've been doing it long enough now that the idea of doing it doesn't scare me.

But I like them, and the audience likes me. When I was sixteen, I was in a punk band and I remember once getting a beer can in the chin—I still have a little scar under there—and being dragged off to a hospital to have my face stitched up. And I thought, you know, it's never going to be that bad again. A lot of it for me is wanting to treat people as I would like to be treated. Some of this goes back to me saying some of the stuff about this convention that I'm not comfortable with. Alan Moore was always my standard to “How do you behave towards fans? How do you behave toward the professionals? How do you behave towards people?” And one of the things I always like about Alan was he didn't have one head for fans and one head for writers and one head for famous people. He just treated everybody the same, which was with kindness, politeness, and grace, believing very much that a cult of celebrity had some kind of elevation of status that was fundamentally wrong and fundamentally a lie. Which I think is true, and which is how I've always tried to behave. It's like, “Everybody's here at the convention.” I'm always very flattered when anybody wants to get in line and stand there for several hours to see Neil and get something signed, because there's nobody I would stand in line for five hours to see. God could return, and I'd say, “What? Stand in line for five hours?” So I always think it's terribly kind of people, terribly sweet and terribly nice. What I'm starting to figure out though is that there is a weirdness whereby sometimes it's not necessarily up to you whether or not that sort of status thing is there. Alan's line, which I always thought was fascinating, was “Communication is only possible between equals.”

And what I've always tried to do is maintain an equality because that's where you get the communication. What I have misgivings about is if you get to the point where you have difficulty maintaining equality not because you're not trying to do it, but because people won't let you and they're not comfortable if you do. If you're sitting in a room party, they are not comfortable. Then it gets weird. Somebody sent me an e-mail to the website, to the journal, about AggieCon, saying, “Is there some sort of secret wave we could do to let you know that we think you're keen, and slip it in without bothering you?” “Well, actually,” I said, “the best way is to just come over and say ‘I think what you do is really cool and keen and neat and thank you very much.’ Then if you say, ‘Gee, what rotten weather we're having!’ you might actually get a conversation out of it.” [Laughs.]

Darrell Schweitzer commented that, upon hearing you read your book Coraline at the 2000 World Horror Convention to an audience, he felt you could become one of this country's truly beloved storytellers. It was that powerful for the audience.

They were such a nice audience. I started at eleven o'clock at night, and I said, “Look, I'm going to read the whole book to you.” And, bless them, they stayed until two o'clock in the morning. They were still there—well, one guy fell asleep—and Darrell was one of them. I just thought they were very brave and very sweet because I got to stand there and find out what my book sounded like if you read it all through.

Who are your favorite live speakers? What storytellers do you enjoy, and what do you think made them connect with an audience?

I love Alan Bennett, who, interestingly, is not a live speaker. He does his stuff in studios mostly. I love poetry read by poets. I love good stand-up. And, by good stand-up, I mean people like Tom Lehrer or Woody Allen. Or Lenny Bruce. You go back to some of these old Lenny Bruce albums and, my God, the acting and the performance and the timing is magnificent. English guys? Alexie Sale, he's a fascinating performer, fascinating stand-up. Eddie Izzard, who has managed somehow to create an entire vocabulary that didn't exist before in terms of timing and beats. But much more important than any of that is my Dad. My Dad is a wonderful public speaker. As a kid, I used to watch him get up and talk and think, how does he do that? And Richard Curtis, who wrote Black Adder and Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. I've been privileged occasionally to be around Richard when he has to get up in front of an audience, normally of major-league celebrities and things, and make a short speech. He says exactly the right thing, and it's funny and it's heart-warming and it's brilliant and it's from the heart. So Dick Curtis is definitely someone who I'd be influenced by as a speaker. But so much of it is just doing it long enough and finding your own voice. It's the same with writing. I know Jerry Garcia said it once, but I know many people have said it before him, which is “Style is the stuff you can't help doing.” Style in some ways is the stuff that you do wrong. Because perfect technique would be completely without style. Stuff that lets everybody know that it's you playing is the falling away from perfect technique. So after you've written a few million words, the thing that lets anybody picking up a page read it and say, “Neil wrote that,” is style, it's the stuff you can't help doing. You're not thinking, how can I write this like a Neil Gaiman sentence? You're writing a sentence. If you've been writing long enough and well enough, than it's going to be a Neil Gaiman sentence, because that's what they do. And I think it's the same for me up on stage in front of a large audience. You get the beat of an audience, you find out where they are, get a kind of sense of them, and then …

You ride it?

You ride it, and you talk to them, and you have fun. And you don't make fun of them. It's the only thing that I've always figured with an audience. As an audience, they're nervous enough already. They're terrified they've asked a stupid question. So even if somebody does ask a stupid question—which they don't very often—I'm never going to say, “Well, that was a stupid question.” I'm much more likely to say, “Well, I think what you're trying to say is—” or “Okay, let me phrase that another way for you” or even “Fascinating question, let me answer it by saying that—” and get away from it after they've asked a stupid question with a yes-or-no answer, because you don't want them to feel uncomfortable.

In addition to your creative work, I think posterity is going to remember you for what you've done for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. You've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for that organization. I'm sure you've expressed your feelings toward this before, but—

I feel that freedom of speech is an incredibly valuable thing, coming from England, which has no freedom of speech enshrined under law. It has Obscene Publications Acts, it has repressive customs laws, it has all sorts of weird things, laws against horror comics, laws against this and that. Coming out to a country where freedom of speech is actually enshrined in the constitution is incredibly important. And I felt like somebody coming to a country in which every citizen is, at birth, handed a large gold egg, and most of them find it an embarrassment, and lose it, or hide it, or think maybe things would be better if the gold egg were taken away from everybody and put somewhere where it's not going to offend anyone. It's just weird. And I just think the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is right. It's this really good thing. Literature has won most of its battles. Comics is still fighting its battles. And I'm going to be out on the front line helping it fight the battles. The price of freedom is not cheap in this country. The price of freedom may be eternal vigilance, but the price of justice is several hundred thousand pounds per annum, so I'm getting out there and helping to raise it.

Thank you very much, Neil.

You're very welcome.

Anita L. Burkam (review date November-December 2002)

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SOURCE: Burkam, Anita L. Review of Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 6 (November-December 2002): 755, 757.

[In the following review, Burkam asserts that Coraline is an amusing story, but comments that it could be strengthened by more backstory and greater character development.]

Out of sorts in her new home, Coraline finds a bricked-up door in the drawing room and, when her mother is out for the afternoon, discovers the bricks have gone and she can pass through to a very similar house with an “other mother” and an “other father.” These two creepy specimens (with paper-white skin and black button eyes) want her to stay and be their little girl. Back in her own home, Coraline waits in vain for her parents to return, until at last she catches sight of a mirror image of them and determines she must head back into the alternate house to try to rescue them. What started out as a world set slightly askew turns nightmarish as Coraline joins the other mother in a game of hide-and-seek for her parents—winner take all. Images (white grub-like creatures in cobwebs; a toy box full of wind-up angels and tiny chatter-mouthed dinosaur skulls; the ubiquitous shiny black button eyes pictured in McKean's occasional dark and unsettling sketches as actual buttons) fly at the reader thick and fast, fully evoking the irrational yet unperturbing world of dreams, creating an avant-garde cinematic sweep of charged and often horrific flotsam from the subconscious. One wishes for a little more backstory to add depth and unity to the disparate images and a little more structure around the identity of the other mother (it turns out she resembles a kind of trap-door spider for souls, although exactly what she is or why she set up shop in Coraline's drawing room is left unstated). Still, the danger is convincingly dangerous, the heroine is convincingly brave, and the whirlwind denouement (helped along by a friendly cat and a rather clever ploy on the part of Coraline) will leave readers bemused but elated and slightly breathless.

Charles De Lint (review date February 2003)

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SOURCE: De Lint, Charles. Review of Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Fantasy & Science Fiction 104, no. 2 (February 2003): 30-1.

[In the following review, De Lint asserts that Coraline is Gaiman's best work of children's fiction yet, and comments that the story is enjoyable for adults as well as children.]

Is there anything Gaiman doesn't do well?

Coraline isn't his first foray into children's fiction, but it's certainly his most successful. In fact, it's astonishingly good—an instant classic, if you'll excuse the hyperbole—and one that I can imagine both children and adults reading a hundred years from now with the same enjoyment they do Lewis Carroll's Alice books.

Carroll is actually a good touchstone, since Coraline reminds me of nothing so much as a macabre Alice in Wonderland. The title character doesn't go through a mirror or fall down a rabbit hole, but she does go through a door that normally opens on a brick wall to find herself in a twisted version of her own world. There she meets her other parents, the ones with buttons for eyes who want only the very best for Coraline, which includes making her one of their own.

Our plucky heroine escapes, only to find that her real parents have now been kidnapped and taken into that other world. Calling the police doesn't help—they only suggest she's having a nightmare and that she should go wake her mother and have her make a cup of hot chocolate. So it's up to Coraline to rescue not only her real parents, but also the spirits of the dead children that were taken before the “other mother” set her sights on Coraline.

The book is illustrated throughout by Dave McKean's pen and ink drawings that are both charming and strange. The prose is simple and lovely, the subject matter both dark and whimsical (sometimes whimsically dark, other times darkly whimsical—you get the idea). In accompanying material Gaiman writes that it's a story “that children experienced as an adventure, but which gave adults nightmares,” and while I didn't get nightmares (I'm too much of a child, I suppose) I can easily see how both hold true. I do know that images from the book pop into my head at surprising times with an accompanying little shiver and thrill, and that I plan to reread it very soon. Now that I know the story, I want to savor the wonderful prose.

Collectors might be interested in tracking down a signed (by the author) limited edition that Harper-Collins has also produced. It features a color frontispiece by the book's illustrator as well as almost twenty pages of extra material that includes some more black and white art as well as commentaries by Gaiman himself. At around twenty-five dollars, it's a good price for a collectible book.

Or you can buy the peanutpress e-book version, which also includes the additional material, at around eleven dollars.

Jeff Zaleski (essay date 28 July 2003)

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SOURCE: Zaleski, Jeff. “Comics! Books! Films!: The Arts and Ambitions of Neil Gaiman.” Publishers Weekly 250, no. 30 (28 July 2003): 46-57.

[In the following essay, Zaleski provides an overview of Gaiman's writing projects in the media of comics, books, and film. Zaleski includes interview material with Gaiman, his agent, and his publishers.]



It's a warm L.A. night and Cha Cha Cha! is jumping. The staff of DC Comics and their supporters are crowded into the trendy restaurant on this first night of BEA [Book Expo America] 2003. Everyone is talking, laughing, sometimes shouting. PW has to lean forward to hear what Karen Berger is saying. The executive editor of DC's Vertigo imprint has just placed pages from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: Endless Nights on our table.

Berger tells us how Gaiman collaborated with an international “dream team” of artists for his return to the comics series that made his reputation, seven years after he quit comics to concentrate on books and screenplays. We flick through the pages. There are gorgeously colored drawings of two armies clashing, and of a man—or is it a woman?—of great beauty, with yellow eyes. Elsewhere a young woman, her face white and her hair black, peers out at us as if she knows us. The pages are bold, seductive, kinetic.

DC has big hopes for this September hardcover release—bestseller hopes. There's recently been a “dramatic growth” in the bookstore market for graphic novels, Berger says; reason enough, we think, for BEA organizers to have granted comics their own pavilion and a day of seminars. Yet “dramatic” is relative; in 2002, while the graphic novel market reached an estimated $100 million, a 33٪ hike from 2001, graphic novels accounted for fewer than 1٪ of the books sold in America. Graphic novels remain the wayward child of the publishing world, as apt to be found in comics retail stores, which aren't tracked on bestseller lists, as in bookstores, as understood and appreciated by most in book publishing as a nose-ringed teen is by her parents.

Guests migrate from table to table as others arrive. Music thrums over us from the bar area, adding to the din. Plates of spicy salad and jerked chicken clatter onto our table, nearly splashing the Sandman pages. A man walks up to us and speaks with fervor about the importance of comics to the world. Perhaps comics, he exclaims, are creating a mythology every bit as important as those created by the Greeks and Romans thousands of years ago.

Gaiman's Sandman series is considered by some to offer a new mythology. Published in 75 monthly 24-page issues by DC from December 1988 to March 1996, plus one special double issue, and now collected into 10 graphic novels, the series rocked the comics world with its literate, visionary tales of the godlike siblings known as the Endless. Gaiman's stories about Dream, aka the Sandman, Lord of the Dreaming, about his pale, black-haired sister Death, and about Delirium, Desire, Destruction, Despair and Destiny crowned comics bestseller lists for years, drawing an unprecedented number of female readers, and won awards galore. With its vast scale, encompassing eons from the birth of time to today, with its gallery of unforgettable characters, from gods to serial killers to Shakespeare and Marlowe, with its marvelous art and wit, ferocity, compassion and astonishing hipness, it spun comics in a more sophisticated direction and earned the indelible loyalty of fans, many of whom took it as a guide to life, the figure of the Sandman, tall, thin and brooding, helping to spawn the Goth movement along the way.

To comics folk, Gaiman's return to Sandman is a second coming. How will it play in the mainstream book market? The last graphic novel to scale national lists, Art Spiegelman's Maus, did so more than 10 years ago, but the excitement at BEA about graphic novels and Endless Nights reflects a medium climbing to the edge of commercial and critical embrace. Perhaps all that comics need is that one book, that one author, to pull them over the edge. Will Endless Nights be the tipping point?

We've heard that Gaiman might show for dinner, but he doesn't. The next day we spot him at the fair. He could be an older brother to the woman we saw in Endless Nights, in his black T-shirt, jeans and leather jacket, dark hair shagging over his pale face. A gawky guy clutching a mess of comics and books is standing close to Gaiman, handing him item after item. Gaiman signs each one quietly, patiently.


The seventh-floor elevators at DC Comics open to a panoramic view of Metropolis, a huge mural of the city centered by the rising bulk of the Daily Planet building. The mural extends to a waiting area of four boxy chairs in red, yellow and blue. They're Superman's colors, and they're repeated in the nearby life-size statue of the Man of Steel, his arms thrust high in flight. Three phone booths stand along a wall, as does a pedestal displaying a chunk of mysterious green rock.

As Peggy Burns, DC's publicity manager, leads us to the office of Paul Levitz, we spot the DC president and publisher seated in a conference room; at another chair sits a life-size statue of Clark Kent. Levitz's office is a showcase of comic books, graphic novels and superhero figurines; near his desk hangs a embroidered portrait of Batman. Levitz joins us within moments. He's trim with glasses and wears a suit. Noticing the can and glass of Diet Coke we've placed on his desk, he slips a coaster beneath each and responds to our first question.

“Will Endless Nights be a tipping point?” Levitz raps twice on the desk. “The product itself is the first step in whether or not you can make this the tipping point. We're putting out a product that is literally world class.” He considers his words. “In many ways,” he suggests, “the American comic industry has been evolving, like a child saying, ‘When I grow up I wanna be … '”

Comics have been growing up for more than a century. The first comic strip, The Yellow Kid, appeared in the 1890s. Forty years later came the first comic book, the familiar serial tabloid sold mostly in comic book stores, with Funnies on Parade. Detective Comics, or DC, was formed in 1937. A year later DC introduced the first superhero, Superman, in Action Comics #1, joined by Batman in 1939 and, in the '50s and '60s, by the wonders created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel. The industry's growth has been seriously arrested twice, first by the adoption in 1954 of the infamous Comics Code, which imposed censorship and stifled creativity, then by the collapse of the collectors' bubble market in the early '90s, which sent sales plummeting. Yet comics continued to mature. Underground work like R. Crumb's Zap Comix swarmed to prominence in the 1960s, and 1978 saw the birth of the graphic novel with Will Eisner's A Contract with God, followed by revelatory works like Alan Moore's Watchmen, Frank Miller's Dark Knight (Batman) series and Gaiman's Sandman.

“At last,” continues Levitz, “you reach that point in maturity when you begin saying, ‘I want to create something that will matter beyond me.’ And that's when you have something that's worthy of being the tipping point.” Levitz raps on the desk again. “Neil,” he adds, “is one of a very short list of creative people who altered the limits of what the field can do. Endless Nights will be viewed as a benchmark.”

Burns offers a tour of the DC offices. In the library, cliffs of steel cabinets secure vast archives. We roll one drawer open to extract a copy of Action Comics #1. In mint condition this comic can fetch up to $200,000 on the collectors' market, but someone has dismembered DC's vault copy, separating and laminating each page. On another floor, we visit the offices of the perpetually rambunctious MAD Magazine. Front and center stands a bronze bust of Alfred E. Neuman as combat soldier; original artwork for classic MAD covers lines the walls. Another elevator ride brings us to a virtual Gotham, backdropped by a mural of Batman's fabled city and embellished with a projected Bat Signal, a small-scale Batmobile and George Clooney's Batman costume. Steel containers and siding, looking cold and rusty, hulk in corners, while around them DC staffers, mostly young, bustle at their tasks.


Neil Gaiman writes far from Gotham's debris. Today, the sky is heavy with thunderheads, darkening the surrounding fields to emerald, as Lorraine Garland drives us up to a large brick Victorian house. Within this countryside where cows outnumber people and farms abound, Gaiman lives with his wife, Mary, his youngest daughter, Maddy, and Garland, the Gaimans' general assistant.

The author and his wife greet us in an immaculate kitchen. Gaiman is dressed in black again and hasn't shaved. He looks rested, and fit enough despite a slight paunch. He asks after our flight, and suggests a cup of tea as a restorative, then takes us outside, where he shows us his small garden and frets about a row of drooping pea plants. He's been away on a European tour, he explains, and hasn't been able “to pass on his complete knowledge” about pea-growing to Garland. He seems genuinely apologetic about the peas.

Gaiman was born in [Portchester], England, in 1960, his father a businessman and his mother a pharmacist. After graduating from the Whiting School in 1977, he skipped higher education in favor of a writing career, initially as a journalist. He married Mary McGrath in 1985 and, in 1992, moved to America with her and his two older children. He settled in this area, he says, mostly for the privacy, and to keep fans away; he prefers that we not mention the exact location of his home. The land is a refuge of trees and fresh air, and clearly Gaiman loves it; he happily shows us his blueberry bushes and, down a path, a gazebo where he used to write. But 10 years in America, plus the reach of the Internet, have rendered him a man without a country.

“When I go back to England,” he explains in the English accent he retains, “I am no longer regarded as English. But here I'm not regarded as American. From 1992 to 1997 I worked very hard at living in America. I watched a lot of late night TV. Now the world is redefined. My paper of choice is the Guardian, which I read online, and my TV is as likely to come from Australia as from the US. So I don't think of myself as anything anymore. It's not a bad thing for a writer not to feel at home. Writers—we're much more comfortable at parties standing in the corner watching everybody else having a good time than we are mingling.”

We go back inside, dodging a Super-Soaker wielded by Maddy, and pass through rooms graced with fine furniture. A glorious painting in red by illustrator Yoshitaka Amano brightens a Japanese-themed living room, and Gaiman points with pride to an ink drawing by Harry Clarke, an Irish artist in the Beardsley manner whom he collects. We go down to the basement, into an archive room crammed with comics and books preserved in plastic bins. Gaiman checks on the several humidifiers in one corner, plugging one in and pouring dirty water from a can labeled “Humidifier in a Can” into a hole in the floor. The next room is his library, center-pieced by a leatherbound 9th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The walls are dense with books, awards and plaques tucked into every cranny, including one congratulating Gaiman as the Most Collectible Author of 2002. But it's now getting late, so Gaiman drives us in his cluttered Toyota Camry back to our hotel. We will meet tomorrow for our formal interview.



In 1872, a descendant of John Jacob Astor built a mansion on a leafy Manhattan side street to serve as his counting and money house. The building's walls of marble, plaster and dark wood, its slate tile floors and its stained glass windows made it a fitting home for the man's fortune, as did the walk-in safe in the building's basement. Today the mansion hosts one of publishing's most veteran dealmakers, literary agent Al Zuckerman, and the firm he founded in 1974 and still heads, Writers House.

Gaiman's agent, Merrilee Heifetz, works here. Dressed in a black pants suit that sets off her red hair, she greets PW in her office, where bookshelves (built by Zuckerman's son, Heifetz says) support editions by Gaiman and her other clients, including Laurell K. Hamilton, Bruce Sterling and Octavia Butler. Joining us for a minute, Zuckerman, smooth and cordial in an expensive suit, informs us that the building is in the manner of Aesthetic Movement, then takes his leave.

Heifetz explains that she first encountered Gaiman in 1988, when, as the American rep for a publishing house owned by the Who's Pete Townshend, she sold a book by “this young guy named Neil Gaiman, about Douglas Adams, for far more money than anyone thought it would.” She looks steadily at us over glasses perched on her nose. “And of course half of that money belonged to this young journalist who barely had two pennies to rub together.” Gaiman soon signed with Heifetz, proclaiming, she recalls, that “I write comic books, and I'm going to write novels someday.”

Heifetz repped mostly Gaiman's comics until, in 1990, he kept his promise, producing Good Omens, a humorous tale of Armageddon co-authored with Terry Pratchett—the first major step into the shape-shifting that would mark his career. Six years later he took another step, delivering to the BBC six half-hour teleplays for Neverwhere, about a young man's adventures in a fantastic underground London. Intending to novelize Neverwhere himself, Gaiman told Heifetz that “I want a really big book deal with this. A million-dollar book deal, and I want a really good film agent. We're going to have to go to L.A. and meet people.”

“We came away with Jon Levin of CAA,” says Heifetz. “I made the book deal first. It was with Morrow/Avon. They bought Neverwhere and a short story collection [Smoke and Mirrors] and another novel [Stardust]. It was for nearly a million.” Spending that much on an author who'd yet to crack bestseller lists was a shot in the dark, but one that paid off with strong sales on Neverwhere and, in 2000, a major national bestseller in American Gods. That epic about a struggle between ancient European gods and younger, brasher American deities outsold Gaiman's previous books by nearly two to one.

“What made the difference was his Web site,” Heifetz says. “Six months before American Gods was to come out, he started the site, and he started his blogger. And people started to visit. By the time American Gods came out, they went out and bought, and the book hit the lists.” There are dozens of sites devoted to Sandman and Gaiman, but none like Gaiman's own ( It's a slick, immensely entertaining information and promotion machine, featuring a message board with more than 3,000 registered members and 200,000 posts, but most impressively Gaiman's blogger, where he converses at length with fans nearly every day about anything, but most often about his work. The site reportedly draws hundreds of thousands of regular visitors.

