Features – Manila Bulletin Online, Philippine Daily Inquirer

From the Manila Bulletin Online:

The encounter that never was

It’s come and gone, but for most of the fans, Neil Gaiman’s brief visit to the Philippines is still keeping quite a number of blogs abuzz with their asssorted takes on their encounters. It’s even showed up on local comic strips, such as Lyndon Gregorio’s “Beerkada,” where the artist joked about hitching his own wagon on the three days of Gaiman-ia.

But through all of these accounts, there’s one point-of-view that’s been woefully ignored, one unheard perspective that has never had it’s say: The bitter moanings of those who were just barely able to make it. I plan to remedy that now.

It’s not like I didn’t meet him because of lack of trying. On the first of his three-day stint, I made my way to the Rockwell tent, just like the thousands of Gaiman faithful. Since the signing was to start at 3 p.m., I thought I was in pretty good standing when I arrived at 11 a.m.

Was I ever wrong. I was met by a line of about 700 people, some of whom had been there as early as 5:30 a.m., all queuing up to have their Gaiman memorabilia signed by the man himself.

Staring at my one book of Gaiman’s collected short stories, Smoke and Mirrors, and the unbelievably long line, I just shook my head in resignation and went out to have lunch with friends who had arrived earlier.

If that particular experience had taught me anything, it was this: Never underestimate the devotion of fans.

15 minutes with Neil

The “peoplescape” was colorful; fans not only lugging their books around but proudly donning costumes of The Endless, the family from Gaiman’s iconic Sandman comic book series. Death and Delirium, in particular, were very popular among the fans.

There was one lucky girl though. While everybody else was sweating it out in the line, with only the slight chance of actually meeting the man as a consolation, Erin Chupeco had something a little more substantial to look forward to: She was going to spend 15 minutes interviewing Gaiman.

Chupeco won a writing contest where the winner would get a chance to meet the author and interact with him for 15 minutes. The contest involved writing a review on any of Gaiman’s work, and Chupeco picked Coraline, a story about a little girl who opens a door into an alternate reality where she encounters her “other mother” and her “other father.”

“I reviewed Coraline, which is one of my favorite books, even if it is for children,” she says. “It’s a very dark children’s book. Basically, the story in itself is so simple but the way he delivers it is really good.”

Chupeco had been introduced to Gaiman’s work in the ‘90s, during which the Sandman series had already achieved cult status since its publication in the ‘80s.

The reason for this enduring affection for a series that is almost 20-years old, explains Chupeco, comes from the originality of Gaiman’s vision.

“He has a unique way of looking at things,” she says. “He can take an idea, like Death, for example, and turn it into something so different that you don’t immediately recognize it. You usually think of Death as the grim reaper with a scythe, a hood and a skeletal face. But in the Sandman, Death is a perky goth girl, which he patterned after a goth diner waitress who served him coffee. Being able to see Death from a different point of view inspires you to look at things in a different way yourself.”

After the Gathering

At this point, almost every other version of the story has already been told, from the excellent music provided by The Late Isabelle, to the exciting previews of MirrorMask, a movie project between Gaiman and longtime collaborator and illustrator Dave McKean, to Gaiman’s own amusement at our seemingly boundless enthusiasm, as evidenced by the now oft-quoted “wall of sound” entry in Gaiman’s blog.

Any other opportunity for me to meet the man were not in the cards, as I already had a prior engagement for the next two days of his stay. I begged my brother to line up for me during Gaiman’s Gateway appearance, but to no avail.

As such all of my enjoyment was acquired through vicarious means, mostly through reading other people’s blogs.

There were two blogs that I took particular interest in reading. One was Erin’s, who by the looks of it did indeed have the time of her life.

I am still, quite frankly, in a daze.

How do you quantify time spent with someone who you’d spent seven years wanting to be like? How can you justify that spending two nights of excited unsleep, two days of breathing in a crowd of people of varying unwanted odors, is worth the sacrifice, knowing you’re in the very same room with your idol? How do you argue with one’s parents that waking up the day after, with a running fever, a painful throat, and snot in the most unwelcomed of places, all brought about by the complete disregard taken for one’s own personal health during the days leading up to the interview and the book signing, is a small price to pay?

I stared at him all throughout the interview, I admit that frankly. I stared at him so hard and so long that it took me some time to realize he had answered my question and was looking expectantly back at me for my next. He was so nice and friendly and unequivocably, unquestionably, terrifyingly SMART, yet he answered all my inane questions like they were worth answering.

My voice shook, I was alternately grinning like an ass and shaking like a leaf the whole time, but I didn’t even care. I told him afterwards that I hope to one day be where he is right now, and he told me to go for it that if he could do this, then anyone can.

