Neil Gaiman: a trip through the master shaper’s brilliant library

Author Neil Gaiman has spoken about envisioning his creative goals as mountains. You’re either approaching them or you’re not — that’s how you know if you’re on track.

But here’s the thing about the author, who turns 58 Saturday: he’s something of a mountain himself. More of a range, truth be told — subtly influencing the shadows of western culture from a staggering number of shrouded artistic peaks through his stories across almost any form of media you can name.

Preparing for his sold-out Tuesday event at Shaw Conference Centre, the latest in Edmonton Public Library’s ongoing Forward Thinking Speaker series, I took a long and winding walk through the lands of Gaiman’s continuing oeuvre. To be honest, I’ve never gotten so ready — or spent so much money — preparing for a single interview, and it’s been an absolute pleasure, resulting in numerous moments of awe and late-night, embarrassing-but-not moments of actual weeping.

In chronological order of first publication, here’s a very, very short list of 10 absolutely-must-consume Gaiman moments from where I stood — feel free to weigh in with your own suggestions.

The Sandman (comic series, 1989 to present): It was, oddly, not Gaiman’s Duran Duran biography that put him on the map so much as what turned out to be one of the greatest comic runs in history. The Sandman is a story that began as a wrathful gothic horror but fast evolved into one of the most stunning and intricately-structured series of call-backs ever written, an entire pantheon of characters, and about the most applied cultural research ever seen in comicdom. A series of interrelated graphic novels each with its own narrative vantage and arc, the way it all comes together by the end is simply breathtaking. You will fall in love with Death who, after all, will be the last one with you in the end.

The Last Temptation (Alice Cooper album, 1994): In a stroke of genius, Cooper enlisted the help of myth-builder Gaiman to help shape the saga of Welcome to My Nightmare’s Steven, including a three-issue comic you can see in the Lost in America video.

Neverwhere (novel, 1996): After Good Omens, co-written with Terry Pratchett, Gaiman wanted to continue with the funny, which his editor advised him against. But Neverwhere is a step up: richer, funnier and with more memorable characters, as well as being downright horrifying with its villains Croup and Vandemar chasing our heroes, eating kittens and puppies along the way through London’s magical Below. Gaimain’s solo answer to Douglas Adams.

American Gods (novel, 2001): Inventive beyond belief, little details like the three Russian ladies having a plastic cover on their couch makes this exploration of the idea of gods fading without worshippers (expanded from The Sandman) a masterpiece. An ex-con named Shadow with a newly-dead wife stumbles into a war between the Old Gods of mythology and their vicious, modern replacements representing globalism, computers and TV. Also read other Shadow stories in Gaiman’s story collections, and especially Anansi Boys (2005), set in the same world, where flickering gods die by the wagonload.

Marvel 1602 (comic, 2003): Gaiman’s Batman story Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader is marvellous, but when he briefly switched teams and took on the Marvel Universe, setting it in 1602 Europe, again the gigantic adjectives start flying: amazing, incredible, fantastic, mighty and, indeed, without fear. One of the finest and best-researched What If?s ever dreamed.

The Graveyard Book (novel, 2009): Maybe Gaiman’s finest novel for kids or adults, the short-stories-inside-one-world structure of this book twisting The Jungle Book into a ghost-filled graveyard setting is just superb. Bod — short for Nobody — is a living orphan raised by the dead, the entire book haunted by the question, what’s going to happen when he outgrows his foster family? The way his guardian Silas is slowly revealed is a perfect illustration of how a book can outdo flashier visual media in holding on to a mystery until it’s ready.

Coraline (animated film, 2009): … having said the above about the written word, this stop-motion animation is just so distinct and creepy, with great voice acting by Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher and the TV American Gods’ Ian McShane — and Bruno Coulais’ score is deservedly award-winning. A great lesson in getting what you wish for and suffering the consequences. Who knew buttons could be as scary as giant spiders — especially deployed at the same time?

Coraline by Neil Gaiman.

The Doctor’s Wife (Doctor Who episode, 2011): Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor ends up outside the universe in a situation where his time-and-spaceship takes human form and reinvents the entire mythology as she notes, “I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and I ran away. And you were the only one mad enough.” Some truly scary stuff as Amy and Rory are toyed with in the haunted TARDIS hallways. Love Jodie Whittaker, but I miss them all.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (novel, 2013): As he’s done since Sandman, Gaiman again summons the maiden, mother and crone in this heart-wrenching flashback of a magical childhood since forgotten. It’s a simple, beautiful homecoming story with many set pieces taken from the writer’s youth. Not the giant fabric sex monster, mind you.

Norse Mythology (short stories, 2017): Marvellously, with clever foreshadowing throughout, Gaiman manages to stitch a colletion of scattered myths into one narrative epic, from genderless Ymir and the giant cow Audhumla at the dawn of reality through Ragnarok, “how the worlds will end, in ash and flood, in darkness and in ice.” This one’s a great place to start if you’ve never read Gaiman to get a sense of his skills as one of our age’s master shapers.

fgriwkowsky@postmedia.com

@fisheyefoto

 

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