Gaiman followed American Gods with another shift, his first children's chapter book, Coraline, about a girl trapped in a parallel home with her “other parents,” who have buttons for eyes. “He had been writing it for years,” Heifetz says. “The advance was not huge. But the royalties have been, and now it's won awards [two ALA citations; a Stoker from the Horror Writers Association]. And it's broken Neil out to a new audience.” An audience, we point out, he's expanding further this summer with The Wolves in the Walls, a whimsical HarperChildren's tale of wolves invading a home that looks a lot like Gaiman's, featuring a girl who looks just like his daughter Maddy. English artist Dave McKean contributed the rich, jazzy illustrations to Wolves. McKean collaborates with Gaiman on nearly all of Gaiman's illustrated books, and he created all the Sandman covers, including the one for Endless Nights.

Gaiman works at a furious pace to produce all this product—and to promote it. He's known for extensive tours jammed with overflow signings. “He just doesn't stop,” says Heifetz. “He went to Brazil, and he got this huge turnout. Who knew? And they want him to come back. I said, ‘Neil, you cannot go to Brazil again, it's going to take two weeks of your life.’ And he said, ‘Yes, but I could be the #1 bestselling author in Brazil.’” Heifetz suggests that Gaiman's primary goal is neither fortune nor fame, however, but the freedom to create what he wants when he wants.


Gaiman picks us up 45 minutes early this morning, explaining that he's lost his broadband so he couldn't watch “digital dailies” of the fantasy film Mirror Mask, a Jim Henson Pictures production that he wrote and that Dave McKean is now directing in England. We drive for 20 minutes, through a small town and forest, until we reach a wood-framed motel situated above a gleaming lake. Gaiman rents the end unit, and it is here, in what he calls his “cabin,” that he writes in splendid isolation, with two rules: no reading and no Web surfing. The one-bedroom unit can get hot, so he turns on a fan that will drone noisily throughout our talk.

“I know that I'm an oddity,” Gaiman tells us with a characteristically complex mix of humor, frankness and self-awareness. “I seem to be fairly good at moving from medium to medium. What I really am is a storyteller. And what I'm fighting for is just to be allowed to do what I want to do next. It isn't the idea that I'm the ‘bestselling author that no one's ever heard of’ [a title given to Gaiman by Forbes magazine] that rankles. What rankles is that I'm sitting here with a readership and an audience in numbers that most people never dream of, and that every time I do a tour with a new publicity organization, they do not understand this.”

Gaiman draws from more discrete readerships than probably any other bestselling writer, because he works successfully in so many media—serial comics, graphic novels, adult novels, children's chapter books and picture books, plays and teleplays and, now, films. It's difficult, he suggests, for professionals in any one field to grasp his success in the others. At the core of his readership are the Sandman fans, as loyal to Gaiman as Potter fans are to Rowling. He recalls that in 1997, when his and Dave McKean's illustrated children's book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, came out, the book “did over 20,000 straight off in hardcover in the comic stores to the Neil Gaiman fans. So there's a built-in readership.” Gaiman cultivates his fan base, not only via his Web site but through the extensive in-person appearances, sometimes building a groundswell of interest far in advance of publication. “I've been doing Wolves in the Walls at readings ever since I wrote it, so from about late '98, early '99. I'm filling 1,000-seater bowls and now each of those 1,000 people is waiting for the book to come out.”

“Why do so many people show up at your signings?” we ask. Like few other authors, Dean Koontz and Clive Barker among them, Gaiman will sign for hours, until the last fan is satisfied.

“I think they want to say ‘thank you.’ Sometimes they don't even have a book. Sometimes they bring you presents, sometimes they burst into tears. One girl fainted. I think you've given them something and you took them somewhere they couldn't have gone on their own.”

Gaiman's work, his ambitions and his will to achieve them are creating greater public awareness of him, and his personal look speeds the process. Like Clancy in his quasi-uniforms and King in his country-cracker duds, Gaiman conjures up an easy-to-grasp image, of a handsome youngish man, sometimes unshaven, clad in all black and, for many years, in shades. “The shades were fun,” Gaiman says, laughing. “The shades mostly came from trying to give people something to cartoon.

“But I'm kind of nervous about the upcoming three months,” he adds. “Because for the last eight, nine years I've been every bit as famous as I would like to be, famous enough to get my phone calls returned. Which is probably saying stuff that I shouldn't be saying, but I really do like existing under the radar. It's a really cool and comfortable place to be.”

We notice a sheaf of comics pages on a sofa. They are in black-and-white, the panels depicting men and women in old English dress—and there's an angel locked in a dungeon. We ask Gaiman what it is.

“It's something I'm doing for Marvel.”



Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief of Marvel Enterprises, is rushing around his office. “There's been an asbestos explosion!” he shouts as he bends to pick up stuff off the floor. Quesada continues to straighten among his piles of comics and books and toys until we sit in the low chair opposite his desk. He then takes the much higher chair behind it and indicates that we should begin.

A celebrated comics writer/artist who took over Marvel editorial in 2000, Quesada has been credited with saving the comics giant from financial and artistic disaster. “Marvel needed to build some bridges with the creative community,” he admits. “There were several key creators over the course of 10 or 15 years that we didn't do the right thing by, so consequently as a company we looked around and wondered why our books weren't that good. Neil was one of the first bridges that I wanted to build.”

Quesada, stocky and solidly built, exudes a vigor that goes with his open-necked black knit shirt and gold chain. “1602 was an instant green light,” he says. “We were raring to go, and I was incredibly honored that Neil was going to do his next big comics project here at Marvel.” The publication in August of the first issue of 1602, illustrated by Andy Kubert, an eight-part series set in Elizabethan England and concerning mutants, a powerful object and an ancestral version of the Marvel universe, marks Gaiman's return to serial comics.

“Why were you ‘incredibly honored'”?

“Neil is one of the top five writers in the history of our industry. He brings a certain amount of cachet. And he always brings his A game.” Quesada's heavy watch clacks against his desk as he makes his point.

1602 initially will appear only in comics stores. But Quesada expects the series to be collected into bookstores by July or August of next year. Marvel's drive for bookstore attention began three years ago, he tells us. “We perceive bookstores as the next feeder system for our industry. Every Wednesday is new comic day at the comic shops. So every Wednesday the true and faithful are there waiting for the boxes to be opened. Most human beings don't shop for anything that way. But there are people who go to the bookstore, and they love the product.” And looking beyond comics, Marvel has just made its first foray into prose books, with the YA novel Mary Jane, about Spider-Man's girlfriend.

When we conclude, Quesada shows us out to a lobby stoppered on one end by huge double doors aflame with images of Marvel's superheroes. An impossibly muscled Hulk rages at the center.


It's interesting to see these black-and-white pages of 1602, to observe a graphic novel in gestation. Like film, comics are a collaborative medium. The most important contributor is often the writer, who dreams the story and provides a script that includes not only storyline, commentary and dialogue but also art direction. “Foreground—the phone. In the background we can see Rick, heading for the phone, and Felix, picking up his bag, and preparing to leave,” runs the script description for page 2, panel 4 of the Sandman episode “Calliope.” An artist will then draw the story (Gaiman has worked with dozens); a letterer will add the words (Gaiman's longtime letterer is Todd Klein); an inker will go over the drawing in ink, and a colorer will transform black-and-white into a rainbow.

Gaiman likes to collaborate and is intent, he says, on playing to the strengths of his colleagues; that's why he refuses to write a comics script until he knows who will draw it. He's also intensely loyal, as evidenced by the duration of his collaborations—not only with Dave McKean and Todd Klein but with Merrilee Heifetz, DC Comics and Harper-Collins. He has a reputation within publishing as a good man. Certainly his work for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund bears this out.

Back at the cabin, Gaiman sits by the front window. He's only a shadow against the intense sunlight that floods the room from behind him. There's fire in his voice as he talks about the Legal Defense Fund, citing cases it has fought, beginning with the State of California's attempt to reclassify comics from “literature” to “signed paintings,” their aim, Gaiman says, “being that if it was signed painting they could collect sales tax on it.” Other cases he relates involve obscenity arrests. For years, Gaiman participated in grueling tours to support the fund. He feels so passionately about its work, he says, because “the First Amendment is something that I think is really, really cool. I'm from England. There is no First Amendment there, no guaranteed freedom of speech.”



Gaiman's film agent is Jon Levin, who speaks with us by phone from his offices at Creative Artists Agency. To date, Gaiman's best-known work in film is his English-language adaptation of the acclaimed Japanese animated movie Princess Mononoke, and the only Gaiman film project currently in production is Mirror Mask. But the author's screen future looks bright. “We're very active on a couple of books of his,” Levin says. “One is Stardust. And he has American Gods, which sundry filmmakers are interested in, like George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh's Section Eight Films. He has a project in development at Pandemonium, which has a deal at Disney, for Coraline. He has a project that is in development at Warner Brothers, called Books of Magic.

“What is Gaiman's appeal to the film world?” we ask. Levin pauses. “His unique vision. Neil is able to synthesize ancient mythology with the current zeitgeist. His characters, no matter how fantastical the world, are essentially human. And I will tell you that on top of all things, he is an amazing human being, and his work stems from his essence as a human being.”


“In 1995, '96,” Gaiman recalls at the cabin, “when I first started getting seriously wooed by Hollywood, I went out with Merrilee and interviewed agents. We got the full William Morris gang bang, all of the different agencies came out to see us. It was very obvious that very few of them got who I was or what I did. And everybody seemed to be out to make a real quick buck on me. Nobody was long term, which is why I wound up with Jon. He got who I was and what I did.”

Gaiman's film dreams are huge but he knows how Hollywood works. He mentions an article in last year's Variety about how “I was the person who had sold the most properties and scripts in Hollywood and had not actually had anything made.” But, he adds, “I think the odds are very good that the next one that I've written will actually happen, which is The Fermata [Nicholson Baker's erotic novel about a man who can stop time], for Robert Zemeckis. After I finished American Gods, I re-read the novel and thought, ‘Okay, it is completely un-filmable but I could do this. …’ We plan to start shooting in the beginning of the year.” Gaiman also expects to spend up to eight months of next year directing his first film, his own adaptation of his Sandman spin-off graphic novel Death: The High Cost of Living, for Pandemonium/Warner Brothers.

The string of recent $100-million grosses for movies based on Marvel properties have doubled Marvel's stock price, and DC intends to follow suit, with Catwoman filming this fall with Halle Berry, and other DC properties in development or pre-production. So what of Sandman? “It's in limbo,” Gaiman says. “The book is much too weird and complicated to be a nice 100-minute movie. Or even three Hollywood movies à la Lord of the Rings.” Numerous screenwriters have chipped their teeth chewing on Sandman, which ran to nearly 2,000 pages in comics form. “The worst of the scripts was the last one I read,” Gaiman recalls. “The Sandman was completely powerless, had been kept under New York for a long time by giant electromagnets, and when they were turned off he was free but he had no superpowers of any kind, and his identical brother had taken over the Dreaming, and … as I'm reading this I'm going, ‘I don't know who this is being written for.’”



Jane Friedman and Cathy Hemming look summer-relaxed yet dressed for business, Friedman in pearls and a pale lime linen suit, Hemming in a black skirt and gray jacket. We can see the sun beating on the terrace adjoining Friedman's office, but the air inside is cool, the light subdued. Gaiman has no new book coming out from Harper adult trade this fall but the house is pushing him, issuing Neverwhere and American Gods in trade paperback. “Why are you making this additional investment in Neil Gaiman?” we ask the Harper CEO.

“We think he is a great talent,” Friedman answers. “And there are people who have not yet discovered him. Once people read Neil they want to read all of Neil, and we should have the books in the right format.”

“He's been successful as a children's author,” adds Hemming, president and publisher of the house's general books group. “He has been very successful as a graphic novelist, and his audios are very successful. He's developing all these constituencies in all these different formats.”

We suggest that by publishing books pitched at varied ages, Gaiman, who is 42, and HarperCollins are training younger readers to enjoy him from the go and to continue reading him as they grow up.

“How wonderful,” Friedman says. “How wonderful! Which is interesting because this is exactly what we used to talk with Michael Crichton about, as his career was building. How do you get the ones who are 14 to become the lifelong fans? It worked with Crichton. There are the fans of Coraline, and there are the parents who are fans of Coraline, so we are building a generation that will follow suit.”

Does Harper have any plans to move into graphic novels in a big way? “I doubt that we'll have a HarperCollins graphic books imprint,” says Friedman. “Of course, if the right illustrated novel comes to us, we would publish it. We're open to anything, but we want to play to our strengths. We're better off sticking to the business we know.”

Gaiman is currently contracted to HarperCollins adult trade for two unpublished novels and a collection of short stories. He has published books with the house since the mid-'90s, weathering a shock when his longtime editor Jennifer Hersey left (Jennifer Brehl now edits him). Friedman expects him to remain. “I think it's a great relationship. There's so much behind him and yet so much in front of him. We're married. We're in the Neil Gaiman business forever. Forever.”

To get an insight into Gaiman's work for children, we call Susan Katz, president and publisher of the house's children's division, whose enthusiasm for Gaiman erupts into a shouted “Yay!” time and again. “He's one of the handful of successful adult writers who knows how to talk to children effectively without talking down to them,” Katz suggests. She mentions that Gaiman “has another children's book in the pipeline. It has a lot to do with graveyards [which also figure in Gaiman's entry in the third volume of the Little Lit series, edited by Art Spiegelman, a graphic novel for kids due out from Harper's Joanna Cotler Books in August].” And Katz expects Gaiman's forthcoming tour for Wolves to excel, because “when Neil tours, all of his fan base turns out. Yay!”

The Sandman mythos has generated a cottage industry in related product. The primary publisher of Sandman sidelines is Chronicle. According to executive editor Sarah Malarkey, current offerings include a Sandman wall calendar and collectible postcards, plus two journals. This fall, Chronicle will publish Sandman: King of Dreams, an illustrated study of the series by Alisa Kwitney. Then there is The Sandman: The Book of Dreams, from Harper-Collins, with stories about the Endless from genre stars including Clive Barker, Gene Wolfe and Tad Williams. DC has issued a collection of Dave McKean's Sandman covers, as well as Hy Bender's The Sandman Companion, and an array of Sandman toys. And smaller presses, too, are hitching to Gaiman's star. Wildside Press has just published Stephen Rauch's scholarly study of the Sandman mythos, Neil Gaiman's “The Sandman” and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth, and the British publisher Titan is releasing in America a newly revised edition of Don't Panic.


For lunch we drive to a cozy spot that features an array of fantastic pies. We each select sour-cream-and-raisin, topped by a cloud of meringue.

“Why do you write fantasy?” we ask.

“You can do so many things with fantasy. At a rock-bottom level, you can concretize a metaphor. Part of it is that, if you're a writer, you can play God. This is my world, you are welcome to come, but I get to call the shots, and I won't be embarrassed to pull in anything I need or want.”

Calling the shots means deciding not only what to write but how to write it, and in American Gods Gaiman tried something new. “There's a style of writing,” he says, forking some meringue, “that I had always admired, which I think of—although there couldn't be two writers further apart—as a Stephen King/Elmore Leonard thing, where what the writer is trying to do is to become invisible. What I tended to do before was the very English thing of saying, ‘Lovely to see you, I am your host, please sit down, I'm going to make you comfortable, I'll bring you a drink, would you like a story?’ The American voice is almost pretending there's nobody writing the story.” Gaiman's gambit worked: American Gods is the only fiction ever to have won all four major speculative fiction awards, including a Hugo, Nebula, Stoker and World Fantasy.

Gaiman informs us that his next novel will be Anansi Boys, set in the world of American Gods but this time with a comedic spin. He considers writing humor a particular challenge, pointing out that “humor and horror and pornography are incredibly similar—you know immediately whether you've got them right or not because they should provoke physiological changes in the person reading.”



Karen Berger, slim and blonde and casually dressed, greets us warmly. She has worked with Gaiman for 15 years, ever since the young author, a lifelong comics fan who was trained to write a comics script by Alan Moore, approached her with his plan to revitalize—and totally transform—a defunct DC superhero known as the Sandman, who caught criminals by knocking them out with sleeping gas. For the past 10 years she has edited Vertigo, DC's prestigious graphic novels line, which publishes all of Gaiman's DC work. “I think it was Vertigo's 10th anniversary that got Neil to commit to a big book for us,” she tells us. “And this was what I was able to get out of Neil. It sounds desperate my saying it that way, but the guy's getting a hell of a lot more money as a book author than he is here. I'm thrilled to get whatever he'll write for us.”

What Gaiman has written for DC is a comics masterpiece, a book that, in its seven tales, one devoted to each of the Endless, each illustrated by a different artist, demonstrates the enormous range of the comics medium both in content and style. The seven artists bring visuals as disparate as the sharply delineated, reader-friendly work of P. Craig Russell, who drew the “Death” story, and the deliriously jagged paintings of Barron Storey for “Fifteen Portraits of Despair.” Berger comments, “Each story is like a novella, rich in narrative and character and texture. And that's even without the art. It's such a great deal, too, $25 to get 160 pages of amazing story and art.”

A great deal, but will the public buy? “I think the tide is just starting to turn,” says Berger. “We're moving up to crest but we obviously haven't crested yet. We've lined up a ton of publicity, including ET,USA Today, bookstores. The buyers recognize this book, so we're getting a lot of support.”

“You'll want to convince folk who never bought a graphic novel to buy one.”

“If it's going to happen with anyone, it's going to happen with Neil and Sandman.


After lunch, we return to the cabin to wrap things up. We ask Gaiman about his thinking process in the creation of Endless Nights.

“I'm often asked, ‘Where do ideas come from?’ The best that I can point to is that ideas come from two or more things coming together. You combine them and suddenly it's, ‘Oh, nobody's ever done that before. That will be really fun.’ In comics, very often for me it's somebody asking, “How would you like to do something for artist X?’

“Manara [Milo Manara, the artist for the Desire story in Endless Nights, about a young woman who finds love briefly only to see her lover slain, and who then takes revenge] is a lovely example. I had this great odd idea of a way to write the story. And if it works, by the time I get to the end page, where she's turning around and she's talking directly to us over a span of 50 years and essentially dying in the last panel, it's going to be absolutely beautiful. I pulled that off only because Manara gave me that last page, where she ages from 20 to 70 and is somehow recognizable. This is a comics thing because you're seeing her age on the page, while the images remain static in a way that wouldn't have worked in a film. In a film she'd be talking to us and you'd have to do a 60-years dissolve. As a prose story you might well have wanted to end it earlier. Here there are six inexorable panels that do something in comics that I couldn't have done in any other medium.”

The sun moves low over the lake and we return to the house. There we admire a World Fantasy Award, shaped as a craggy bust of H. P. Lovecraft, and one of Gaiman's Stokers, a casting of Poe's House of Usher, with a little door that opens at the front. Gaiman says that he doesn't want Coraline's Stoker mentioned on the paperback edition of the novel, as “it would frighten too many parents.”

Driving us back to our hotel, Gaiman muses. “Do you know what the coolest thing about Endless Nights is? It's seven short stories that are, respectively, a very realistic short story about a contemporary soldier that is melded with a weird sort of Casanova fantasy. A really cool historical thing based on a fragment of an anecdote about a Scottish clan related by George Fraser. A high fantasy set at the beginning of the universe with an animated sun. An out-there, para-literary, post-modern sequence. … Not one of those stories is even in the same genre as any of the other stories.

“I did it right, I did the thing that people remember and love. I did this thing that now, what, 10 million people have read, 20 million people have read, you know?”

Later that night we're channel surfing when we come across a show on the History Channel about comics. There's Stan Lee, and Batman writer Frank Miller, and there's Gaiman, unshaven and in black, caught while on tour, his face worn from lack of sleep, speaking with passion about the medium he loves, a medium that has found its lead title, and perhaps even its tipping point, in his latest work.

John Giuffo (review date 17 September 2003)

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SOURCE: Giuffo, John. “Re-Enter Sandman.Village Voice 48, no. 38 (17 September 2003): 48.

[In the following review, Giuffo offers high praise for Gaiman's Sandman: Endless Nights.]

Neil Gaiman's improbable recipe for delicious literary success: Take one young British journalist disillusioned with the comics he loved as a teen, introduce an issue of Alan Moore's early-'80s boundary-expanding Swamp Thing, stir in a formerly cornball but reclaimed Golden Age DC Comics character called Sandman, season liberally with history, myth, and biblical allegory, stir in generous helpings of word of mouth, and simmer for eight years. Let congeal, then cut into 11 volumes. When cool, add a healthy dollop of gripping fantastic prose, a dash of TV fame (preferably of the BBC miniseries variety), and swaddle in black. Garnish with more Sandman for texture, Serves millions.

One glance at the giddy crowd during a Gaiman reading held last month at the Wall Street Borders and it's obvious just how popular he is. While he read from The Wolves in the Walls, his latest book for children, it's safe to say that most in attendance were drawn by their love of Gaiman's brooding, lanky personification of dreams, the Sandman. After a seven-year break from writing the fantastical-historical-mythical stories that made him famous, Gaiman has returned to his best-loved characters with The Sandman: Endless Nights, a dizzyingly lush grouping of seven tales, each focused on a different sibling in the family known as the Endless. The intervening years have been busy ones for the prolific Gaiman—three children's books, three novels, two collections, and a smattering of TV and movie projects—but it's still The Sandman that inspires the most fervent dedication.

Lisa Feuer is one such devotee: a thin, pale goth mom—that's right, a goth mom—who brought her 13-month-old son, Sasha, to the signing. “He actually came to Neil's last signing when he was 10 days old,” beams Feuer, an a&r rep for darkwave label Projekt Records.

When I tell Gaiman at a breakfast interview the following day that I don't want to pigeonhole him, but that I plan to quote her for this piece, he chuckles and says, “Of course you will.” The 43-year-old Gaiman has a well-earned reputation for being generous to his readers, usually staying at readings for hours until every last fan gets a signature. “But for every goth mom, you have a skinny art chick or a tall science fiction fan or a grandma,” he says. “The thing that fascinates me is this incredibly weird, wonderful cross section.”

Credit his ever diversifying body of work; from the Douglas Adams-y comic novel Good Omens (co-written with Terry Pratchett) to his New York Times bestseller, American Gods, to his growing collection of children's books. In addition to attracting an increasingly eclectic readership, Gaiman's forays into prose fiction have had the effect of getting his comics work—and, indeed, the comics medium—taken more seriously by mainstream media bent on infantilizing the form.

