Feature – Malaysia Star

From the July 10th Malaysia Star:

The man in black speaks

He’s been called the King of Dreams after the mega popular character he created, but in person, Neil Gaiman looks more like a scruffy Mat Rock than a king.

One could hardly see his face under the floppy, shaggy curls. Then there were the trademark dark glasses, not to mention the black leather jacket (despite being warned beforehand that it would be too hot in Singapore for a leather jacket), and black T-shirt, and black jeans. Everything combined to give the impression that here was someone who doesn’t give much of a damn about what people think of him – and that he’s someone who really, really likes the colour black?

Yet, from the laid-back and humorous way he answered questions, it was hard to believe that this was the writer of the dark and dreamy Sandman cult horror/fantasy series that not only made him one of the most well known writers of comic books in the world, but also gave him a reputation for being dark, moody and utterly weird, just like his stories.

Gaiman was in Singapore from Monday to Wednesday at the invitation of the British Council to publicise the upcoming movie whose screenplay he wrote, MirrorMask, give talks and sign books (lots of books!).

Born in Britain but currently living in the United States, Gaiman began his career as a journalist, but his love for comics soon led him down another path altogether.

He owes his massive popularity mostly to the celebrated Sandman series, which won him nine Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, including the award for best writer four times. Sandman #19 also took the 1991 World Fantasy Award for best short story, making it the first comic ever to receive a literary award.

Gaiman attributes part of his success to his mentor and friend Alan Moore, who taught him how to write for comics, and whom he describes as being “huge, hairy, but not at all scary”.

“In the beginning, I sat down with Alan and he took me through each step of writing for comic books. He went (lapsing into an exaggerated Moore imitation), ‘Okay, page one, panel one. Anything you want the readers to know, put it in there. If you have a sound effect, just put there ‘F-X’ and BAM!’,” recalls Gaiman.

Moore, for those who still think comics are for kids, shoved comics onto a different plane altogether when he created Watchmen for DC Comics in 1986. It was an action comic that had three-dimensional characters, superheroes who grappled with the moral issues of having so much power.

Later that year, Frank Miller appeared on the scene with his gripping and very dark Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and in 1989 Grant Morrison produced Arkham Asylum, a harrowing, psychologically-driven tale of the Bat – and simple, do-gooding superheroes were firmly passé. Moore’s “apprentice”, Gaiman then dived into this hugely creative scene and produced The Sandman, also in 1989.

By the 1990s, comics had moved off the kiddie shelves and emphatically into adult hands, and even into the hearts of literary critics – Gaiman, for instance, is listed in no less than the prestigious Dictionary of Literary Biography as one of top 10 living post-modern writers now.

Writing novels

These days, Gaiman has semi-retired from writing comics (although he did go back to the genre recently – see review on page eight) and is focusing on writing novels instead.

“I enjoyed writing comics and was getting really good at it. But at one point, I wanted to write novels to see how far I cold go,” he said. “In comics, everyone gets to see only a single point of view, which is what the artist wants you to see. But with novels, everyone can have a different idea of what’s going on, because it’s all ‘seen’ inside your head.”

Gaiman’s first foray into novels was Good Omens in 1990, which he wrote with humour-fantasy author Terry Pratchett (best known for the hugely popular Discworld books). Omens has been described as “probably the funniest book ever written about the end of the world”.

Due to the vastly different styles and backgrounds of both authors, many people have a misconception about how Gaiman and Pratchett wrote the book.

“Many people just assumed that I was the one who did all the dark bits, and Terry just walked around behind me adding in the jokes,” Gaiman chuckles.

What really happened was this: Gaiman finished Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a biography of sorts of Adams), and found he had enjoyed writing in Adams’ classic British-comedy style, which was “easy and fun” for him. So he decided to start Good Omens, which is in the same irreverent vein, and when he got up to about 5000 words, he showed it to some of his friends, Pratchett included.

“About a year later, Terry called me up and said, ‘You know that book you were working on? Would you like to either sell it to me, or write it together?’ Of course, I, being no fool, decided to write it with him.”

However, fans hoping for a sequel to Good Omens are likely to be disappointed, as Gaiman claimed that they both swore a “mighty oath” that it would be a cold day in hell before they decide to do a sequel.

“Writing the book was fun, but we probably wouldn’t do it again for a large plate of eggs,” he added rather cryptically.

“The thing with writing Good Omens was that we both did it for fun and for ourselves. If we went back to it again today, we wouldn’t be doing it for ourselves anymore.”

But there is hope yet for fans of Crowley and Aziraphale, the main characters of the book.

“About a month ago, Terry and I met up in New York and we got around to talking about Aziraphale and Crowley, and what they would be doing in the current political situation. “Mind you, we still have no intention of doing a sequel to Good Omens, but there just might be another book about Aziraphale and Crowley later,” said Gaiman.

While waiting for hell to freeze over, Gaiman fans can look forward to his next book, Anansi Boys, which is scheduled for publication in September. American Gods has been described as “a psycho-spiritual hallucinogenic road trip” (USA Today); the Boys, the pseudo-sequel, however, says Gaiman, is “very funny except for a few scary bits” and is “more like Good Omens than American Gods”.

Children’s books and Hollywood

Besides his day job writing for adults, Gaiman also has a “secret career” writing children’s books, having written three books for children: Coraline, Wolves in the Wall and The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish.

Himself a father of three children (Michael, Holly and Maddy), Gaiman confessed that it was enormous fun writing for children, although he is somewhat perplexed by the heaps of praise he’s received for those books, since his children’s books aren’t exactly happy romps in fairylands or cutesy adventures on wishing chairs.

Wolves in the Wall is a picture book about, well, wolves in a wall taking over a home; while Coraline is about a girl who finds a secret passage into a house that is identical to her own, but with “counterfeit” parents.

Gaiman said his agent was initially unsure about publishing Coraline as a children’s book.

“Adults tend to get traumatised by it; children, on the other hand, love the book. I think it’s because children have no repressive memories of childhood to come back and haunt them,” he sniggered.

“As for Wolves in the Walls, some adults worry that it might scare children; but little kids love it and want parents to read it over and over to them.”

Another of Gaiman’s “side careers” is writing for Hollywood. He currently has three movies at different stages of production: MirrorMask, Beowulf and Coraline,
with the surreal fantasy MirrorMask scheduled for release later this year.
–Michael Cheang

The Malaysia Star also links to a bibliography, future projects, and a review of 1602 by Na’a Murad.