Neil Gaiman

I first became aware of The Sandman (and by proxy, Neil Gaiman) when the douche bag comics merchant  I used to work for introduced me.  This was somewhere in the wasteland that was the early 90s, and it was a very strange time for me… I was floundering, which was normal for guys my age in El Paso, Texas — something about the place makes you wander aimlessly, blind… fumbling about in search of purpose.  It was one, prolonged, vision quest… for me that vision manifested as the mythic and poetic dark fantasy of Gaiman’s The Sandman.  I’m not going to over-dramatically declare that The Sandman changed the course of my life (it did… but it did so quietly, subversively, and over time); however, there was no thunderclap which righted my consciousness instantly.

Gaiman’s The Sandman simply reawakened the more literary and literate leanings of my mind and put me on a more intellectual course.  Life serves up a lot of brain candy, and having washed out of college at the time because of my severe aversion to math and my inability to muster the discipline required to put my ass in the chair and study… I was intellectually numb.  Gaiman, like Prometheus, brought me fire — he lit the cave, scared away the shadow puppets of ignorance, and gave me a reason to get the old clockwork brain going again — I was going to need it if I wanted to enjoy The Sandman… and I desperately wanted to enjoy The Sandman; it took me out of the world of super hero comics and deposited me some place much darker.

DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint and Karen Berger‘s influence on the entire concept of “comics for mature readers” made the 90s an interesting place with some interesting and surreal land (mind?) scapes — from the twisted psychedelia of Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing, to the “third wall” demolishing Grant Morrison run on Animal Man; to the dark and demonic adventures of John Constantine, Hellblazer; to the post-modern and deconstructed Ne0-Classicism of Gaiman’s The Sandman… Vertigo heavily influenced my wave length and put me back on a path out of darkness and self-imposed ignorance.  The Sandman and John Constantine, Hellblazer were neck-and-neck in the forefront of my interests, with Hellblazer often holding the lead due to the depictions of arcane mayhem… but Gaiman’s writing, his themes, his style, his voice… those stuck in a more permanent place… in a more prominent place…  And then I left Gaiman behind for a long time.

I got back in school; literature became my steady diet, and my comic tastes changed.  Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Frank Miller’s Sin City, Mike Allred’s Madman, Matt Wagner’s Grendel and Mage took up residence… but then along came Garth Ennis’ delightfully diabolical Preacher and blew everyone else out of the water.  Neil Gaiman remained on my periphery though, and he started publishing books…

I tore through Neverwhere (which I like a lot less than I care to admit), but when I acquired Stardust I found I wasn’t in the mood for a fable… I was prepared to give up on Mr. Gaiman again… shelf his work for a bit, but then he went and wrote something absolutely amazing…

I’d like to say that the first time I cracked open a copy of American Gods I was instantly pulled in and swept up in the story so much so that I had difficulties doing anything else… I’d like to say that, but it didn’t happen that way.  In fact I read up to the part where Shadow makes it to Lakeside and meets Hinzlemann… and then I put the book down for about a year.  I can’t recall exactly what was going on in my life at the time — some shit, I’m sure… it was nothing tragic or anything like that.  I’m easily distracted, what can I say?  I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had difficulties maintaining focus and that I have poor impulse control — it’s been like that all my life.  Suffice it to say that the book and I didn’t make an easy connection… but we had connected, because it plucked away at my consciousness and called to me desperately wanting to be read… and deep down inside, I desperately wanted to read it.

A summons to jury duty was the catalyst: I decided to take the book with me.  The bookmark I thought I’d left in there was long gone, so after all the swearing in and what not I cracked the book open and started reading where Shadow is in Cairo, Illinois.  Through various calls for assembly wherein I was not selected for a panel, but not dismissed, I fell into the book — all the way in.  I read it in the big assembly hall, I read it in the vile smoking room (I was still smoking back then), I read it at lunch, I read it all the way through the afternoon until we were dismissed and then I read it on the bus ride home.  I read the fuck out of that book, and I was blown away.

At this point it’s important to take a moment and direct you to what one might consider a sidebar to the main text of this entry:

<begin sidebar> My attitude toward fandom is a little weird — I have all of the enthusiasm of a fan without all of the obsessive subscription to the “cult of celebrity;” i.e., I’m incapable of seeing celebrities as anything other than people… people in particularly strange circumstances, but people none the less.  I’ve met a handful of celebs and of the ones I’ve met, most were just regular guys and gals… others were extreme assholes… and that, right there, exposes to me an insecurity; a weakness; a character flaw which defines celebrities for me without my needing to make a conscious choice in the matter — it’s a reductionist view: the realization that we, the fans, give them (the celebs) power… and we can take it away.