That's not to say that Gaiman set out to create a seminal, genre-busting work of modern mythmaking. “When I was writing Sandman, if I had an agenda, the agenda was purely and simply the idea of, ‘Can I write a comic that will get somebody like me to go down to a comics shop once a month and spend money to find out what happens next?’” he says, “I was my audience.”

Luckily, that audience has grown: The Sandman series has sold over 7 million copies to date, in 19 countries and 13 languages. DC Comics is betting that Endless Nights will be a huge hit, and Gaiman expects that it will be the first graphic novel since Art Spiegelman's 1992 Pulitzer-winning Maus to reach the Times bestseller list.

One look at the book proves that such hopes aren't unfounded. With illustrations by an impressive group of international artists, including Barron Storey, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Miguelanxo Prado, Endless Nights both delivers on the high expectations of longtime readers and surprises with its millennium-spanning variety. Each of the seven short stories focuses on one member of the Endless family—Death, Desire, Dream (the Sandman), Despair, Delirium, Destruction, and Destiny—and explores the histories and evolution of these anthropomorphized manifestations of human constants. Whereas Gaiman's Sandman series, which ran from 1988 to 1996, often used the title character to explore mythology and history through the prism of Dream, and of dreams, this latest installment uses contemporary allusion and mythological allegory to explore the roles played by the seven Endless siblings in human—and cosmic—events. They aren't gods, Gaiman takes pains to explain, though they are godlike, and their existence doesn't depend on belief in them (a theme Gaiman visited in American Gods, to a different, though familiar, end).

One of the most impressive stories in Endless Nights is the second, “What I've Tasted of Desire.” Set in a medieval Nordic village, it tells the tale of a beautiful townswoman who wants nothing more than to capture the heart of the tribe's comely, virile prince. She finds his philandering infuriating, however, and she seeks out the assistance of the hermaphroditic Desire in her efforts to snag her man. Her mastery of desire (though, finally, not of Desire) proves to be, for all of its thirst-quenching satisfaction, but one early, oft remembered episode in her otherwise unremarkable life. Gaiman had Italian eroticist Milo Manara's work in mind when he wrote the tale, and the final product is a seamless melding of the author's mytho-historical storytelling skill and of Manara's Heavy Metal-style spank-mag tendencies. It's an amazing instance of an author bringing out an artist's best, and, without revealing too much, the last page is a prime example of something that's only possible in comics. “That's my fuck-off page,” explains Gaiman. “If you're telling me that comics are a lesser medium, you can fuck off because you can't do this in any other medium.”

Even without the novels, the children's books, the BBC miniseries (Neverwhere), and the movies-in-development (his Sandman onetime spin-off Death: The High Cost of Living is slated to start production next year), Gaiman still would have had a profound impact on comics, opening the form up to new styles, subjects, and possibilities.

“I remember once ranting [about the state of the comics industry] to Dave Sim, who did Cerebus, and he said, ‘So what are you doing about it?’” Gaiman says, “And I thought about it for a minute, and I said, Well, I'm writing good comics. And I'm really pleased I did, because now I can look at those 10 volumes of Sandman and go, Look, this was something that meant something.”

Charles De Lint (review date December 2003)

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SOURCE: De Lint, Charles. Review of The Wolves in the Walls, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Fantasy & Science Fiction 105, no. 6 (December 2003): 26-7.

[In the following review, De Lint describes The Wolves in the Walls as “a splendid foray into the dark and strange mind of Gaiman.”]

I'd been looking forward to this book [The Wolves in the Walls] ever since I first heard Gaiman talk about it on a panel at the 2002 World Fantasy Convention. Gaiman, it turns out, is one of those rare writers who can make a work-in-progress sound really fascinating. Usually, listening to that sort of thing makes for more tedium than I care to experience (don't tell me about the book, write it and let me read it on my own!), but Gaiman's brief description of a plucky young girl who realizes that wolves live inside the walls of her parents' house, and who then goes on to drive the family out so that they have to live at the bottom of the garden, promised to deliver a welcome helping of dark whimsy.

I was disappointed, however, when a galley arrived in my P.O. box and I realized that The Wolves in the Walls wasn't so much like Coraline (a short novel with illustrations) as The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (a children's picture book). But the disappointment only lasted as long as it took me to get to the third page where Lucy first hears noises in the walls.

What follows is another splendid foray into the dark and strange mind of Gaiman, who, if nothing else, never delivers a story that takes you where you think it will. The prose here is very simple. There's no age given—probably because the publisher knows that adults will pick up a Gaiman book for themselves as readily as they buy one for their children—but I'd guess it's in the neighborhood of five and up. You might want to vet the story and pictures for possible nightmare inducing, though kids are far more resilient than we adults think they are.

McKean's art won't necessarily be to everyone's taste—it's a bit confrontational, rather than typical picture book pretty—but I love the look of it, and I'm sure children will, too.

Stephen Rauch (essay date 2003)

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SOURCE: Rauch, Stephen. “‘Dream a Little Dream of Me …’: The Relationship of Dreams and Myth in Campbell, Jung, and Gaiman's Sandman,” and “The Role of the Artist and the Art of Storytelling in The Sandman.” In Neil Gaiman's “The Sandman” and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth, pp. 22-37; 117-37. Holicong, Penn.: Wildside Press, 2003.

[In the following two essays, Rauch discusses the relationship between dream and myth in Gaiman's Sandman series, drawing on the theories of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell to demonstrate the ways in which the stories function as a modern myth. The second essay focuses specifically on the role of stories and storytelling in the Sandman stories.]


“A dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society's dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.”

—Joseph Campbell

“Dreams are weird and stupid and they scare me.”

—Rose Walker

To associate myths and dreams with one another is hardly a new enterprise. Religious traditions going back thousands of years have viewed dreams as a source of knowledge and intuition, and have connected this information with the central narratives of their traditions. If myth is to be seen as a living phenomenon that connects to all aspects of people's lives, then dreams cannot be ignored—after all, we spend a third of our lives in the realm of dreams. Modern psychologists tell us that dreams are essential to mental and physical health, but they are only telling us what we knew all along. Still, in modern times, the connection between myths and dreams has come even more into the fore. In the early twentieth century, doctors began to notice that the dreams and visions of their patients bore a striking resemblance to the motifs and narratives of various religious traditions, traditions with which the patients often had no familiarity. With the advent of Carl Jung's theory of the collective unconscious, a new era of relationship between myth and dream was ushered in. The claim was that not only do myths and dreams share material and patterns, they come from the same place: the human psyche. This theory was developed even further by later scholars, such as Joseph Campbell, who drew analogies between the dreams of an individual, and the myths of a people.

Campbell's theory brings us to the matter at hand: what is the relationship between myth and dream in The Sandman? Certainly, this is at least a good place to start, as the series is a myth that in many places is about dreams and how they affect the lives of dreamers. Of course, the connection is even stronger than that. The central character in Sandman is Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. He presides over the Dreaming, the collective realm where dreams do not merely reflect reality; they are reality. Simply put, he lives in dreams, and as a constituent of consciousness, he is the psychological function of dreaming. Beyond Dream (the character), the structure of Sandman reflects the kinship between myths and dreams. The Dreaming is inhabited by characters taken from myth, most notably Eve, Cain, and Abel. The Dreaming itself, I would argue, is a dramatization of Jung's “collective unconscious,” making concrete what he perceived in metaphor. Finally, according to both Gaiman and Campbell, the gods themselves come from dreams, and are born and nurtured in dreams (of course, there are also other characters in the Dreaming besides gods). And in The Sandman, dreams are respected as their own form of reality. While some theories reductively pigeonhole dreams as reflections of neuroses, in Gaiman's universe, dreams are real, and this fact points to another theme in Gaiman's work, respect for inner realities. It is never “just” a dream. Rather, it is a dream, but dreams have a supreme importance. What better place, then, to start with a series about how myths are made, born, and die, than with an examination of the role of dreams. Thus, we take a ride into dreams. Pay no attention to the man in black.

One of the key principles of the relationship between myths and dreams is that they are somehow connected. Campbell says that “indeed, between the worlds of myth and dream there are many instructive analogies. When we leave the field of our waking lives … we descend into a timeless realm of the unconscious” (Transformations 206). He continues, that in dreams, “the logic, the heroes, and the deeds of myth survive into modern times” (Hero with a Thousand Faces, 4). Gaiman takes this idea to the next level, and in doing so makes a pronouncement about the nature of the gods themselves: that gods are in fact magnified dreams. With a psychological interpretation of myths, such as that used by Campbell and Jung, saying “the gods” does not refer to some outer reality, but to an inner one. Campbell says “the archetypes of mythology (God, angels, incarnations, and so forth) … are of the mind” (Masks 583). He also refers to the transformative power of religion as leading “not into outer space but into inward space, to the place from which all being comes, into the consciousness that is the source of all things, the kingdom of heaven within” (Power 56). In a similar vein, the gods become metaphors of inner “potentialities;” thus, myth, at its heart, is about people, and their inner worlds. Campbell asks, “What is a god? A god is a personification of a motivating power or a value system that functions in human life and the universe—the powers of your own body and of nature. The myths are metaphorical of spiritual potentiality in the human being, and the same powers that animate our life animate the life of the world” (Power 22). Thus, myths are metaphorical of a deeper truth. Elsewhere, Campbell states that “gods are all metaphors of this ultimate mystery, the mystery of your own being” (Transformations 155). Beyond the fact that the gods are metaphors lies a second point, that gods are only as valid in that they reflect some aspect of our being. We care about gods not because they control fire or water or lightning, but because they are a part of us. Campbell also says that “all the gods are within: within you—within the world” (Masks 650). Put another way, “the source of the gods is in your own heart” (Hero's Journey 128). Thus, ultimately, myths are about us. And the realization of this fact is an important step for more than one character in Sandman. Of course, although dreams and myth are related, there are important differences between them, as we will see.

With this shift, from gods as physical beings to gods as metaphors of aspects of ourselves, the relationship of myth to dream comes into focus. Just as gods can function as symbols, so can elements from our dreams. The next step, then, is to identify the gods with dreams. Campbell says that “all the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds, are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. That is what myth is. Myth is a manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images, of the energies of the organs in conflict with each other” (Power 39). Then, he states that “the myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth” (40). Elsewhere, he says “Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche” (Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, 19). At this point, if we are to accept Campbell's psychological reading of myth, the relationship between myth and dream seems well-established.

In the Power of Myth videos, Campbell also says that “myths and dreams come from the same place” (Tape 1). Of course, exactly what that “place” is may be a matter of debate. For Campbell (as for Jung) it was the unconscious, or at least the psyche. For Gaiman, it is the Dreaming. From Campbell's discussion, the most important concept in relation to The Sandman is that of gods as magnified dreams. At first glance, however, such a reading might seem as reductive as those against which Campbell rails. After all, if the gods are all metaphors, then they do not really exist. However, with The Sandman, we are dealing with a myth, a work of art, in which such beings can exist without our having to worry about whether or not they exist in the real world. In fact, one of the lessons of Sandman is that inner, imaginary worlds are just as real and valid as the solid, “real” world, and that each one of us has not just one inner world, but many.

Returning to Campbell, then, the flip-side of the gods' status as metaphors and magnified dreams, (the other side of the coin, if you will) is what happens after the gods have left the realm of dreams. In Gaiman's work, this stage is eloquently described by Ishtar, once Astarte, a goddess, now working in a seedy strip club, just before she goes off to her death: “I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there's no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams … And what comes after, not even we know” (Sandman 45:20). This quotation is filled with implications. First, of course, is the association of gods with dreams. Gods and goddesses start their journey in dreams. From one dreamer, they can spread to others, until an entire people believes in them. And one day, after being nurtured in dreams, they step out into the world, becoming gods in their own right. The immediate implication of this journey is to confirm Campbell's notion of gods as magnified dreams. However, Gaiman's treatment of the subject also runs much deeper. One implication of this is that gods, often said to be immortal, are in fact very mortal. They depend on people's worship for their very lives. Sandman is full of stories of gods who have been forced to deal with the loss of worship. For some, their time has passed, while for others, the modern “demythologization” has taken its toll. And without worship, they will die. The character Death, at one point, tells us that this process takes a while, but it is bound to happen, as “Mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country” (Sandman 20:21). This “dream country” is the province of the Sandman. And while religious traditions are filled with accounts of the gods “needing” the sacrifices that people make to them, nowhere else is the gods' dependence identified with belief to the degree that it is in Sandman. And this need for belief works in both directions. Just as gods need us, so do we have a need to believe in them.

As Destruction tells us, there is no such thing as a one-sided coin. And the flip-side to the gods' needing people for worship is that we need them just as much. Frank McConnell, in his preface to the Sandman: Book of Dreams, asks the question, “How do gods die? And when they do, what happens to them then? You might as well ask, how do gods get born? All three questions are, really, the same question. And they all have a common assumption: that humankind can no more live without gods than you can kill yourself by holding your breath” (2, emphasis mine). Just as gods need us, so do we need them. Since the time of the Enlightenment, people have moved further and further into secularization. If we take Freud as the high-water mark of demythization and post-Enlightenment positivism, then his Future of an Illusion epitomizes the already existing argument that religious belief is, in fact, an illusion, and an illusion that mankind can and will (even must) learn to live without. However, we now stand almost a century later, and whether the loss of religious belief has truly helped us is a dubious claim indeed. In other words, we have killed the gods, and are only now beginning to wonder whether doing so was a good idea. For many, the loss of religion has meant the loss of meaning and purpose in life.

Like others, Gaiman understands this situation, what has been called “the spiritual problem of modern humans.” Destruction's formulation of this problem led him to abandon his realm (albeit for slightly different reasons—see part 4). Still, the point here is not simply that the increasing march toward rationality has taken a toll in our spiritual lives. It is that people who think they are living in a world without God (or gods) are really just fooling themselves. If the old gods are lost, we will simply invent new ones. The central point here is the importance of belief. It is belief that is central to keeping gods alive, and it is belief that is equally important for people. McConnell continues his discussion, that “We need gods … not so much to worship or sacrifice to, but because they satisfy our need—distinctive from that of all the other animals—to imagine a meaning, a sense to our lives, to satisfy our hunger to believe that the muck and chaos of daily existence does, after all tend somewhere” (Preface 2). This kind of belief is born of a need for meaning, and it powers the “gods as magnified dreams” dynamic. And this sense of meaning is what makes life worth living.

The second major point in the relationship between myths and dreams lies in the psychological background of both. This background, quite literally, is Carl Jung's idea of the “collective unconscious,” which shows a strong kinship with Gaiman's “Dreaming.” It is from the collective unconscious that both myths and dreams spring. According to Jung, this layer of the unconscious is “not individual but universal,” and “more or less the same in all individuals” (Jung, Archetypes 3-4). Jung agrees with Campbell, that gods and heroes “[dwell] nowhere except in the soul of man,” and that “the psyche contains all the images that have ever given rise to myths” (Archetypes 6-7). It is this part of the psyche that is the source of the images and stories that so captivate us. According to Jung, the collective unconscious is inherited biologically, “[owing its] existence exclusively to heredity” (42). And although the collective unconscious is the source for myths as well, it is dreams that are the “main source” of knowledge about it—being unconscious, dreams are “pure products of nature not falsified by any conscious purpose” (Jung, Archetypes 48). Thus, this layer of the psyche is passed down through the generations biologically, and is the result of the same process of evolution that produced our other forms of instinctive behavior.

The second major point about the collective unconscious, after its residency in the psyche, is that it is the same in all people. Jung says that “from the unconscious there emanate determining influences which, independently of tradition, guarantee in every single individual a similarity and even a sameness of experience, and also of the way it is represented imaginatively. One of the main proofs of this is the almost universal parallelism between mythological motifs, which, on account of their quality as primordial images, I have called archetypes” (Archetypes 58). Under this scheme, the archetypes are the inner psychic images that we form instinctively, and which are the precursors of the religious and mythological images we create. Although I am not qualified to address the veracity of this claim, it might well be that, as other theorists do, Jung overestimated the similarities between mythic traditions and ignored their differences, as some critics have claimed. Still, it is important to note that Jung is not saying that all mythologies are the same. Archetypes are not the images of myth themselves; “it is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas, but of inherited possibilities of ideas” (Jung, Archetypes 66).

Elsewhere, Jung calls the archetypes “primordial,” at least as old as the human species. He also says that “they are the ‘human quality’ of the human being, and the specifically human form his activities take” (Archetypes 78), thus forming one of the things that define us. He claims “the true history of the mind is not preserved in learned volumes but in the living mental organism of everyone” (Psychology and Religion 41). It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these phenomena; Jung says, “I am of the opinion that the psyche is the most tremendous fact of human life” (Archetypes 116). He also says that “psyche is existent, even existence itself” (Psychology and Religion 12). Elsewhere, Jung lays out the psyche as consisting of both the conscious mind and “an indefinitely large hinterland of unconscious psyche” (Psychology and Religion 47). Finally, Campbell has commented on Jung's ideas, as he was influenced by them was well; “The psyche is the inward experience of the human body, which is essentially the same in all human beings … Out of this common ground have come what Jung has called the archetypes, which are the common idea of myths” (Campbell, Power 51). Here, we have an etiological explanation for Campbell's statement that dreams and myths come from the same place; that place is the collective unconscious. And although dreams and myths have important differences, they are inextricably linked.

In another work, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Jung discusses the collective unconscious further. In particular, the production of dreams is important, as “dreams may give expression to ineluctable truths, to philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, [etc] … One thing we ought never to forget: almost half of our lives is passed in a more or less unconscious state” (Modern Man 11). In arguing for the importance of the unconscious, he says “When we see that at least a half of man's life is passed in this realm, that consciousness has its roots there, and that the unconscious operates in and out of waking existence, it would seem incumbent upon medical psychology to sharpen its perceptions by a systematic study of dreams. No one doubts the importance of conscious experience; why then should we question the importance of unconscious happenings?” (15). Later, he tells us that “the collective unconscious, moreover, seems not to be a person, but something like an unceasing stream or perhaps an ocean of images and figures which drift into consciousness in our dreams …” (Modern Man 186). And connected with dreams, always, is myth, and while this connection was made more forcefully by later theorists like Campbell, Jung still makes the connection, as “myth for Jung is the naked expression of the unconscious” (Segal, Jung on Mythology 25-6). At one point, Campbell quotes Jung as saying “the typical motifs in dreams … permit a comparison with the motifs of mythology” (Masks 644). Jung also says that “man has, everywhere and always, spontaneously developed religious forms of expression, and that the human psyche from time immemorial has been shot through with religious ideas. Whoever cannot see this aspect of the human psyche is blind” (Modern Man 122). Commenting on this idea, Anne Ulanov says that “operating in us, independent of our will, [the religious instinct] is a capacity for and urge toward conscious relationship to transpersonal deity” (18). The idea of the psyche as being naturally religious also opens a dialogue between Jung and scholars of religion.

While some depth psychologists have tried to explain religion away as a relic of a past age, and to envision myth as a “quaint” but outmoded system of belief, Jung saw religious experience as an integral part of psychic life, and began to study religion in order to more fully understand the psyche. In Psychology and Religion, he calls religion “one of the earliest and most universal activities of the human mind” (1). In particular, Jung focuses on what Rudolf Otto calls the “numinosum,” which Jung defines as “a dynamic existence or affect, not caused by an arbitrary act of will” (4). In light of this, he defines religion as “the term that designates the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been altered by the experience of the numinosum” (Psychology 6). Anne Ulanov comments on Jung's interest in religion, that he “valued the numinous above all, and he conceived of health as finding life's meaning” (Ulanov 1). Ulanov also sees the need to “humanize archetypal symbols into livable forms in our ordinary lives” (2). As we will see, one of the ways of looking at Sandman is as a story of the humanization of myth. Again speaking of Jung's impact on religion, Ulanov says that he “works to reconnect religion to its archaic instinctive roots, from which the symbols of theology and ritual spring. When we reach and link ourselves to the primordial religious experience deep within us … Religion ceases to be merely an intellectual activity or a systematic exploration of abstract principles of being. Instead, it reaches into our hearts, our souls, our bowels” (23, emphasis mine). It is exactly this immediacy of experience that is missing in many people's lives today. Thus, while he wrote in the field of psychology, Jung was intensely interested in religious experience. It is perhaps his greatest expression of humanity's religious impulse that Jung says “one could almost say that if all the world's traditions were cut off at a single blow, the whole of mythology and the whole history of religion would start over again with the next generation” (Jung on Mythology 211). Under this scheme, it is indeed appropriate to speak of a religious instinct. Asking these kinds of religious questions is as much a part of what it means to be human as anything else.

Having established the relevance of Jung and his theory of the collective unconscious to religion, we can look at these ideas' relevance to The Sandman. First and most apparent is Gaiman's formulation of “the Dreaming,” Morpheus's realm. Essentially, the Dreaming is a place that contains everything that has ever been dreamed or that has been produced in dreams. As Campbell says about dreams, “it is the realm we enter in sleep. We carry it within ourselves forever … All the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization, those other portions of oneself, are there; for such golden seeds do not die” (Hero with a Thousand Faces 17). Everything is there, and more than once Dream moves between people's dreams, taking items as he needs them, or moving through them to where he needs to go (Sandman 1:31 and 5:18, respectively). It is in dreams that Dream's power is paramount, and he has the power to influence them, even as they happen to people.

Another example of the collective unconscious in Sandman is Lucien's library. The library, maintained by Lucien, one of Dream's most conscientious helpers, is unusual indeed, as “somewhere in here is every story that has ever been dreamed,” including stories that were only finished or written in dreams (Sandman 22:2). Elsewhere, Lucien says “the library of Dream is the largest library there never was” (Vertigo Jam 2). It contains “every book that's ever been dreamed. Every book that's ever been imagined. Every book that's ever been lost” (Sandman 57:12). One major divergence between Jung's theory and the Dreaming might be that dreams are (for Jung) to a large extent unstructured, while the Dreaming is somewhat ordered (at least the parts inhabited by Dream). There are other areas of the Dreaming, however: lands and skerries that operate largely without Dream's control (one example being the land in A Game of You). Still, this difference could be attributed to a small scope of vision. At best, in our dreams, we only manage to experience aspects of Dream, and of the Dreaming. But if we were able to see both in a more systematic manner (as we do when we read Sandman), then perhaps our vision would look more like Gaiman's vision. Still, it seems that at least a rough approximation can be made that “the Dreaming” is essentially the same as Jung's collective unconscious, or at least an artist's interpretation of it. The rest comes rather quickly. If we know that there are certain images and motifs that are embedded in our consciousness, then what would happen if they existed with some systematicity or purpose? It might look like the Dreaming.

