Neil Gaiman

Death by Carlo Pagulayan

Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) is an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre and films. His notable works include the comic book series ‘The Sandman’ and novels ‘Stardust,’ ‘American Gods,’ ‘Coraline,’ and ‘The Graveyard Book.’

Though his work is frequently seen as exemplifying the monomyth structure laid out by mythologist Joseph Campbell, Gaiman says that he started reading Campbell’s book on the common structure of myths but refused to finish it: ‘I think I got about halfway through ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ and found myself thinking if this is true – I don’t want to know. I really would rather not know this stuff. I’d rather do it because it’s true and because I accidentally wind up creating something that falls into this pattern than be told what the pattern is.’

Gaiman’s family is of Polish- and other Eastern European-Jewish origins; his great-grandfather emigrated from Antwerp before 1914 and his grandfather eventually settled on the south coast of England and established a chain of grocery stores in Portsmouth. His father worked in the same chain of stores, and his mother was a pharmacist. He has two younger sisters.

After living for a period in the nearby town of Portchester, where Neil was born, the Gaimans moved in 1965 to East Grinstead where his parents studied Dianetics at the Scientology centre in the town; one of Gaiman’s sisters works for the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles. His other sister, Lizzy Calcioli, has said, ‘Most of our social activities were involved with Scientology or our Jewish family. It would get very confusing when people would ask my religion as a kid. I’d say, ‘I’m a Jewish Scientologist.” Gaiman says that he is not a Scientologist, and that like Judaism, Scientology is his family’s religion. About his personal views, Gaiman has stated, ‘I think we can say that God exists in the DC Universe. I would not stand up and beat the drum for the existence of God in this universe. I don’t know, I think there’s probably a 50/50 chance. It doesn’t really matter to me.’

Gaiman was able to read at the age of four. He said, ‘I was a reader. I loved reading. Reading things gave me pleasure. I was very good at most subjects in school, not because I had any particular aptitude in them, but because normally on the first day of school they’d hand out schoolbooks, and I’d read them—which would mean that I’d know what was coming up, because I’d read it.’ When he was about ten years old, he read his way through the works of thriller and occult novelist Dennis Wheatley, where especially ‘The Ka of Gifford Hillary’ and ‘The Haunting of Toby Jugg’ made an impact on him. One work that made a particular impression on him was J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ from his school library, although it only had the first two books in the trilogy. He consistently took them out and read them. He would later win the school English prize and the school reading prize, enabling him finally to acquire the third book in the trilogy.

For his seventh birthday, Gaiman received C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ series. He later recalled that ‘I admired his use of parenthetical statements to the reader, where he would just talk to you … I’d think, ‘Oh, my gosh, that is so cool! I want to do that! When I become an author, I want to be able to do things in parentheses.’ I liked the power of putting things in brackets.’ Narnia also introduced him to literary awards, specifically the 1956 Carnegie Medal won by the concluding volume. When he won the 2010 Medal himself, the press reported him recalling, ‘… it had to be the most important literary award there ever was’ and observing, ‘if you can make yourself aged seven happy, you’re really doing well – it’s like writing a letter to yourself aged seven.’

Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ was another childhood favorite, and ‘a favourite forever. Alice was default reading to the point where I knew it by heart.’ He also enjoyed Batman comics as a child. Other influences included: Branch Cabell, Edgar Allan Poe, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, Rudyard Kipling, Lord Dunsany and G. K. Chesterton. He later became a fan of science fiction, reading the works of authors as diverse as Alan Moore, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Robert A. Heinlein, H. P. Lovecraft, Thorne Smith, and Gene Wolfe.

In the early 1980s, Gaiman pursued journalism, conducting interviews and writing book reviews, as a means to learn about the world and to make connections that he hoped would later assist him in getting published. He wrote and reviewed extensively for the ‘British Fantasy Society.’ His first professional short story publication was ‘Featherquest,’ a fantasy story, in ‘Imagine Magazine’ in 1984. Later that year, while waiting for a train at Victoria Station, Gaiman noticed a copy of ‘Swamp Thing’ written by Alan Moore, and carefully read it. Moore’s fresh and vigorous approach to comics had such an impact on Gaiman that he would later write; ‘that was the final straw, what was left of my resistance crumbled. I proceeded to make regular and frequent visits to London’s Forbidden Planet shop to buy comics.’

