Feature – New Straits Times

From the July 16, 2005 New Straits Times:

In Awe of Gaiman

He’s funny. So polite and friendly. Smells clean too. Oh, a master storyteller he definitely is.

THREE weeks ago, I found out that Neil Gaiman would be in Singapore at the invitation of the British Council to give a series of talks and to promote his upcoming movie and book.

Trembling with excitement, I beseeched my editor to let me cover him. It was perhaps my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet the great author of The Sandman, the dark fantasy comic about the Lord of Dreams.

Many have proclaimed it to be the “most erudite comic book ever”. It won him nine Will Eisner Awards. He counts Stephen King, Tori Amos and even Alice Cooper among his fans.

Disclaimer: I am not that big on comics. But The Sandman is something else, especially Volume 9: The Kindly Ones. Gaiman’s prose hooked me right in. It was profound, it was poignant, it was epic. It made me part with my hard-earned money to collect all 10 volumes in the series. It was imperative that I meet the man.

I had seen his pictures, read his other works (American Gods, Coraline, Good Omens, Neverwhere, The Wolves in the Walls, etc), checked out his online journal at www.neilgaiman.com, which contains pretty much everything you want to know about him. Gaiman is a diligent blogger.

But it’s not quite the same. I wanted to know what he looks like in person. How he sounds. The way he speaks – is it the same as in his writings? Even how he smells.

I got my wish. As it turned out, my editor is an even bigger fan. So last week, I met Neil Gaiman.

In person, he was smaller than I had imagined. I had expected a six-footer (182cm) to fit the larger-than-life impression his writings give off. He stood at 172cm.

He smelt… clean. No cigarette smoke, no discernible scent of cologne, no sweat despite the fact that he was wearing a black leather jacket in hot and humid Singapore. Granted, we were in an air-conditioned room.

He was very polite and friendly, seeming like an overgrown English schoolboy who had been given strict instructions to be on his best behaviour while at grand-aunt Mary’s. Not at all scary, which, he said, is probably the biggest misconception people have of him.

He was funny. He amused us with his anecdote about his early Hollywood misadventure and how he learnt to become sanguine about it.

“There was an article in The Hollywood Reporter that made the front page a couple of years ago that said I had more works bought and not made in Hollywood than any other living author.

“The first thing I ever wrote was the adaptation of Good Omens which Terry (“Discworld” Pratchett) and I did in 1991 and had one of those horrible Hollywood experiences that they joke about and years later I could turn into the premise of a short story.”

The Hollywood executive horrified them with monstrous changes. They had agreed earlier that if things went wrong, they would make an escape. “Biggles” was their secret password. (Biggles was the fictional character created by W.E. Johns about an adventurous British fighter pilot during World War One.) But the executive blathered on, and Pratchett decided to improvise. He imitated an airplane to signal to Gaiman that it was time to make a getaway. They were, after all, very polite Englishmen.

We laughed. There’s no artifice in his manner; no fear of showing the child-like geeky side, as when he proclaimed “I LOVE video games and video gaming” and proceeded to eagerly tell us all about his ability to finish Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide computer game back in the ’80s.

He doesn’t hold anything back. Like when he was asked why the comics industry in America seems to have been revolutionised by British writers like Alan “Watchmen” Moore and himself. His answer was candid.

“Back in ‘86-87, there were a lot of people who didn’t read anything except comics by people who wished they were Stan Lee,” he said. Meaning, they tried to copy Stan Lee, and failed miserably of course.

Gaiman does not try to be anyone other than himself. But then, he has no need to be. His innate charm is his own appeal.

Gaiman talked and talked and would have talked some more if not for the tight schedule reining him in. Even so, he never gave the impression that he was in a hurry. When questioned, he would answer thoughtfully, pausing to consider certain points and expressed himself lucidly.

It was a privilege meeting Gaiman. He is a master storyteller. One who is able to command everyone’s one attention with mere words, softly spoken and a twinkle in his eye. I was in awe then, and still am.

Jim Henson touch to movie

MIRRORMASK, the story of a 15-year-old girl named Helena who runs away from the circus she grew up in and enters a surreal world to find an amulet to restore a dying queen, was written by Neil Gaiman and directed by his close friend and collaborator of many years, Dave McKean (who also illustrates many of Gaiman’s books, including The Sandman).

Made at a cost of only US$4 million (RM15.2 million), a fraction of what Hollywood movies normally cost, the special effects were produced by the Jim Henson company, famed for creating the Muppets, Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth.

In conjunction with the author’s visit, we were treated to snippets of the movie. One was a scene in which Helena encounters the book-eating Sphinx. There were a few takes on this. Lucky viewers got to see how the special effects were added, bringing together live-action acting with puppetry against a blue screen backdrop.

Second was a musical montage, where Helena was slowly transformed by bird-like creatures singing the Carpenter’s “Close To You”. Gaiman described the scene as “simply sinister”.

The movie is geared for cinematic release in the United States and elsewhere in the world on Sept 30. Fingers crossed, a Malaysian distributor will kindly bring it over.
–Debra Chong