Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 05/06/2009
[A version of the following interview appeared in issue # 352 of Weird Tales magazine, bearing a Nov/Dec 2008 cover date.]
The Dream Goes On
Neil Gaiman on 20 Years of The Sandman and The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman sounds a bit tired when I first hear his voice. Still, considering that he's four or five hours into the author's equivalent of a marathon-a day filled with eight or so hours of short interviews-that's more than understandable.
Gaiman accepts this and the other pitfalls of his growing celebrity with good humor and a sharp wit, fully realizing that this is all part of his work as an increasingly popular author, screen writer and comics scribe. Despite any misgivings he might harbor about becoming a celebrity, there's no doubt that Neil is very, very good at being a Celebrated Writer.
Or, to put it another way, Gaiman gives great press.
However, his ease in front of a crowded hall or a journalist's microphone can never belie the fact that, just like his work, Gaiman remains eminently engaging and approachable on a human level. This is something that his fans around the globe have been discovering for themselves over the course of the past two decades at comic conventions and book store signings. Quite often they arrive hours early, clutching worn copies of his work and bearing homemade gifts for him. For his part, Neil's been known to regularly sit and sign for hours beyond his scheduled time, driven as much by his deep appreciation for the support of his readers as by the real enjoyment he derives from meeting and speaking with each one of them.
So it comes as no surprise that, after we've said our hellos, Neil shrugs off his fatigue and proceeds to do what he does best-weave words and images and memories together to tell stories true and wise, all by way of answering a few of my questions about his work, past and present.
Bill Baker: If memory serves, you created The Sandman to act as a storytelling vehicle. In hindsight, how effective was that decision?
Neil Gaiman: In hindsight, I think it was the best possible thing I could have done. If somebody had given me a road map of the future, I think it could not have been better. Because what I created was a shape of comic that allowed me to do anything that I wanted. And if I wanted to do science fiction, I could have done science fiction. If I'd wanted to do a ...
It's one of those lovely things where you look at things that are created to generate stories. I think that Doctor Who in the UK is essentially the same kind of thing. One of the things I like about the more recent version of Doctor Who is that it actually allowed for that to happen, and they're telling lots and lots of different types of stories--[including those] where it's not always an alien in a rubber mask in the third episode. But the joy of it was it could go anywhere, and it could go to anything, and they could tell gothic, they could tell high tech, and could tell modern day stuff, and they could tell a historical [tale].
It's so great when you come up with something that exists to allow you to tell stories. And Sandman did--less the character than the idea behind the character, which is: "Everything from the beginning of time on is fair game," and "Any kind of story is fair game."
BB: Were there any lessons you learned from doing Sandman?
NG: There are lots and lots and lots of lessons you learn.
The biggest problem with lessons learned writing is something that I only realized when I was talking to my friend, Gene Wolfe. I'd just finished the first draft of American Gods, and I saw Gene, and I said, "Gene! Gene, I've just finished the first draft of American Gods. I think I've learned how to write novels." And he looked at me with infinite patience and infinite pity and said, "Neil, you never learn how to write novels. You just learn how to write the novel you're on."
And the truth is that every story--and everything that I learned writing Sandman--was a wonderful lesson and I'm sure I'm a much better writer now than I would ever have been without doing it.
But there's also the awful flip-side of that, which is: you write your story, and you've learned how to do that. And now, if you're most writers, you don't do that again. You go off and figure out how to do something completely different. And, in fact, you very often wind up, if you're me, [saying something] like, "We did this before. OK, let's look at this stuff and figure out a way to do this that's completely original."
So, what did I learn? I learned how to tell long narratives. I learned how to do short stories. I learned how to give things resonance and meaning. I learned how to go for the emotional heart. Sometimes I just learned how to be willing to have the essential idea and step out, metaphorically, of an airplane hoping that I could knit a parachute in 24 pages before I hit the ground. And sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn't.
But mostly what I learned was that I could do it. The greatest thing that I learned was that I could do a 2,000 page epic that had everything that I was interested in in it.
BB: Are you surprised by the longevity of Sandman?
NG: Uhm, yes. Surprised doesn't even begin to cover it.
