Neil Gaiman Biography
November 10, 1960 • Portchester, England
Neil Gaiman is an extraordinarily imaginative writer who works in a variety of formats, writing graphic novels (or, book-length comics), short stories, novels, children's books, and scripts for television and films. His works are classified in a number of different genres, from horror to fantasy to science fiction, and often he jumps from one genre to another within a single work. Gaiman understands the conventional rules of writing fiction, particularly comic books, but he rarely follows such rules, choosing instead to pursue the winding paths of his imagination. Gaiman has achieved rock-star status among his millions of fans, and is best known for his Sandman series of comic books. He began writing Sandman installments in the late 1980s, developing a passionate following along the way. After a break of several years from Sandman, he published the graphic novel Sandman: Endless Nights in 2003. In October of that year, Endless Nights reached number twenty on the New York Times bestseller list, a rare feat for a comic book. Gaiman has also achieved success with a novella, or short novel, for young adults, titled Coraline. The novel earned a number of prestigious awards, including the Hugo and Nebula awards for outstanding works of science fiction and fantasy, and the Bram Stoker award, which is given to exceptional works of horror.
"All my life, I've felt that I was getting away with something because I was just making things up and writing them down, and that one day there would be a knock, and a man with a clipboard would be standing there and say, 'It says here you've just been making things up all these years. Now it's time to go off and work in a bank.'"
A reader becomes a writer
Gaiman was born in Portchester, England, in 1960. His mother, a pharmacist, and his father, the director of a company, encouraged their young son's reading habits, although even without such encouragement Gaiman would probably have been an avid reader. He devoured every book he could get his hands on as a child, working his way through the entire local children's library and partway through the adult collection as well. In an interview on the KAOS2000 Magazine Web site, Gaiman explained that he carried a book with him wherever he went: "Before weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals and anything else where you're actually meant to not be reading, my family would frisk me and take the book away." He read books in a number of different genres, especially comics, and he was particularly drawn to science fiction and fantasy works. While preparing for his own bar mitzvah, a Jewish ceremony marking a young man's transition to the world of adulthood, Gaiman became entranced by religious and mystical Jewish writings.
As a teenager Gaiman began to outgrow the comic books he had loved as a child. Faced with a lack of comic books aimed at a more mature audience, Gaiman decided to fill that need himself. He wanted to write comic books when he grew up, although at the time he had no idea how to accomplish that goal. After graduating from high school in 1977, Gaiman became a journalist. He wrote articles for a number of British newspapers and magazines, including the Sunday Times, the Observer, and Time Out. In 1983 he and partner Mary McGrath had their first child, named Michael. In March of 1985 Gaiman wed McGrath, and that same year their daughter, Holly, was born. During that time Gaiman began writing short stories, including such titles as "How to Be a Barbarian," "How to Spot a Psycho," and "Jokers through History."
In the early 1980s Gaiman began reading the works of esteemed British comic book writer Alan Moore, author of such landmark works as Swamp Thing and Watchmen. He told Authors and Artist for Young Adults (AAYA) : "Moore's work convinced me that you really could do work in comics that had the same amount of intelligence, the same amount of passion, the same amount of quality that you could put in any other medium," such as novels, short stories, or films. While comic books had been around since the 1930s, the development of the graphic novel as a serious form of literature was relatively recent, and the rules for the genre were still being written. Gaiman was drawn to the experimental nature of adult-oriented comic books and graphic novels, and in the mid-1980s he began writing comics. He wrote several issues of a series called 2000AD before publishing the graphic novel Violent Cases in 1987. Violent Cases depicts a grown man's childhood recollections, with a visit to an elderly doctor as the starting point of those memories. While treating the four-year-old child for a broken arm, the doctor shares vivid stories from decades earlier, when the infamous gangster Al Capone was his patient.
After publishing Violent Cases, which was illustrated by his frequent collaborator Dave McKean, Gaiman came to the attention of celebrated publisher DC Comics, home of Batman and Superman. His next work, a three-part series called Black Orchid, was published by DC Comics, the first of Gaiman's many works to find a home there. The series revisits a character from DC's history, the crime-fighting heroine named in the title. Black Orchid is quite different from the typical female characters in comic books; Gaiman described her to AAYA as "vaguely feminist, ecological, essentially nonviolent. I liked the fact that at the end she doesn't get mad and start hitting people." For his next venture, DC asked Gaiman to revive another old character, and Gaiman chose the little-known Sandman, a character that originated in the 1940s. DC hired Gaiman to write a monthly serial featuring the Sandman, a career move intended to build the writer's reputation. Much to the surprise of both Gaiman and DC Comics, the Sandman series was an immediate hit.
Not Comic Books: The Stories and Novels of Neil Gaiman
While Neil Gaiman initially and enduringly captured the imaginations of millions of readers with his Sandman comics and other graphic novels, he has also applied his seemingly endless energy to works of prose, namely novels and short stories.
