Dream Weaver

Sandman author Neil Gaiman finds magic in the damnedest place

"What you tend to have in your mind is a kind of a map when you begin: You know what kind of place it is, and you know where you're going," he says. "With American Gods, I feel like a kid from New Jersey who announced proudly that he was going to walk to California and see everybody in three or four weeks, and currently, I'm somewhere around Salt Lake City thinking, 'How the fuck did I get here? Why has it taken so long? And how the fuck do I get out of Salt Lake City?' When I went on my last book tour 18 months ago, I said there was no reason for anyone to write books the size of giant bricks. And I think the Gods of Authors heard me, and after the third or fourth time I said that, they said, 'Right, we'll get you next time.'"Not long ago, a journalist asked Neil Gaiman how he feels about the fact that, despite his large body of work--novels, comics, children's books, short stories, and so forth--he will be remembered solely for Sandman. Gaiman sneers at the question, but it's not an entirely unfair one, and he knows it. After all, Sandman was a hit almost from the moment the first issue, Preludes & Nocturnes, reached the stands in December 1988. Even now, its bound collections--10 in all--continue to rank among the best sellers in DC Comics' adult-oriented Vertigo offshoot, of which Sandman was the charter member.

The series spawned gushing praise: Norman Mailer wrote that it was a "comic strip for intellectuals, and it's about time." Tori Amos, whose songs often reference Gaiman, treats The Endless--the family of timeless gods who personify such forces as Death, Destiny, Desire, and, of course, Dreams--as though they exist in this world. ("On bad days I talk to Death constantly," she wrote in the introduction to 1994's collection Death: The High Cost of Living.) The title won more awards than are given for comics; it was treated, in fact, like literature, as though it were too special to be included among the panels-and-balloons riffraff. In September, DC will publish the paperback version of The Sandman Companion, a nearly 300-page book that explains every panel; no comic book ever received such elucidation.

But Sandman takes up just a few lines on Gaiman's bibliography. It took up years of his life and made him a comic-book immortal, but there's so much other wonderful stuff there. There is, for instance, the 1990 novel Good Omens, which Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett during the early days of Sandman. It reads like the Book of Revelation as penned by Monty Python's Flying Circus, with its Four Bikers of the Apocalypse and Crowley, "an angel who did not so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards." In February of last year, he released his third novel, Stardust, a beguiling tale about a man in search of a star fallen to earth and the woman he wants to wear it. Gaiman likes to say it was his one book that appealed to both his diehard fans and women prone to reading bodice-rippers.

The wussy: Neil Gaiman is the rock star of the comics industry, as evidenced by the Goth girls and fanboys who line up to meet him at comic cons.
Beth Gwinn
The wussy: Neil Gaiman is the rock star of the comics industry, as evidenced by the Goth girls and fanboys who line up to meet him at comic cons.
A never-used illustration for Gaiman's most famous creation, the Sandman
Teddy Kristiansen
A never-used illustration for Gaiman's most famous creation, the Sandman

Then, there are the various comics and graphic novels Gaiman worked on with illustrator Dave McKean, who contributed the covers to Sandman: Violent Cases, in which ancient Mob crimes seep into a man's modern-day life; The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch: A Romance, in which memories of a demonic puppet and a crazy grandfather infect the narrator; and Signal to Noise, about a filmmaker dying of cancer who makes one final film in his warping imagination. In 1990, Gaiman also scripted another comic-book mini-series, The Books of Magic, about a bespectacled young boy named Timothy Hunter who discovers, with the assistance of four mystery men, that he possesses great magic. Not a few critics have tried to goad Gaiman into condemning J.K. Rowling for basing Harry Potter on Timothy Hunter, but he refuses to bite. "We all borrow from the same cultural stew," he insists. "Sometimes you take out a radish and return a turnip."

In each of these illustrated takes, as in so much of Gaiman and McKean's collaborative efforts, it's often hard to tell where Real ends and Dream begins. Flashbacks morph into strange futures, and the past leaks into the present until the people in the stories drown in overwhelming memories. These characters find no respite even in their sleep; their imaginations are their real prisons. "The path of memory is neither straight nor safe," says the narrator of Mr. Punch, "and we travel down it at our own risk."

But there, sticking out like a nun in a brothel, is The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, a story about a kid who, fed up with a dad who buries his nose in the newspaper, decides he's worth no more than a friend's fishbowl. And he'd keep the fish, too, if only his mother didn't demand his father's immediate return. The book has since become a kind of classic, ranking high on Newsweek's list of the best books of 1997. And it's something of which Gaiman has become immensely fond and proud--so much so, he's working on a second kids' book about wolves that live in the walls of a family's house.

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