What could have been little more than a longform book about Gaiman's Sandman becomes a visual and engrossing biography on the prolific dream genius.
The Art of Neil GaimanPublisher: Harper Design
Length: 320 pages
Author: Hayley Campbell
Publication date: 2014-05
Neil Gaiman, for those of you who don’t know, is a prolific writer, journalist, novelist, director, teleplay writer, screenplay author and comic book creator responsible for the critically acclaimed graphic novel series The Sandman from DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint (amongst many other notable accomplishments). This leads directly to the question of just why a book about a writer would be called The Art of Neil Gaiman. To be sure, as a writer myself, I would consider authorship to be an art form, but the connotation of an “art of” book implies visual arts.
Covering this, author Hayley Campbell (a close personal friend of the author) does feature some of Gaiman’s drawings and visual arts, though they represent a relatively small amount of the creator’s output. However, as one continues through this fascinating hardcover volume, the title begins to make more and more sense.
True, Gaiman rose to prominence in comics after a stint as a journalist willing to interview anybody and write about anything, but Gaiman’s creativity and dark imagination has fueled just about every word he has ever published. This, of course, makes the film versions of his work (such as the 2009 stop-motion animated film, Coraline) much more fascinating and easy to translate.
Gaiman works with words and weaves dark tapestries of fascinating dreamscapes and starkly realistic gritty dramas to the point that any given passage quoted in this book can easily be visualized by the reader, with or without the rest of the original text surrounding it. Gaiman’s work is not simply artistic from the standpoint of his creative storytelling.
Though rarely (and never in final form) illustrating his own work, the Gaiman of Campbell’s biography proves to be one of the most collaborative writers in comics. Though remarkably happy to share all credit with such artistic collaborators as Dave McKean, Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg, Eddie Campbell, Mark Buckingham, Michael Zulli, Todd MacFarlane and more, the finished products that carry Neil Gaiman’s byline truly do also feature “The Art of Neil Gaiman” (or, at least, a certain percentage thereof).
The fascinating thing about The Art of Neil Gaiman is that this career biography somehow manages to read like a novel as if ghost written by the great Gaiman himself. Campbell begins with the usual biographical information about young Neil, his family life, early fascination with (and subsequent abandonment of) comic books and his embrace of Punk Rock (which almost became his career). However, Gaiman’s life and career have been anything but mundane.
Campbell covers Gaiman’s rise as a journalist and graduation to books about rock bands and other writers (such as The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams) and rubbing elbows with comic book creators. This led directly to his small contributions to comic books in England long before DC’s Sandman resembled anything close to Gaiman’s eventual vision. As the narrative expands, Campbell tells the story of a hardworking and conscientious author consistently flying just under the radar of critical acclaim and superstardom.
The narrative never slows as Gaiman’s rise surpasses the murky glass ceiling and puts the writer firmly into the mainstream of comics. Campbell details the surprise to Gaiman and his friends as well as the surprise to comic book readers everywhere when his words (and the art he collaborated on) changed the face of comics in the early '90s (thus starting to create the target audience for this very book).
Neil Gaiman's Sandman
As Gaiman became something of an elder statesman (overnight), so, too, did his integrity morph him into something of a crusader fighting for creators’ rights and the truth about the ownership of disputed characters (going as far as to create a fund to sort out the rights to Miracleman, formerly Marvelman). Nor does Campbell forget the predecessors and peers that helped make Gaiman’s rise a reality.
Gaiman is never treated as a god here and the new British Invasion of comics is detailed and even celebrated. Entire chapters are devoted to Alan Moore’s work on Swamp Thing, Watchmen and the complete reinvention of Miracleman. Gaiman isn’t shown as a genius who debuted fully formed onto the gridded page like a superhero himself.
Instead, Gaiman as we know him is depicted as a product of years and years of hard work and good writing who became an icon due to his own talent, a lot of great collaborative choices, copious amounts of groundwork from peers and predecessors and, yes, a good deal of help. Campbell never diminishes Gaiman’s creative genius in this way, but, perhaps being a personal friend, she is careful to show that he is not one of his “Endless” characters, but a mortal human whose talent and luck paid great dividends both to Gaiman and his readers.
However, as much as The Art of Neil Gaiman tends to read like a good novel (it’s hard to put down), the book also lives up to its name as a full color (where appropriate) visual tome depicting photographs highlighting Gaiman’s career as well as hand-written notes, excerpts from screenplays and (as the title implies) the art that helped to make his stories so very famous over the years. There's something appropriately magical about reading the true details of the creation of Black Orchid, latter-day Miracleman stories, 1602, Death: The High Cost of Living, Hard Cases and, of course, Sandman with full pages of completed story and art tastefully accompanying the tales behind the page.
Much as Gaiman does in his own writing, Campbell employs the visuals here to straddle two worlds, this time Gaiman’s own reality and history with the barely tangible products of Gaiman’s own imagination. For a book about an author who became famous by writing about dreams (or, should we say, “Dream”), this is a brilliant and indispensable tactic to employ.
With the same skill, Campbell details Gaiman’s transition into motion pictures and television. Seeing the creative process behind the brilliant Babylon 5 episode “Day of the Dead” (1998) or the equally brilliant Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife” (2011) along with still shots from the finished programs, followed by the same treatments for films like Mirrormask (2005), Coraline (2009) and Beowulf (2007) is far from merely a documentary experience, but one of true concept to completion celebration.
Naturally, a book such as The Art of Neil Gaiman could have been merely a celebration of his version of Sandman and many fans may be hoping that such a work would be decidedly Sandman-heavy. However, Campbell stays true to her title and focuses not on the dream entity, but the man who created (or, rather, adapted) the character into its most popular form. To be sure, there is a great deal of Sandman covered in these pages, but the same attention and care is given to the balance of Gaiman’s career, from his interview work in men’s magazines to his continuation of the reinvention of Miracleman to, yes, even the surprising first Gaiman book Duran Duran: The First Four Years of the Fab Five (feel free to laugh… Gaiman does).
While this could have become a somewhat standard and straightforward formula book of art and the stories that led to it, worthy of its subject, The Art of Neil Gaiman is a fascinating read -- in order or out of order.