Myth, Magic, and the Mind of Neil Gaiman:
A CONVERSATION WITH THE DREAM KING
“If you need me, Neil and me will be hanging out with the Dream King. Neil says ‘hi’, by the way...”
There is an undiscovered country we’ve all visited. A place where memories of our travels are often blurred and we are only left with impressions and half-recalled scenes. This is where angels tread and demons dwell. This is dreamland — and this is Neil Gaiman’s world.
In Gaiman’s world, where creatures light and dark make their home, gods and demons and friends and foes emerge from the hidden corners of the mind. They glide through the streams of our subconscious as we make the journey with them in this shadow land that exists between the realm of night and day; and the real and surreal.
Gaiman is the pathfinder here — returning to us with dreams and nightmares, fables and fairy tales, and magic and myth.
For Neil Gaiman, this journey began a little over two decades ago... His graphic novel, Violent Cases, created in 1987 with artist Dave McKean, marked the beginning of a career that has spanned two decades of groundbreaking achievement. His Sandman series from DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint changed the aesthetic landscape of comics. He has won Hugo, Nebula, Eisner, Quill, Bram Stoker, and Newbery awards among many others for his novels and graphic novels. His work regularly ascends the New York Times bestseller list in the form of novels, graphic novels, and children’s books.
In addtion, Gaiman’s feature film, Mirrormask, created with Dave McKean for the Jim Henson Company was released by Sony Pictures in Fall 2005. The film Stardust based on his novel of the same name and starring Claire Danes, Robert DeNiro, Peter O’Toole, and Michelle Pfeiffer opened in theaters August 2007 (see the trailer). Gaiman wrote the screenplay for Sony Pictures’ Beowulf (see the trailer) starring Crispin Glover, Anthony Hopkins, and Angelina Jolie. Gaiman's 2002 book, Coraline (see the trailer), also made its way to the big screen in February 2009 in a stop-motion film directed by Harry Selick. One of the Dream King's most celebrated Sandman spin-offs, Death, is also currently in development with Death and Me.
Please visit NeilGaiman.com for more information about Neil, his journal, and selected short stories and book excerpts.
Neil Gaiman graciously took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions. Please join us in welcoming him to the pages of the Wild River Review.
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WRR: In your body of work — from Violent Cases to The Sandman to Signal to Noise to 1602 to The Eternals — you’re recognized as a master in the craft of comics (while eschewing the more august term of “graphic novelist”) and have created some remarkable achievements that have essentially redefined the boundaries of what many thought possible in the medium.
What is it about this medium that allows you to tell the stories you tell — and does it, in fact allow you to tell those stories better than other forms of storytelling?
I don’t know that it is better, but I know for me, at least, 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 to 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.
But, you know, the truth of the matter is what I like best of all — is being allowed to do anything. What I like best is the fact that I can do comics and I can do novels and I can do children’s books and I can do movies. And nobody seems to mind that I’m appallingly unfocused. I’m quite committed to go off and do this stuff, which makes me very happy.
WRR: Comic books, particularly American comics, feature an assortment of larger-than-life heroes who represent specific archetypes and engage in conflicts between the forces of good and evil. Are comics the conveyors of new myth — American myth?
Oh, I think so. Definitely, Superman and Batman have to be a very specific kind of evolution of myth. A friend of mine pointed out to me recently that if you combine DC Comics and Marvel Comics, or even look at them individually — they are probably seeing that all of their stories are theoretically within a coherent universe. You’re looking at the largest story ever told.
In the case of Marvel, it’s forty, forty-five years? In fact, if you go back to the 1940s Marvel stuff — which they do now — in each case you’re looking at seventy. That’s one hundred forty years of storytelling between DC and Marvel in one giant coherent universe — which I love. I love the idea that you have this ocean of story to swim deeply into.
WRR: You’ve been a long-time champion for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF). Can you share with our readers about the importance of the work that CBLDF does?
Well, of course, and with pleasure. The problem that comics have, which is a very specific problem, is that there are battles that have been long since won in fields such as art and literature. If not won, at least we know whose side we are on, which have not yet been won in comics.
Especially because, well, comics for adults have been done as long as comics for children. But, comics still get perceived as being a children’s medium — which means that you get somebody doing something with adult content. That is immediately followed by a TV journalist turning up in a comic store standing in front of the Archie and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shelves saying, “You think this is what your children are reading. But actually comics are filled with this.”
And you know what? No they are not. Actually you got that comic from the 18 and over section. And so on and so forth.
