Neil Gaiman: A Man For All Seasons

Most of the creators identified herein as “comic book rebels” have bucked the status quo of how comic books are published and the role creative people are relegated to in the traditional business structure of the industry. Yet Neil Gaiman continues to regularly work with established publishers like DC Comics. How, then, is he “rebel”?

Gaiman was chosen as being representative of a new order of creators. Cosmopolitan and nomadic, they successfully maintain their creative autonomy while demanding the respect of their chosen publishers through a clear sense of who they are, what they are worth, and a canny blend of independence and diplomacy. In short, a creator plying the sharpened skills of both a seasoned professional and the shrewd businessman, able to freely move between all media, and work with any publisher.

Born in 1960 in Portchester, England, and growing up in Sussex, Gaiman left school purposely to become a writer. His first professional work in the early Eighties was as a journalist, meeting and interviewing many authors and cartoonists whose work he admired. Alan Moore showed him the rudiments and structure of how comic scripts were crafted, and in short order he chose to abandon his early company-owned comics to collaborate with artist Dave McKean on their first graphic novel, Violent Cases (Escape, Titan, 1987; reissued in color by Titan/Tundra, 1991).

Soon after, Gaiman and McKean completed the painted comic Black Orchid (1988) for DC, prompting an invitation to write a monthly title for the company. Resurrecting the name of a character created for DC by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in the Forties—but completely creating his own incarnation rooted in the Dream-lord of myth and folktales—Sandman was launched in 1988 and continues as one of the finest mainstream comics ever created. He was Alan Moore’s choice to continue Miracleman (Eclipse, from 1990 to the present), and his other comics projects include a number of short tales for anthologies like Taboo (SpiderBaby/Tundra) and the graphic novels Signal to Noise (Gollancz, 1991, US edition from Dark Horse), Mr. Punch (Gollancz, 1993) with Dave McKean, and Sweeny Todd, a work in progress with artist Michael Zulli. Outside the industry, he has authored or coauthored several books, including the best-selling collaborative novel with Terry Prachett, Good Omens (1990). He is presently developing a television series for England’s BBC-2.

So how is he a comic book rebel? Gaiman grew up seeing how previous generations—and his own peers—allowed themselves to be badly used by the industry. Along with others of his generation, he is determined to take better care of himself. Just consider Sandman, which is owned under work-for-hire law by DC. Gaiman’s accomplishments and negotiations after the first year of its run led to DC’s granting an historically unprecedented (and retroactive) creative coownership and share of the character and title, including all licensing and foreign sales—rights and revenue DC had always denied creators. Having already alienated key creators like Alan Moore, who had at one time earned considerable money and prestige for the company, DC has finally begun to realize it is in their own best interest to nurture better relations with certain creators. Very quietly, a revolutionary change in how business is done has occurred, a vital precedent set for this and the succeeding generations to come. While working with the existing system, Neil Gaiman continually expands the possibilities of both the industry and the medium.

COMIC BOOK REBELS: What were the building blocks as a reader that brought you to comics as a creator?

NEIL GAIMAN: The main one was that I never discriminated—in the racial sense of the term—between comics and anything else I read. I was a voracious reader as a kid; I read anything and everything. And one of the things I read was comics. I couldn’t understand why there was any kind of prejudice against them; why we weren’t allowed to bring them to school; why was it something everyone sort of frowned on? Books were considered cool, and yet there was as much thought and artistry in a lot of the comics that I was reading—some of Archie Goodwin’s work, some of the early DC horror comics. So I never discriminated; I never felt that comics were in any way a “lesser” medium. They seemed to be a *more* exciting medium; I always figured I would be a writer when I grew up, and one of the things I always wanted to write was comics. And here I am.

CBR: With your ability to now pick and choose between various mediums of prose—from short story to novel to screenplay—why are you still apparently most enamored with this medium?