Every once in a while though, a celebrity distinguishes his/herself by having an absurd amount of class and confidence… by simply being so ridiculously cool and charismatic that even I get swept up… Neil Gaiman falls well into this category.  He’s just a man, sure; pants on one leg at a time and all that… but he’s a gentleman and a creative force to be reckoned with.  Neil Gaiman is an inspiration — one I wish I could be more like, but my temperament is just very different than his… or more different than his public persona, anyway.  I mean the honest truth is: we don’t know these people — we are familiar with the public side of their personas, but they’re complex human beings.  What I see (read/hear) of Neil Gaiman I like though, and hearing him speak was awesome. <end sidebar>

That of all the places, the 100th annual Texas Library Association conference in Fort Worth, Texas, would be the setting of my crossroads with Neil Gaiman is coincidence in its purest sense.  I’d already obligated myself to attending this function, and when I discovered that Neil Gaiman would deliver the keynote at the closing of the conference it became absolutely necessary for me to be there.  I always imagined meeting Neil Gaiman at a comic convention or a sci-fi convention… well, I didn’t meet him at this thing either… but the next best thing was to listen to him speak, to hear him talk about his thoughts on the power of words, the power of story, and where he believes the library fits into this equation (prominently, according to him).  His speech, “What the <very bad swear word> is a children’s book, anyway?” was delightful to listen to because, in addition to being an excellent author, Gaiman is an accomplished storyteller.  He spun his yarn speaking to the congregated mass of Texas librarians, telling us how his childhood diet of books was primarily adult books because “children’s books” were in short supply in his home town and local library — in fact, he related how he devoured all the children’s books the library did own, all in short order, and then rapidly moved over to the adult shelves.  He told us how children self-censor and how they discard things they don’t yet understand — how they do this much more effectively than do adults.  He spoke about something which is very near and dear to me (although it was not a principal part of this speech) — childhood powerlessness.

This formed an interesting undercurrent in Gaiman’s speech, and it’s something I remember all too vividly from my childhood… as a child, I did a lot of curious things to exert control (all an illusion, really) — primarily though, I escaped into my own imagination… hence why I made such a deep and abiding connection with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (and why Spike Jonze’s movie was, to me, so moving and beautifully crushing… why it hit nerves which were still tender after all of these years…).  I know how difficult it is to be a child…

Gaiman put it in a much more wondrous context, and shared some truths about the condition of youth that I knew but didn’t necessarily focus on… curiosity is king when you’re a child.  Gaiman told a story about Coraline and his agent’s daughter.  The agent felt the story was too scary for kids, and Gaiman challenged her to read it to her daughters — if her kids thought it was too scary, they would market Coraline for adults; if not, it would go as a kid’s book.  The agent’s daughters sat though the entire story in spite of being terrified, but never said a word because they wanted to know what happened next, and knew too if they complained their mother would stop reading it to them.  There’s a metaphor about life in this, I’m sure: about how we hold on and keep going despite being terrified just because we want to see what happens next.  Sounds more like a condition of adulthood than childhood… but I think that’s what Gaiman was really getting to…

Gaiman’s not the first author I hear speak.  I got to hear Rudolfo Anaya at Our Lady of the Lake University of San Antonio, gosh, years ago.  I heard Abelardo Delgado and Nephthali DeLeon at the Ysleta Independent School District auditorium in El Paso, Texas even more years ago.  I admire all of those gentlemen, but I don’t have their words taped up on my wall…  Neil Gaiman’s words are there — right at eye level above my computer screen… his advice on writing affixed there for inspiration.  Neil Gaiman is like a rock star in the literary world, and being close friends with Tori Amos and being married to Amanda Palmer certainly helps that image, but then too — there’s a certain genteel aspect about him, just a touch of regal bearing: “the Prince of Stories,” as some have dubbed him largely due to the breadth of his talents and the body of his work, but also perhaps because of how he carries himself.  I believe he’s the force he is because, despite the fantastical subject matter of much of his work, he tells us a little something about ourselves every time, or leads us to a truth which was staring us right in the face but which we failed to notice for whatever reason.  Maybe he’s not the best author in the universe; many will say his insistence in using fantasy and horror elements in his work diminishes the literary quality of his words… or some other righteous, academic bullshit like that.

He may not be the best, but he’s my favorite… and what is “literary quality” but a bunch of stuffy, old snobs trying to make us think as they do, never once considering they might be wrong…

Neil Gaiman’s new book (his first book for adults in years), The Ocean at the End of the Lane, comes out on June 18th.  If you’d like to read a really good, no spoilers review of it by Patrick Rothfuss go here.  Don’t have a Goodreads account?  For shame!

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