The other one was that of Neil Gaiman’s himself. After the huge political rally in Makati that was held right beside his hotel, to the enthusiastic fans, to the signing sessions that I heard went on until 1:30 in the morning, would he still want to grace the country with his presence? Apparently, he does.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more exhausted at any point in a signing tour than I am right now. (Having said that, I don’t remember ever having felt so loved by so many people.) But I get to sleep until I wake up and that’s so good…

I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who made my trip to the Philippines the most memorable trip ever. I’d thank you all personally but there are several thousand of you, and my fingers would start to hurt again.

But thanks again to you all. And yes, I do want to come back.

And for us bitter few, nothing sounds quite as good as the prospect of a second chance.
–Ronald S. Lim


From the July 23rd Philipine Daily Inquirer:

Every once in a while, a rift in the natural order of things occurs and we walk through the looking glass, and thereafter attempt to make sense of the strange new landscape. That’s what it felt like two weekends ago, as if I had crawled through a crack hidden somewhere between the fantasy and children’s story sections of Fully Booked in Rockwell, and into a bizarre universe where there were more characters dressed in black than in an Ozzy Osbourne concert.

It was a peculiar gathering indeed, where goths, who looked like they hadn’t seen the sunlight in years, peaceably mixed with self-confessed geeks, who looked like they hadn’t seen… um, other people in years (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Add to the three thousand-strong rabble were the creative juice drinkers of local ad agencies, indie musicians, left-of-center artists, aspiring writers and anyone who’s ever felt “tortured” in their life. (Visibly absent, I must note, were the fashionable people who hold series A stock in the society pages, in what I’d boldly dub as the biggest Anti-It event of the year.)

Like an
infinite ech
o of sound were the voices retelling fragments of stories you only encountered in dreams, or nightmares. Of talking pumpkinheads, beached devils, retired angels, people with buttons for eyes, Norse gods, androgynous temptresses, Buddhist monks, a happy-go-lucky female version of the Grim Reaper and most of all, a morose, paste-faced lord of the Dream World.

At the center of it all was no rock star, no Hollywood celeb, no religious cult leader, no Stephen Hawking-type prodigy of the quantum physics community, not even a militia man mobilizing the crowd for a revolution. He’s more than that, nothing short of a legend, or even a god to many people-like the ones who camped outside Rockwell as early as 3 a.m. He’s Neil Gaiman. World-renowned author, author of renowned worlds.

Imagine that, Gaiman commanded a bigger crowd in a tent that day than the anti-Arroyo forces at Ayala Avenue. (I guess it’s because he’s just so much better at creating fiction.) The multi-awarded, best-selling author known most for his seminal, nine-year long labor of love, “The Sandman,” as well as his novels and children’s books of pure pleasure, such as “Neverwhere,” “American Gods,” “Stardust,” “Coraline,” and “Wolves in the Walls,” came to Manila as part of a signing tour to promote his upcoming film, “Mirrormask.”

‘Wall of sound’

When Neil finally showed up at the tent, dressed in signature black, he was instantly greeted-no, I think the right word is “assailed”-by what Neil himself later described as a “wall of sound.” Tumultuous shouts, banshee-like screams, yells of “I love you Neil!,” or “I labyu Neil!” and “Neil, you rock!!!” constructed that staggering audio wall. Already adopting traditional Filipino time, Neil apologized, “I’m really sorry I’m late. There’s a particularly evil thing that only computers do when thousands of people are waiting…” Again, the wall of sound. “You people make even more noise than the Brazilians!” he said. (Later that day, Neil was to write in his blog, “In the Philippines, the people are enthusiastic on a level that makes the Brazilians look reserved and polite.”)

Neil commented that the reception was a “wonderfully surreal and strange contrast to Singapore… if you were there, you’d all be in lines and be very, very quiet.” Once again, the wall of sound. With not a trace of false modesty, he confessed that he thought it was all a big set-up. “This mad enthusiasm… I get a weird, vague feeling that this is all a big mistake.” What, that we lined up for hours upon hours in the blistering heat expecting like, a famous rock star by mistake? For once, Neil Gaiman, I can honestly say that you’re wrong! He he, I love you…

Endless lines

The manic reaction was manifest throughout the weekend of Neil’s visit (notice, by the way, how I refer to him by first name, like we’re tight). The fans-no, the right word is “fanatics”-were shaking, sweating, gifting the DreamMaker with everything from Haw Flakes to bottled bubble solutions, original paintings to San Mig Light. A filmmaker friend of mine kept squeaking, “I can’t believe I’m breathing the same air as Gaiman!” Another friend actually cried when she finally got his autograph after lining up under the torturous sun for two days. Girls asked for hugs and kisses. Hell, even guys asked for hugs and kisses. Oh, and I heard that the girl who offered him a bottle of bubbles and was instructed by Neil to “go out to the world and blow bubbles for the greater good” was last seen blowing ’em soap suds to save the planet. Classic case of Delight turning into Delirium.