Another point of dialogue between Jung's theory and The Sandman is the presence of archetypes in the Dreaming. If the archetypes are the way in which the collective unconscious expresses itself, and the Dreaming is the collective unconscious, then one would expect to find the archetypes in the Dreaming. And, in fact, many archetypes do “live” in the Dreaming. Cain and Abel, the first pair of brothers, live next to each other as the keepers of the houses of mysteries and secrets, respectively. And in typical archetypal form, the pair act out the primordial fratricidal killing over and over again (Sandman 2:15). After being killed by Cain, Abel revives, picks himself up, and continues with his duties (Sandman 2:22). Moreover, the archetypes of brothers in conflict and fratricide, represented by Cain and Abel, are revealed to go back even farther than the Jewish and Christian Biblical story we know today. In “A Parliament of Rooks,” Abel reveals that when they came to inhabit the Dreaming, they lived in another world, and did not look even remotely human (Sandman 40:21). This and other passages have led to a mini-controversy among Gaiman's readers. Some have supposed that Gaiman privileges Jewish and Christian mythologies over other systems. Gaiman, however, denies this. The figures these readers point to—Eve, Cain, and Abel among them—are, for Gaiman, part of a pattern much older than the Bible. Eve, who lives in a cave on the borders of nightmare, is there less as the Biblical Eve than as the archetypal mother, and as an expression of the archetypal female, as when the Furies (or the Kindly Ones) visit the Dreaming, they do not attack Eve because “she is an aspect of ourselves” (Sandman 65:14). This is not to say that the characters do not borrow aspects of the Biblical accounts; one of the joys of reading Sandman is to watch Gaiman interweaving different mythologies. Essentially, all the myths are true, in one form or another, in that they coexist in the world of Sandman. Other “archetypal” but less famous characters include the Corinthian (nightmare par excellence), Brute and Glob (force and cunning), Fiddler's Green (who is somewhere between a person and a place) and Mervyn Pumkinhead, the comic relief of the Dreaming. And of course, many other gods and archetypal figures may not live in the Dreaming, but visit there, as in the case of A Season of Mists, or Odin in The Kindly Ones.

After familiarizing ourselves with Jung's ideas concerning the psyche, Campbell's formulations make more sense. Just as the psyche contains a hidden level behind the conscious mind, so Campbell interprets myth as establishing an invisible plane of support for our lives in the world, as “I would say that is the basic theme of all mythology—that there is an invisible plane supporting the visible one” (Power 71). Also, he says that “there are dimensions of your being and a potential for realization and consciousness that are not included in your concept of yourself. Your life is much deeper and broader than you conceive it to be here” (Power 58). Similarly, in Sandman, at the end of The Doll's House, Rose Walker writes that “If my dream was true, then everything we know, everything we think we know is a lie. It means the world's about as solid and as reliable as a layer of scum on the top of a well of black water that goes down forever, and there are things in the depths that I don't even want to think about. It means more than that. It means we're just dolls. We don't have a clue what's really going down, we just kid ourselves that we're in control of our lives” (Sandman 16:17-8). What Rose is grappling with is the idea that the world has hidden depths, very similar to Campbell's “invisible plane of support.” Still, Rose also comes face to face with the fact that pure, unadulterated religious experience can be scary as hell. She finds it in herself to regain hope and move on with her life. Campbell also speaks of mythology as going “down and down and down” (Power 39). The theme of hidden depths runs throughout the series.

And at the same time Rose uses the metaphor of the Doll's House to describe the influence of unseen archetypal forces, Dream makes a similar claim about the gods, or even the Endless themselves, being influenced by men and women. As he tells Desire, “We the Endless are the servants of the living—we are not their masters. We exist because they know, deep in their hearts, that we exist. When the last living thing has left the universe, then our task will be done. And we do not manipulate them. If anything, they manipulate us. We are their toys. Their dolls, if you will” (Sandman 16:22). Here, we have, perfectly balanced against Rose's claims of powerlessness in the face of the gods, a contrasting assessment from Dream, that the gods and even the Endless exist because people know they exist. Thus, not only the world, but individual people too have hidden depths to them. Here, we connect with the earlier formulation of the gods' owing their existence to belief on the part of the people who worship them. Without the belief of humans, the gods wither and die. And again, we have the mutual dependence between deities and people, a dependence that is mediated by inner worlds. The concept of inner worlds also surfaces at the end of A Game of You, as the positive, inner side to Rose's lament. Barbie says at Wanda's grave, “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world—no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds … Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe” (Sandman 37:19). This means that no matter how people appear, they all have unexplored, hidden depths inside them … secret worlds.

Finally, just as myth and dream are linked, and just as we have seen “the power of myth” (from Campbell), so in Sandman we see the power of dreams. One example of this is the “Dream of a Thousand Cats.” In it, we are told the tale that cats were once the dominant species on earth, but that one day the humans rose up, as a leader said, “Dream! Dreams shape the world. Dreams create the world anew, every night” (Sandman 18:17). The humans began to dream of a world in which they were the dominant species, and when enough of them (say, 1000) did so, they changed the world. However, they did more than change the world as it was. Dream (as a cat) tells a cat leader that “they dreamed the world so it always was the way it is now … There never was a world of high cat-ladies and cat-lords. They changed the universe from the beginning of all things, until the end of time” (Sandman 18:19). The issue ends with the cat urging her fellow cats to join together and dream of the world in which they were the lords of it. And although one cat doubts whether you could get a thousand cats to do anything together, the fact remains: dreams have the power to change and shape the world. In theory, there is no telling how many times this has happened, as each time it occurs, the world is changed so that it always was the way it is now. This shows the tremendous power of dreams, as they can recreate the entire world. Here, we see an example of Gaiman's statement that the business of fantasy is to make metaphors concrete. In this case, dreams literally change the world. Further, from this principle, we can accept any number of alternate worlds and histories, places in which things happened differently. Such a system is hinted at in “The Golden Boy,” as different Americas are mentioned according to who was elected president, but the possibilities for dreams to change the world are endless. Put another way, the world we know is but one of many, or even infinite worlds.

Also, there is the episode in which Dream goes to Hell in search of his stolen helmet. After he regains it, Lucifer threatens not to let him leave, and asks what power dreams have in Hell. Dream responds “ask yourselves, all of you … What power would Hell have if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of Heaven?” (Sandman 4:22). The demons are unable to meet his challenge, and he leaves unscathed. Thus, even in Hell, dreams have power, and as in “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” they can change worlds.

Finally, one last qualification must be made concerning the relationship between myths and dreams. Although many useful parallels can be drawn between the two, there are key differences between the two classes of phenomena. Campbell says that “we must note that myths are not exactly comparable to dream. Their figures originate from the same sources—the unconscious wells of fantasy … but [myths] are not the spontaneous products of sleep. On the contrary, their patterns are consciously controlled” (Hero with a Thousand Faces 256). Likewise, Jung says that “strictly speaking, a myth is a historical document. It is told, it is recorded, but it is not itself a dream. It is the product of an unconscious process in a particular social group, at a particular time, at a particular place” (Jung on Mythology 107). While myths are consciously shaped and created, dreams are the raw product of the unconscious mind. Analogous to the split between dream and myth, Gaiman speaks about the difference between “dream-logic” and “story-logic,” as the contents of a dream often do not translate to making a good story. With dreams, “for you it was interesting and fascinating; but it's not a story. And dreams very, very rarely contain stories; but they will contain images” that you can pull up from the depths (Sound & Spirit interview). Thus, crafting stories (or myths) is a very different process than dreaming. It is easy to overlook in one's enthusiasm that dreams and myth are not identical; however, similarities do exist, and both are rich worlds into which we can delve.

At this point, the kinship between dreams and myths should be apparent. Both spring from the biologically-ingrained collective unconscious, and “live” in what Jung called the “vast hinterland of the psyche.” In addition, gods can be seen as magnified dreams, as has been pointed out by both Campbell and Gaiman, revealing a two-way process, in which people need to believe in something to bring meaning to their lives, and gods need people to believe in them in order to survive. On both sides, belief is the key step. The Dreaming can be seen as an approximation of the collective unconscious, and it not only contains many archetypal figures, but also reveals a hidden plane of existence behind the visible one. We spend a third of our lives in Morpheus's realm, and dreams, whether true dreams or waking dreams, have the power to change the world.

Given the relationship between myths and dreams, it makes sense that a modern myth, one that recognizes the “inner” religious life, should be concerned with dreams. By setting so much of The Sandman in dreams, Gaiman is able to weave his own myth with characters from the full body of world mythology. Jung says that the modern gods “are as powerful and as awe-inspiring as ever, in spite of their new disguise—the so-called psychical functions” (Psychology 102). Of course, the formulation of “new” gods coincides exactly with the Endless, who are manifestations of consciousness. What Gaiman adds, though, is that the Endless are so much more than gods; they provide the background and the secret cause by which the gods exist. Gaiman then crafts a new mythology around the existing mythologies. And, as with the older myths, dreams are key in shaping these mythic narratives. We will return later to what exactly is meant by “myth.” In terms of an overall study, Gaiman's use of the Endless and incorporation of many mythologies constitutes what Campbell calls the cosmological function of myth. And the important lesson to take from this discussion is that the myths (and dreams) are real.



“Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.”

—Joseph Campbell

“I learned that we have the right, or the obligation, to tell the old stories in our own ways, because they are our stories, and they must be told.”

—Neil Gaiman

We have been exploring what is old and new about the modern myth, and have seen the delicate balancing act that is creating such a work. However, this duality of new and old also exists for a final important theme in The Sandman: the art of storytelling. Of course, the act of telling stories is as old as the human race, but there is something new about the way that the modern storyteller is placed in the role of mythmaker. And if myths are gone, then what we have to replace them is stories. David Miller, in his discussion of the form of the next spiritual movement, remarked that the new theology would be a theology of stories and narrative (75), and this seems to be as good a guess as any. We have already examined various aspects of myth, and although we have alluded to it a few times, there remains one final step: for what are myths, if not stories? Myths are important stories, even central to our lives, or just, as I would suggest, the big stories. Still, if we are to believe the critics of modernity, then those of us who can claim to live with a story, to feel it in your bones (or as Delirium would say, in your socks), are the lucky few. You may remember from childhood a state somewhat similar to this, of being gripped by tales of fantastic and far-away worlds, or the inspired lunacy of a beloved children's writer. In this age of instant publishing, it seems that anyone can be an author, but only a few can truly be called “storytellers.” For what is mythmaking, if not storytelling? Campbell, who seems to have foreseen so much of Gaiman's work, was far from the first to note that the storytellers are the mythmakers of today, when he said that mythology is “the homeland of the muses,” the motivating force behind literature and art (Power 55). And if the storytellers are “the new mythmakers,” this arrangement is hardly new—good storytellers have always been held in high reverence. Put another way, the death of wonder, or of meaning, which people have referred to is in many ways a death of storytelling. Of course, nothing as central to human existence as storytelling could ever truly die, but we do have to ask the question: when was the last time a story held you in full aesthetic arrest, unable to think about anything else but to marvel at its composition and fluidity of movement, as it unfurled itself across the room?

The point of all this, of course, it that Gaiman is just such a storyteller. It has always been a truism of the writing world that writers love to write about nothing more than the process of writing. So it seems fitting that a master storyteller would have lots to say about the art of storytelling. And Sandman is filled with all facets of storytelling: people telling stories, writing stories, listening to stories, living stories. Frank McConnell, speaking of the story about stories (in his introduction to The Kindly Ones) says “this is the kind of writing literary critics like to call ‘postmodern:’ letting the reader know you're conscious of what you're doing at the very time you do it. And a writer like Gaiman is smart enough to realize that kind of performance is about as ‘modern’ as the Divine Comedy. The great storytellers have always wanted to tell us as much about the business of storytelling as about the stories themselves” (4). And as we will see, Sandman also takes us into the mind of storytellers, both mundane (the doomed waitress Bettie in “24 Hours”), fanciful (the tricksterish faery Cluracan), and masterful (the Bard himself), for a “behind the scenes” look at the creative process. In a sense, Sandman is what might be called a “metanarrative,” a story about stories. In addition, Sandman emerges as a hybrid text, with oral and written elements, in a blending of myth and folklore. More than that, Dream is, simply put, the reason we tell stories. Both oral and written storytelling are explored, and it seems that oral storytellers are somewhat privileged, at least in places. Still, both media are vital to the process of mythmaking. However, first we will examine the role of the artist in fashioning the modern myth. And just as we have an instinct for religion, so do we have one for storytelling. Stories are also capable of evoking Campbell's first (mystical) and fourth (psychological) functions of myth.

The strongest statements about the artist as mythmaker come, fittingly (because of his artistic temperament) from Campbell. In The Power of Myth, he writes “Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world” (85). Later, Bill Moyers asks Campbell who are to be the shamans of today, and Campbell answers “It is the function of the artist to do this. The artist is the one who communicates myth for today. But he has to be an artist who understands mythology and humanity and isn't simply a sociologist with a program for you” (Power 99). It should be apparent by now that Gaiman has a firm grasp of the world's mythological traditions. And an understanding of human nature is critical to any artist's success. But Campbell's words hold another implication; if the artist is the one who creates the new mythology, then he or she holds a vital importance to the mind and soul of a society. In a sense, for those with the talent to do so, being an artist is the highest good one can achieve. Campbell speaks of mythology as “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation” (Hero with a Thousand Faces 3). It is the role of the artist, then, to take this experience and translate it into a form that people can comprehend. In this sense, the artist and certain kinds of mystics have something in common: both experience something available to only a few and bring it back to the people as something they can understand.

It might also go without saying, but Campbell also lists myth as being behind the work of artists, even if they are not consciously seeking to create the new myth. He says that “mythology teaches you what's behind literature and the arts, it teaches you about your own life” (Power 11). He also states that “I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself participating in a poem is what myth does for you” (Power 55). Campbell also lays out the connection of the artist to mythology as: “it's to see the experience and archetypology of a living moment. What the artist must render is a living moment somehow, a living moment actually in action or an inward experience” (Hero's Journey 184). One might take issue with Campbell's admittedly quite elastic definition of mythology, but the spirit of his remarks is important. One of the qualifications of a myth, then, is for a narrative to grip you, so that you see it as a part of your life, or see your life as a part of it. Campbell said that “When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what's happening to you” (Power 4). Later, we will address some of the criticisms of Campbell, but for now it is enough to note that, at heart, he was more artist than academic. He had a reverence for the creative life that I have not found an equal to anywhere else. Elsewhere, he writes: “[the] personal creative act is related to the realm of myth, the realm of the muses, because myth is the homeland of the inspiration of the arts. The muses are the children of the goddess of memory, which is not the memory from up there, from the head; it is the memory of down here, from the heart” (Mythic 151).

So far we have encountered many descriptions of being gripped by a story; to this we would add “Proper art is static. It holds you in ecstatic arrest … Because the rhythm before you is the rhythm of nature. It is the rhythm of your nature … And why is it that you are held in aesthetic arrest? It is because the nature you are looking at is your nature. There is an accord between you and the object, and that is why you say, ‘Aha!’” (Campbell, Mythic 154). Elsewhere, Campbell says, “that Aha! That you get when you see an artwork that really hits you is ‘I am that.’ I am the radiance and energy that is talking to me through this painting” (Hero's Journey 38). What we have seen, then, are various ways to describe a narrative's resonance with the reader (or listener). It may require a leap of faith to accept, but what is being argued for the magic of storytelling, and the transformative power of mythic narratives. As Bender says, “transforming lives is what stories are for” (178).

Like Campbell, Jung also recognizes the role of the artist in shaping myth. And he presents a corollary to Campbell, that the arts, mythology included, come from the psyche. He says that “the human psyche is the womb of all the sciences and arts” (Modern Man 152). Nancy Mellon adds that “a treasure-trove of imaginative powers lives within us all” (1). Jung also makes a distinction between psychological and visionary art. While psychological art involves the realm of human life, with the visionary, “the experience that furnishes the material for artistic expression is no longer familiar. It is a strange something that derives its existence from the hinterland of man's mind—that suggests the abyss of time separating us from pre-human ages, or evokes a super-human world of contrasting light and darkness. It is a primordial experience … It is a vision of other worlds” (Modern Man 156-7). For Jung, the “primordial experience” is essential, as “we must admit that the vision represents a deeper and more impressive experience than human passion … we cannot doubt that the vision is a genuine, primordial experience” (162). He also writes that “It is therefore to be expected of the poet that he will resort to mythology in order to give his experience its most fitting expression” (164). As strange and unusual as this sort of art may be, “it is not wholly unfamiliar. Man has known of it from time immemorial—here, there, and everywhere” (163). This kind of implicit knowledge and memory, then, is built into our very psyches.

Among psychologists, the term for such an art is “fantasy,” which is also one of the genres into which Sandman is placed. Of course, as a genre, “fantasy” has garnered its share of critical disdain. However, to call it fantasy is not necessarily to deprecate it, as Jung tells us, “Truth to tell, I have a very high opinion of fantasy … When all is said and done, we are never proof against fantasy … All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy. What right have we then to deprecate imagination? In the ordinary course of things, fantasy does not easily go astray; it is too deep for that, and too closely bound up with the tap-root of human and animal instinct” (Modern Man 66). He closes his statement by saying “As Schiller says, man is completely human only when he is playing” (66). Among psychologists, especially David Winnicott, playing, far from being a waste of time, is vital to establishing a person's relationships with others and the world. To identify fantasy with children, as many critics do, is really a backhanded slight (as being “childish” has become in our society a criticism) that reveals a deeper truth. For it is with children that we identify the feeling of wide-eyed wonder and mystery, the same kind of wonder that comprises Campbell's first function of mythology. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must be like children (Matthew 18:3). Finally, as a caution, it is important to note that for Jung, the “primordial experience” is unconscious and inexpressible to the conscious mind, while for Campbell, the process of fashioning myth is a conscious act. And while I lean towards the latter view, Jung is helpful in recognizing a level deeper than consciousness at which a narrative can grip a person. And if the old mythic forms are gone, then the modern situation is that our storytellers must find a way to replace them. Put another way, we can only create myths if we dare to tell stories.

Having thus established the role of the artist in fashioning myth, and as our greatest hope for creating a distinctively modern myth, and having seen how a story can grip a person below the consciousness, we are ready to examine the role of stories and storytelling in The Sandman, with which the series is filled. And although Dream is the “Prince of Stories” (Sandman 2:3), and himself the reason we tell stories in the first place, it is often when the focus shifts away from Dream that the theme of storytelling moves to the forefront. At this point, Dream becomes a facilitator for the stories; we have already examined the relationship between myth and dreams, so it should seem fitting that the King of Dreams is also the Prince of Stories.

We have already alluded to the idea of claiming a story of one's own, and interpreting one's own life through that story. This is what it means to live a myth. In theology, there is a movement called “narrative theology” that proposes we do just this. Speaking of narrative theology, George Stroup says that “every philosophical anthropology … must come to terms with the narrative structure of human identity” (87). Using the example of Christian narratives, he says that “to understand Christian narrative properly is to be able to interpret one's personal identity by means of biblical texts” (96). Next, he adds that “it is no accident that when they are asked to identify themselves most people recite a narrative or story” (Stroup 111). Furthermore, it soon becomes apparent that there is more to every person than meets the eye (111), a theme picked up on in Barbie's “secret worlds” speech. The more artistic side of these ideas is the fact that “if we experience the reality of each part of the story as an aspect of ourselves, no matter how grand or dilapidated, or fantastical it may be, it will be an enlivening experience” (Mellon 2). For us, the impact of these ideas is that stories and storytelling, of both the secular and sacred kind, are vital to our collective and individual identities. This is why I am spending so much time discussing the art of storytelling. Again and again, we see the importance of living a story.

While The Sandman contains examples of both oral and written stories, perhaps it would be advantageous to begin with written tales, since they are the closest to what Gaiman is doing, and since, after all, we live in a culture of the book. The key writers to appear in the series are Richard Madoc in “Calliope” (issue 17), the waitress Bettie from “24 Hours” (issue 6), the playwright in “Fear of Falling,” … and an aspiring poet and playwright named William Shakespeare.

The story of the writer in “Fear of Falling” is perhaps the simplest of the accounts of storytellers. One reason for this is that it did not occur in a regular issue of Sandman, but in a publication of shorter stories by many of the artists on Gaiman's Vertigo label. Still, Gaiman saw fit to include it in one of the short story collections. It involves a playwright named Todd Faber, who is in the middle of directing a play he wrote. He is afraid, either of failure or of success, or of both, so he decides to abandon the production and run away. That night, he has a dream in which he is climbing up a cliff, and when he reaches the top, he encounters Dream, who questions him. Todd answers “It's all getting to be too much for me. I feel I'm out of my depth. I'm scared. I'm scared I'm going to do something stupid” (Fables & Reflections 7). Dream answers, “And if you do something stupid, what then?” Todd says that he is afraid of falling, to which Dream replies, “It is sometimes a mistake to climb; it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt … If you do not climb you will not fall. This is true. But is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall? Sometimes you wake, and sometimes, yes, you die. But there is a third alternative” (7-8). At this point, Todd falls, and we do not find out what happens until the next morning, when he returns to the rehearsal, and says, “Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly” (11). This story is the least complicated, and the most straightforwardly romantic, of the author narratives. It is addressed to anyone trying to find the courage to create, to take that great risk of putting oneself on the line and coming up with something no one has ever produced before. The falling, of course, is symbolic of a great many fears of failure. Everyone falls at one time or another, but sometimes, the result of the fall is that you learn how to fly. As Dream says, it may sometimes be a mistake to climb, but it is always a mistake not to try at all. If we are to continue to have myths in our world, then we must have men and women who are brave enough to risk failure and create them. Also, the story underscores the point that dreams, like myths, can be filled with wisdom and guidance.

The other narratives of writers involve, in one way or another, cautions about the dangers of writing. The second story (and the first chronologically) is of the waitress Bettie in “24 Hours.” The narrator tells us that “On her days off, after she's tidied the house, Bette Munroe writes stories. She writes them in longhand on yellow legal pads. Sometimes she writes about her ex-husband Bernard, and about her son, Bernard Jr., who went off to college and never came back to her. She makes these stories end happily. Most of her stories, however, are about her customers” (Sandman 6:1). Although the stories might not be much as far as the craft goes, they add meaning to Bette's life, as “They look at her and they just see a waitress; they don't know she's nursing a secret. A secret that keeps her aching calf-muscles and her coffee-scalded fingers and her weariness from dragging her down … It's her secret. She's never shown anyone her stories” (6:1-2). Her dreams become all the more poignant as we begin to see through them. She dreams of sending her stories to a famous writer, who would publish them, of becoming famous, even being interviewed by Johnny Carson: “But you're a writer,’ Johnny Carson will say to her, ‘How do you know what it's like to be a waitress?’ She'll smile. She won't tell him. It'll be her secret” (6:2). She does not seem to realize that almost all writers start out working day jobs; however, the important thing for her is the dream. We have already seen how dreams can change the world, but for Bette, it is enough that her dream keep the monotony of working in a greasy spoon at bay. Gaiman also uses Bette to show the contrast between people's appearances, or the way we want to see them, and the harsh realities of life. In her stories, everyone gets a happy ending, as “All Bette's stories have happy endings. That's because she knows where to stop. She's realized the real problem with stories—if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death” (6:4). Besides almost tipping Gaiman's hand for what he has planned for the whole series, with the death of Dream, it shows her blind optimism, and what happens when you refuse to see reality.

