Neil Gaiman and I have been friends since long before he published his first major novel.
My expanding love for comic books allowed me to discover Spawn back in 1993. The first issue I picked up was Spawn #9, which featured the first appearance of a bad-ass, skimpy, spear-wielding, bloodlusty angel named Angela. My love for the character deepened as the dove further into the comics, and she quickly became my favourite character design of all time, coinciding with my love for strong female characters a la Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Then Angela disappeared from the comics over a legal dispute between Todd MacFarlane, creator of Spawn, and Neil Gaiman, creator of Angela. But I didn’t care about all that–I just wanted my favourite character back. “Damn that Neil Gaiman!” I would exclaim to anyone who would listen.
10 years later, when first exposed to the music of Tori Amos, I heard numerous references made to “Neil” and “the dream king”. “Who’s this Neil person she keeps talking about?” I would ask my university friends. They would reply to me with obvious expressions of disgust over my lack of awareness. “He’s a famous writer! He’s written for DC Comics. His Sandman series is hugely popular.” I would merely shrug. Sandman? I had no interest in graphic novels.
Then, sitting in the Toronto Air Canada Centre for the On Scarlet’s Walk tour, I read through the tour book and discovered the name of the writer. “Neil Gaiman? What the heck is he doing in here?”
A short time thereafter, a friend told me to pick up his book Neverwhere. “You’d really like it!” It wasn’t until that moment that I finally had the epiphany: “Neil Gaiman writes fantasy books? I love fantasy books!”
I’ve had the opportunity to read the majority of Gaiman’s work: Neverwhere, Coraline, Stardust, Interworld, American Gods, Smoke & Mirrors. The Graveyard Book is at home near the top of my endless “to read” pile. What have a learned from reading them?
Gaiman does not write fantasy fiction.
Read that last sentence again. Little of Gaiman’s work incorporates the conventional tropes of fiction writing: there is no obvious form of “magic” or spell-casting, there are no elves or dwarves or other fantastical creatures, no buildings or cities that defy the laws of physics, and there is no epic need to save the world. Instead, Gaiman crafts of fantasy of his own: realistic settings, mythologies, and personal quests. What we end up with is not fantasy fiction, but fantasy realism. You could place his works into the fiction section and describe them with fantastical elements, or in the fantasy section with contemporary elements.
Of course, it’s this duality that has come to define most of Gaiman’s novels, leading to a common thread throughout his corpus of work: the door. In each of his novels, characters start out in a “normal” space–settings and characters that are instantly recognizable to the reader. There’s no need to “teach” the reader what is going on. It’s everyday life, and with the turning of each page, life evolves into something less and less “known”. It allows for a learning curve that prevents the reader from being alienated too quickly like most fantasy fiction tends to do. (Maybe it’s also because Gaiman uses common names rather than stringing together a myriad of vowels or consonants in unpronounceable ways–a horrible flaw of fantasy writing. :P)
This duality is often portrayed literally; Gaiman uses doors, thresholds and holes to define the familiar from the unfamiliar (in one novel, there is literally a character called Door). The way in which he uses such a simple technique with such effectiveness is inspiring. In fact, the more that I read his work, the more I came to realize that my novels have a duality of their own, although I hadn’t consciously planned on it. (And for those wondering to what duality I’m referring, you’ll just have to wait to read the books and figure it out yourself. :P)
Gaiman’s style of writing was also the jumping point for my short story ‘Pandora’s Box’. One part fiction, one part fantasy.
The Flow of Ideas
The other major element that never ceases to amaze me with Neil’s work is the style in which he writes. His words are simple but clear, and there is a rhythm to the sentences that creates a satisfying flow. It’s really quite simple to read the words on the page, and most people that I know tend to whip through his books rather quickly.
Gaiman has also received a myriad of critical acclaim for his writing style, perhaps most obvious in American Gods.
If I could offer one criticism of Gaiman’s work, it is that his style is so simple that it’s sometimes lacking. That is: Gaiman has fantastic and unique ideas that I’ve never encountered before, and the stories and plots themselves are satisfying. His concentration on mythologies are particularly fascinating. But Gaiman’s work can sometimes have the appeal of really good fishing bait: all bites, no catch.
That’s because Gaiman’s ideas are often the cleverest part of his work. The writing is there, and it’s good, but it is also overshadowed by the ideas behind the words. Too often scenery or character descriptions will lack the specificity to really makes them jump off the page. In American Gods, a couple of subplots take center stage and end up under-emphasizing the main story; in Coraline, the secondary characters don’t have enough dialogue to remain memorable. But behind all of these works are mythologies that Gaiman has meticulously crafted, or altered, into something that characteristically screams his name. And there is no doubt that his writing is sophisticated, but I find that details are sometimes overlooked that would allow for a more vivid story experience.
As a brief point of contrast: the film medium is perhaps the best outlet for his works, allowing for Neil to inject the same level of detail into the visual as he does into the concepts themselves. Mirrormask is a perfect example of this, featuring one of the most visually surreal and unique experiences I’ve encountered in a film. But my intuition tells me that the reason for this is because Mirrormask was crafted as a film first followed by a novelization.
Despite my minor criticism, I’ve recommended Neil Gaiman’s work to many friends. Stardust is easily his finest work: the writing is charming and witty, the characters are balanced with fun and stoicism, and the world and story are memorable (just stay away from the film). Those friends have also embraced the unique worlds within his words.
I can only hope that my own mythologies can come anywhere close to his own.
Check out Neil Gaiman’s website and blog at www.neilgaiman.com!