I was talking to Dave McKean the other day, because I was in San Diego during Comic Con [International]. There were 120,000 people there, and Dave was there. And I was there, teaching at the University [Southern California-San Diego, host of the annual Clarion writing workshop]. And I thought for a little bit about going into Comic Con and trying to see some friends. And then I thought, "This is ridiculous. There're 120,000 people there, of whom at least 50,000 would probably like to see me. And if only 20,000 of those have something on them they'd want signed, I'm doomed." [General laughter]
Somebody was saying, "Well, you could go in wearing a Darth Vader mask." And I thought, "Yes, I could!" And then I thought, "No. Any world that you have to go into wearing a Darth Vader mask, there is something fundamentally wrong there." So I didn't wear a Darth Vader mask, and I didn't
And I was speaking to Dave, and I said, "You know, I figured that the mad adulation and stuff was going to last for three years after the end of Sandman." And he said, "Yes, but that was in a world where, once things were done, they were forgotten, more or less." And, of course, the strange thing about Sandman is it sells more and more every year--which is not something that any of us had expected, imagined or planned on.
BB: Speaking of how well the Sandman books continue to sell, month after month, have sales changed much over the years, or have they remained constant?
NG: There are some that go up and down. The sales of Preludes and Nocturnes and Doll's House go up and up all the time.
To be honest, it's odder for me when you look at something like Absolute Sandman, where you have a $100.00 book of incredible beauty in four volumes. I got my royalty statement the other day on that, and the first one has sold about 40,000 copies so far, and seems to show no inclination to stop selling. I think they've already just had to go back to press on that, much to their own surprise.
So, it's all a bit odd. The Absolute format was one that they thought actually probably didn't really work. And now, where Sandman is concerned, it's doing just fine, thank you very much.
I think when I was writing it, I assumed it was only going to last so long. I wasn't trying to write something timeless. I was trying to write something that was fundamentally disposable. It was a monthly comic, you know?
The years that I was reading comics-[when] I really discovered comics and was reading comics and understood what comics were and the history of comics--were 1973 to 1976. So, the idea of a comic that had first been published in 1954, and had finished being published in 1965, still being relevant and exciting to me as a 16 year old comic reader was kind of odd. You wouldn't have...
You'd read scholarly discussions of things like EC comics, and you'd want to read them, but you knew that finding them was going to be hard, they were very expensive if they were out there, or almost impossible to get. You're now in, essentially, a Golden Age of Comics. And you're in a Golden Age of Comics not just because there's some good stuff being produced, but [also because,] for the first time ever, there is this astounding multiplicity of everything good that's ever been produced. It's out there.
You want to read Little Nemo [in Slumberland] comics the same size as they were when they were done by Winsor McKay? They're out there! You want to read Peanuts in glorious editions, three to a page and then a Sunday? They're out there. You want to read Jack Cole Plastic Mans? They're out there. And all the Archive Editions, and so on and so forth? I think it's amazing.
So, one of the things that's happened is we're in a world in which books like Maus and [Batman: The] Dark Knight [Returns], and Watchmen kind of changed everything. Because the idea when they were published that The Dark Knight and Maus and Watchmen
would be in print and occasionally creeping up on to bestsellers lists 22 years after they were published...could you have imagined that, then? I couldn't have done. [General laughter]
BB: No. No, it's not something you could have predicted back then. It's a whole new world these days.
Which makes me wonder if you think that Sandman is, in some sense, picking up and carrying the torch of Watchmen and the rest of that first wave?
NG: I think Watchmen and Sandman are two different things. I think they both demonstrate that we're now in a world in which you can do good stuff and it will stick around. Which was always the hardest part in comics--they were an appallingly transient medium. And that is really no longer the case.
If it's good, you can assume it will be in print. If it's good, somebody's going to be doing a 20th anniversary edition somewhere down the line, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
BB: What does the 20th anniversary of Sandman mean to you, professionally?
NG: What does it mean for me professionally? Nothing. Makes me feel old. Makes me feel particularly old when I see people in signing lines carrying babies who were not born when the first issue of Sandman was written. But, apart from that, that's about it. [Laughter]
It's something that I'm incredibly proud of, and it created some amazing friendships. I wind up feeling the same way about it that I do when I see people with beautiful Death tattoos, which is a strange kind of mixture of puzzled and flattered.