But comics for whatever reason, wind up being an easy target for prosecutors and police and people in search of easy headlines or whatever. And the truth is that most comic stores are one-man operations, undercapitalized. They’re small. They can’t afford legal representation. They can’t fight a long battle with the state or with the local authorities. No more can comic artists.
So far in the last 20 years — the thing about the legal defense fund is that we win battles and we lose battles. The ones that we’ve lost have been heartbreaking. We lost with a guy called Mike Diana in Florida who had been writing and drawing a comic, a little thing called Boiled Angel. We flew in people. Art Spiegelman came down. Peter Kuper, some major artists... all these guys came in from New York. People came in from the Comics Art Museum in San Francisco. And the local attorney stood up at the end and he said the standards of Pensacola, Florida are not those of the crack alleys of New York or the gay bath houses of San Francisco. At which point we sort of knew that we lost that case.
Mike Diana became the first person to be convicted of obscenity for self-publishing his own work. And he also wound up convicted to three years suspended sentence, a $1,000 fine, he wasn’t allowed within 20 feet of anybody under the age of 18. He had to get psychiatric treatment at his own expense, the cost of journalist ethics at his own expense, and he was not allowed to create art any longer. And the local sheriff’s office was actually told that they had to make periodic spot checks to make sure he hadn’t drawn anything.
I think that freedom of speech is purely and simply the most important thing we have. The freedom to have ideas, the freedom to express those ideas in honest writing, whether writing fiction or non-fiction. And I think the fight that individual writers around the planet have, day after day, to express themselves — to write, to talk honestly about things that have happened is in every sense of the word — vital.
So, when you’re in that kind of world — you realize that it’s very, very important to defend free speech. It’s very important to defend it in comics as in any other medium of expression. So that’s what the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is for.
WRR: You’ve paraphrased a wonderful maxim in the past of how a belief system begins as religion and becomes a myth and ultimately is reshaped into a fairy story. A great deal of your work is firmly entrenched in the world of myth (which you’ve made amazingly accessible in The Sandman, Stardust, and American Gods). Can you tell us if you've had particular influences from thought-leaders in this realm — particularly Joseph Campbell?
I like Campbell — but, I sort of met him second. And the truth is, the stuff that I’ve always really enjoyed most of all is the primary influences. It’s always interesting to see what people say about things. But I tend to be more interested in the actual myth. I think I got about half way 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.
But I love this. I mean, myth is enormously fun. I love both riffing on it and creating in it and also — I love making up new ones.
And for me part of the joy of doing a book like Neverwhere was the idea of, in my own little way, mythologizing London. You know — the joy of doing something like Coraline is creating a story for kids that, with any luck, you actually wind up hoping that kids will read when they’re little and that they will remember. That they’ll always be there and that story will sit in their heads.
WRR: As time marches on and cultures collide, new cauldrons of belief are stirred and new faith systems arise from reformulated archetypes. In American Gods, you’ve presented the collision of old and new culture in a poignant way where the gods of the old world fight for survival against the deities/archetypes of the modern age. Do you feel that we are at the crossroads of belief?
No, I think that we are in more or less exactly the same place we’ve been for probably the last 250-300 years which is to say that on the one hand you have — you have the forces of science, you have materialism, you have religion as something advanced and for want of a better word, fairly liberal. And you also have fundamentalists, back to the book religion, and all of those things —I think that’s where we still are.
And it’s where we were, where we’ve been at for a long time. I find it bizarre that here we are in 2007 in a world in which there are states in America arguing about, still fighting about whether or not to allow evolution onto their syllabus, it’s bizarre and strange. And I have to say I find it quite reassuring in some ways. At the end of the day, some things really don’t change.
WRR: It’s been over 20 years since the publication of Violent Cases. You’ve won a number of prestigious literary awards as long as my arm. You have four films in production; a CD of music you’ve inspired by artists like Tori Amos, Rasputina, and Voltaire; and you even have your own fragrance line — what’s next for Neil Gaiman?
The fragrance line, I should say here, is not actually something that I’m putting out. It’s something that some very, very nice people, Black Phoenix Alchemy people. A lady named Bess approached me and said could she do a line of scents inspired by my fiction as a benefit for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. And she brought it out and after the first month of doing it she sent off a check for $6,000 to the Fund so I think it’s doing really good things and it makes me very happy.
I love all of this stuff and am forever puzzled and delighted by it. All I ever wanted to do was earn a living writing. All I ever wanted to do was make stuff up and get my stuff into print and feed my kids along the way. And everything else has been this sort of strange, wonderful and incredibly unlikely bonus and I’m both continuously grateful and amazed.