That year also wrote his first book, a biography of the band Duran Duran, as well as ‘Ghastly Beyond Belief,’ a book of quotations, with literary critic Kim Newman. Even though Gaiman thought he did a terrible job, the book’s first edition sold out very quickly. However, when he went to relinquish his rights to the book, he discovered the publisher had gone bankrupt. After this, he was offered a job by ‘Penthouse,’ which he turned down.

He also wrote interviews and articles for many British magazines, including ‘Knave.’ During this period he sometimes wrote under pseudonyms, including ‘Gerry Musgrave,’ ‘Richard Grey,’ and ‘a couple of house names.’ Gaiman has said he ended his journalism career in 1987 because British newspapers regularly publish untruths as fact. In the late 1980s, he wrote ‘Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion’ in what he calls a ‘classic English humour’ style. His next project was writing the opening of what would become his collaboration with fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett on the comic novel ‘Good Omens.’ The book is a comedy about the birth of the son of Satan, the coming of the End Times and the attempts of the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley to avert them, having become accustomed to their comfortable situations in the human world.

After forming a friendship with comic-book writer Alan Moore, Gaiman started writing comic-books, picking up ‘Marvelman’ after Moore finished his run on the series. Gaiman and artist Mark Buckingham collaborated on several issues of the series before its publisher, Eclipse Comics, collapsed, leaving the series unfinished. His first published comic strips were four short ‘Future Shocks’ for ‘2000 AD’ in 1986–7. Next, he wrote three graphic novels with his favorite collaborator and long-time friend Dave McKean: ‘Violent Cases,’ ‘Signal to Noise,’ and ‘The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch.’ Impressed with his work, DC Comics hired him in February 1987, and he wrote the limited series ‘Black Orchid.’ Karen Berger, who later became head of DC Comics’s Vertigo, read Black Orchid and offered Gaiman a job: to re-write an old character, ‘The Sandman,’ but to put his own spin on him.

‘The Sandman’ tells the tale of the ageless, anthropomorphic personification of Dream that is known by many names, including Morpheus. The series began in 1989 and concluded in 1996. In the eighth issue, Gaiman and artist Mike Dringenberg introduced Death, the older sister of Dream, who would become as popular as the series’ title character. The ‘Death: The High Cost of Living’ limited series launched DC’s Vertigo line in 1993. The 75 issues of the regular series, along with an illustrated prose text and a special containing seven short stories, have been collected into 12 volumes that remain in print. The series became one of DC’s top selling titles, eclipsing even ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman.’ Comics historian Les Daniels called Gaiman’s work ‘astonishing’ and noted that ‘The Sandman’ was ‘a mixture of fantasy, horror, and ironic humor such as comic books had never seen before.’ DC Comics writer and executive Paul Levitz observed that ‘The Sandman’ became the first extraordinary success as a series of graphic novel collections, reaching out and converting new readers to the medium, particularly young women on college campuses, and making Gaiman himself into an iconic cultural figure.’

In 1990, Gaiman wrote ‘The Books of Magic,’ a four-part mini-series that provided a tour of the mythological and magical parts of the DC Universe through a frame story about an English teenager who discovers that he is destined to be the world’s greatest wizard. The miniseries was popular, and sired an ongoing series written by John Ney Rieber. Gaiman next wrote a semi-autobiographical story about a boy’s fascination with Michael Moorcock’s anti-hero Elric of Melniboné for Ed Kramer’s anthology ‘Tales of the White Wolf.’ In 1996, Gaiman and Ed Kramer co-edited ‘The Sandman: Book of Dreams.’ Nominated for the British Fantasy Award, the original fiction anthology featured stories and contributions by Tori Amos, Clive Barker, Gene Wolfe, Tad Williams, and others.

Asked why he likes comics more than other forms of storytelling, Gaiman said: ‘One of the joys of comics has always been the knowledge that it was, in many ways, untouched ground. It was virgin territory. When I was working on ‘Sandman,’ I felt a lot of the time that I was actually picking up a machete and heading out into the jungle. I got to write in places and do things that nobody had ever done before. When I’m writing novels I’m painfully aware that I’m working in a medium that people have been writing absolutely jaw-droppingly brilliant things for, you know, three-four thousand years now. You know, you can go back. We have things like ‘The Golden Ass.’ And you go, well, I don’t know that I’m as good as that and that’s two and a half thousand years old. But with comics I felt like – I can do stuff nobody has ever done. I can do stuff nobody has ever thought of. And I could and it was enormously fun.’

