Feature – Entertainment Weekly

Posted sans pictures.

Scott Brown reported the following feature and interview for Entertainment Weekly on October 3rd, with additional reporting by Rachel Lovinger.

Ask any God, Demigod, or divine manifestation, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: The tough part is the omnipresence. Neil Gaiman knows this better than any of them, especially today. Because today, the 42-year-old author must complete an epic labor: He must make it from one end of San Diego’s Comic-Con International to the other without being, as he puts it, “loved to death.”

That’s harder than it sounds. At comic-book conventions, the faithful are very faithful–frighteningly so, unless you’re accustomed to seeing grown men dressed as wood elves and Wookiees. And at this particular convention, the world’s largest, the faithful are also legion: 75,000 are in attendance. Gaiman’s devotees–who skew young, female, and Goth, but also include middle-class families and seniors in wheelchairs–know his trademark leather jacket and his black anemone of hair on sight, and just a glimpse won’t do. Some fly around the country just to bask in his presence. Others– like Tori Amos–are content with friendship. Still others–like Robert Zemeckis and Harvey Weinstein–just like being in business with the guy. And a select few want his name permanently etched on their bodies. (Gaiman once signed a man’s arm, only to see him return a few hours later with the autograph freshly tattooed, the i’s dotted with beads of blood.) The fervor isn’t entirely unwarranted: Gaiman has given them all something to believe in.

Specifically, he’s given them The Sandman, first published by DC Comics (owned by EW parent company Time Warner) in 1988, brought to an end in 1996, and which has haunted bookstores in 10 graphic novels ever since. It was one of the first comics to find a large female readership: Gaiman claims it was “sexually transmitted” as boyfriends gave it to their girlfriends to show them that comics were for grown-ups, too. Sandman was among the first to include an array of substantive gay characters. And it’s the only comic book ever to win a prose-fiction prize (the 1991 World Fantasy award for short story).

Sandman attempts to explain the jagged joys and arbitrary horrors of human life thusly: The cosmos is run by a dysfunctional family. (Now it all makes sense, doesn’t it?) They’re the Endless–not gods, exactly, but ineluctable aspects of existence, personified: lonely Dream; cheerful Death; stolid Destiny; treacherous, androgynous Desire; morbidly obese Despair; on-the-lam Destruction; and batty, punky Delirium (who was once Delight, but you know how that goes).

Gaiman probably could have started a church on his Sandman following. But, bless him, the guy loves story more than scripture. His restless imagination forged on to create the apocalyptic comedy Good Omens (coauthored with Terry Pratchett), the New York Times best-seller American Gods, and the Hugo award-winning children’s book Coraline, not to mention scores of short stories, poems, audio plays, and the BBC TV miniseries-turned-novel, Neverwhere. He has also just released a best-selling children’s book, The Wolves in the Walls. And that’s not even touching the half-dozen Gaiman- related projects currently slouching towards Hollywood. But what has his acolytes rejoicing is The Sandman: Endless Nights–a new 160-page hardcover graphic novel that marks Gaiman’s first real return to Sandman since he ended the series seven years ago.

Gives some credence to the whole omnipresence thing. Not to mention the whole universal adoration thing. “Neil is the kind of man who inspires other people, myself included, with strong feelings of affection, even love,” says Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. “He is big-souled. And, also, really, really cute.”

But not overly cute, Amos is quick to point out. “Neil the writer can be a nice guy–but he’s quite dangerous,” says the singer, who was one of Gaiman’s inspirations for the manic Delirium. “I think the nice guy is a cover so the writer can be protected from the public, and the public from the writer.”

But there’s precious little protection going on today at Comic- Con: The throng is closing in, and while Gaiman’s spirit may be willing, his flesh is dog-tired and desperately in need of sushi. Concluding an address to an auditorium of a thousand fans, he must be escorted from the room by a small militia of Klingons (the Hell’s Angels of comic-book conventions). He’s whisked briskly down the hall to an autograph table, where a thousand more supplicants are lined up. But along the way, he takes a moment to contemplate Death. In the world of Sandman–and the world of Gaiman–this is actually a pleasant thing, as Death of the Endless is an adorable chalk-white, black-clad Goth girl.

“Hello, you look wonderful!” he exclaims, posing for a picture with a fan dressed as the Undiscover’d Country From Whose Bourn No Traveler Returns. Death giggles, but does not blush. Of course, a mainstream observer could dismiss all of this as cult adulation. But how big does a cult have to get before it becomes bona fide religion?

One of the things people miss about every system of belief is that it’s true. Absolutely true.” Gaiman is recalling his religious upbringing, which he characterizes as “messy, and primarily Jewish.” After a bookish childhood spent acing religious studies at a deeply Anglican school and inhaling C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Gaiman was packed off to London for bar mitzvah training with an Orthodox cantor. He found he had a spongelike memory for mythic Judaica, and later incorporated this acquired midrashic wisdom into the mythos of Sandman. (“I got people coming to me and saying, ‘How do you know that?’ I just thought everyone knew that Adam had three wives and the middle one never even got a name….”)

