Feature – Manila Times

From the July 17, 2005 Manila Times:

The Dream King

If I may geek out for just a moment here.

I’ve been a rabid comics-collecting fan for the past 20 years (much to the detriment of my savings account), and as such, my knowledge of comics border almost on the pseudo-encyclopedic. Just by looking over a comic panel, I could name both the artist and the inker. By discussing a story line, I could tell who penned the story and what year it was written in. And I mark significant moments in my life, like graduation and break ups by what issue of the Justice League of America came out that month.

Thus, asking me to cram the work and wit of comics’ fiction writer Neil Gaiman into 800 words is like asking Neil Gaiman to cram the story of The Sandman, his modern graphic opus of 2,000 pages written over 9 years, into 15 words. However, during a writers workshop where the idol himself decided to grace us with his omnipresence, he handily summed up his most famous work in a single sentence: “The Lord of Dreams learns to change or die, and has to make a decision.”

Neil Gaiman, the bard of modern myth, materialized in town for a series of book signing sessions sponsored by the specialty store, Fully Booked. For those of us who were cunning enough to secure a pass, we had a chance to eschew the kilometric lines that manifested in all three of his book signing sessions and joined his British Council-sponsored dharshan (holy sighting) and writers’ workshop at the Music Museum. Gaiman was welcomed by the booming applause of fans who whooped like giddy teenagers.

For the uninitiated, Gaiman reimagined an obscure 1940s throwaway character from DC Comics (the publishing company of Superman and Batman) named Sandman, a World War II vigilante who donned a cloak, gas mask and a tranquilizing gas gun and fought crime with his sidekick, Sandy (yes, Sandy) that DC wanted to spin for a new “horror” line they were planning to launch. Gaiman thankfully took all but the Sandman name and junked comic-book story conventions-no secret identities, no “super powers,” and no underwear on the outside. He reimagined the Sandman into a character named Morpheus or Dream, a being who is lord over an intangible piece of real estate called “The Dreaming.” Dream was a family member of the eternal race known as the Endless-Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Destruction and Delirium-anthropomorphic beings who were birthed at creation and would continue to exist until the last living thing had passed when Death would claim Destiny, and then finally herself, at the end of time.

Along with fellow comics visionary Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman used Sandman to bring “literariness” into comics, introducing literary devices such as sub text, symbolism and complex characterization. These two men paved the way for more comics writers to realize the full potential of the medium rather than for the medium to be forever mired in hackneyed stories of two-dimensional spandex fetishists who beat each other into ground beef. His work on a single issue of Sandman, “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” garnered for him the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1991, the first and only comic book to win the award. (The rules of the award have since been changed to prevent another comic book from winning.)

It was quite obvious that the charming and self-effacing Gaiman was enthused to see his Pinoy fans overtly fanatical and Richter-scale kinesthetic. (Gaiman related how he couldn’t recall a signing where his fans asked for a hug and a kiss after they got his autograph). After all, he was once like us-a fan. Although he devoured comics as a teenager, he traitorously abandoned our ranks when he turned 17 years old to pursue girls and put up a band (which explains the Duran Duran haircut). At least we know that in his pre-Simon Le Bon days, he had an exquisite taste in comic-book artists-the Pinoy artists. During the 1970s, an exodus of komiks artists to the US introduced Filipino sensibilities to American comics, and Gaiman recalled these artists with much admiration. Comics fans in the Music Museum were filled with pride when Gaiman dropped their names-Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala and Alex Nino, whose art the master described as having, “beautiful line work, elegant lines, beauty and proportion, a sense of quirkiness and beauty.”

Gaiman’s respect for an artist’s signature style is obvious in his current comics work. If truth be told, he is one of the few comic writers who is not only able to choose which artist he can work with, but who also tailors a story that builds on the artist’s aesthetic strengths to ensure that the comics work is not uneven. After all, the literary genre of comics is a collaborative process. In fact, Gaiman returned to script another prose tale of the Dream King called “The Dream Hunters” after the end of his monthly series, because of the opportunity to work with Yoshitaka Amano, the famed designer of the Final Fantasy game series.

Immensely prolific, Neil Gaiman’s body of work has transcended the comics sphere and diffused across literary mediums. That is because when Gaiman tethers onto a story from ideas pace and gives it form, he doesn’t discriminate what fictional medium the story takes shape in. The story chooses the shape it takes.

During the writers’ workshop, Neil anecdotally recounted how fans from different countries were unaware of his versatility. In Poland and China, for example, he is a hugely popular children’s book author, but they had no idea that he had written comics. Meanwhile in Sweden, fans were asking how Gaiman could possibly escape the “shadow” of his Sandman work as his novels were totally alien to them.

As the workshop drew to a close, Gaiman was quizzed if he would return to his Sandman work and resolve the mysteries surrounding the Endless. In particular, a fan asked about Delirium, who was once known as Delight, but due to an unexplained incident eons ago turned her into a new aspect called Delirium. Although Gaiman pondered on resolving this mystery, he declined from crafting a new story. “The more I reveal,” he intimated, “the more questions will be left hanging.” Besides, Gaiman added, he likes his readers to create their own personal mythologies of the Sandman’s realm, by weaving their own stories.

And that is the magic of Neil Gaiman, dream weaver. He makes writers out of all of us.

For those who wish to explore the Dreaming, log on to www.neilgaiman.com. If you wish to pay homage to our legendary Pinoy komiks artists, log on to www.komikero.com/museum.
–RJ Ledesma