Gaiman wrote two series for Marvel Comics. ‘Marvel 1602’ was an eight-issue limited series published from November 2003 to June 2004 with art by Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove. ‘The Eternals’ was a seven-issue limited series drawn by John Romita, Jr. which was published from August 2006 to March 2007. In 2009, Gaiman wrote a two-part ‘Batman’ story for DC Comics to follow ‘Batman R.I.P.’ titled ‘Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?’ a play-off of the classic Superman story ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’ by Alan Moore. He contributed a twelve-part ‘Metamorpho’ serial drawn by Mike Allred for ‘Wednesday Comics,’ a weekly newspaper-style series. Gaiman and Paul Cornell co-wrote ‘Action Comics #894’ (Dec. 2010) which featured an appearance by Death. In 2012, DC announced that Gaiman would write a ‘Sandman’ prequel series, ‘The Sandman: Overture’ with art by J. H. Williams III. Gaiman’s Angela character was introduced into the Marvel Universe in the last issue of the ‘Age of Ultron’ miniseries in 2013.

In a collaboration with author Terry Pratchett best known for his series of ‘Discworld’ novels, Gaiman’s first novel ‘Good Omens’ was published in 1990. In recent years Pratchett has said that while the entire novel was a collaborative effort and most of the ideas could be credited to both of them, Pratchett did a larger portion of writing and editing if for no other reason than Gaiman’s scheduled involvement with ‘Sandman.’ The 1996 novelization of Gaiman’s teleplay for the BBC mini-series ‘Neverwhere’ was his first solo novel. The novel was released in tandem with the television series though it presents some notable differences. Gaiman has since revised the novel twice, the first time for an American audience unfamiliar with the London Underground, the second time because he felt unsatisfied with the original.

In 1999 first printings of his fantasy novel ‘Stardust’ were released. The novel has been released both as a standard novel and in an illustrated text edition. The book has a different tone and style from most of Gaiman’s prose fiction, being consciously written in the tradition of pre-Tolkien English fantasy, following in the footsteps of authors such as Lord Dunsany and Hope Mirrlees. It is concerned with the adventures of a young man from the village of Wall, which borders the magical land of Faerie. The book was adapted into a 2007 feature film starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Claire Danes.

‘American Gods’ became one of Gaiman’s best-selling and multi-award winning novels upon its release in 2001. The central premise of the novel is that gods and mythological creatures exist because people believe in them. Immigrants to the US brought with them dwarves, elves, leprechauns, and other spirits and gods. However, the power of these mythological beings has diminished as people’s beliefs wane. New gods have arisen, reflecting America’s obsessions with media, celebrity, technology, and drugs, among others. The book follows Shadow, a taciturn ex-con.

A special 10th Anniversary edition was released, with the ‘author’s preferred text’ 12,000 words longer than the original mass-market editions. Gaiman has not written a direct sequel to American Gods but he has revisited the characters. A glimpse at Shadow’s travels in Europe is found in a short story which finds him in England, applying the same concepts developed in the original novel to the story of ‘Beowulf.’ The 2005 novel ‘Anansi Boys’ deals with Anansi (‘Mr. Nancy’), tracing the relationship of his two sons, one semi-divine and the other an unassuming Englishman, as they explore their common heritage.

In 2002 he wrote ‘Coraline’, a horror/fantasy novella. It has been compared to Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and was adapted into a 2009 stop-motion film directed by Henry Selick. In late 2008, Gaiman released a children’s book, ‘The Graveyard Book.’ It follows the adventures of a boy named Bod after his family is murdered and he is left to be brought up by a graveyard. It is heavily influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book.’

