An Essay on Neil Gaiman and Comics

Written by Cindy Lynn Speer in May of 2002

 

 

When Neil Gaiman was fifteen, a career counselor asked him what he wanted to do for a living. "I want to write American comic books," he said. Instead of advice on how to go about it, he was given a blank stare and asked if he'd ever considered accountancy. This answer made Neil give up on his dream until 1984, when an issue of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing caught his eye. At first he resisted, but eventually he bought his first issue and was hooked. A few years later, Alan Moore would be the one to teach him how to write a comic book script. Neil's second attempt at a script was a Swamp Thing story, "Jack in the Green." In 1986, Neil met DC comics editor Karen Berger at a convention and decided to mail the script to her. She read it, and when they met again several months later, he was able to convince her to assign him and the enormously talented Dave McKean to do Black Orchid.

Black Orchid

But this was not his and McKean's first comic. Violent Cases (1987) is a brilliant tale of childhood and memory, framed by the narrator's attempts to recall meeting Al Capone's Osteopath. He and McKean would return to this world in 1994, masterfully combining the struggle of the narrator to remember his childhood with the stark and oftentimes cruel tale of Mr. Punch in The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch. In both cases these works push the envelope, stepping outside the regular comic. The art is amazing - what McKean does with layouts and, later, with photography is beautiful, fitting the often wistful and tragic writing as the narrator attempts to piece his memories together.

Violent Cases

Black Orchid (1988) was published as a three-part, Prestige format series, a usual format for two newcomers. Originally DC intended to hold back the project, giving Neil his own monthly series and McKean another assignment in an attempt to gain them a following. They ended up changing their minds, and Black Orchid did fine despite fears, and would later generate its own series with a different team. This would not be the last time Neil created a world so broad and enchanting that it would create its own regular series under other writers.

Part ecological allegory, part quest, Black Orchid fights for survival and peace in a world she can not comprehend, against villains she barely remembers. Though well received, Neil felt the character was too stiff, and he longed for something that would allow him more room.

The Sandman

In 1989, Neil began the series DC gave him, which would become the comic work that he is best known for - The Sandman. The title character is not the crime-fighting Wesley Dodds of earlier comics, but the anthropomorphic personification of dream. The series begins as Dream is captured by a coven of wizards. His capture and the space of years he is imprisoned will shape the events of the series, for, while imprisoned, Dream had time to think, and that means, though he will deny it, time to change. The series took off with issue eight, which introduced his older sister Death. An ironically perky foil to Dream's melancholy, she won reader's hearts with her sweetness mingled with common sense. It has won several awards, including, for issue 19, The World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story - an event unlikely to happen in the comics field again. A complete and impressive list of awards is availed here: www.neilgaiman.com/about/awards.asp. One of the reasons it is so loved was because it is accessible to everyone. It opened the doors for many like comics, and it became the flagship of Vertigo, a line for mature readers. Finally, not only were comics for everyone, but they were taught in classes and mentioned in magazines. The Sandman is about dreams and the nature of tales, and why, as Neil Gaiman says, "We owe it to each other to tell stories." The seventy-five issue series ended in 1996, because Neil knows that the best stories have endings. (For more information on The Sandman, visit The Wake)

Neil has not left Dream's world behind. Death was the star of two miniseries, The Time of Your Life and The High Cost of Living. In both, Death, ironically, forces the characters to consider the importance of life. We visit Dream again in Sandman: The Dream Hunters, a romance between a monk and a fox-spirit. It is a prose comic, employing pages of prose interspersed with illustration, rather than panels and word balloons. Soon, DC plans to release the long anticipated Endless Nights, another prose comic with art from some of the world's best artists.

Dream Hunters

Perhaps the greatest proof of Neil's influence is how his comics are now published. In the past, comics were considered only a little more permanent than newspapers, and sometimes it was impossible to get all the issues in a series. Because of Neil's popularity, they began collecting The Sandman into trade paperbacks and even the more expensive hardbacks. His recent works, such as The Dream Hunters, have come out in beautiful hardback editions first, and have been happily bought by fans. This would have been unheard of twenty years ago.

During his Sandman run, Neil worked on another Alan Moore series, Miracleman, (1990). Starting with issue 17, he wrote eight issues before Eclipse Comics went out of business. The series premise was unusual - Miracleman has taken over the world, creating a benevolent dictatorship where evil is not tolerated. Even though all the conventional devices are stripped away, Neil does a marvelous job of creating a comic with tension, filled with people we care about. (More on Miracleman ) . He also wrote The Books of Magic miniseries during that time, which featured Tim Hunter, a young man with an incredible gift for magic. He must choose whether to embrace that magic, or put it aside and live a normal life.

Neil's works also find themselves being transmitted into other mediums. Signal to Noise (1992) was first a serialized comic in The Face magazine. Since then it has been collected into a trade paperback and has been made into stage and radio plays. It is the story of a filmmaker who must face the worst crisis in his life, contrasted with his film about a group of people waiting for the end of the world. In 1994, Alice Cooper contacted Neil about doing a concept comic. The result was a three-part series called Alice Cooper: The Last Temptation, where Alice Cooper's character, The Showman, tempts the main character into watching The Grandest Guiginol and forces him to make an impossible decision.

Stardust

Stardust (1998) was a romantic fairy tale about a young man and his quest into the lands of Faery to get a fallen star for his beloved - only the star is a beautiful young woman who isn't pleased about being dragged across Faery on some silly boy's whim. It is a magical story that has made the rare transition to novel, in 1999's Avon book of the same name.

Neil has written much more than can be discussed here. Neil did pieces for Secret Origins, and his works are in Negative Burn and WIIndows. One of his most acclaimed short pieces is "Hold Me", done for an issue of Hellblazer. It and others are collected in Midnight Days, an anthology for DC. Also included is "Jack in the Green", which was brought to life by past Swamp Thing artists John Totleben and Steve Bissette. For more information visit The Neil Gaiman Visual Bibliography.

Neil Gaiman's commitment to comics reaches far beyond creating the works that have evolved a medium. In 1997, he earned the Defender of Liberty Award from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and is now on their board of directors. He has donated time and items in an effort to help support the First Amendment rights of comics. (www.cbldf.org)

Future projects include an adaptation of his short story Murder Mysteries, to be published by Dark Horse in June. Another future project is a series with Marvel Comics. Tentatively called 1602, the project is being kept under wraps.

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Last edited Sun Oct 01 18:50:10 2006.

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