GAIMAN: As a creator, I get more of a buzz from comics than I do from anything else. I cannot go back and look at a short story or a novel that’s come out with pleasure. Rather I look and think “Oh, God, I should have fixed that.” Whereas I can look at a comic I’ve done and get a real buzz off it and have a real feeling of pride. It’s always a feeling of surprise to me when something that I wrote as a script comes out and it actually *works.* And it’s a very pleasant surprise because I didn’t really do it—all I ever did was *write* it. Knowing that the script for a comic is *not* the comic. The comic is the comic.

CBR: Violent Cases and Signal to Noise are driven by memories and meditation, Sandman by dreams, and even your work on the superhero title Miracleman, in a genre traditionally composed of larger-than-life actions is by nature intimate and reflective. Do you find comics an inherently introspective medium for storytelling?

GAIMAN: I don’t think comics are an introspective medium. *They are a medium.* That’s all. But, by my nature, I *am* an introspective writer. My stories tend to be as much about what goes on inside people as what goes on outside people. I don’t want to sound naïve, but I’m telling *my* kind of stories.

CBR: But don’t you consciously reject the traditional comic book exploitation of action and violence in your work?

GAIMAN: Black Orchid is very much a conscious rejection of the traditional approaches to these themes. In Black Orchid I wanted to do a pacifist fable in which acts of violence did occur, but were unpleasant—a fable in which meditation and beauty played a very important part. Black Orchid was sort of a look at things I *didn’t* like in comics, and then do the kind of comic I would like to be out there. In a completely different sense, it was the same reason I did Violent Cases. Violent Cases was something we did for people who don’t read comics; Black Orchid was something we did for people who do. But having said all that, I don’t think anything I’ve done since then has be a “reaction to” what’s out there. What’s been done since then has been done mostly as a combination of terror and desperation to find the way to the next panel or to the next word or to the end of the story. And there was never anything in Sandman where I said “Okay, now I’m going to do comic book like nobody else has ever seen!” It was much more of “Okay, *that’s* where the story went,” so I followed. I figured sooner or later DC would turn around and say “You know, you can’t really do that,” and they never have.

CBR: You’re currently best recognized by the public as the writer on Sandman. Considering you own most of your comic book material, why did you initially agree to work on a character you did not create?

GAIMAN: But Sandman very much *is* my own creation. Is it my own ownership? No, that’s due to strange antediluvian business practices of a gigantic Engulf & Devour style corporation. But is it my creation—sure! The idea that I’m probably best known for it has more to do with the fact one gets known for the largest and most easily followable body of work. And if you line it up against everything else I’ve done, Sandman is very obviously the largest body of work.

CBR: You’ve said before that Sandman for you is a finite story. How is DC handling that, since comic book companies never allow a commercially successful character to be purposely taken out of circulation?

GAIMAN: This has already been dealt with, pretty much to everyone’s satisfaction. About two years ago, I raised the issue with my editors at DC, and each of them went pale and said “Well, this has never been done before, um, maybe, no, um…” But they’ve had a chance to let the notion sink in, and now realize that when I’m done with Sandman, that Sandman is done. But just because it may mean the end of Sandman, as a monthly comic book, it does not mean—as far as I’m concerned—the end of Sandman. There are stories outside the monthly continuity that I would quite like to do. There’s a story that begins before Sandman #1, which would be the storyline for Sandman #0. There’re a number of myths and legends I want to write that I’ll probably do in a few years time. So there are a number of Sandman stories yet to be done. Basically, I’ve agreed to come back to the characters so long as DC leaves it alone in the meantime.

CBR: Any downside to the acclaim that Sandman has brought to you? Creators often get pigeonholed to keep working on the same series, or at least remain in the same genre.

GAIMAN: I don’t know; there is a level that I tend to get pigeonholed as a horror writer. But then again, anybody who knows anything about my body of work knows that isn’t *all* I do. And Sandman isn’t even particularly horror. So I can’t really think of any way it’s affected me adversely. It generates an interesting body of fans, ninety-nine percent of whom are quiet wonderful. And the one percent of whom take it all a little too far and assume that I am privy to a body of wisdom denied to the commonality of mortals. Now that’s a little difficult to deal with…

CBR: You’ve worked with an impressive procession of artist—particularly on Sandman—but your most frequent collaborator is Dave McKean. What is the bond, and how do you work together?