“24 Hours” is also one of the truly horrific tales in Sandman; everyone ends up dead, either by his or her own hand or each other's, because of the machinations of John Dee and Dream's stolen ruby. Over the rest of the story, we find out the customers' stories. There is Judy, who just has a fight with her girlfriend, Donna (who later appears as Foxglove). Bette feels “sorry” for them, and in her stories marries them off to “fine young men” (6:3). She describes the Fletchers as “like lovebirds,” but he dreams of having sex with a prostitute in his car and then beating her up, while she dreams of putting his head on a platter (“no more infidelities”). Marsh confesses that he “as good as killed” his wife by giving her, an alcoholic, a crate of vodka and going out of town for a week (6:18). Moreover, we learn that Bette's son ended up in prison after getting into prostitution. The whole story is shocking in its visceral nature, so it is somewhat difficult to know what to make of it all. But one thing is that Bette does not see the truth, and in her quest for happy endings, ignores reality. She is surely not a mythmaker, then; however, she does have the dream of being a writer, and for someone with her station in life, it is enough, until supernatural forces intervene. As an episode in the greater myth, “24 Hours” is also about the problem of evil, and the failure of moral and ethical systems to address it. For this slaughter has no meaning, no higher explanation of why God would allow such a thing to happen. It is as senseless as it is sudden, and there is no one to stop the madman with the ruby. Although Bette is flawed as a writer, she does not deserve what happens to her (neither do most of the rest of them), but such is often the way with cautionary tales, in which the protagonists come to a gruesome fate they did not deserve. After all, their story is also a plot device, in showing the twisted mind of John Dee when he takes hold of Dream's stolen ruby. A bad guy always needs victims.

Only slightly better off than Bette is Richard Madoc, the main character in “Calliope.” The author of a successful first novel, he is nine months overdue on his second, and has been unable to write anything. As a result, he makes a deal with Erasmus Fry, an aging author, for his special “property:” the Muse Calliope who he had imprisoned years ago while in Greece. His treatment of her is horrific, as “His first action was to rape her, nervously, on the musty old camp bed. She's not even human, he told himself. She's thousands of years old. But her flesh was warm, and her breath was sweet, and she choked back tears like a child whenever he hurt her. It occurred to him momentarily that the old man might have cheated him: given him a real girl. That he, Rick Madoc, might possibly have done something wrong, even criminal” (Sandman 17:8). The irony compounds as the tale continues, as Madoc becomes wildly successful. He keeps Calliope until Dream shows up and gives him an excess of ideas that overwhelm him (reminiscent of the “ironic punishment” division of the Greek Hades), until he lets her go. The tale might also work as a way for Gaiman to assuage his conscience as a writer, as it may seem that all authors are “raping the muse,” figuratively if not literally. Thus, it may have been a Gaiman-style autobiography. At a party, Madoc is praised for transcending the bounds of genre fiction—enough to be nominated for a mainstream literary award. Gaiman won the World Fantasy Award for the “Midsummer Night's Dream” story—making it the first and only time a comic has won a mainstream award. In the same panel, a female fan praises him for the strong women in his work, to which he responds “Actually, I do tend to regard myself as a feminist writer” (17:12). I do not know if Gaiman has made any such claim himself, but his work has been praised by many as containing strong female characters. The tale ends when Madoc lets Calliope go, and he says “it's gone. I've got no idea any more. No idea at all” (17:24). Even if Madoc is not some kind of twisted alter-ego of the writer, it reveals what some people will do to avoid or get rid of writer's block. On theme here, that we have seen elsewhere, is that people are capable of committing terrible wrongs, and that we should try to reduce people's suffering whenever we can. With Madoc, the problem is not that he is a monster, but that he is very human; as he does something terrible, he is a reminder of the evil that exists around and especially within us.

From “24 Hours” and “Calliope,” one might think that the outlook for writers is rather bleak. Either they blind themselves to reality and use their dreams to stave off the boredom of a meaningless life, or they will resort to terrible measures in order to ensure that the ideas keep coming. Compared to them, then, the outlook for William Shakespeare is positively rosy. Still, even though Shakespeare makes his deal to become the greatest storyteller of his age (and some would say of any age), in the end, he comes to half-regret his choice. Will's story begins when he and Marlowe are eating in the same inn where Dream meets Hob for their once-a-century drink. At this point, Shakespeare is a hack, who Marlowe encourages to give up writing, and who wants more than anything to become a great writer. He tells Marlowe that “I would give anything to have your gifts. Or more than anything to give men dreams, that would live on long after I am dead. I'd bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon” (Sandman 13:12). Dream overhears the conversation and asks Will, “Would you write great plays? Create new dreams to spur the minds of men?” (13:13). They go off and talk, and although we do not see their exchange, we know that Dream unlocks the doors in Will's mind, to allow him to become a vehicle of the great stories. Will, in exchange, promises to write two plays for Morpheus, celebrating dreams, which turn out to be A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.

The story of “Midsummer” is told in issue 19, as Shakespeare's players perform in front of an audience of faery folk, including Titania and Auberon (the queen and king of Faerie). By this time, we can see the seeds of discontent, even in the face of Will's greatness. His son, Hamnet, traveling with him for the Summer, says “He's very distant … Anything that happens he just makes stories out of it. I'm less real to him than any of the characters in his plays” (Sandman 19:13). He says that his sister Judith jokes that if he died, Will would just write a play about it … “Hamnet.” (Of course, just this happens.) Hamnet ends the exchange by saying “All that matters to him … All that matters is the stories” (19:13). Even Dream begins to wonder if he did the right thing, as he is beginning to ponder his role and influence in people's lives. He tells Titania, “I wonder, Titania. I wonder if I have done right. And I wonder why I wonder. Will is a willing vehicle for the great stories. Through him they will live for an age of man; and his words will echo down through time. But he did not understand the price. Mortals never do. They only see the prize, their heart's desire, their dream … But the price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted” (19:19). This statement seems pessimistic, that even if you get what you want, you won't be happy because you won't be the same person who wanted it. But, fundamentally, it amounts to another affirmation of change, the radical change that can go on inside each one of us, that we must accept as part of our lives.

Shakespeare's story continues in the final Sandman (issue 75), which takes place as he is writing his second play for Dream, The Tempest, which also happened to be the last play he wrote alone. This time, an older Shakespeare is actively questioning the deal he made with Dream. He talks to a priest, asking how to redeem the magician Prospero, but of course he is also asking about himself. When he meets Dream, he asks him what his life would have been like, had he not made their deal, but then he shrinks away when Dream starts to tell him (Sandman 75:179). He says, “I wonder … I wonder if it was all worth it. Whatever happened to me in life, happened to me as a writer of plays. I'd fall in love, or fall in lust. And at the height of my passion, I would think, ‘So this is how it feels,’ and I would tie it up with pretty words. I watched my life as if it were happening to someone else. My son died. And I was hurt; but I watched my hurt, and even relished it, a little, for now I could write a real death, a true loss” (75:180). Again, here it seems that Gaiman is trying to tell the reader about the mind of the writer, and the terrible price it exacts on those who follow the craft. My brother, who is much more of a writer than I will ever be, tells me that the feeling of watching your own life with detachment, as a way of gathering material, is quite true. Dream reveals to Will that even if he did open the door in the playwright's mind, it was Will who still did the writing, and all the work. Will then asks Dream why he chose The Tempest, and Dream (in one of the series' most heartbreaking moments) tells him that he “wanted a play about graceful ends … about a King who drowns his books, and breaks his staff, and leaves his kingdom. About a magician who becomes a man. About a man who turns his back on magic” (75:181). When asks why, Dream continues, “Because I will never leave my island,” and later, “I am not a man. And I do not change. I asked you earlier if you saw yourself reflected in your tale. I do not. I may not. I am prince of stories, Will; but I have no story of my own. Nor shall I ever” (75:182). The tale (Gaiman's, that is) also tells about the terrible price of writing by examining the life of one of the great storytellers of any age. Frank McConnell writes that the choice of Shakespeare is especially fitting, as “in [the Renaissance], our myths began to be humanized; beginning, say, with Shakespeare, we began to realize that the gods had not invented us, but that we were in the process of inventing our gods” (“Epic Comics”). Thus, Shakespeare makes an ideal study for Gaiman's purposes, to say nothing of the artistic nerve necessary to take on the Bard, with which fortunately for us, Gaiman is quite blessed. Incidentally, it is worth noting that Gaiman chose Shakespeare's story as the final issue of the series. Thus, the last we see of Dream is (the old Dream) lamenting his lack of story (which is, of course, pure irony: we are reading his story). From this, I believe we can infer that for Gaiman, the storytelling material is an essential part of the series as a whole.

Overall, the depictions of writers depict the terrible price the craft exacts: from them, and from those close to them. How are we to reconcile this with the idea of the storyteller as mythmaker? The answer, I believe, lies in the instances of oral storytelling that appear in Sandman. In a sense, there is something pure about oral narratives, and about people who view storytelling as an art, as opposed to writers, who view it as a profession. And while myths can be oral, more often the oral narratives are folklore, the stories people tell each other. There are even more examples of told stories in Sandman than written ones: the travelers in World's End, the grandfather in “Tales in the Sand,” Gilbert in The Doll's House, and the storytellers of “Convergence” (issues 38-40). The best example of this is in World's End, in which travelers from different worlds are trapped by a storm (a reality storm) in an inn and pass the time by telling tales. The frame of the story, of course, goes back to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. On this choice of models, Gaiman remarks, “I liked the idea of using one of the oldest storytelling devices in the English language. If you're going to steal, you might as well do so from a great source, and Canterbury Tales definitely qualifies” (Bender 176).

The storytellers come from a variety of worlds and races: there are Brant and Charlene, whose car crashes on the way to Chicago, the centaur Chiron, the blue-skinned apprentice mortician Petrefax, the English sailor girl-passing-for-boy Jim, and the wily faerie Cluracan. Chaucer's story used characters from all different walks of life; Gaiman does him one better by bringing together characters literally from different worlds. And as seems to be the instinct, when we find ourselves among strangers for an extended period of time, we tell stories. Another notable feature of World's End is the nesting of stories within stories. In “Cerements,” we have Petrefax telling his stories of life as an apprentice in the great Necropolis Litharge. He tells of attending a burial in which the participants all told stories. One of these tellers tells a story about meeting a traveler (Destruction) who was passing through the city. And the stranger tells his listener the story of the first Necropolis, and how its charter was revoked when its inhabitants became hardened and no longer loved their duties and recognized the importance of the funeral rites. And, at the end of the collection, we find that the whole thing has been a story, of Brant Tucker, our narrator, talking to a bartender. So we have a story, within a story, within a story … within another story. The frame story is a common story device, but to the best of my knowledge no one else has matched this depth of recursion.

Either way, the recursion certainly boggles the mind. Another thing to notice about World's End is the economy with which Gaiman works with elements of the larger tale. In “Cerements,” we learn that one of the Endless has died in the past (the first Despair), and we see the room that holds the materials and the ritual to accompany the death of one of the Endless. Of course, this foreshadows Dream's demise, and the envoy Eblis O'Shaunnesey's (named by Delirium, if you can tell) seeking out the proper materials. Another foreshadowing event takes place in the last issue of the collection, as we see the funeral train going across the sky. We have already discussed this scene at some length; suffice it to say that it makes it clear that mourning is going to be a theme for a while. Overall, the storytelling, both in scope, levels, and humanity (as these are some of the finest examples of stories told for stories' sake), is (not to use a word too much) magical. It transforms the experience of everyone listening, and, just as Bender says, changes lives. After hearing all the stories, Brant's image of the world is shaken, Charlene decides to stay at the inn, and Petrefax decides to seek adventure outside the Necropolis. It is also worth noting that in most of these stories, Dream shows up rarely, if at all. It is as if Gaiman decided to put off the main plot for a while and focus for a while on storytelling, which is another thing that The Sandman is about.

In keeping with the theme, there are other accounts of oral storytelling in Sandman, and they all seem to focus on bringing people of different worlds together. The one that rises to mythic quality comes in “Tales in the Sand,” the prelude to The Doll's House. Here, we see a telling of the foundation myth of an African people, which is also a rite of passage. One of Eliade's criteria for sacred myths is that they are told only at certain times. This story is heard only once in a man's life, when he is initiated, and told only once, when he goes to initiate a relative of his. The story, which tells of Dream's disastrous affair with Nada (minus the condemning her to Hell part), also contains many elements of folklore and myth. In a sense, then, The Sandman is a hybrid text. The people are held to be the first people on earth, as “the first people were of our tribe. That is our secret, and we never tell outsiders, for they would kill us if they knew. But it is the truth” (Sandman 9:5). Campbell and others have noticed that just about every group has some myth in which they were “the first people.” Gaiman's attention to detail is key here; the tale also features animals in important roles and other folkloristic devices. It is the little weaverbird that finds the fruit that will allow Nada to find Dream. However, the trip carrying the burning berry burns it, causing its color to change from white to brown. Also, a prohibition is set against killing the weaverbird, because of its service. All these are standard folkloristic elements. Finally, there is mention made of another version of the tale, in the stories that the women tell, “in their private language that the men-children are not taught, and that the old men are too wise to learn” (9:24). Here and in a few other places, a distinction is made between male and female stories, and it would make an interesting project to examine the gendering of stories as a greater theme in Sandman. (Gaiman has made some interesting comments about the “genders” of his stories as well.)

Also, with Nada's tale, we see an intact culture, with a living mythology. The uncle telling the story to his nephew shows that his people's religion and rites of passage sustain them in the way that, according to the critics of modernity, modern religion no longer does. If nothing else, this story serves as a reminder that, no matter how much we enjoy stories today, there was a time when people believed in stories completely, and it sustained them. The challenge for the modern myth, then, is to sustain us as traditional myths once did.

Finally, there are other instances of storytelling in Sandman, with the underlying theme, that stories bring people together. First, there is the mini-story-arc titled “Convergence” (issues 38-40), which features stories being told between generations and across worlds. In “The Hunt,” a grandfather (who is secretly also a werewolf) tells his somewhat unwilling granddaughter about his adventures as a young man. On the theme of Gaiman's self-consciousness, at one point the granddaughter says “It all sounds suspiciously post-modern to me, Grandpa. Are you sure this is really a story from the old country?” (Sandman 38:11). In “Soft Places,” a young Marco Polo meets a friend of his from later in life, and Gilbert, who is trying to get away from Dream and his new love (Thessaly). This story also introduces the idea that there are “soft places,” where the fabric of space and time and reality grows thin and people can encounter others from other worlds and times. In “A Parliament of Rooks” (issue 40), Eve and Cain and Abel set about entertaining a pre-transfiguration Daniel. Eve tells the story of the three wives of Adam, Abel the story of how he and Cain came to live in the Dreaming (with the cutest Li'l Endless you ever saw). Cain, for his part, sets out a mystery about the behavior of rooks (a type of bird in the same family of ravens). Their plural is called a parliament, because of a strange behavior. They gather in a field in a circle, with one bird in the middle. That bird then begins to chatter for a time, until the group of birds either flies away or pecks the one in the middle to death. At the end of the issue, Abel tells Matthew and Daniel that the rook in the middle is really telling a story, and that the other birds either approve of the story (and fly away), or disapprove (and peck it to death). Thus, if we are to believe Gaiman, even animals have an instinct for storytelling. Again, as with much myth or folklore, a narrative occurs as a conversation between two or more people, including gods or archetypes. There are other instances of storytelling in the series, Gilbert telling Rose the original “Little Red Riding Hood” story, or the cat in “Dream of a Thousand Cats” telling her story, or the interlude of the old women telling Rose the story in the nursing home, but the point is clear: storytelling is the act that brings us all together, and is a part of why we have myths in the first place.

The amount and space and attention Gaiman devotes to storytelling is clear: what remains is to establish why he does so. And here, I can offer some suggestions why. In terms of the modern myth, we have already seen from Miller that the new theology would be a theology of stories. And Sandman is, in many ways, a story about stories. There are too many instances of story-telling, both oral and written, for us to ignore them. Of course, for metanarratives (stories about stories) we can go all the way back to The Odyssey. And the reason the great storytellers have always told us about the business of telling stories (besides a sense of their own importance) is their tremendous importance for the vitality of a culture. What we can get from Jung is that we might even be able to say that we have an instinct for storytelling. Nancy Mellon puts it that “there is a natural storytelling urge and ability in all human beings” (172). And if myths are really about the human condition, then one important aspect of myth should focus on why we tell myths in the first place. It seems to me that myths are an attempt to come to terms with the world we find around us. In our limited understanding, we create. Of course, we know more about the world than we did 3000 years ago, but in the things that really matter: our minds, our souls, our spirits, we still have much to learn. The point here is that Sandman is not only a story about stories: Dream, as the prefect of Dreaming and tales, is the reason we tell stories … and create myths. As Dream tells Titania of Faerie at one point, “Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot” (Sandman 19:21).

Finally, there is another example of the creative life we have yet to mention: Destruction. Since he abandoned his realm, he has traveled far and wide, but eventually came to rest on a small island. There, he engages actively in creative pursuits: he paints, composes poems, cooks, and sculpts. It is not that he is a master craftsman; in fact, if we are to believe Barnabas, he is uniformly terrible at these tasks. But the important thing is that he finds happiness and meaning in the creative life as an artist, albeit a mediocre one.

Yet, if we pay attention to Sandman, then another important feature of myths is that they are, at bottom, stories. Here, we come to an important step in the definition of myth. How are myths different from stories? How are they related? In traditional societies, they seem intimately connected, as stories about people also involved divine beings, and stories about divine beings also involved people. In modern society, however, he have had a clearer line of demarcation. We have myths (which we call “religion”) of our own culture on one level, then stories (which we call “literature”) and other people's myths on another level. Folklore, if given a place, would lie somewhere between myths and stories. Finally, there is a firm line between literature—high culture, and low culture, which includes “comic books.” What Sandman should make clear is that the line between high and low culture is a false distinction. Here, in comics, we have a story that has all the meaning, all the grace, and all the subtlety, if not more, of “high-culture” literature. And if this distinction is false, then maybe the line between stories and myths is too. We have already seen “postmodern” writers taking on elements of the mythic in literature, and of course, literature is filled with mythic elements. Perhaps, then, what we are left with are stories. Myths, after all, have always been stories—what I have called the BIG stories, which ask the big questions of life. Who are we? Why are we here? Who made the world? Why do we die? And so on. Is it not possible that the difference between myths and stories is simply one of quality? That myths are simply well-told stories?

Of course, this criteria opens up the question of what makes a story well-told. Part of it is the emotional appeal, which we will discuss soon. The story must be good enough to become beloved, to reach the point where people order their lives according to it. And here, the criteria seems to be a depth of humanity that we find by feeling rather than reason. For emotional involvement with the characters is the beginning of living your life through a story. The key action here is to read (or hear) a story and see yourself reflected in it. In time, such a story can even provide identity, as myth once did for people. Part of the criteria should be subtlety, something that can be read and reread, and can reveal something new each time. Depending on the book, I have read through Sandman 6 or 7 times, and I have found something new in the stories every time. Finally, there is something hard to define, but I will call “command of the devices of storytelling.” Simply put, Gaiman is a master storyteller: he knows how stories work, how people read them, how to lead a reader, and how to make the story curve at the last minute for maximum effect. Finally, a good story, if it is to rise to the level of myth, should fulfill Campbell's four functions of myth. 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 (the BIG change). The point here is that stories and storytelling bring people together. It is for all these reasons that Sandman is a good story. And more important, why it is a myth.

The art of storytelling is, of course, older than anyone can remember. However, it also contains the paradox of the modern myth of being both old and new. Whoever created the original myths, their torch has been passed to the storytellers of today, secular as well as religious. Just like the high-culture/low-culture divide has been broken down, so has that which formerly separated stories from myths proper. We previously spent some time lamenting the loss of meaning and religion in the modern world. And while it is certainly true that the old traditions no longer sustain many of us, we must also not be swept away by pessimism; rather, we must look at what has emerged to take their place. The purpose of the discussion of the role of the art of storytelling in The Sandman has been to emphasize that storytelling is not dead. And just as the mythmakers helped sustain the life of their communities in ancient times, so do the storytellers of today. If one is willing to look, there are many storytellers who incorporate the mythic into their works (Charles de Lint, Garth Ennis, Joss Whedon, to name a few). Furthermore, it is not just on their shoulders that we place the weighty task of creating meaning; the “collective unconscious” and the example of Destruction tell us that we all have it in us to be creative beings. The old ways are gone, just like Dream's Ruby was destroyed by John Dee. And like Dream, we cannot go back to the way it once was. However, the positive side of this is that all the energies we put into them have been freed for our use. So it is that in the modern world, we make our own meanings. And we're doing fine.


Primary Sources:

Gaiman, Neil. Death: The High Cost of Living. New York: DC Comics, 1994.

———. Death: The Time of Your Life. New York: DC Comics, 1997.

———. “Murder Mysteries.” Angels and Visitations. Minneapolis: DreamHaven Books, 1993, 139-166.

———. The Sandman: Brief Lives. New York: DC Comics, 1994

———. The Sandman: The Doll's House. New York: DC Comics, 1990.

———. The Sandman: Dream Country. New York: DC Comics, 1990.

———. The Sandman: Fables and Reflections. New York: DC Comics, 1993.

———. The Sandman: A Game of You. New York: DC Comics, 1993.

———. The Sandman: The Kindly Ones. New York: DC Comics, 1996.

———. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes. New York: DC Comics, 1988.

———. The Sandman: A Season of Mists. New York: DC Comics, 1992.

———. The Sandman: The Wake. New York: DC Comics, 1997.

———. The Sandman: World's End. New York: DC Comics, 1994.

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Amos, Tori. “Introduction.” Death: The High Cost of Living. New York: DC Comics, 1994, 5-7.

