Biography from: Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2003
Neil (Richard) Gaiman
Entry Updated : 09/30/2002
British author Neil Gaiman told an interviewer from Carpe Noctem: “When I’m writing, you open somewhat a window to the back of your head and let the light shine out onto the page.” That light has led Gaiman to create science fiction novels, short stories, and most prominently, the text for numerous graphic novels that have been widely acclaimed for their depth and inventiveness. Referring to Gaiman’s graphic novels, reviewer Frank McConnell of Commonweal asserts that “Gaiman may just be the most gifted and important storyteller in English.” Discussing Gaiman’s short stories and graphic novels in the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, Peter Crowther states that Gaiman’s “blending of poetic prose, marvellous invention and artistic vision has assured him of his place in the vanguard of modern-day dark fantasists.”
A relatively new literary trend, graphic novels combine prose and illustrations and are set in comic-book form. They began appearing as early as 1978 but experienced substantial gains in popularity during 1989 and 1990. Catering to a mature audience, graphic literature offers sophisticated plots and structure not usually associated with comics. Nicolette Jones, writing in the Sunday Times, remarks that “many of the most recent publications are surreal, experimental and ambiguous, inviting you to decipher them like poems.” This experimental aspect of graphic literature appeals to Gaiman, who explained to Jones: “You can still toy with the conventions of the genre. . . . It mixes media: you can play with the rules.”
Gaiman’s graphic novels, particularly the celebrated “Sandman” series, have been praised by critics for their fresh approach to established story lines. The title character of the “Sandman” series, also known as Morpheus or Dream, is one of a group of infinite beings known as the Endless, who represent different states of human consciousness (Desire, Despair, Delirium, and so forth). Over the course of the stories, Dream travels about picking up the stray dreams and nightmares of the twentieth century, some of which have taken human form. Discussing the entire “Sandman” series, McConnell calls the “brilliance and intricacy of its storytelling” comparable to the “best of Joyce, Faulkner, and Pynchon,” stressing that Gaiman’s achievement is even more significant because of its comic-book form. Crowther also acclaims the “Sandman” series and believes that “Gaiman has truly revolutionized the power of the medium” of comic books.
Gaiman’s non-series graphic novel Mr. Punch, illustrated by Dave McKean, also receives extravagant praise from both McConnell and Crowther. Mr. Punch relates a young boy’s rite of passage into adult knowledge and involves an enigmatic puppeteer, the Punch and Judy puppet show, and a woman in a mermaid costume. “It is an impressive work,” according to Crowther, “rich not only in freshness and originality but also in compassion, Gaiman’s hallmark.” Discussing the Gaiman-McKean collaboration, Crowther observes: “The collective impact is literally breathtaking, writer and artist working together like the finest, most practiced vaudeville act to produce a visual spinning-top of timing and imagery, intrigue and betrayal, illusory perception and cold reality.” McConnell feels that Mr. Punch “is easily the most haunting, inescapable story I have read in years” and contends, “if you don’t read [it] your life will be a little less radiant than it could be.” Gaiman’s other graphic novels include 1987’s Violent Cases, which contains episodes based on the nightmares of a young boy who has heard tales about the exploits of Depression-era gangster Al Capone from the doctor who treated the mobster and his gang. Jones deems the work “inspired and ingenious.”
The inventiveness lauded by critics in Gaiman’s graphic novels is also evident in his science fiction collaboration with former fellow journalist Terry Pratchett titled Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Commending the work, Howard Waldrop, in a review for the Washington Post, notes that “the book tackles things most science fiction and fantasy writers never think about, much less write.” In Good Omens, Gaiman and Pratchett provide a satiric look at Armageddon. Based on the apocalypse described in Revelation, the last book of the Bible, the novel centers around the baby Antichrist who is living in the hamlet of Lower Tadfield. Good Omens chronicles the exploits of Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, the demon serpent, as they conspire to prevent the predicted emergence of the end of time. For comedic effect, the authors entwine modern-day aspects of British life with the supernatural (the serpent drives a Bentley), as well as age-old concepts with futuristic overtones (the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse become the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse).
Popular in Britain, the fantasy has received a mixed response in the United States. Some reviewers note that the book contains a few truly comedic passages but at times becomes burdened by sophomoric humor. Waldrop acknowledges that the humor in Good Omens sometimes “strains for effect,” but adds that writing a funny book about Armageddon is a difficult task. The critic concludes: “When the book is talking about the big questions, it’s a wow. It leaves room in both the plot and the reader’s reactions for the characters to move around in and do unexpected but very human things.”
Gaiman’s solo novel, Neverwhere, adapted from a television series he scripted for the BBC, tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a young businessman who after helping a strange homeless girl named Door is drawn into an even stranger adventure in a fantastical world beneath the streets of London. A Publishers Weekly reviewer finds the work unsatisfying: “His conception of London below is intriguing, but his characters are too obviously symbolic. . . . Also, the plot seems a patchwork quilt of stock fantasy images.” In contrast, Erin Cassin of Library Journal recommends Neverwhere highly, noting that “Gaiman’s gift for mixing the absurd with the frightful give[s] this novel the feeling of a bedtime story with adult sophistication.”
Gaiman’s short stories have been collected in Angels and Visitations and Smoke and Mirrors. Reviewing the latter volume for Mother Jones, Brian Doherty asserts that works of fantasy, such as Gaiman writes, are rarely taken seriously. But Gaiman, he adds, demonstrates that one can use fantasy “to illuminate certain out-of-the-way crannies in the human soul, as he does here to heartbreaking effect.”
Gaiman told CA: “Although writing prose fiction is interesting and rewarding, my current primary commitment is still to the field of graphic literature. My main area of interest is the relationship between people and stories and the use of myth.”