Gaiman began writing short stories before ever penning a comic book, and some of his stories and story-poems have been collected into the volumes Angels and Visitations (1993) and Smoke and Mirrors (1998). As with his other writings, these collections range across many genres, from fantasy, science fiction, and horror, to comedy and mystery.
Gaiman's first novel was a comedic collaboration with English writer Terry Pratchett. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990) was written over a period of several weeks in 1989, with Gaiman and Pratchett sharing their contributions over the phone, each working hard to make the other laugh hysterically. The novel uses slapstick comedy to address the most serious of subjects: the end of humankind. In 2003 Good Omens was named one of England's one hundred "best-loved novels" in a poll conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
In 1996 Gaiman published Neverwhere, a novel that came about after he had written the script for a six-part BBC series with the same title. Dissatisfied with the many compromises made during the filming of the series, Gaiman opted to regain control of his ideas by issuing the work as a novel. In an interview on the Writers Write Web site, Gaiman related that every time a major alteration was made to his script during the production of the series, he would think to himself, "It's OK, I'll put it back in the novel." The book explores the adventures of Londoner Richard Mayhew, who encounters a girl named Door, a visitor from an otherworldly place called London Below. Door has the ability to travel between the two worlds, the real London and the fantastical underground London, and Mayhew accompanies her, helping her flee a pair of brutal assassins. Attempting once again to bring his vision of Neverwhere to the screen, Gaiman sold the rights to his novel to Jim Henson Productions, the company best known as the home of the Muppets.
For Stardust, Gaiman collaborated with artist Charles Vess to produce a short, richly illustrated fantasy novel. Described by many as an adult fairy story, Stardust tells the romantic tale of a young man battling powerful foes to retrieve a fallen star promised to his beloved. Stardust was initially released as a four-part illustrated series by DC Comics in 1997 and 1998; one year later, Spike Books issued a one-volume version without illustrations. Critics raved, fans went wild, and plans were soon underway to make a Stardust movie.
In 2001 Gaiman released American Gods, perhaps his best-known work outside of his graphic novels. A typical Gaiman hodge-podge of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mythology, American Gods tells the story of ancient European gods who accompanied waves of immigrants to the shores of the United States, only to be discarded and ignored in modern society. They have been replaced by American-bred gods such as Media and Technology, and the old-time gods are fed up and looking for a fight with their newer counterparts. American Gods connected with Gaiman's many fans and earned new fans as well, all of whom propelled the book to a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. The novel won numerous awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, SFX (for outstanding works of science fiction and fantasy), and the Bram Stoker award for distinguished works of horror. While Gaiman established his reputation with his groundbreaking work in comics, he has cemented his legacy by applying his creativity to every existing genre and by inventing a few new ones as well.
The Lord of Dreams
Gaiman's first Sandman installment came out in 1989, and over the next eight years a total of seventy-five issues were released. With each new comic, Gaiman elaborated on the complex universe surrounding the Sandman, complete with myths explaining the origin of that universe. Myths are stories handed down through the ages, often used to explain a culture's practices or beliefs. In the world of the Sandman, a family of seven immortal, godlike creatures, known as the Endless, engage in cosmic struggles. Each of the Endless represents a different element of human emotions and experience—Dream, Desire, Despair, Destiny, Delirium (formerly Delight), Destruction, and Death. Known by a variety of names, including Sandman, Morpheus, Lord of the Dreaming, and Master of Story, Dream wanders through places both earthbound and otherworldly. Tall, thin, and pale, with spiky black hair, Dream is the ruler of the Dreaming, a sort of parallel universe that exists alongside earthly reality. Humans can enter the Dreaming only while sleeping. Dream is a mysterious figure, unknowable even to the most devoted readers. AAYA quoted Gaiman as saying, "He's definitely not human. I mean, he is the personification of dreams. He's the king of the dreaming place where you close your eyes each night and go. And whether he's [good or evil] depends an awful lot on where you're standing. From his own standards, he is always acting for the best, but his moral code and his point of view are not human."
Gaiman approached the Sandman stories in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink frame of mind, incorporating mythologies of his own invention as well as ancient Greek myths. He also found inspiration in the mystical Jewish writings he had studied as a youth. He didn't stop there, however, as he explained to Scott Brown in Entertainment Weekly: "I just kept adding things, seeing if it would hold. I thought, Let's put Shakespeare in there. Okay, that worked. Well, surely I won't be able to add the Norse gods.... No, that worked too. But I certainly won't get away with angels." As Brown pointed out, "He got away with angels, and more." The Sandman stories are complicated, sophisticated works written on a grand scale. Gaiman's rich, multilayered universe presents a challenge to readers; these are not simple stories that can be grasped immediately. Gaiman's Sandman comics broke new ground in many ways. They brought female fans to the world of comics, a genre typically read mostly by men, and in addition they converted legions of readers who had never before considered comics to be serious literature. Gaiman's comics have won numerous awards, many of which are usually reserved for traditional prose works—short stories, novels, and the like—rather than comic books. In Entertainment Weekly, Brown quoted comics writer Moore, the object of Gaiman's admiration from early on, who said of Gaiman's Sandman creation: "It's a perfect legend. It's so good that it shouldn't really even have a writer. It should be one of those stories that's just always been there."