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Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1973.

Bender, Hy. The Sandman Companion. New York: DC Comics, 1999.

Campbell, Joseph. “Editor's Introduction.” The Portable Jung. Ed. Joseph Campbell. New York: Penguin Books, 1971, vii-xxxii.

———. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books, 1949.

———. The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on his Life and Work. Ed. Phil Cousineau. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990.

———. The Masks of God, Vol. 4: Creative Mythology. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.

———. The Mythic Dimension. Ed. Antony Van Couvering. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1967.

———. Myths to Live By. New York: Penguin Group, 1972.

———. The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Caputi, Jane. “On Psychic Activism: Feminist Mythmaking.” The Feminist Companion to Mythology. Ed. Caroline Larrington. London: Pandora, 1992, 425-440.

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Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. by Willard Trask. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1957.

Gilmore, Mikal. “Introduction.” The Sandman: The Wake. New York: DC Comics, 1997, 9-12.

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. “Witchcraft as Goddess Worship.” The Feminist Companion to Mythology. Ed. Caroline Larrington. London: Pandora, 1992, 411-424.

Hollis, James. Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1995.

Jaffe, Lawrence. Celebrating Soul: Preparing for the New Religion. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1999.

Johnson, Robert. The Fisher King & The Handless Maiden. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.

Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1959.

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Malinowski, Bronislaw. Malinowski and the Work of Myth. Ed. Ivan Stranski. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

McConnell, Frank. “Epic Comics.” Commonweal. October 20, 1995, v.122, p. 21-22.

———. “Introduction.” The Sandman: The Kindly Ones. New York: DC Comics, 1996, 6-11.

———. “Preface.” The Sandman: Book of Dreams. Ed. Neil Gaiman & Ed Kramer. New York: HarperPrism, 1996. 2-6.

Melgrim, Stanley. Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper Perennial, 1974.

Mellon, Nancy. The Art of Storytelling. Boston: Element Books Unlimited, 1992.

Miller, David. The New Polytheism: Rebirth of the Gods and Goddesses. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Morrow, Greg, and Goldfarb, David. “The Sandman Annotations.” Taken from the web.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny of Man. Volume 1: Human Nature. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941.

———. The Nature and Destiny of Man. Volume 2: Human Destiny. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943.

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Real, Terrence. I Don't Want to Talk About it: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. New York: Scribner, 1997.

Ricoeur, Paul. Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination. Ed. Mark Wallace. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.

———. The Symbolism of Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

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Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matters: the Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

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Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952.

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Wilson, Terry. “The Big Sleep: Popular ‘Sandman’ Comic Reaches the End of the Line.” The Chicago Tribune, November 27, 1995, section C, page 1.

Charles De Lint (review date February 2004)

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SOURCE: De Lint, Charles. Review of The Sandman: Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman. Fantasy & Science Fiction 106, no. 2 (February 2004): 31-2.

[In the following review of Sandman: Endless Nights, De Lint praises Gaiman as an accomplished storyteller of dark, whimsical tales.]

Has it really been seven years since Gaiman finished off his lengthy Sandman saga? Though I suppose, once you start counting up the projects in between—which include fascinating books such as Neverwhere,American Gods, and Coraline—you start to wonder where he found the time to write the seven stories collected here.

Because they aren't light, throwaway stories.

A quick recap for the uninitiated: years ago, Gaiman scripted an ongoing series for DC Comics about seven siblings he called the Endless (all the issues of which have been collected in trade paperback format and are currently in print). They're not gods, but they're most certainly not human either, though they do occasionally fall prey to human foibles. What they are is the physical representation of the names by which they're known: Dream, Death, Desire, Delirium, Despair, Destruction, and Destiny.

For this return to their world, Gaiman has written a story for each of the siblings, each illustrated by a different artist. The talent Gaiman has gathered to help him tell these stories is staggering: you need only flip through the pages to be seduced by their artistic vision. Some tell a story in the traditional panel-following-panel method, others explore different approaches to illustrated narrative. Their only similarity is that they are giants in terms of their talent.

But unlike some comic books where the art overshadows the story (much like contemporary film where too often the FX does the same), Gaiman reminds us once again of just how accomplished he is in this field. Each of the Endless get their fair share of time on stage—even if often the story ebbs and flows around their presence—but longtime fans will probably appreciate “The Heart of a Star” the most. This is where Gaiman has the audacity to strip away all the mysteries of his long-running series and give us the truth behind its mythology. Though curiously, in doing so, he has only increased the power of those same mysteries.

Anyone who has dismissed comic books over the past couple of decades would do well to have a look at this new collection to see just how fascinating a medium it has become. For the rest of us, sit back and enjoy this visit to the dark—though sometimes whimsical—twisting tales brought to us by Gaiman and his collaborators.

Bruce Allen (essay date 2004)

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SOURCE: Allen, Bruce. “The Dreaming of Neil Gaiman.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, 195. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004.

[In the following essay, Allen provides a comprehensive overview of Gaiman's career as a graphic novelist.]


In a feat of literary legerdemain and metamorphosis that many of his characters and creations might envy, an unassuming Englishman who began his career as a freelance writer edging into the comic book industry has become one of (his adopted country) America's best-loved storytellers.

From a path-breaking graphic novel series through television and film scripts, continuing distinguished work in the comics field, charmingly offbeat children's stories, and—by virtually universal agreement—the finest adult fantasy fiction currently being written, Neil Gaiman has risen steadily to the summit of his profession.

A frequent honored guest at comic book and fantasy conventions (where he's known for his endless patience with autograph-seeking fans), Gaiman also remains prominently in the public eye via a state-of-the-art website ( that enables him to “chat” with countless adoring readers. He has socialized with celebrities like rock star Tori Amos (with whom Gaiman has in fact toured), and has collected such prestigious admirers as Norman Mailer—who has memorably proclaimed Gaiman's multi-volume graphic novel The Sandman “a comic strip for intellectuals,” adding “and I say it's about time.”

Gaiman has received numerous accolades, ranging from his designation as Most Collectible Author of 1992 to several Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards (including the only one yet given to a single issue of a comic book), and the unprecedented sweep accomplished by his 2001 fantasy novel American Gods, which won all four of its genre's most coveted prizes: the Hugo, Nebula, Stoker, and World Fantasy Awards.

His books have been translated into many languages, and the illustrated fiction on which he has collaborated with several of the finest contemporary graphic artists is generally credited with having crucially boosted the current boom in adult comics, thanks previously to works like Alan Moore's popular Swamp Thing (an influence graciously acknowledged by Gaiman) and Art Spiegelman's innovative Holocaust tale Maus.

Recent Gaiman projects include an English-language adaptation of the beloved Japanese animated film Princess Mononoke, an agreeably scary children's story The Wolves in the Walls, that has grown-ups sneaking into bookstore children's sections to browse it greedily (I have been one such retrograde adult), and a 2003 continuation of The Sandman, presenting seven lavishly illustrated new stories.

Two of Gaiman's stories, “Snow, Glass, Apples” and “Murder Mysteries” have been adapted for radio performance and are available on audiocassette. His illustrated fantasy tale 1602 has recently been published by Marvel Comics. And this year will bring a feature film scripted by Gaiman, Mirror Mask, produced by Jim Henson Studios and directed by its author's longtime illustrator Dave McKean.

And the beat goes on. Shock radio personality Howard Stern's claim to the title “King of All Media” notwithstanding, there's constantly increasing evidence that Gaiman's seemingly tireless creative energy and versatility, and his high visibility, have placed him somewhere very near the epicenter of contemporary popular culture.

Neil Gaiman was born in 1960 in Portchester, England. Though his family is Jewish, Neil was raised in a manner that seems to have been neither Orthodox nor orthodox, by supportive parents who were themselves accomplished professionals (his father a businessman, his mother a pharmacist).

In interviews, Gaiman routinely refers to himself as “the kid with a book,” perpetually stealing moments to indulge his quickly discovered love of fantasy, adventure, and supernatural fiction. His mother strongly encouraged this passion for reading, which came to encompass not only landmark works like J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and their many imitations, but also the work of genre writers less commonly detected by literary-critical radar—such as thriller writer Edgar Wallace, the polymathic G. K. Chesterton, Hope Mirrlees, Lord Dunsany, and the American fantasist whom Gaiman names his favorite such author, Virginia novelist James Branch Cabell.

The ambition to emulate his favorites and become a writer himself was thus implanted early in young Neil, and after graduating from public school, he decided against committing to higher formal education and began working as a freelance journalist. Commissions for miscellaneous articles and interviews, successfully carried out throughout the early 1980s, led him to place work in such top-of-the-line publications as Time Out, the Sunday London Times,The Observer, and Punch. A “quickie” book about rock music group Duran Duran followed, as did a collection of amusing hyperbolic excerpts from science fiction novels and movies, Ghastly beyond Belief (1985), which Gaiman co-edited with novelist Kim Newman.

His name becoming known, and his interests settling into their distinctive groove, Gaiman made contacts with influential people in the comic book industry, and began producing original scripts. Early works in this form included Violent Cases (1987), Outrageous: Tales of the Old Testament (1987), Black Orchid (1988-89), Signal to Noise (1989-90), Miracleman: The Golden Age (1992), Death: The High Cost of Living (1993), and The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch (1994).

Meanwhile, Gaiman had married (in 1985), edited a decidedly unconventional poetry anthology (pace Wordsworth) Now We Are Sick (1987), authored the informal critical study The Official Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion (1988), and—in 1992—moved with his wife and two young children to the U.S., settling in Minnesota (a third child, his daughter Maddy, has since been born, in America).

During the 1990s, Gaiman spearheaded Comic Relief, a movement that developed into the Comic Legal Defense Fund, offering support to comics artists and writers who have been victims of censorship. He has remained an active participant in its activities, despite a workload that has increased exponentially as Gaiman has kept branching out into new venues and forms of expression.

In 1990 he collaborated with the wildly popular British fantasist Terry Pratchett (author of the mega-bestselling Discworld Novels) on Good Omens, a comic novel about the end of the world as observed and experienced by miscellaneous divinities, demons, and humans, replete with satanic nuns, fallen angels, a deity who has gotten really tired of humanity, and a riptide of millennial gags undoubtedly inspired by the aforementioned Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the late Douglas Adams's 1979 cult favorite.

Good Omens is a very funny (if more than slightly overstuffed, and minimally self-indulgent) romp, whose quality may best be suggested by this tribute from Gaiman's peer (and fellow American emigrant), horror novelist Clive Barker: “The apocalypse has never been funnier.”

In 1996, Gaiman wrote an original script for BBC Television: a tale of fantastic adventure set in a mythical “London Below” the real city, which story would soon be reshaped into his first adult novel written alone. A year later, he conquered yet another field with his first fiction for young adults, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. This agreeably whimsical story became a bestseller, and was chosen one of the Best Children's Books of 1997 and cited as Recommended Reading by Scholastic Magazine.

But by this time, Gaiman's name had already become widely known via the medium that was his first love and to which he would continue to return.

The first installment of The Sandman, a comic book that appropriated and altered a character from a 1970s comic (created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) appeared in 1988. Its eponymous protagonist, formerly an avenging superhero who used “sleeping gas” to subdue criminals, was reimagined by Gaiman into a reclusive nonhuman reminiscent of the legendary figures of the Wandering Jew and Flying Dutchman.

Sandman, also known as Dream (and Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, among other cognomens and titles), is one of seven immortal siblings, all personifications of elemental entities that inhabit and shape human consciousness. His counterparts-and a strangely dysfunctional, perpetually conflicted “family” they are indeed—are Destiny, Desire, Delirium, Despair, Destruction, and Death.

The Sandman, who presides over a realm known as The Dreaming and who in effect orchestrates the dreams—and hence the imaginations—of all living beings, is, as envisioned by graphic artist Dave McKean (who drew all the individual issues' cover images), a brooding Byronic presence whose dark good looks and preference for black clothing have struck multiple responsive chords in readers. For one thing, this “Dream” rather resembles the striking-looking Neil Gaiman himself. For another, his likeness is credited with being one of the major inspirations for the Goth Movement of the 1990s.

Dream is a somewhat morose character, detached from any real communion or empathy with his peers or with humans (no matter how much he interacts with others). And the thrust of the entire Sandman series is the arduous process through which he comes to terms with his mission, his fallibility, and his future.

The original Sandman (for there have been successors) consists of seventy-five monthly issues (plus a 1991 “extra” installment, The Sandman Special), which ran from 1988 to 1996 and are collected in ten more-or-less sequential paperback anthologies. Gaiman had been granted considerable freedom to develop the concept of The Sandman in whatever way struck his imagination. The hugely exfoliating storyline he created immediately attracted some of the fantasy genre's most renowned graphic artists, and soon drew critical praise (expressed in “Introductions” written for the paperback volumes) from such genre luminaries as Stephen King, Peter Straub, Harlan Ellison, and Samuel R. Delany.

Sandman was likewise a huge commercial success, and still sells more than a million copies annually. It won multiple Eisner Awards for both text and artwork, and has since been optioned by Warner Brothers for a major motion picture (because, as Gaiman has slyly commented, “nothing is ever soon to be a minor motion picture”).

Each of the ten paperback Sandman volumes groups individual issues thematically rather than in consistent chronological order. In Preludes and Nocturnes (issues # 1-8), a moribund British antiquarian, Roderick Burgess, while attempting to capture Death (and thus live forever), instead seizes Death's brother Dream, who is imprisoned for seventy-two years and stripped of his otherworldly powers by the theft of his magical “tools”: a pouch, helmet, and ruby. Dream's absence from his usual duties produces a worldwide epidemic of sleeping sickness (rendered in stunning visual images). When Dream finally escapes, the quest to recover his tools takes him to Hell itself, thence the home of John Dee, the son of Burgess's mistress Ethel Cripps, and a fugitive from the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane (in a grimly humorous nod to the creator of fictional Arkham, Massachusetts: H. P. Lovecraft).

These lively melodramatics are followed by Dream's encounter (in “The Sound of Her Wings”) with his sister Death, a forthright street punk who basically tells her sibling to stop feeling sorry for himself and tend to his business as lord of The Dreaming.

Subsequent issues alternate between concentrating on Dream's progress (or lack of it) in shouldering his burdens and separate stories both intimately and only tangentially related to it. In The Doll's House (issues #9-16), for example, the escape of several rebellious Dreams from the Sandman's realm lead him to fear that his world is falling apart—and introduces the characters of self-sacrificing Rose Walker; British author G. K. Chesterton; 14th-century commoner Hob Gadling, who bargains successfully with Dream and is rewarded with immortality; and the sinister Corinthian, who appears to be Dream's murderous alter ego.

This volume's stories include a faux African folktale (“Tales in the Sand”) that describes Dream's love affair with black queen Nada, and a mordantly amusing account of a serial killers' convention.

Dream Country (issues # 17-20), which incidentally reveals the gradual erosion of Dream's abstracted indifference to the world around him, ranges farther afield, to depict the Muse Calliope captured and sexually exploited by a blocked writer, a gorgeously detailed alternate reality in which felines hold dominion over humans (“A Dream of a Thousand Cats”), and—in one of the series's most gratifying high points—a marvelous fantastical retelling of Shakespeare's matchless comedy “A Midsummer Night's Dream.”

In Gaiman's inspired version, a summary of the play's action is surrounded and enriched by the story of its first production (and the involvement therein of its author's twin children Hamnet and Judith) and an explanation of how it came to be written: out of a Faustian pact with Dream, whereby the struggling playwright came into his full artistic maturity.

It was “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (issue # 19) that received the World Fantasy Award as its year's Best Short Story—the only comic book issue ever to be so honored. Season of Mists (issues # 21-28) depicts the consequences of Lucifer's decision to abandon Hell (which perhaps echoes God's annoyance with His creation in Good Omens) and give the key to its gates to Dream, who is thereupon importuned by numerous beings eager to seize control of the infernal regions. Deities from various theologies and mythologies keep popping up (thus prefiguring Gaiman's later novel American Gods), as do the troublemaking demon Azazel and the Norse god of mischief Loki (who is in many ways Dream's exact temperamental opposite).

This entertaining volume, whose resonant title is derived from Keats's great “Ode to Autumn,” is notable also for its very interesting characterization of a sensitive and ethically complex Lucifer, and as a further development of growing rifts among the increasingly distracted Dream and his squabbling Endless siblings.

In A Game of You (issues # 32-37), a previously encountered character named Barbie (and obviously inspired by the popular doll of the 1950s) becomes a princess reigning over a “dreamworld” imperiled by The Cuckoo, a destroyer bent on holding sway over a world purged of living beings. Dream is essentially an offstage presence in this somewhat surprising sequence, which contains teasing echoes of The Wizard of Oz (with Barbie as Dorothy, and her valiant dog Martin Tenbones as Toto), and strongly suggests the dangers of living within one's imagination—perhaps another warning signal to the Sandman.

Fables and Reflections, a ragbag volume that contains issues # 29-31, 38-40, 50, the aforementioned Sandman Special, and a new story entitled “Fear of Falling,” offers several crucial stories. These include Emperor Augustus Caesar's disclosure of the real reasons why Rome fell; the adventures of the (historical) self-proclaimed “Emperor of America,” late 19th-century San Francisco eccentric Joshua Norton (who was befriended by a much amused Mark Twain); and envisionings of Baghdad then and now, ranging from the fabulous caliphate of Haroun Al-Raschid (immortalized in The Arabian Nights) to its contemporary wartime state.

And, in a return to Dream's own preoccupations, “The Song of Orpheus” retells the familiar myth, adding the complication that Dream—who is revealed to be Orpheus's father—declines to restore the latter's beloved Eurydice to life.

Brief Lives (issues # 41-49), whose title denotes its emphases, involves Dream—at his sister Delirium's request—in a search for his missing brother Destruction, who has grown weary of humanity's misappropriation of his gift, and become estranged from The Endless. This almost unrelentingly grim sequence (relieved intermittently by such charming spectacles as that of Babylonian goddess Ishtar moonlighting as an exotic dancer) focuses further on Dream's embattled condition, when he is obliged—like the biblical patriarch Abraham—to take the life of his own son. Fewer specifics should be revealed about the succeeding volumes. World's End (issues # 51-56) indeed anticipates the promise of its title, as travelers stranded during a “reality storm” exchange stories, in the manner made famous by Boccaccio and Chaucer. The choicest tales are a flavorful sea story (“Hob's Leviathan”) reminiscent of Stevenson and Melville, and an ingenious Horatio Alger-like story of a teenager (“The Golden Boy”) who miraculously becomes President of the United States.

The Kindly Ones (issues # 57-69) brings The Dreaming under siege, by the classical Furies to whom its title alludes, and by the malicious mischief-making of Loki and Puck. The Sandman's “sin” is a careless remark, made much earlier in the series, that initiated a chain of devastating consequences, taking the form of wrongs that can only be righted—as gathering events make clear—by a purifying sacrificial act.

Volume ten The Wake (issues # 70-75) is very much a tying up of loose ends, in which a haunting Chinese tale memorably dramatizes the complex relationships of fathers to sons, Dream converses once more with the undying Hob Gadling, and the full truth of Will Shakespeare's bargain is revealed, with the second and last of his plays devoted to dreams and their consequences: “The Tempest.” Suffice it to say that The Wake literally is a wake, that celebrates as it mourns the nature of Dream (and dreaming), his gift to the world over which he broods with such sorrowful contemplation, and his destiny.

More than two thousand pages long, crammed with arresting and strangely beautiful images, featuring both an absorbing central narrative and a bountiful array of old and new stories, The Sandman revolutionized the graphic novel form, in effect creating an entirely new readership for comic books, and spreading Neil Gaiman's name throughout the land. And it was only the beginning.

Gaiman returned to the Sandman conception in 1999 with The Dream Hunters, a gorgeously illustrated short novel about a fox who befriends, then comes to love a gentle monk—and travels to the land of dreams in order to save her beloved from a malevolent landowner. Like the earlier Sandman episode “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” it's a wonderful modern version of the traditional beast fable: “an old Japanese fable,” Gaiman has since said of this limpid work, “[that] I completely made up.”

A new Sandman collection, Endless Nights, appeared in 2003. It contains seven stories, each related to or featuring one of The Endless. One of its best is “Death and Venice,” in which a pleasure-loving nobleman's plot to cheat time (and thus death as well) is juxtaposed with an introverted soldier's lifelong emotional momentum toward the nameless woman he met in his youth: Death herself. Another is a dark and intriguing miscellany entitled “Fifteen Portraits of Despair” (which includes two ironically apposite observations: “It is a writer, with nothing left that he knows how to say” and “It is an artist, and fingers that will never catch the vision”). Even better is “On the Peninsula,” an ingeniously unsettling tale of archaeologists who explore a presumably post-nuclear future.

Gaiman's expertly “caught” vision has extended itself still further, in The Sandman: Book of Dreams (1996), a collection of stories written and illustrated by admirers of the original series; and in The Sandman Presents: The Furies (2003), written by Mike Carey and illustrated by John Bolton, which is a sequel to the series' penultimate volume, The Kindly Ones.

Additional to this evidence that Dream will not really die are Gaiman's several affirmative responses whenever he's asked by interviewers whether he will return again to this material. Endless Nights is, in all likelihood, not the end of this story.

Meanwhile, this protean author's mastery of adult fiction was evidenced by Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions (1998), an expanded version of Gaiman's 1993 gathering of shorter work, Angels and Visitations.

This is a richly varied collection of thirty short stories and narrative poems, many of which transform classic figures from well-known myths, legends, and folktales into their darker (and, in some cases, funnier equivalents). “Nicholas Was,” for example, introduces a disturbingly unconventional Santa Claus. “Don't Ask Jack” (which may have been inspired by Walter de la Mare's great story “The Riddle”) features an evil Jack-in-the-box. And the poem “Bay Wolf” updates the grim Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf by shifting it into the giggly suntanned world of television's cluelessly inane Baywatch.

Gaiman rewrites the story of Snow White from the viewpoint of the jealous Queen (“Snow, Glass, Apples”), retells a folktale of magical revenge (“The Daughter of Owls”) in the style of seventeenth-century British antiquarian John Aubrey, and appropriates H. P. Lovecraft's dank haunted New England landscape of Innsmouth in “Only the End of the World Again” and “Shoggoth's Old Peculiar” (in the latter story, an American student traveling through England learns through unfortunate chance meetings that “there were things that lurked beneath gray raincoats that man was not meant to know”).