Gaiman frequently performs public readings from his stories and poetry, and has toured with his wife, musician Amanda Palmer. In some of these performances he has also sung songs, in ‘a novelist’s version of singing,’ despite having ‘no kind of singing voice.’ One of Gaiman’s most commented-upon friendships is with the musician Tori Amos, a ‘Sandman’ fan who became friends with him after making a reference to ‘Neil and the Dream King’ on her 1991 demo tape. He included her in turn as a character (a talking tree) in his novel ‘Stardust.’ Amos also mentions Gaiman in several other songs. He also wrote stories for several of her albums and tours. Amos penned the introduction for his novel ‘Death: the High Cost of Living,’ and posed for the cover. She also wrote a song called ‘Sister Named Desire’ based on his Sandman character, which was included on his anthology, ‘Where’s Neil When You Need Him?’

In 1993, Gaiman was contracted by Todd McFarlane to write a single issue of ‘Spawn,’ a popular title at the newly created Image Comics company. McFarlane was promoting his new title by having guest authors Gaiman, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Dave Sim each write a single issue. In issue No. 9 of the series, Gaiman introduced the characters Angela, Cogliostro, and Medieval Spawn. Prior to this issue, Spawn was an assassin who worked for the government and came back as a reluctant agent of Hell but had no direction. In Angela, a cruel and malicious angel, Gaiman introduced a character who threatened Spawn’s existence, as well as providing a moral opposite. Cogliostro was introduced as a mentor character for exposition and instruction, providing guidance. Medieval Spawn introduced a history and precedent that not all Spawns were self-serving or evil, giving additional character development to Malebolgia, the demon that creates Hellspawn.

As intended, all three characters were used repeatedly throughout the next decade by Todd McFarlane within the wider Spawn universe. In papers filed by Gaiman in early 2002, however, he claimed that the characters were jointly owned by their scripter (himself) and artist (McFarlane), not merely by McFarlane in his role as the creator of the series. Disagreement over who owned the rights to a character was the primary motivation for McFarlane and other artists to form Image Comics (although that argument related more towards disagreements between writers and artists as character creators). As McFarlane used the characters without Gaiman’s permission or royalty payments, Gaiman believed his copyrighted work was being infringed upon, which violated their original, oral, agreement.

McFarlane initially agreed that Gaiman had not signed away any rights to the characters, and negotiated with Gaiman to effectively ‘swap’ McFarlane’s interest in the character ‘Marvelman’ (McFarlane believes he purchased interest in the character when Eclipse Comics was liquidated; Gaiman is interested in being able to continue his aborted run on that title) but later claimed that Gaiman’s work had been work-for-hire and that McFarlane owned all of Gaiman’s creations entirely. The presiding judge, however, ruled against their agreement being work for hire, based in large part on the legal requirement that ‘copyright assignments must be in writing.’ The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court ruling in 2004 granting joint ownership of the characters to Gaiman and McFarlane.

This legal battle was brought by Gaiman and the specifically formed Marvels and Miracles, LLC, which Gaiman created to help sort out the legal rights surrounding ‘Marvelman.’ Gaiman wrote ‘Marvel 1602′ in 2003 to help fund this project. All of Marvel Comics’ profits for the original issues of the series went to Marvels and Miracles. In 2009, Marvel Comics purchased ‘Marvelman.’ Gaiman returned to court over three more Spawn characters, ‘Dark Ages Spawn,’ ‘Domina,’ and ‘Tiffany,’ that are claimed to be “derivative of the three he co-created with McFarlane.’ Gaiman is a major supporter and board member of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Gaiman’s work is known for a high degree of allusiveness. Meredith Collins, for instance, has commented upon the degree to which his novel ‘Stardust’ depends on allusions to Victorian fairy tales and culture. Particularly in ‘The Sandman,’ literary figures and characters appear often; the character of ‘Fiddler’s Green’ is modelled visually on G. K. Chesterton, both William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer appear as characters, as do several characters from within ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘The Tempest.’ The comic also draws from numerous mythologies and historical periods.

Literary theorist Clay Smith has argued that this sort of allusiveness serves to situate Gaiman as a strong authorial presence in his own works, often to the exclusion of his collaborators.However, Smith’s viewpoint is in the minority: to many, if there is a problem with Gaiman scholarship and intertextuality it is that ‘… his literary merit and vast popularity have propelled him into the nascent comics canon so quickly that there is not yet a basis of critical scholarship about his work.’ Scholar David Rudd takes a more generous view in his study of the novel ‘Coraline,’ where he argues that the work plays and riffs productively on Sigmund Freud’s notion of the Uncanny, or the Unheimlich.

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