GAIMAN: Dave is one of my best friends in the world, and simply put, a remarkable artist. He’s also a remarkable writer, as his own series Cages demonstrates. It’s be a very interesting and rewarding relationship; comics is just one of the many things we do, and there are things we do apart. We work with other people, but we still ring each other up every day. I love the fact his mind works differently from the way mine does. He sees things I wouldn’t see and I tell him things he wouldn’t think of. By now, we must have worked in every conceivable way that’s possible to work in collaboration. With Violent cases, I wrote it essentially as a short story and handed over to him and said, “Okay, now run with it.” With things like “Hold Me” [Hellblazer #27], or the story I wrote for Outrageous Stories from the Old Testament, they were written as formal scripts. You know, “Page one, panel one.” While Black Orchid was scripted like a movie, and Signal to Noise was written in some strange bastard from that only myself and McKean could understand a word of. The script would be completely meaningless to anyone else, because they would ignore the fact that we’d been talking on the phone about this for a month and a half, and are, in a way, telepathic. It’s a relationship in which we trust each other implicitly. That’s why I love working with Dave on the covers for Sandman. I trust him. What he wants to do is okay by me.

CBR: You mentioned Violent Cases being written in short story form. Any plans of adapting your short stories or novels into comic book form? Clive Barker, for example, has done quite well with the adaptations of his prose work into the comics medium.

GAIMAN: Mostly I would look at the material and say, “Well, I already wrote it once. You know? Why should I write it again?” If somebody came to me and said “We would like to adapt Good Omens,” I would say, “Okay, here it is. Go do it. Have fun! Send me the comics when they come out.” I’m not convinced you can simply transliterate something from one medium to another. I remember when I was watching the stage play adaptation of Violent Cases, which was incredibly faithful—and didn’t work. The dramatic highs and lows were all in the wrong places. They took the words of the comic book, but in terms of theater, the one bit of theater magic they did was during the sequence where the character is talking about the wonderful light in the sky. And at that point the director flooded the stage with this wonderful light. Which meant it became the central image, and so became the center of Violent Cases—which it isn’t! So the stage adaptation became kind of mushy and soft-centered, and the center in Violent Cases is about Al Capone beating these guys to death with a baseball bat while a birthday party’s going on, which is something which was covered in two lines of dialogue on the stage—pretty much a throwaway. It was at that point I realized that faithful adaptations very often miss something. You need to recreate your story, you need to retell it. What is interesting is that I did “A Murder Mystery” for the publication Midnight Graffiti, as a short story. and about twenty-five percent of the people who read it noticed that there was one incredibly obvious story, and beneath it, one much, much less obvious story going on at the same time. And a lot of people don’t even notice that’s anything beneath the surface story to read! Whereas I know that if I did it as comic, there would be two or three little visual clues running through it, which would have meant that perhaps ninety-five percent of the readers would have picked up on the other story. That’s why I find comics interesting. The way people read comics and they way they read prose is a different experience. I believe a lot of people don’t read prose with the amount of attention and effort that they give comic books. In a comic book they will read every picture and *every* word, and be forced by the juxtaposition to look at how these things relate to each other.

CBR: What was the experience of adapting Good Omens into a screenplay? Was that an enriching experience?

GAIMAN: Not particularly, for a number of reasons. First time we tried to make the book into a ninety-minute movie, and it didn’t fit. You remember the old story about the guy who goes into the tailor to be fitted for a suit? And the tailor fits him really weirdly, so the suit hangs on the guy with the arms being four or five inches too long? So the tailor says to him “Just raise your arms.” And then the guy says, “Well, look at the way the back hangs.” So the tailor says, “Fine, just curve your back and hunch over.” And then the guy complains, “Well, look at these trousers!” The tailor says, “Fine, just lean that leg forward.” Finally the guy walks outside, looking like Quasimodo, and this man comes up to the guy and demands, “Who’s your tailor?” And the guy asks, “Why do you want to meet my tailor?” So the man says, “If he can fit somebody like you, then he can fit *anybody*!” Which is sort of like the process of writing a film script from a novel. You’re chopping off limbs, and trying to put things in that fit. So that aspect of it wasn’t particularly pleasant.