These “messages from Looking-Glass Land and pictures in shifting clouds” (so identified in Gaiman's “Introduction” to them) pay other homages—to fantasy writer Michael Moorcock and his contemporaries in a ruminative memoir of Gaiman's early reading (“One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock”) and to those masters of narrative concision John Collier and Ray Bradbury in “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale,” the story of a jealous lover who patronizes an assassination service and discovers the pleasures of megalomania and mass murder. There are also more strictly contemporary stories, including “Looking for the Girl,” set in “the London club scene in the early seventies,” and “Tastings,” which portrays a female succubus, or lamia, in a hair-raisingly graphic manner.

But these pale in comparison with the collection's finest story “Chivalry” (which Gaiman has singled out as a favorite piece for public readings). Told in the most restrained plain style imaginable, this is a perfect little fantasy, whose widowed protagonist Mrs. Whitaker happens one day to purchase the Holy Grail in a second-hand shop. Having brought it home, she is visited by the Arthurian knight Galahad, who has long sought it. Mrs. Whitaker's “temptation” by the handsome adventurer, and the sensible decision she makes, are quite movingly conveyed, in a tale that effortlessly blends the world of her own dowdy routine with the realm of chivalric romance. It's a great story, not nearly well enough known: the centerpiece of a remarkable collection that proved Neil Gaiman's continuing success with every task and challenge he had set himself.

In 1998 Gaiman published the novel Neverwhere, an expansion of the script written earlier for television performance. It's the story of Richard Mayhew, a young man from a provincial town who moves to London, makes his fortune (in a manner of speaking), and acquires a beauteous fiancée named Jessica.

Richard's life changes abruptly when he encounters a witch-like old woman who solemnly announces that he will soon undergo a remarkable experience that “starts with doors.” Sure enough, Richard meets a frail, comely girl who calls herself Door, and aids her in her flight from a pair of grotesque assassins for hire, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar (whose communal demeanor may be indicated by the way they answer their telephone, thus: “Croup and Vandemar, … Eyes gouged, noses twisted, tongues pierced, chins cleft, throats slit”). These distinctly uncharming partners were, Door surmises, undoubtedly implicated in the murder of her family, which she and Richard thereupon set out to solve.

Richard follows Door to “London Below,” a city beneath the “real” London (“where the people who fall through the cracks go”). Here he wanders through a tumultuous Floating Market, meeting various angelic and demonic persons and personifications, and proving his mettle by doing battle with the fearsome Great Beast of London. The novel ends with Richard restored to the life for which he is best suited, and the two Londons continue to exist in a richly suggestively symbolic mutual relationship.

Neverwhere is Gaiman's best novel so far. Its likable hero (whose surname evokes the historical Henry Mayhew, author of the classic nineteenth-century sociological study London Labour and the London Poor) is a vivid contemporary equivalent of the archetypal innocent youth who grows by fits and starts into his hero-hood; Croup and Vandemar make a splendid psychopathic vaudeville time (they resemble nothing so much as a bloodthirsty Laurel and Hardy); and the eerily detailed landscape of London below is etched with bravura nightmarish precision: it's a setting that might have been invented by a Kafka-influenced Dickens.

Its successor Stardust (1999) is made of somewhat gentler stuff, though the spell it casts is scarcely less seductive. This beguiling adult fairy tale begins in rural England in the 1830s, in the town of Wall, named thus for the “high grey rock wall” between it and an otherworldly “meadow” in which not-quite-human figures are frequently glimpsed. The inhabitants of this meadow (“Faerie”) are quite willing to mingle occasionally with mortals. And, on one such occasion, during Wall's annual April fair, young Dunstan Thorn falls in love with a maiden from the meadow and conceives a child with her.

The latter, who grows up in Wall, becomes Tristran Thorn. And, like his father Dunstan before him, young Tristran becomes enamored of a bewitching girl, Victoria Forester—who, in a playful moment, agrees to accept Tristran's love if he retrieves for her the streaking star they had together observed falling to earth; or, more precisely, beyond the rock wall, within the boundaries of Faerie.

The bulk of the novel recounts Tristran's amazing adventures, as he learns he is not the star's only pursuer. The murderous sons of the villainous Lord of Stormhold (accompanied by the dead brothers whom they the living have murdered) are his chief rivals, but they're only part of a phantasmagoric parade that includes assorted trolls and spell-mumbling hags, a farm boy transformed into a goat, and a wood nymph turned into a tree, among others. Tristran finds the star (which turns out to be, rather than an astral body, a person—and not a particularly agreeable one), but not before exploits aboard a passing “sky ship,” his own metamorphosis (into a dormouse), and a bittersweet return to Wall, upon which he learns—as did Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere—that his destiny is neither as commonplace nor as earthbound as he had been brought up to believe.

The protagonists of Neverwhere and Stardust, heroes though they may be, are fairly simply drawn characters compared with “Shadow” Moon, the central figure of Gaiman's multiple-prizewinning next novel American Gods (2001).

A bit of hint as to who Shadow really is is dropped when we learn that he is thirty-two, has served three years of a prison term for “aggravated assault and battery,” and has just been freed, after learning that his wife Laura has died in an automobile accident. Shadow travels by plane to Indiana for Laura's funeral, and the story's real complications begin.

En route, Shadow meets a loquacious “businessman” of uncertain identity (“Call me Wednesday,” he affably declares), and impulsively accepts an equally undefined job as the latter's chauffeur and “handyman.”

Shadow's subsequent waking and dreaming moments are populated by bizarre otherworldly figures. A human with the head of a buffalo offers him sonorous cryptic advice. Laura's ghost visits him, taking unusual corporeal form.

At this point the narrative begins expanding to include several interpolated stories. An 18th-century Irish girl, Essie Tregowan, is “transported” to America. Salim, a Middle Eastern immigrant, becomes the lover of a mischievous spirit (an ifrit) working as a Manhattan cabdriver. Boy and girl twins sold by their wicked uncle are brought to America on a slave ship: the boy grows up to participate in a bloody slave rebellion; the girl becomes a healer, and the forerunner of “voudon” queen Marie Laveau.

Meanwhile, Shadow and Wednesday travel throughout middle America, establishing a kind of base in Lakeside, Wisconsin, making preparations for a “meeting” Wednesday is arranging. The schemes related to it are described by one suspicious colleague as follows: “he wants a last stand. He wants to go out in a blaze of glory.”

Shadow is repeatedly warned that a storm is approaching. Reality seems to be losing its bearings: as Shadow watches television in a motel room, Rob Petrie physically abuses his Laura; and Lucy Ricardo speaks from the screen directly to Shadow.

Even more sinister omens pile onto one another. In Chicago, a ruffian named Czernobog wins a game of checkers, and reserves the right to beat Shadow's brains out on an unspecified later occasion. Wednesday has some strange business with mortician Mr. Ibis and his associate Mr. Jacquel. A murderous old man named Hinzelmann poses yet another threat to the increasingly bewildered Shadow.

The reader gradually understands that the “old gods” worshipped around the world have followed the emigrants who believe in them to America—where they are confronted by the “new gods” of consumerism and mass communication (Media, for example—who is at one point mistaken for the classical antiheroine “who killed her children”)—and that Wednesday (who is the Norse god Wotan, not all that carefully disguised) has, with Shadow's aid, summoned them to a climactic, perhaps apocalyptic gathering.

Shadow's function in this götterdämmerung is made clear by the novel's climactic events. When the slain Wednesday is buried (beneath an ancient “world tree”), Shadow keeps the required vigil over his grave, tied to the tree, denied food and water, until Mr. Ibis conducts him on a subsequent journey that involves a flight by “thunderbird” (and no, Virginia, it's not an automobile), the payment of what he owes to the patient Czernobog, a Dantean task accomplished on a “frozen lake,” and a terrific surprise contained in an ironic concluding “Postscript.”

American Gods is, arguably, a bit too playful and hectic for its own good. But much of the very considerable pleasure this rich novel offers consists in recognizing the theological and mythological sources of its boldly drawn characters. Most readers who are attuned to Gaiman's encyclopedic imagination will note that the ibis and the jackal are key figures in Egyptian myth, that Shadow's light-fingered former cellmate “Low Key” Lyesmith has his own divine counterpart—perhaps even that the blowsy good-time gal “Easter” somewhat resembles pagan goddess of spring Eostre, the spry little black man Mr. Nancy has many of the qualities of the West African trickster-creator Anansi, and that the buffalo-headed sage of Shadow's dreams has many antecedents in Native American folklore.

The novel's key incidents and incidental details are similarly freighted with symbolic suggestiveness. Shadow's hobby of “coin manipulation,” at which he's particularly adept, marks him as one potentially capable of magic. His “combat” with Czernobog closely echoes the medieval tale of Arthurian knight Sir Gawain's fateful encounter with the mysteriously powerful Green Knight. His ordeal on that frozen lake emphatically implies a journey to the infernal regions and back. And when Wednesday rises from the dead to inform Shadow that “there's power in the sacrifice of a son,” we understand that America's gods, native and newly arrived, are not the only ones involved in the drama of Shadow's passage from sin and error to purification through suffering.

This big novel received numerous mainstream reviews (unusual for a book by an author associated with the fantasy genre) and effectively confirmed Gaiman's reputation as a “serious” writer. When he followed it with Coraline (2002), a scary young adult novel about a preadolescent girl who discovers an alternate reality within her family's house, even more rapturous reviews greeted the book. Coraline (a story that adult readers should not overlook) won the Hugo, Bram Stoker, and British Science Fiction Association Awards, and is already spoken of as a contemporary classic.

Gaiman's seemingly indefatigable energies have produced, within the last four years, several more graphic novels: a shivery tale of lycanthropy (Only the End of the World Again [an illustrated version of Gaiman's short story] 2000); a chilling love story based on commedia dell' arte characters and motifs (Harlequin Valentine, 2001); a weird tale of a sinister “rock legend” (The Last Temptation, 2001); and the story behind the story of the angel Lucifer's fall from heaven (Murder Mysteries, 2003), expanded from a story that had appeared in Smoke and Mirrors.

The aforementioned feature film Mirror Mask will be along later this year. Other Gaiman works optioned for film include Death: The High Cost of Living,Neverwhere, and Stardust. Gaiman websites advise that a sequel to American Gods is in the works.

In a 1999 interview with the internet journal Writers Write, Gaiman said “As far as I'm concerned, the entire reason for becoming a writer is not having to get up in the morning.” Perhaps. But when a storyteller so generous and gifted dreams to such stunning effect, one wants only to say: Sleep well. Dream well. Then get up, as late as you please, and write down for us all that you have dreamed.

Kent Worcester (essay date 2004)

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SOURCE: Worcester, Kent. “The Graphic Novels of Neil Gaiman.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, 195. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004.

[In the following essay, Worcester examines the works, life, and career of Neil Gaiman.]


Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) is an imaginative, prolific and highly popular contemporary author whose impact has been felt in a variety of media and genres. He is the author of several fantasy novels (Neverwhere,Stardust,Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), and American Gods), and numerous short stories (some of which are collected in Smoke and Mirrors), as well as stories for younger readers (Coraline,The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, and The Wolves in the Walls). While Gaiman has written for film, television, stage, magazines, and newspapers, he is probably best known for his work in comic books. In recent years Gaiman has received the Hugo, the Nebula, the Harvey, the Eisner, the World Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and other honors in the fields of fantasy, science fiction, children's fiction, literary fiction, and comics. Gaiman's website ( receives thousands of hits per day and offers links to comprehensive bibliographies as well as interviews, essays, message boards, and a web journal.

Gaiman was born in Portchester, England, where his father owned a vitamin company. He was educated at Ardingly College Junior School and the Whitgift School. In the early 1980s he worked as a freelance journalist in London, contributing articles, reviews and interviews on popular culture topics. While he was a fan of Marvel and DC comics as a child, he stopped reading comic books in his teen years and only reluctantly looked at them again as an adult. In an interview with Hy Bender, Gaiman described “waiting for a train at Victoria Station” in 1984, when he “noticed a newsstand with piles of comics, and Swamp Thing 25, “The Sleep of Reason,” caught my eye. I was dead set against buying it, but I read it just standing there and flipping. As I did so, I started thinking, ‘This is really good. But it can't be, because comics are no good” (Bender 15). The following year he became friends with both Alan Moore (b. 1953), the British comics writer who had already achieved critical acclaim for his work on Swamp Thing, and Dave McKean (b. 1963), an innovative young artist. Alan Moore's burgeoning success helped convinced Gaiman that a career as a comics writer was not only possible, but worthwhile, while his numerous conversations with Dave McKean helped him to lay out an ambitious agenda for comics. As Gaiman later recalled, he and McKean “had very definite ideas about the kind of comics we wanted to see, the kind of comics we liked. They were heady times. We were both intoxicated by the potential of the medium, by the then-strange idea that comics weren't exclusively for kids anymore (if they ever had been): that the possibilities were endless” (Violent Cases 3).

The comics industry in the mid-to-late 1980s was undergoing a period of change and transformation. Independent companies were being set up to take advantage of the specialist comics shops opening in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. Politically minded figures such as Moore, Frank Miller, Paul Chadwick, and Art Spiegelman were part of a creative turn that emphasized the contribution that multilayered scripts and unconventional artwork could make to a supposedly lowbrow medium. DC Comics, then as now part of Time Warner, one of the world's largest entertainment corporations, performed an important catalytic function by signing and promoting UK writers who brought a distinctive sensibility to a U.S. dominated industry. These writers included not only Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, but Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, and a handful of others. Meanwhile, a growing number of comics creators experimented with longer, self-contained stories for adult readers—a format that became known as the graphic novel.

Gaiman played a starring role in this period of creative ferment and he remains one of the biggest names in the field. His friendship with Dave McKean led to a series of high-profile collaborations, beginning with the remarkable Violent Cases as well as the “prestige format,” three-part series, Black Orchid. While the former drew readers via word of mouth, the latter was enthusiastically received in the comics subculture and helped mark the arrival of a “British wave” in comics. With the success of Black Orchid, DC invited Gaiman to develop a new monthly series, which led to the launch of The Sandman at the end of 1988. The Sandman featured Gaiman's densely plotted, emotionally resonant scripts, McKean's fanciful cover art, and interior artwork by a procession of talented illustrators. It was possibly the most critically acclaimed English-language comic series of the 1990s. Gaiman further consolidated his reputation with Signal to Noise (1992) and Mr. Punch (1994) both with McKean, as well as his scripts for Miracleman (1990-1994) and various side projects, including Sandman spin-offs Death: The High Cost of Living (1994) and Death: The Time of Your Life (1997). While Gaiman brought the monthly series to a close in 1996, he returned to “the Dreaming” with his illustrated story collaboration with Yoshitaka Amano, The Sandman: The Dream Hunters (1999), and in The Sandman: Endless Nights (2003).

This essay focuses on the longer and more ambitious comics that Neil Gaiman has undertaken over the past two decades. These projects can be divided into two main groups: first, the experimental, boundary-expanding projects with McKean, and second, The Sandman and related graphic novels. The essay refers only in passing to his other comics writings and does not address his prose fiction. In the concluding section the essay takes stock of Gaiman's influence on contemporary comics and his contribution to the revival of fantasy in mainstream comics. The conclusion also considers whether and to what extent Gaiman and McKean were able to implement the sweeping artistic and cultural agenda they laid out for the comics medium in the mid-1980s.


Comics often involve a group undertaking that brings together writers and illustrators and sometimes inkers, letterers, and colorists. While there are many individuals who write and draw their own comics, comics published by the larger companies (such as DC) tend to be produced by creative teams whose rosters change from time to time. In the case of the seventy-five issues of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman worked alongside no fewer than 50 artists, letterers, and colorists, along with 3 editors and assistant editors, and one cover artist, over a span of eight years. This turnover in personnel can be explained in part by the pressures of monthly publication, but Gaiman also wanted to deploy different artists for distinct storytelling purposes.

The graphic novels Violent Cases,Signal to Noise, and Mr. Punch were produced under very different conditions from The Sandman. Each is a self-contained, coauthored package designed to appeal to culturally literate readers who would normally never pay attention to comics or genre-based fiction more generally. As McKean wrote in the dedication to Violent Cases, “For my teacher, Malcolm Hatton. You see? This is what I mean by comics.” In each case, their purpose was to explore the medium's largely unrealized potential, to combine words and pictures in ways that took full advantage of the form—panels, word balloons, and sequential storytelling—without invoking the familiar conventions and tropes of mainstream comics. The stories themselves diverge from the norm as much as the artwork. Rather than telling heroic adventure stories, these books are concerned with intrinsically grown up themes, such as memory's imperfections and the solace that meaningful work can provide in the face of death.

Gaiman and McKean's distinctive visual-verbal agenda is also promulgated in their only slightly more cheerful books for younger readers, each of which recapitulate aspects of the graphic novel, but under a different publishing rubric. The term “children's book” would be misapplied to these stories, especially Coraline, given their edgy content. “Graphic novel” might be more accurate, even if they do not consistently use a panel-by-panel illustrated narrative structure as such. But, in contrast to Violent Cases,Signal to Noise, and Mr. Punch,Coraline,The Wolves in the Walls, and The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish are mainly sold in bookstores and are not retailed or consumed as comics.

Violent Cases is the earliest of the Gaiman-McKean collaborations and yet it holds up quite nicely. It tells a quasi-autobiographical story about a four-year old boy in provincial southern England who meets (or at least recalls meeting) Al Capone's osteopath. Almost everything about the book departs from the traditional comic book—from the cover, which features a disturbingly indistinct, puffy-cheeked older man in a gray suit, to the inside pages, which veer from collages and oversize panels to dense overlays of penciled sketches and exploding borders. The story itself rests on precarious foundations—the memories of a child, for whom violin cases are “violent cases” and “the giants always looked like my father.” “The actual subject matter of Violent Cases,” Gaiman explained, “is a subject matter that fascinates and obsesses me: violence, cruelty, madness, and what it's like to be a kid in an adult world, and how horrible parties are, and all that stuff” (Thompson 71).

The book opens with a disturbing childhood incident in which Gaiman's shoulder was sprained or dislocated by his father. “I wouldn't want to gloss over the true facts,” Gaiman explains, as he addresses the reader via multiple panels. “Without true facts, where are we?” The action centers around three successive conversations with the osteopath, whose appearance changes over the course of the book, as the narrator tries to form a clear image from his unreliable memory. The porous nature of mental images is something that the book captures quite effectively. As Gaiman later said, “I think we pulled off something you couldn't do anywhere other than in comics, where the osteopath suddenly looks younger, and for the rest of the book he looks that way. You couldn't do that in prose, because by that time the reader would have built up a mental picture of what he looks like. In film or TV people would be distracted by looking at the make-up job required, or the fact that a different actor was suddenly playing the part” (Lawley and Whitaker 47). This sense of makeshift recollections is further suggested by McKean's fragmented pages, which combine odd details with abstracted depictions of imperfectly remembered episodes.

The four-year old Gaiman chats with the talkative osteopath for the last time at “Louisa Singer's fifth birthday party at the Queen's Hotel.” Sipping a cola at the Hotel bar he hears about the time when Al Capone tied up and then clubbed some of his closest associates to death. In Gaiman's mind Louisa Singer's party and Al Capone's orgy of violence merge, so that in one panel, Capone's men are screaming, and in another, “four children run around three chairs … and a little girl—Louisa Singer herself, the birthday girl—stomps away from the others, her lower lip trembling.” This leads to a genuinely unnerving page in which a thick spray of black ink, symbolizing blood, splashes over the men's tortured faces. “Nobody was sick, which kind of surprised me,” Gaiman intones at the bottom of the page, in a borderless image that features party favors and a handgun. “I thought of the other children. Their heads bloody caved-in lumps. I felt fine about it. I felt happy.” Despite the seething hostility that this passage reveals—a rage that has its roots, presumably, in the behavior of his parents, and particularly his argumentative father, who has a taste for bickering and empty threats—the young Gaiman merely says “thank you for having me” to Louisa's mother at the end of the party. While Neil Gaiman has a reputation for being one of the nicest people in comics, Violent Cases suggests that his knack for writing tragic and occasionally morbid stories has at least partly autobiographical origins.

Signal to Noise similarly juxtaposes two apparently unrelated themes—the impending death of a well-known film director, and the end-of-the-world anxieties that ordinary Europeans felt on the eve of the last millennium—just as Violent Cases contrasts and then conflates kid's parties with the mafia. Here too the ending unites the two themes, with the now spectral film director joining the crowds on a hillside at the end of 999 AD. This volume is more optimistic than Violent Cases, insofar as the director hopefully peers upward in the final panels, and the reader learns that the script he's been working on has found an audience. “The world is always ending, for someone,” muses the director. But in this case art can outlive the artist, whereas in Violent Cases all that's left are memories. Art carries the signal that distinguishes meaning from the “noise” of meaninglessness. In this book at least, Gaiman seems to suggest that the dying are threatened by noise rather than peace.

In mainstream comics one of Gaiman's best-known characters is Death, the older sister of Dream (aka the Sandman), who wears a stylish black costume and is everyone's best friend. The faintly menacing aspect of her character is occasionally acknowledged, but her high spirits and savoir-faire suggest that the universal experience she embodies is a thrilling mystery rather than a source of dread. In Signal to Noise, death is not stylish. “My chest began to hurt, and I told myself I should not have walked,” the unnamed director says to himself as a dull orange colored glow hovers above his outstretched hand. The fact that the main character is aging, balding, and thickening around the waist—decaying, in other words—is another form of “noise” that comics have not always been willing to contend with. The Sandman has its deeply tragic elements, but it is mostly about people who look and act as if they are under 35 (even if some are elemental beings that predate homo sapiens). By way of contrast, the concept of youthful glamour is almost entirely absent from the core Gaiman-McKean collaborations, even if their coauthored pages are often stunning in their artistic virtuosity.

With Signal to Noise Gaiman and McKean introduced new approaches to their assigned roles. Gaiman's prose is more epigrammatic this time around, with whole pages devoted to terse and sometimes elusive phrases: “I had a lie,” states the narrator on one page; “stop looking at me!” says the director in another, as he shouts at the photos in his study. In one particularly unconventional two-page spread, rows and rows of photocopied, blue-tinted eyes stare out at the reader while the text reads “And I saw as it was a sea of glass mingled with fire.” McKean's trademark blurry sketches turn up on some pages, but there are a greater variety of visual styles on hand, from full-page paintings and photographic collages, to computerized mindscapes and disturbing paintings of each of the four riders of the apocalypse. Many of these pages achieve a sense of paintings-that-talk that is generally absent from the action-oriented, plot-derived graphics that accompany most comic book stories.