BB: While you still do comics, in a real way you've transitioned into a period where you're more and more widely known as a writer of genre novels, the latest one being The Graveyard Book. How would you describe it?
NG: The Graveyard Book, it seems to be a book for all ages. Actually, no; not all ages. Probably a "from nine to ninety" kind of book; I wouldn't go much below nine on it. And it's a book that's kind of like The Jungle Book, but set in a graveyard.
It's about a young man whose family are killed, and who winds up being adopted by dead people, and is brought up in a graveyard and taught things that dead people know.
BB: Were there any other works which might have helped spark this book? I ask, because I almost sense a little Bradbury in there, along with the Kipling, or course.
NG: All of those things did. But really the place that sparked it was, 23 years ago, we didn't have a garden. And we had a very, very tall house with lots and lots of stairs, and I had a toddler son who had a little tricycle. And we couldn't let him ride the tricycle around the house, because he would have fallen down the stairs and killed himself.
So, everyday I would take him and his tricycle down the stairs, and we would cross the little lane to the churchyard over the road. And he would peddle his tricycle between the gravestones, and I would sit on a bench reading a book and watching him, and thinking, "You know, he looks pretty at home here."
And one day I thought, "You know, you could do an amazing story with [that idea.] You could make this work." And I started trying to write it and discovered, at the age of 23, that I just wasn't a good enough writer to do it. So I put it aside until I was better.
BB: Speaking of that, is there also a question of timing, or letting the idea mature? Aside from needing a certain amount of skill to do certain books justice, is it also an accretion of ideas, impressions and such is necessary, too?
NG: Probably yeah, to some extent.
There was a moment about 15 years ago where I sort of got the other ingredient for The Graveyard Book. I was watching some documentary. And it was the kind of documentary where you turn on the TV and something's on and you're never quite sure what it was. I think it was a documentary on South American terror squads. And they were interviewing a woman who explained how, as a small girl, she was so scared of these terror squads that would go around hurting people, she would head down to the graveyard and find a mausoleum to hide in. And she knew it was always good there, with the dead, because they could never hurt you.
And that was a nice thing to have, because in the first version of the book that I had in my head, I think there would have been a lot more good ghosts than bad ghosts, and so on and so forth, and dangerous ghosts. And I found I liked, thematically, the idea that living people can hurt you, but I thought, "You know, I'm going to have kids reading this book. It's probably a good idea to make it clear to them that dead people can't hurt you."
BB: With everything you've already accomplished, do you have anything left that you'd like to do?
NG: When I was about 15, I had a list of things [which I wanted to accomplish] that I showed my mum. So you've got a list of things, and you look at it, and you go, "Well, this is a good list." And it had "write a novel" on it. "Have a short story collection published." "Do a children's book." "Write a movie." "Do a CD." Well, actually, it wasn't CD then; it was an album. But I did all that, made my list, back then. And I've pretty much finished it.
There are some I've kind of cheated on. I've always wanted to do a musical, and I wound up doing The Wolves in the Walls with the National Theatre of Scotland. But I would love to do an original. And I've got Coraline being done, but I'd love to an original, I'd love to do an original stage play.
I'd like to do an episode on a TV show that I'm really
proud of--I was never comfortable with what we did with Neverwhere.
So, yeah, all sorts of things like that.
BB: Anything you'd like to add before I let you get back to work?
NG: Actually, yes. The only other thing I would add is I'm incredibly proud of The Graveyard Book. Normally when I finish something, I just sort of compare it in my head; the sad thing I've created to the perfect golden thing that I wanted to create. This time I felt that I'd made something better than the thing that was in my head, and I'm very, very proud of that.
BB: And that's saying quite a bit, considering how critical you are of your own work, and how well accepted your work is, generally.
NG: Truth to tell, how well or how badly something is received never really affects me. Because there are things that people have hated that I loved, and vice versa.
But this one, this one I just love. And I'm really proud of it.
The Graveyard Book recently won a Newberry Prize, one of the more distinguished awards in all of literature. For more on Weird Tales, please head over to www.WeirdTales.net.
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