For anyone who has read my fiction, citing Neil Gaiman as an influence is akin to citing the importance of the alphabet in my trajectory as an artist: I couldn't be a writer without him.
I was not a great reader in my late teens (that, thankfully, came later in college), and if you had removed Stephen King from my adolescent library, every space of my bookcase would have been littered with comics.
I was one of those lucky comic book geeks who just happened to be immersed in the medium during the mid-to-late 1980s when the ‘British Wave’ tsunamied the US. Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Grant Morrison, Dave McKean (apologies - I’m sure I’m forgetting many, many comic book greats) took over both the mainstream and ‘arty’ titles of the era.
It was the ‘arty’ ‘edgier’ titles that connected right there in the lizard part of my brain and propelled an already awkward adolescence (as if there is any other kind) onto something of an artistic path.
As much as I love what Gaiman has done with his novels (American Gods is my favorite), and as much as his children’s books are some of the best around, it is and was his initial comic book work on Black Orchid and The Sandman that built the foundation of my authorly aesthetic. Even today I can point to Gaiman’s early books and say,
For those who don’t know (or possibly don’t care): Black Orchid and The Sandman are both re-imagined versions of superheroes from the DC stable. Wikipedia has decent descriptions of the evolution of the characters and the series here and here.
The upshot: Black Orchid and Sandman were both B or even C-level superheroes, and the brilliant editorial decision was to allow creators to revamp these titles, sometimes drastically, in order to stoke new interest in the characters. (Alan Moore’s earlier work on Swamp Thing had already forged a micro-version of this same trend – taking a B-level DC character and de-emphasizing the more superhero comic elements in favor of, in Swamp Thing's case, a more horror/literary tone.)
One can’t discuss Sandman without emphasizing the artwork. The great Dave McKean created the art for Black Orchid (and I challenge you to find anything as exquisite as McKean’s work – Orchid’s violet eyes still haunt me), and he created the covers for every one of the 70 plus issues of The Sandman.
McKean and the other superb Sandman artists (too numerous to name here but available on the above Wikipedia link) are essential because although words are important to comics (argues the writer), it’s the confluence of word and picture that makes reading a comic book the transcendent multi-media experience that it is. When the art is tuned to the writing, and the writing leans on the art, they meld to capture imagination in motion – a condition unique to comic book reading. (And frankly one of the reasons why movies of comic book characters are often dissatisfying.)
Without sounding too much like an entitled fan of Bob Dylan who first heard the troubadour play a Greenwich Village dive, I was—again—fortunate to have attended the San Diego Comic Con in 1989 where Neil Gaiman was one of the featured guests. Sandman hadn’t even been out a year by that point, but the buzz was, well, buzzing, and we more committed comic readers knew we were reading something special.
In his typically generous fashion, Gaiman spoke with my friends and me in the hallway outside the auditorium where he’d just taken part in a Comic Con panel discussion (topic: spirituality in comics or something similar). I can’t recall if I said anything of quality or of consequence (likely I just gushed; Dream’s sister Death had just been introduced in Sandman, and, well, how awesome was she), but what immediately struck me about Gaiman (besides the black t-shirt and British cool) was his humble approachability – a trait he has maintained throughout his career.
He didn’t need to take the time, and yet he did, and that simple act resonates even these many (many) years later.
So to break it down, I’d offer that Gaiman’s gifts to us would-be artists are not only this populist accessibility he provides his fans but also the way he courts his muse. As mentioned, Gaiman flips projects between media—comic scripts, TV scripts, novels, short stories, poems, children’s books—as well as genres. I have to think that this cross-training approach provides him with not only fresh interest and perspective but also with the protection of being able to skate across the sucking quagmire of writer’s block.
Moreover, Neil Gaiman has taught us that living and working as an artist is preferable to any other way of being. He’s made us all his collaborators. He’s made us all artists.