Throughout the initial eight-year run of the Sandman serials, DC Comics periodically collected several issues for publication as a graphic novel. The first such collection, Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, introduces the reader to Sandman's universe. Sandman: The Wake includes the final installment of the series that concluded in 1996. Gaiman's many devoted fans felt crushed when the series ended, but the author revisited the character in several later works. In 1999 he released Sandman: The Dream Hunters, a collaboration with illustrator Yoshitaka Amano that retells a Japanese story titled "The Fox, the Monk, and the Mikado of All Night's Dreaming." A long-awaited continuation of the series appeared in 2003, with Sandman: Endless Nights garnering rave reviews, earning a number of awards, and securing a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Endless Nights is a collection of seven separate stories, each devoted to one of the Endless and each illustrated by a different artist. Gaiman told Jeff Zaleski of Publishers Weekly that he takes pride in the variety of genres explored in Endless Nights: "Do you know what the coolest thing about Endless Nights is?... Not one of those stories is even in the same genre as any of the other stories."
"Warping young minds"
The Sandman also made an appearance in works Gaiman wrote for a young adult audience, showing up in a small role in Books of Magic, a collection of four comic books concerning the world of illusion and trickery. Sandman's sister, Death, played a prominent role in the Sandman spinoff Death: The High Cost of Living. In a once-per-century visit to Earth, Death helps a suicidal teenager discover new reasons for living.
In 2003 Gaiman released another work for young adult readers, the novel Coraline. In this work the title character, a young child, discovers a doorway in her new house that leads to a matching home in a different world. In that other world, a set of parents with pale skin and black button eyes ask Coraline to stay with them and be their daughter. Realizing that her own mother and father are in need of rescuing, Coraline then engages in a dangerous struggle with the "other mother" to retrieve her parents. Gaiman has also written books for young children, including the picture book The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, published in 1997. In that story, young Nathan trades his father for a bowl of goldfish. His mother, unhappy with the outcome of the trade, forces Nathan to retrieve his father, and the boy must engage in a series of exchanges to get his parent back. During 2003 Gaiman published another children's story, The Wolves in the Walls, in which the young heroine Lucy must convince her family that their home is being taken over by wolves. "I love writing children's books," Gaiman told Phil Anderson of KAOS2000. "I think I will always write children's books. I love warping young minds."
Gaiman is an extremely prolific writer who has created a long list of works in an impressive variety of genres. In addition to his comic books, graphic novels, and works for young people, he has also written several successful novels, including Neverwhere, which began as the script for a six-part series for British television, and American Gods, a bestseller in the United States that depicts a struggle between the European gods of ancient origin and the newer, more arrogant American gods. Gaiman has written numerous scripts for television and movies—in some cases working on film adaptations of his own works—with his best-known work being the English-language script for the highly praised Japanese animated film Princess Mononoke. During the summer of 2003 Gaiman returned to the comic book genre with the series 1602. Set in seventeenth-century England, this series is published by Marvel, a major rival of DC Comics.
At any given time Gaiman juggles several projects, and he also makes time for extensive book tours. His public appearances draw record numbers of fans, more than most authors, and he inspires in his followers the kind of adoration generally not experienced by authors. Fans have been known to faint at his book signings, and at least two have asked Gaiman to draw on a portion of their body, so they can then have his writing tattooed onto their skin. When not traveling the world to promote his works, Gaiman spends much of his time writing at his large Victorian home located near Minneapolis, a home he shares with McGrath and their youngest child, Maddy.
For More Information
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 42. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Brown, Scott. "The Best Comic Book Ever Returns." Entertainment Weekly (October 3, 2003): p. 36.
Zaleski, Jeff. "Comics! Books! Film! The Arts and Ambitions of Neil Gaiman." Publishers Weekly (July 28, 2003): p. 46.
Anderson, Phil. "Interview with: Neil Gaiman." KAOS2000 Magazine. http://www.kaos2000.net/interviews/neilgaiman99.html (accessed on July 6, 2004).
Krewson, John. "Neil Gaiman." The Onion A.V. Club. http://www.theonionavclub.com/feature/index.php?issue=3504&f=1 (accessed on July 3, 2004).
Neil Gaiman Official Web site. http://www.neilgaiman.com/index.asp (accessed on July 6, 2004).
Richards, Linda. "Neil Gaiman." January Magazine. http://www.januarymagazine.com/profiles/gaiman.html (accessed on July 3, 2004).
White, Claire E. "A Conversation with Neil Gaiman." Writers Write. http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/mar99/gaiman.htm (accessed on July 3, 2004).