Productive writer keeps his fans in line at the bookstore
by Paul Lewis
Neil Gaiman is a fantasy writer for people who love fantasy. He’s clever, thoughtful and inventive, and he’s clearly such a devoted reader that he knows how stories work, allowing him to twist and turn his readers’ expectations into delight, whimsy, and even fear and dismay when he’s so inclined (and he is often so inclined). Perhaps more importantly, he’s the fantasy writer who can convince people who think they don’t like fantasy that, yes, they actually do, as long as it’s good. And Neil Gaiman is damn good, so good that he transcends genre and claims the title “storyteller” in the most anthropologically significant way such a title can be considered.
Gaiman is a best-selling novelist who got his big break by showing exactly how good comic books could be with his Sandman series, arguably the most significant use of the form in the late 20th century. With a variety of talented artistic collaborators, Gaiman constructed a layered mythology throughout the book’s 75 issues, and although he built a world in which literally any story he imagined could be told, he ended the title because he finished the tale he set out to tell. Now, DC Comics and its Vertigo imprint have done this landmark work of fiction right in a deluxe, slip-cased hardcover edition. Absolute Sandman Vol. 1 (DC Comics, $99) collects the first 20 issues of the comic book in an oversized format, all the better to appreciate the exquisite artwork, much of it re-colored to take full advantage of the new size and superior printing.
Sandman is not easily explained and is best experienced, but the titular character is Dream, or Morpheus, a personification of a function of the universe, and he is returning to his realm after a long imprisonment on Earth. These first stories follow him as he reorganizes and reclaims his realm while beginning to set right the imbalance his absence has caused in the universe.
Though the early issues draw heavily from DC Comics lore, featuring superheroes and villains and whatnot, those aspects are relatively incidental to the larger story. As excellent as the first two story-arcs are (the eighth issue, introducing Dream’s sister Death, is considered a true classic in the field), it’s with the final four stories in the collection, one-issue short stories each, in which the book finally begins to claim its expansive identity. One of them, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” won the World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1991, after which the rules were changed to forever exclude comic books. Absolute Sandman also includes the script for that landmark issue, each page presented with the corresponding pencil artwork by artist Charles Vess.
Perhaps it’s his history with comic books and telling stories in monthly installments that make Gaiman such a prodigious practitioner of the short story form, but he’s got a talent for it as his second collection of shorts, Fragile Things (William Morrow, $26.95) illustrates. He leads it off with a bang and a story which won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 2004, “A Study in Emerald,” which does the not-so-easy job of seamlessly combining the worlds of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos. Gaiman also posits such ponderables as “What if a gargoyle was to guard a human heart?” and “What if one was to find themselves in a fairy tale?” He also transcribes a couple of his own nightmares which may well become the reader’s own while also speculating upon the content of the final book of the Bible and constructing a searing vision of hell.
Although the love of short stories is often an individual and subjective experience, Gaiman’s more concise work is just as strong and frequently just as rewarding as his novel-length endeavors, many of which feel like a passel of short stories expertly woven into a greater whole, anyway. His fans and fans of fiction in general do themselves a disservice if they decline to thumb through this excellent compendium.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Gaiman is currently making a foray back into the monthly comic book market. Stroll into a shop today and you’ll find his and artist John Romita, Jr.’s refit of the Jack Kirby-created Eternals for Marvel Comics. It’s the closest he’s ever come to writing a proper superhero story in the medium, and is certainly notable as such.
Gaiman has, of course, been discovered by Hollywood, and one can expect films based on his books Stardust and Coraline within the next couple of years. Rumors also place the Gaiman-directed production of a film featuring Sandman ’s popular Death character to commence rather soon, as well (since I know Neil has read this periodical in the past, let me stump for the delightful actress Mae Whitman for the title role). Hopefully these movies result in a lot more people discovering the intoxicating printed words of Mr. Gaiman and delighting in the movies they inspire.