The Lion, the Witch, and The Art of Neil Gaiman

Does Neil Gaiman ever get into your dreams?  I don’t mean literal dreams where you toss and turn in the middle of the night and wake up convinced that the Goodyear Blimp is being piloted over the Grand Canyon by your cousin who is really a gerbil.  No, I’m talking about the waking dreams of the subconscious where you have no idea what road you’re driving on but you are pretty sure you’ve figured out what Signal to Noise was all about.

That sort of thing’s been happening to me all week.

It began when Gaiman posted a harrowing account of his visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.  The trip was arranged by the United Nations Refugee Agency, and in the piece Gaiman cuts through all the politics in order to focus on the one aspect of war that is indisputable—the human toll it takes on civilian populations.  Like many Americans, I followed the events in Syria for a couple of weeks back when there were news stories about chemical weapons, red lines, and disarmament negotiations.  But Gaiman’s piece puts us all on the ground where we get a real sense of what it means to have two-and-a-half million ordinary people suddenly homeless, living in camps, with many of them—including children—suffering from injuries.

Gaiman, who has always been a master of mood, manages to evoke a strong emotional response in the piece, not by manipulating us with rhetorical flourishes, but rather through stark, matter-of-fact descriptions of one of the camps, including the people he talks to and the hardships that come from simple mistakes like knocking over a jug of water.  The piece appeared in The Guardian, and if you haven’t read it yet you really should.

But the Syrian refugee piece was only the beginning of what was to become “Gaiman week” for me.  A few days later, on the blog 20th Century Danny Boy, Daniel Best posted a transcript of Gaiman’s legal deposition, taken during the long-running lawsuit with Todd McFarlane.  It offers a detailed, inside look at Gaiman’s involvement with Spawn and at McFarlane’s business practices during those early days of Image. A comparison with McFarlane’s own deposition, posted a few months earlier, gives a pretty clear idea of why Gaiman ultimately won the case.  And while the deposition wasn’t written for entertainment, nor was it ever intended for public consumption, reading it becomes addictive in a guilty pleasure/voyeuristic kind of way.

So, given the way the week had been going, it seemed inevitable that I should cap it off by picking up a copy of Hayley Campbell’s new book, The Art of Neil Gaiman.  I had heard bits and pieces about it over the past month, but only superficially.  It sounded like a combination scrapbook/coffee table book with lots of photos and memorabilia—the kind of thing that might be great for a doctor’s office but not much else.  It certainly wasn’t anything I thought I’d be interested in.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

Put simply, The Art of Neil Gaiman is the best book on Gaiman I’ve ever read.   Campbell has known Gaiman for most of her life—he dedicated The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish to her—so Gaiman gave her access to many of his personal archives.[1] More specifically, he turned her loose in his attic to rummage through boxes where she describes finding “ancient Post-its that are notes for things not even Neil can decipher, but they are kept there, in the attic, just in case someone ever wanted to go through them for a big coffee table book about the full and varied career of Neil Gaiman.”  Campbell presents herself as our “guide through those boxes of things,” and she shows us lots of images of those Post-it notes, napkins, doodles, edited scripts, photos, and personal letters, all the while relaying in prose the story of Gaiman’s career.

As she mentions, one of Gaiman’s formative reading experiences was discovering the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis, and I must say that reading The Art of Neil Gaiman often feels like we’re living out the opening chapters of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  We’re the Pevensie kids, staying at the mysterious professor’s house, largely unsupervised, poring through all his cool stuff, each item mysteriously enchanted by the knowledge that we’re probably not supposed to be looking at it.  It’s certainly the closest any of us are likely to get to rummaging through Gaiman’s attic without getting arrested.

Even without any of the illustrations, this is a substantive book.  It’s not a conventional biography, though it tells a life story, and it’s not a straight critical book, though it offers plenty of detailed analysis.  Campbell’s writing is strong and unique—far different from the impersonal and invisible prose that might normally punctuate a book like this.  As you read her account of Gaiman’s career, you’re often keenly aware of Campbell’s distinctive voice as she arranges the material, provides personal insights, and brings the whole enterprise together.

And I know first-hand that writing about Gaiman’s career in any kind of organized, coherent way is not always easy.  Campbell stresses this in her introduction, noting that the legendary storyteller’s life doesn’t always lend itself, ironically, to clear storytelling.  As she explains, “While I have made my best efforts to organize events chronologically, a lot of stuff in Neil’s life happens all at once.  He doesn’t work like fiction.”  So Campbell organizes the book by sections dedicated to the different mediums in which Gaiman has worked, with individual chapters dedicated to specific projects.  Thus, we get a chapter on his Duran Duran book, a chapter on Black Orchid, a chapter on his Doctor Who scripts, and so on. The virtue of this kind of structure is that it allows for greater focus on and insight into the individual works—the “art” of Gaiman, as she puts it.

The downside is that at times the reading can feel a little stop-and-go, looking at late-‘80s journalism in one chapter only to drift back to Gaiman’s discovery of Alan Moore in the next.  Likewise, because it’s structured to look at Gaiman’s forays into different media, we wind up reading about his current project, Sandman: Overture, at about the halfway point in the book.  But if Sandman taught us anything, it’s that stories can ultimately be told in lots of different ways.

Really, my only serious criticism is that the physical size of the book seems too small.  For a coffee table book, its dimensions are not much larger than the latest John Grisham novel.  That might make it easier to hold in your hands, but it can also give you a wicked case of eyestrain.  Some of the details on the images are hard to read, and the font for Campbell’s prose seems particularly small.  However, when your biggest complaint about a book is the size of the font, you know it must be pretty good.

And that is how Neil Gaiman hijacked my week.   As hijackings go, I guess I can’t complain.  It’s a nice reminder of just how far Gaiman has travelled since his time as a regular comics writer.  He has become perhaps the most versatile of all bestselling authors.  That restless energy that refused to allow Sandman to settle into a singular niche clearly governs his professional choices as well, insuring that no matter what else is going on, next week Gaiman will most likely have found something interesting and worthwhile to do.

We should all be so restless.

[1] Campbell’s father is Eddie Campbell, the legendary artist and creator of Alec and Bacchus who also collaborated with Alan Moore on From Hell which remains the most impressive comic I’ve ever read.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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