CBR: In other words, “Screenplay by Procrustes.”

GAIMAN: Exactly! On the other hand, it *was* a pleasant experience to take everything that I’ve learned from doing these adaptations of Good Omens—the one I did with Terry Prachett, and the one I did on my own—and using it for developing this TV series for the BBC. It has the working title of The Underside. So that was very interesting because I was working on something that was *meant* to be filmed, and meant to have actors floating around a sound stage. and I could do all sorts of neat things that I would have bothered doing in comics. For one things, rather than an artist drawing word balloons, here I could see actors speaking my words, and using their own expressions.

CBR: You touched earlier upon the concept that people literally have to read comic books more intensely than prose. In what sense?

GAIMAN: People tend to skip when they read prose. People skip words, skip pages, sometimes they skip thoughts. Or they flip through pages. Or they read it faster and less attentively than they read other sections. A writer has no control over how somebody reads. In comics, you have a lot more control over the experience of reading. Over what and how the person reading it reads. You are doling out pieces of information to them with an immediacy that they otherwise might not have.

CBR: You often draw upon world mythologies to either deliberately dissect them, and/or build upon them. Do you have a conscious game plan for using mythologies in the comic medium?

GAIMAN: No. I remember speaking to a woman who had been a friend of Joseph Campbell, and she said that Campbell believed that superheroes are the mythologies of the twentieth century. I don’t actually think they are. Mainly because they don’t have stories attached to them—they are simply characters. You’ve got this strange division in twentieth century mythology right now, in which you’ve got stories floating around with no people attached, like the urban legends: the vanishing hitchhiker, the death cars. And you have characters like Tarzan and Superman and Batman—but with *no* stories. Myths are my favorite subject. I think if I wasn’t writing comics there probably wouldn’t be a career for me. Unless somebody came up with Personal Religion Designer. You know—people would come up to me and they’d say, “Hi. I’d like something that was strong in the sin department. I’d like a whole pantheon, and I’d like really neat holy days, and a great creation myth.” And I’d say, “Okay, that’ll be $20,000 and five percent of your poorbox takings.” I could do that.

CBR: In Violent Cases and the serial killer story in Sandman you explore violent American lore, while in Mr. Punch and Sweeney Todd you draw from murderous archetypes of European folklore, as if exploring both sides of the same dark street of human nature. A darker side than Sandman chooses to explore.

GAIMAN: Well…yes. [Pauses] Sandman is an entertainment. It’s delightful entertainment, even though I’ve had to work harder and longer and it’s given me more headaches than anything else I’ve had to do. But I think it’s something to do with choosing your targets, who your audience is. And yes, my audience is me. That is, at the end of the day, the person I’m writing most to please is myself. But Sandman represents to some extent my preoccupation and fascination with America, with sort of a mythic take on American cities and institutions. The New York in Sandman is probably not the real New York, but the one I remember seeing on my first day there. With these magical manholes spouting steam, and this mad old woman rushing past me going “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” And standing before these buildings that just went up forever… Violent Cases was a way for me to talk about America as well as violence. It germinated from the fact that a lot of the incidents in the first few pages are, in effect, true. It is quite true that my father sprained my wrist when I was about four, grabbed my arm trying to get me to go to bed and something went. He took me to a gentleman who, I was informed a few years ago, had been Al Capone’s osteopath. That much is true. But other than that, the rest is not. Beyond that, I’ve always been fascinated by America. I always figured America was kind of like Oz—it was a country where, for only ten dollars, you could buy your own submarine and set it up in your bedroom! I knew we didn’t have anything like that in England, so America has always been a “myth” that I’ve been fond of, and a myth I like building on and newly creating. Your statement about there being a difference between my American work and my British work is partly to do when you think of the old saw that in England a hundred miles is a very long way, and in America a hundred years is very long time. I have this theory that you can find anything in America. Absolutely *anything.* You just have to drive far enough. Sooner or later you’ll find the guy with the seven-foot-high ball of string. Or the guy who makes furniture out of cheese in his garden. You just have to go far enough. In England, you just have to look far enough back. And whatever you’re looking for is going to appear sooner of later. So Mr. Punch and Sweeney Todd are looking back, if you will. It’s significant that in Violent Cases, the osteopath character is European. He went to Chicago, and then he came back. In Mr. Punch, you’re looking again at a childhood incident that happened to me around the age of seven or eight, partly real, partly imaginary, built up from family myth and from the inside of my head, and from Punch and Judy. The patterns in Mr. Punch go back to the medieval mummers’ plays and possibly before. It’s buried in that. Sweeney Todd goes back to the mythical founding of London. That is the starting point for Sweeney, to some extent where the story will lead and end. Someone once explained about the “desks” of London, saying, “Well, about twenty feet down are the Roman times.” It’s true; civilization *is* lower. You can calculate the time periods from the strata, how the ground has risen and so forth. Sweeney Todd, and to some extent Mr. Punch, involve just getting in there with our spade, and digging in particularly bloody ground.