Later, as a young London journalist, Gaiman discovered a form that would accommodate that confusion: comic books. He marveled at the work of Alan Moore, author of such milestones as Watchmen and V for Vendetta. Moore’s early-’80s Swamp Thing comics inspired Gaiman to try his own hand at it. In 1986, Gaiman teamed with artist Dave McKean (who would become a longtime collaborator) to publish the graphic novel Violent Cases, about dark memories of childhood. The book caught the eye of Karen Berger, Moore’s editor and DC Comics’ liaison to Britain’s word-balloon literati. She indulged Gaiman’s desire to revisit an obscure 1940’s crime fighter called the Sandman, who knocked out thugs with sleeping gas.

Gaiman’s Sandman–first depicted by artists Mike Dringenberg and Sam Kieth as pale, thin, and raven-haired, with starlit hollows for eyes–didn’t go in for wham! pow! fisticuffs. As the lord of dreams and stories (called Dream, Morpheus, and many other names), he found himself embroiled in cosmic politics, tangling with ethereal notables from Lucifer to Norse deities Odin and Thor. “I just kept adding things, seeing if it would hold,” recalls Gaiman, who approached the comic with an “everything is true, everything is now” mind-set. “I thought, Let’s put Shakespeare in there. Okay, that worked. Well, surely I won’t be able to add the Norse gods…no, that worked too. But I certainly won’t get away with angels….”

He got away with angels, and more. In a typical Sandman tale (if such a thing exists), a caliph ruling the magical Baghdad of legend asks Dream to preserve his perfect realm forever. He gets his wish: The shimmering city remains only in dreams, leaving the crumbling Baghdad of today for waking eyes to see. “It’s a perfect legend,” enthuses Moore. “It’s so good that it shouldn’t really even have a writer. It should be one of those stories that’s just always been there.”

“Neil has a patent on the mythic at the moment,” says friend and fan Stephin Merritt, of Magnetic Fields fame. “Knowing Ne
il
is like knowing Thor. I never tell anyone I’m friends with him because they’ll think I’m bragging.”

Knowing Thor–really knowing him–means visiting western Wisconsin, and finding a house that doesn’t want to be found: a rambling Victorian with a wraparound porch and a frowsy pack of watch-cats. Gaiman has lived here since 1992 with Mary McGrath, his American wife of 18 years, and their 9-year-old daughter, Maddy. (Eighteen-year-old Holly and 20-year-old Mike have already left the nest.) Gaiman likes the remoteness and often eschews air travel for the train “to get a sense of the vastness of the country.”

Nearby, there’s a town, but just barely: It’s little more than a suture in the countryside, with narrow roads stitched across. Gaiman trolls these corn-lined byways in his new black Mini Cooper, which looks about as alien to these parts as, well, a pale, black- clad Englishman. “You are on an undigitized road,” his Global Positioning System informs him. “Odd,” he says, “I thought all roads were digitized nowadays.”

Getting a fix on the man Alan Moore calls a “gothic butterfly” must be a challenge for the GPS: It’s that pesky omnipresence again. For, after seeing Endless Nights ship more than 100,000 copies for DC, Gaiman will be (a) prepping to direct a film based on his Sandman spin-off Death: The High Cost of Living for Warner Bros.; (b) working on an adaptation of Nicholson Baker’s erotic novel The Fermata with Zemeckis; and (c) pecking away at a new book, Anansi Boys. (There’s no room here for the d’s, e’s, and f’s.) Meanwhile, the Jim Henson Company is in postproduction on his fantasy script MirrorMask. Harvey Weinstein wants to make Gaiman’s short story “Chivalry” into a movie that the mogul himself plans to direct. Any second now, it seems, Gaiman will be everywhere, a Media Oversoul.

“You have arrived,” the GPS informs him. He hasn’t, though. The Mini sits at a crossroads. “You have arrived,” the computer repeats. Gaiman doesn’t listen. He just smiles and keeps driving.

Sidebar: THIS WAY IN TO THE WORLD OF NEIL GAIMAN

The Neil Gaiman universe is a vast and varied one. His website, <a href="http://www.neilgaiman.com"neilgaiman.com, details his bibliography, but here are three easy ways to see what the hubbub’s about.

THE SANDMAN: SEASON OF MISTS While it isn’t the first Sandman book (that’d be Preludes & Nocturnes), Season is the first to tell a fairly straightforward story; it introduces the Endless clan, Dream’s romantic track record, and a Lucifer looking for a career change.

AMERICAN GODS Gaiman puts his passion for (and scary knowledge of) myth to good use. This sprawling novel follows an ex-con with nothing to lose who hits the road with an old Norse deity with everything to gain. An Englishman’s love of Americana is vividly evident.

1602 The Spanish Inquisition wasn’t just after heretics. It also, apparently, hunted mutants. Gaiman manages to transport the Marvel Comics universe (and popular characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men) to the 17th century without the eight-issue series coming off like a cheap gimmick.