Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

Some years back, I had an idea. I would write a story in which the Greek gods were still around. Zeus and the rest would be there, reduced to vagrants squatting in abandoned buildings or languishing in dead-end jobs. The only one with any success in the modern world would be Aphrodite, because sex always sells. Then two new gods would enter the scene, and the old guard would clash with the new. Mayhem would ensue, alliances would shift, hearts would break. And here's the kicker: I would make this story... a comic book.

It would be unique and groundbreaking. The only thing stopping me was I didn't know how to write a comic book. So I researched what a comic book script looks like. And everywhere I looked, I saw the same name: Neil Gaiman. So I bought the only book of his available through the Science Fiction Book Club. It was Brief Lives, the seventh of ten collected volumes that comprise The Sandman series. I opened it and found old gods living in the modern world, dealing with the worries and distractions of regular people. Gaiman and already done what I wanted to do. Moreover, not only did he make the world I envisioned, he somehow hit the exact tone I was reaching for. I know this will make me sound egotistical, but I've always felt Neil Gaiman is the writer I am to become. He has the same need as I do to mingle the magical and the mundane, to set small stories within overwhelming landscapes. He writes stories about stories, about where ideas come from and where they go when they're unfulfilled. He has the same aloof yet emotional style of prose I've been consciously developing for years. But the raw and painful truth is, he did it all first, and he'll always do it better.

Let's take a quick look at The Sandman. It's Gaiman's most famous work, and much has been written about it, so I won't try to explain its place in comic book history. But it does something extraordinary. It changes. The first story arc focuses mainly on the eponymous character, also known as Dream. And it's a horror story. Dream is imprisoned, his totems stolen from him. He escapes and punishes those who wronged him then tracks down his talismans of power, traveling all the way to Hell to retrieve them. He meets all manner of demons along the way, and people die horrible deaths. The second story arc puts us in the middle of a convention of serial killers. But Dream is barely there. As the series progresses, the horror elements fade. They're still there. People die, are tortured and visited by ghosts. But the intent is not to horrify the reader. The intent is to enchant us. Dream becomes almost a secondary character in a book that bears his name. And while Sandman was never your typical comic book, it transcends the genre altogether. It encompasses horror and comedy, fantasy and reality, romance and angst. It blends modern comics with timeless myths. It begins with one story and splinters into dozens of others. It makes us fall in love with Death. And it makes me very, very jealous.

Gaiman's prose has an airy sort of feel. A light touch, as compared to Stephen King's rough, workman approach or Clive Barker's gut-punch attack. American Gods contains some truly grotesque scenes, but there's a simplicity to them that makes them palatable. And he manages to hide two very big secrets right out in the open. As each of those secrets was revealed, I said to myself, "How did I not see that coming?" Coraline shows us a world that is both familiar and completely alien at once. And though it is ostensibly a children's book, it contains some of the most frightening passages I have ever read. That may be one of his secrets. He treats the everyday with the same weight as the fantastic. Like that lamppost in Narnia with the little goat-footed man beneath it. Both things belong there, but each makes the other look out of place.

That duality of normal and strange, the child-like wonder at an ugly world, good monsters and bad angels--it humbles me. Because it was a style I chose to make my own, before I ever heard Gaiman's name or knew who the Endless were. Only to find it had already been done. And done well. We may have had the same teachers--Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, C. S. Lewis, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Adams, Batman, Odysseus, The Twilight Zone--which might explain our similar voices. And let's face it. Similar is all we'll ever be.

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