CBR: How do you think your work in comics has changed the field?

GAIMAN: There is a level of work being done today that is more graphic in violence and six. Yet I don’t think that has very much to do with anything truly significant; it’s a superficial “pushing of the envelope.” The only way I can really reply is to remember what it was like when Alan Moore was doing Swamp Thing, and that was the mythical archetype around which *everything* revolved, coming out of the monster cycle. And look at the comics that never quite got into it even that far. Yet, for example, there were no gay characters in Swamp Thing. There were no nipples, as I recall. Now mainstream comics have both. But these days, somewhere in all that, we’ve since come to think that we have done something. I think Sandman #6 to some extent is a watershed. Because is went farther in terms of extreme and graphic horror and sex than anything anybody had ever done previously in comics that I can think of. Sandman #8 was a watershed because it went farhter in “nothing happens in this issue” than anybody had ever done in mainstream comics to date! But other than that, I don’t know. I can’t see a huge influence that I’ve had on the field. I confess that if I have had an influence, it’s probably not anything you’ll see for at least ten years. Well, maybe eight years… But what I’m interested in is the thirteen to fifteen year olds, who are reading their Sandman and Black Orchid, and who are sitting in class and arguing with their teachers. Saying, “Look, look—see this? This is literature! It’s every bit as good as the literature you’ve been teaching us! When I grow up, this is what I want to do for a living.”

CBR: Which of your series are you personally most satisfied with?

GAIMAN: I have individual favorites. One of my favorites is Miracleman #19, the Andy Warhol issue. And Miracleman #22, which ties earlier episodes together. I love Sandman #14, “Midsummer’s Night Dream,” because was such hard work. And I’m really proud of it. I’m proud of the fact you can’t see me with my desk, covered with tiny pieces of paper, trying to keep the action backstage, frontstage, back of the audience, front of the audience, and the play, all moving along in three dimensions, and getting it all down saying everything I have to say. I’m terribly proud of Signal to Noise.

CBR: Any major encounters with censorship along the way?

GAIMAN: No, not really. I had one script about a serial killer in Sandman where I was asked to change a McDonald’s into a Burger Joint. Things like that. I was told I couldn’t use the word “masturbation” in my serial killer script. Having said that, I could probably use the term today. But I have been relatively uncensored in the industry. There *was* one story I decided not to write. It would have been sort of a little compliment to “Dream of a Thousand Cats.” It would have been a story about fetal dreams. It would have made a lovely story. Had it only been published in England, where abortion is not really an issue, I would have quite happily written it with no problems. But I chose not to write it, because I suddenly thought there would be some fifteen-year-old girl who’s been raped and wants an abortion. And somebody would come up to her and show that story, and say, “How can you even think of getting an abortion after you read that story?” So I decided no to write it, which in a way tears me apart. I know I had enough people come up to me and say Sandman #8 got them over the death of their child, or the death of a best friend or something like that. But you know that your stories *can* change people’s minds, and hearts. So that was case I decided to censor myself; I didn’t want to be responsible for the consequences of a living soul. But for the most part the censors leave me alone, for reasons not adequately explained.