While Violent Cases and Signal to Noise appeared under small press imprints, Mr. Punch was published by DC's Vertigo line of mature reader comics. Even by Vertigo standards Mr. Punch is an unusual project, one that was presumably facilitated by Gaiman's growing fame as the guiding spirit behind The Sandman. Once again, the emphasis is on each page as a thing in itself rather than incessant narrative stimulation. In many pages McKean places dark gray borders between panels, which lends these passages the feel of a family portrait album. The panels themselves are mostly brown, sepia, and gray, with occasional discordant splash of green, purple or blue, depending on the storyline. It's an unusually bleak look for a major comics publisher. The story itself—which returns to Gaiman's childhood, when he is introduced to the time-honored secrets of Punch and Judy, by way of his grandfather's dilapidated seaside amusement arcade—is no lighter in tone than artwork. The story culminates, after all, in a miserable scene in which the arcade's pregnant “mermaid” is whacked in the stomach and face with a two-by-four by a shadowy figure (quite possibly a family member). Mr. Punch revisits such familiar Gaimanesque riffs as memory, uncertainty, incipient violence, and family mysteries, but it also introduces an ambivalent romance with archaic forms of English folk culture, a theme that also surfaces in The Sandman. While there may be less emphasis on formal experimentation in this book, there is never any danger that McKean's pages could be mistaken for anyone else's in comics.

Both the adult-oriented graphic novels described here and the illustrated books for younger readers referred to earlier are the products of an unusually long-lived creative partnership. Gaiman and McKean's careers have operated on slightly different tracks, however. In a 1993 interview, Gaiman said “Me and Dave, we're like Venn diagrams: There are places of intersection, but then we have completely different tastes and sensibilities going off on each side. I miss him appallingly, terribly. We only used to see each other once every couple of months, but we probably talked on the phone practically every night for years” (Thompson 68). While they continue to share a passion for taking comics in new directions, Gaiman exhibits a far greater fondness for genre. “I tend to like genres: I like to play with them and take them apart and put them back together,” Gaiman said in the same interview. “But Dave, I think, feels that genres are essentially slightly silly things” (Thompson 68). Even his covers for The Sandman, while popular with many regular comic fans, looked quite unlike anything else on the racks. While McKean's dense, melancholy, and painterly covers invoked a sense of mystery and sometimes horror, they did so without playing on horror comic conventions. Nor did they connect with the rest of the “DC universe” (DCU) in any obvious way.

Black Orchid is the only long form Gaiman-McKean collaboration that takes place within a mainstream comics environment. Lex Luthor, Swamp Thing, Poison Ivy, and other hardy DC perennials play supporting roles in a story that reintroduces readers to a pair of gentle, bioengineered flower creatures who share the power of flight. Gaiman seems especially attuned to the ecological underpinnings of the story, with its lyrical contrast between Luthor's looming office tower and the lush green forests of the Amazon. The story's final resolution is a little easy, perhaps, but some of the pages are stunning, with their mix of Gaiman's snappy dialogue and McKean's vivid greens and purples. In an interview with Comics Forum, Gaiman confessed that “Orchid has a lot of flaws. We were having to do our learning in public. We'd figured out our manifesto of how to do comics, and we were trying to apply it” (Lawley and Whitaker 59). McKean's characteristically bold page compositions looked cramped in a standard format comic book, and some of the plotting seemed forced. Two years later, Gaiman penned a four-part story called The Books of Magic, also for DC, which introduced a significant new character, the young magician Timothy Hunter, into the DCU. This book represented an enjoyable but similarly strained compromise between Gaiman's literary sensibility and the existing DC mythos and ethos. Gaiman's other DC universe stories are collected in Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame and Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days.


With The Sandman, Neil Gaiman was granted a license to construct an entire world (or, more accurately, entire worlds) of fairies, monsters, demons, humans, and ancient godlike creatures at the fringes of the DCU. He also retained a greater degree of control over his domain than creators had previously negotiated from the major companies, including the power to bring his own series to an end. “Sandman is a fantasy,” Gaiman once said in an interview. “It wanders around and smudges the border of genre from time to time and is often historical; it will go off and very occasionally be horror. But mostly it's fantasy, that's what it is. It's a story about things that do not exist” (Groth 76). While some of the series' minor characters were already part of the DC universe, they were mostly obscure figures from non-superhero titles of the 1960s and 1970s who had been languishing in comic book limbo before Gaiman dusted them off and placed them within The Sandman. The key cast members are the seven Endless: Destiny, Death, Dream (i.e., the Sandman), Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium, formerly known as Delight. With the partial exception of Destiny, they are all Gaiman's inventions. Each represent intrinsic aspects of the human condition, and as such they are older and more powerful than humanity's gods. It is suggested that the Endless will outlive humanity and that Death will outlive the universe itself. They regard themselves as members of a single family, but like all families they argue and bicker and quarrel.

In the course of the story we learn that Destruction has given up his role (he now dedicates himself to such pursuits as painting, writing and music), a dereliction of duty that unnerves some of his siblings, especially his brother Dream. We also find out that Desire has a penchant for stirring up trouble, which indirectly sets into motion the concluding story arc, in which Dream more or less allows himself to be snuffed out by “the kindly ones,” the famous weird sisters of European mythology. The kindly ones take some pleasure in taking down one of the Endless, but another Dream soon takes his place. The Sandman closes with the first Dream's wake, in which various characters, human and non-human, come to terms with Dream's passing.

By making Dream, who is sometimes referred to as Morpheus, the main protagonist, Gaiman is able to write about stories themselves, the ways in which dreams, nightmares, and narratives exert a powerful hold on the contemporary imagination, even as modernity seeks to diminish myth in favor of science, logic, and instrumental reason. Myths, Gaiman insists, retain the power to tell us about ourselves. But according to Gaiman we don't always want to obtain that kind of knowledge. As a character named Rose Walker tells herself at the end of The Doll's House story arc, “the world's about as solid and reliable as a layer of scum on the top of a well of black water which goes down forever, and there are things in the depths that I don't even want to think about.” Or as Gaiman said in one interview, “One of the things I wanted specifically to look at was, what does the twentieth century do with, to and about myth … myths and legends still have power; they get buried and forgotten, but they're like land-mines” (Lawley and Whitaker 51).

The first issue of The Sandman introduces Roderick Burgess, an eccentric English magus along the lines of Aleister Crowley, who attempts to kidnap Death via a pagan ceremony. While Death eludes them, Burgess and his followers manage to capture Dream, and for a period of seventy years, 1916 to 1986, Dream remains locked away—trapped and stripped of his powers—in the basement of an English manor house. The dreams of the twentieth century were as troubled as they were, it turns out, because the Sandman went missing. When Morpheus finally escapes his captors, his first thoughts are of revenge, and recovering the possessions that had been taken from him. Vengeance, for the king of dreams, is relatively easy to arrange; retrieving his belongings, and throne, proves a little more difficult.

Most difficult of all is the fact that his involuntary leave of absence leads him to reopen uncomfortable questions about his past, and his unbending personality structure, which generates unfamiliar feelings of remorse and misgiving. He especially regrets his decision to banish his one-time human lover, Nada, to Hell (on the grounds that she spurned him), and even more importantly, he feels guilty about the tragic disregard he has previously shown his son Orpheus. These feelings, and Morpheus's struggle to come to terms with their ramifications, motivate much of the series' meta-story, although there are numerous points where Gaiman slows things down and presents stories in which the Sandman plays a minor role or in which we see the Sandman in earlier incarnations, prior to his traumatic imprisonment.

Sandman is incredibly traditional,” (Lawley and Whitaker 55) Gaiman once admitted. Rather than trying to incite political action, or moral outrage, the comic spins a series of fine yarns, the kind that deserve a deep chair and a warm fire. In The Sandman Gaiman borrows freely from ancient fables, myths, and legends, and somehow fashions them into an appropriately oversized postmodern mythology for modern-day readers, complete with a sprawling setting and an eccentric cast of characters that lends itself to endless adventures in myth-making, where the reader's imagination becomes as important as the recorded stories themselves. At the same time, every story ever told is part of the Dreaming, the other-worldly realm ruled by Morpheus, and therefore every story is part of The Sandman, at least in theory—which allows Gaiman to incorporate everything from Elizabethan drama (William Shakespeare is featured in two stories and writes both A Midsummer's Night Dream and The Tempest at Morpheus' behest), to the countless books that have been dreamed rather than written down, which can only be found in Morpheus' library. The reason that Dream has to die, perhaps, is because new myths and stories are needed; but Dream can never die, at least not as long as there are dreamers.

As this suggests, the dream world, for Neil Gaiman, is a vital source of collective myths and stories rather than an expression of the subjugated forces of the id, as Sigmund Freud famously argued. Dreams, Gaiman suggests, are a kind of “shadow-truth” that haunt and inspire entire societies, rather than highly individualized experiences. Interestingly, Freud's name is never invoked in a self-consciously literary comics series that explores the relationship between stories, consciousness, and dreams. Arguably, The Sandman is more about what Freud referred to as the super-ego than the id, and it is at least debatable that the comic blurs any distinction between storytelling and dreaming, thus ignoring or downplaying the psychological dimensions of dreaming.

The shape of The Sandman's larger story only gradually came into focus for readers, who were teased with hints of Dream's growing self-doubt throughout the course of the series. Two smaller-scale stories that proved especially popular with readers were “Ramadan,” illustrated by P. Craig Russell, and “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” illustrated by Kelley Jones and Malcolm Jones III, in which alley cats dream of a world in which “no cats are killed by human caprice.” Both stories confirm Gaiman's talent for crafting emotionally engaging characters, even or especially non-human ones, and they also exemplify the Dreaming's extraordinary flexibility as a storytelling device. Furthermore, they offer stories in which dreamers are represented as heroic figures, and important leaders, rather than easy marks. Gaiman's comics work is free of the cynical impulse that characterizes many contemporary comics, both alternative and mainstream.

Many readers were reportedly less enthusiastic about A Game of You, the fifth volume in The Sandman reprint series, which Gaiman has nevertheless described as a personal favorite. On one level this volume takes up the story of one of Dream's many responsibilities, which involves keeping an eye on “distant islets in the shoals of dream.” One particular islet, where much of the drama unfolds, is a fantasyland for emotionally neglected girls, complete with princesses, evildoers, and talking stuffed animals. The fate of this remote skerry is determined in the course of the story. On another level the volume concerns a circle of eccentric New Yorkers, bohemian residents of the lower East Side, who make their way to the islet by way of lunar magic to assist their friend Barbie, who lives in their building. Each of these Manhattanites is struggling with issues of identity—from Barbie herself, who cannot say with any confidence where she belongs, to their neighbor George, who is not who or what he appears to be, to Barbie's good friend Wanda, a vivacious pre-op transsexual. The reader also meets the memorable witch Thessaly, who was “born in the day of greatest darkness, in the year the bear totem was shattered” and who certainly knows her way around a corpse.

Witchcraft occupies a pivotal position in this story, as it does in several Sandman issues, and as is true in the case of the Dreaming the reader finds that magic is not without its perils, and terrors. But the most powerful parts of the story have to do with good old punk rock New York, its rhythms and personalities, rather than fantasy or the supernatural. Some readers may have been turned off by the book's uncompromising sexual politics, its unconventional mishmash of imaginary worlds and street scenes, and its unapologetic gore (what happens in the bathtub is not for the faint of heart). But it nevertheless showcases Gaiman's talent for placing fully realized, three-dimensional characters in unworldly and some might say ungodly situations and letting them discover for themselves how dangerous things are “out there” and how little they (and we) know.

The artwork in The Sandman is usually excellent, although it is also tremendously varied. It ranges from Marc Hempel's argumentative, staccato lines to P. Craig Russell's lovingly detailed renderings; from Jill Thompson's engagingly busy pages to Mike Allred's colorful hippie vibe. Some of the earlier stories are firmly rooted in horror, and these feature murky pages by Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III, who specialize in dark corridors and ghastly visages. In some of the historical episodes, such as those having to do with medieval or early modern England, the artwork is far more refined and delicate. The English artist Bryan Talbot proved a splendidly muscular choice for handling ancient Rome in “August,” in which Emperor Augustus spends a day disguised as a beggar in the marketplace. Gaiman specifically asked each illustrator he worked with what kinds of things they liked to draw, and then tried to accommodate their requests in his stories. Judging from “August,” Talbot may have specifically expressed an interest in drawing pock marked faces amid the sculptural splendors the ancient world.

In 1993 DC launched a new imprint, Vertigo, which was designed to take advantage of the renewed interest in more intellectually ambitious comics that the British wave, Neil Gaiman very much included, helped generated. In part this move reflected DC's unabashed interest in building on the success of The Sandman itself, and in the intervening years Vertigo has issued a stream of monthly series, one-off titles, and mini-series based in and on the Dreaming. While DC has agreed not to publish any stories about the Endless, unless written by Gaiman himself, this has left ample room for stories about Faerie, dreams, Timothy Hunter, and Merv the Pumpkinhead (the dream world's wise-cracking handyman). DC also spared no expense in packaging and promoting Gaiman's recent Sandman-related titles, The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, and The Sandman: Endless Nights. While Vertigo should not be considered synonymous with Gaiman-derived fantasy, a substantial share of the company's output over the past decade has been directly based on worlds and characters that Gaiman introduced in his best known title.

Many observers rate The Sandman in particular, and Neil Gaiman's comics and graphic novels in general, as milestones in the development of literary-minded comics. Gaiman's work is beginning to attract attention from scholars and researchers in literature and media studies. (Rauch 2003; Sanders 1997; see also www.holycow/dreaming/academia) At least one cultural historian, however, has argued that Gaiman's writings lack the political bite of other UK comics writers, such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. “The quality of Gaiman's writing, his inventiveness, his wit, his sensitivity,” Newsinger concedes, “all combined to produce a contemporary romantic hero, Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, the protagonist of a series of classic Gothic tales. There is, however, another reason for The Sandman's cult status and critical acclaim. The comic was conservative with a small ‘c’, resolutely middle class in its appeal. It posed no challenges, cast down no icons, trashed no temples, violated no taboos. Instead it provided a conservative exploration of the ‘human condition’, of our existential predicament, abstracted from any social or political context. This is certainly not to dispute the quality of Gaiman's writing or the pleasures to be got from it, but rather to point to a dimension of his achievement that is not generally recognized: The Sandman is horror for the middle classes” (Newsinger 81).

Gaiman would probably accept the charge of showing scant interest in explicitly political topics. As he once conceded in a long interview with Gary Groth: “Would I describe myself as a rebel? No!” (Groth 85) Feminists might point to the substantial number of strong female characters who feature in Gaiman's stories (up to and including Eve, of Adam and Eve fame, who lives on the edge of the Dreaming), and environmentalists might reasonably view Gaiman as one of their own, given his obvious appreciation for animals and nature. But Newsinger is onto something when he contrasts Gaiman, who is at root an entertainer, albeit an unusually inventive one, to the more agitational minded members of his pop-literary generation. At the same time, there are plenty of hints that Gaiman holds to a social democratic sensibility that does not exactly command the center stage in U.S. politics. As Gaiman recently told a web-blogger: “Of course, when stood next to the choice of American political parties (“So, would you like Right Wing, or Supersized Right Wing with Extra Fries?”) my English fuzzy middle-of-the-roadness probably translates easily as bomb-throwing Trotskyist, but when I get to chat to proper lefties like Ken McLeod or China Mieville I feel myself retreating rapidly back into the woffly Guardian-reading why-can't-people-just-be-nice-to-each-otherhood of the politically out of his depth” (See


Many fine writers and artists have contributed to the vitalization of the comics medium in recent years. Even without Gaiman's persuasive voice it seems likely that greater numbers of comics would have been marketed to older readers with a taste for something other than pulp formulas and percussive, four color fisticuffs. Vertigo, or something very much like it, probably would have occurred to the decision makers at DC, even without the example of The Sandman to work from. And it is difficult to see how the so-called alternative wing of the comics industry, exemplified by the prize-winning output of Fantagraphics, and Drawn and Quarterly, would be affected one way or the other by Gaiman's hypothetical absence, except insofar as The Sandman helped push readers to try out other, non-super hero titles that emphasize good writing and visuals rather than splash pages and witless score-settling. The Sandman, in other words, may have fostered a taste for good comics that worked and continues to work to the benefit of the independents, even if they mainly traffic in autobiography, comedy, politics, and deadpan irony rather than genre based entertainment.

In part, Neil Gaiman's special contribution lies in his deft rehabilitation of the fantasy genre. While there are not nearly as many fantasy titles on the market as superhero stories, the genre nevertheless received an enormous push by The Sandman and its various spin-offs. After all, fantasy offers a distinct set of problems and scenarios for artists and writers to grapple with, and it almost certainly holds greater appeal for many older readers, and female readers, than superheroes. To the extent that more women are now reading comics it is in large measure due to Gaiman's constructive influence. Ongoing efforts to rethink and transform comics presumably depend on appealing to new cohorts of readers with new kinds of stories. The Sandman, more than any other comic book of the 1990s, helped realize this goal.

The Gaiman-McKean collaborations, as reflected in Violent Cases,Signal to Noise, and Mr. Punch, also constitute a major strand in Gaiman's comic book legacy. It is in these volumes, as much or more so than in The Sandman, that Gaiman realized the lofty ambitions that he and Dave McKean articulated when they first set out to turn the world of comics upside down. The fact that Gaiman walks with ease between two worlds—on the one hand, the world of serial, genre based fiction, and on the other, the world of edgy, experimental art—is an indication of his category-defying achievements. Gaiman and McKean have both accomplished more than they had any right to expect.


Collaborations with Dave McKean

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Black Orchid, books 1-3. New York: DC, 1988-1989.

———. Coraline. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

———. The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. Clarkston, GA: White Wolf Publishing, 1997.

———. Mr. Punch. [The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch: A Romance] New York: DC/Vertigo, 1994.

———. Signal to Noise. Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse, 1992.

———. The Wolves in the Walls. HarperCollins, 2003.

The Sandman Library and Related Titles

The ten Sandman volumes:

I. Preludes and Nocturnes

II. The Doll's House

III. Dream Country

IV. Season of Mists

V. A Game of You

VI. Fables & Reflections

VII. Brief Lives

VIII. World's End

IX. The Kindly Ones

X. The Wake

Neil Gaiman. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes. New York: DC Comics, 1991. Collecting The Sandman, issues 1-8. Art by Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III.

———. The Sandman: The Doll's House. New York: DC Comics, 1990. Collecting The Sandman, issues 8-16. Art by Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III.

———. The Sandman: Dream Country. New York: DC Comics, 1991. Collecting The Sandman, issues 17-20. Art by Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, and Malcolm Jones III.

———. The Sandman: Season of Mists. New York: DC Comics, 1992. Collecting The Sandman, issues 21-28. Art by Kelley Jones, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Matt Wagner, Dick Giordano, George Pratt, and P. Craig Russell.

———. The Sandman: A Game of You. New York: DC Comics, 1993. Collecting The Sandman, issues 32-37. Art by Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, Bryan Talbot, George Pratt, Stan Woch, and Dick Giordano.

———. The Sandman: Brief Lives. New York: DC Comics, 1993. Collecting The Sandman, issues 41-49. Art by Jill Thompson and Vince Locke.

———. The Sandman: Fables and Recollections. New York DC Comics, 1993. Collecting The Sandman, issues 29-31, 38-40, 50, Sandman Special 1, and Vertigo Preview. Art by Bryan Talbot, Stan Woch, P. Craig Russell, Shawn McManus, John Watkiss, Jill Thompson, Duncan Eagleson, and Kent Williams.

———. The Sandman: World's End. New York: DC Comics, 1994. Collecting The Sandman, issues 51-56. Art by Michael Allred, Gary Amaro, Mark Buckingham, Dick Giordano, Tony Harris, Steve Leialoha, Vince Locke, Shea Anton Pensa, Alec Stevens, Bryan Talbot, John Watkiss, and Michael Zulli.

———. The Sandman: The Kindly Ones. New York: DC Comics, 1996. Collecting The Sandman, 57-69. Art by Marc Hempel, Richard Case, D'Israeli, Teddy Kristiansen, Glyn Dillon, Charles Vess, Dean Ormston, and Kevin Nowlan.

———. The Sandman: The Wake. New York: DC Comics, 1997. Collecting The Sandman, issues 70-75. Art by Michael Zulli, Jon J. Muth and Charles Vess.

———. Death: The High Cost of Living. New York: DC/Vertigo, 1994. Art by Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, and Dave McKean.

———. Death: The Time of Your Life. DC/Vertigo, 1997. Art by Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, and Mark Pennington.

———. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters. New York: DC/Vertigo, 1999. Art by Yoshitaka Amano.

———. The Sandman: Endless Nights. New York: DC/Vertigo, 2003. Art by Glenn Fabry, Milo Manara, Miguelanxo Prado, Frank Quitely, P. Craig Russell, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Barron Storey.

Other Works by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman. American Gods. New York: William Morrow, 2001.

———. The Books of Magic, parts 1-4. New York: DC Comics, 1990-1991. Art by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson.

———. Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame. New York: DC, 2000. Art by Michael D. Allred and Terry Austin, Mark Buckingham, John Totleben, Matt Wagner, Eric Shanower and Arthur Adams, Jim Aparo, Kevin Nowlan, and Jason Little.

———. Harlequin Valentine. Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse, 2001. Art by John Bolton.

———. Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days. New York: DC/Vertigo, 1999. Art by Richard Piers Rayner, Dave McKean, Mike Hoffman, Mike Mignola, Steve Bissette, Kim DeMulder, and John Totleben.

———. Neverwhere. New York: Avon Books, 1998.

———. Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions. New York: Perennial, 2001.

———. Stardust. New York: Perennial, 2001.

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens. New York: Ace Books, 1996.

Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell. Murder Mysteries. Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse, 2002.

Secondary Works

Bender, Hy. The Sandman Companion. New York: DC/Vertigo, 1999.

Groth, Gary. “Interview with Neil Gaiman.” The Comics Journal 169 (July 1994): 54-108.

Lawley, Guy and Steve Whitaker. “Interview with Neil Gaiman, Part One.” Comics Forum 1:1 (spring 1992): 24-46.

———. “Interview with Neil Gaiman, Part Two.” Comics Forum 1:2 (summer 1992): 46-59.

Newsinger, John. The Dredd Phenomenon: Comics and Contemporary Society. Bristol: Libertarian Education, 1999.

Rauch, Stephen. Neil Gaiman's “The Sandman” and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, 2003.

Sanders, Joe. “Of Parents and Children and Dreams in Neil Gaiman's Mr. Punch and The Sandman.Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 71 (autumn 1997).

Thompson, Kim. “Interview with Neil Gaiman.” The Comics Journal 155 (January 1993): 64-83.


Principal Works


Further Reading