Like many people, I had all these cool things to ask him as I waited patiently in line, like “do you have any unfinished stories in the Library of Dreams that we don’t know about?” or “what did you play when you were with the punk band Chaos?” or even “love the way you weave Milton in your work!” Rrright. From alluding to John Milton, I ended up instead channeling Paris Hilton, blubbering like a retarded primate when I finally met him. I handed him my ancient copy of “Season of Mists,” “Endless Nights” and “Coraline.” He was pleasantly surprised to see that the first page of “Coraline” already had an old autograph of his, plus his sketch of a rat. It was an old birthday gift from a friend who acquired it for me in a past signing tour in New York City. So Neil added another sketch, to which I brilliantly reacted with, “That’s… awesome. You rock!”

Man in the Mirrormask

The rabid crowd was treated to the trailer and selected clips from the awaited film, “Mirrormask,” which Neil worked in collaboration with longtime confrere and award-winning mixed media artist Dave McKean, produced by the Jim Henson Company. Balancing his silver laptop, Neil finally did the impossible feat of silencing the crowd as he read aloud part of his latest novel in the works, “Anansi Boys.” At the brief question and answer portion, Neil proved to be a really nice, down-to-earth guy with this wonderfully caustic sense of humor, so far removed from the broody, angst-ridden writer archetype, thank God!

When asked by a fan (who was shaking like a leaf in the middle of a thunderstorm), about what sacrifices he had to make to become a writer, Neil responded, “You never get to view the big sacrifice. It wasn’t like J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling came knocking on my door and said, ‘we’ve come to indoctrinate you into the club.'” He first thought about becoming a writer when he was around 19 or 20 years old. “I couldn’t sleep, I was having a bad nightmare at 5 in the morning. I thought, I want to be a writer, and if I don’t do anything, I’ll be on my death bed saying to myself ‘I could’ve been a writer.'” He describes his fantasy-filled career path: “It’s pretty glorious. I make things up. People like it.”

Writers Forum

The “mad enthusiasm” spilled well over the weekend, until the Monday of the invitational Writers Forum at the Music Museum. A show of hands revealed that students, employees and bosses chucked school and work that day, inciting Neil to comment, “the whole Philippine economy is at stake because you’re here!”

In the more intimate setting, Neil shared that he knew he had to make a trip one day to the Philippines. Since he’s allowed to go behind the scenes of his website, www.neilgaiman.com, he noticed that the Philippines was among the top tier of countries constantly visiting his little address in cyberspace. “I thought, there must be some very computer-savvy people who are either very bored, or really like reading. So I thought I should go there one day and find out who they are.” He went on to say that though he didn’t know what to expect in Manila, he did think while growing up that the Philippines was a place where “all the really cool artists came from, artists who had really elegant lines and a sense of beauty.” He even acknowledged that some of the best DC Comics artists were Filipinos, naming the likes of Nestor Redondo, Alex Nino and Alfredo Alcala as examples of “the giants, the greats.”

Mentor, sage, leader of a future revolt?

In only an hour or so of just listening to Neil, I had picked up more cool tenets to live by than in a whole semester of Creative Writing classes in grad school. A few footnotes on success: “I discovered that the ones on top of their professions are the really nice ones. It’s the second raters who are the pains in the arse and want Perrier poured in their toilet. I decided I was going to be one of the first raters; one of the nice ones, it’s so much easier.”

His advice to aspiring writers: “Read everything you can, read even the stuff that has nothing to do with what you are interested in. You’ll find some of the more peculiar anecdotes in nonfiction. Watch everything. Steal from everywhere.”

A funny question was then posed by a girl who asked how he could use his loyal, multitudinous fan base “for the greater good.” (SFX: collective chortle from the audience.) Neil replied wryly, “Stay where you are, you’ll be sent your orders. I really should mobilize you fans. I try to use my blog for good and not for evil. As time goes on, if I realize it’s time to move on t

o the post-human condition, I will announce it in my blog.”

From Anansi to calamansi

Ah yes, Neil’s blog. Moments before his departure to Australia, he bid farewell to the Philippines in his online journal. I’ll go on a limb and say that I even perceived a sentimental tone there. (A bit odd coming from Gaiman, or any British guy for that matter.) Apart from confessing that he thinks he’s now addicted to calamansi juice, he wrote lines that, well, would make even non-Gaimanites go “awww.” Check it out yourself, he wrote, “I don’t remember ever having felt so loved by so many people.”He did mention on Day One that having now been to Manila, he’d love to set a story here. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be devouring a future novel called “Calamansi Boys” and happen upon a character toasting to absent friends, lost loves and old gods, not with a bottle of Chateau Lafitte 1828, but with San Mig Light. One can only dream.
–Tals Diaz