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Neil Gaiman and His Friends

Neil Gaiman has been called the “rock star” of contemporary fiction. He plays up this “cool guy” image by appearing in black pants, black tee shirts and a black jacket – presumably leather. Born in England in 1960, he now lives mostly in America and, judging from his own testimony, writes as much in other people’s houses as his own. As much as I’ve read of his work, I think he’s written two GREAT books so far – American Gods and Anansi Boys, but this column is not about them. Rather, it’s about his good fortune in forging a very successful career – with a little help from his friends.

Neil Gaiman is relentlessly prolific – novels, short stories, screen and television plays – but his early fame came through his extensive writing for comic books and graphic novels, most notably The Sandman Series. From the outset, he has been concerned to represent strange worlds that exist as parallels to our rational and enlightened sphere – the sphere that seems to have banished all other realms of experience. Over and over again, these illustrated tales explore our dreams, fears and imaginations, the realms of virtual reality, all of which shade, shadow, and reshape our actual experience. By their very nature, comics, graphic novels and films are collaborative efforts and Gaiman has collaborated with many, many artists. One of them, Dave McKean, seems to have established an overall tone that most clearly presents a visual counterpart to Gaiman’s prose.

Dave McKean (b. 1963) is an artist, designer and filmmaker. His work is bold, brazen, tender, cool, hot, funny and serious, all at once. He has a style that may combine drawing, painting, collage, found objects, digital art and sculpture all in the same product. His collaboration with Neil Gaiman functions at its best in the work they’ve produced for children. The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (1997) is one of the drollest picture books I’ve ever seen. It absolutely captures the inner voice of a child shaping his own sense of being out of the family matrix while brushing against the shadowy irony of sibling rivalry and the social world. It is that irony and the border between the parallel realms of virtual and actual that becomes the recurring theme of the Gaiman /McKean collaboration. That narrative evolves through a series of ever more eloquent books; Coraline (2002), The Wolves in the Walls (2003), the film/novella MirrorMask (2005), and finally The Graveyard Book, (2008). Neither Coraline nor The Graveyard Book are what one would call “picture books” so with them, McKean’s contribution consists of illustrations for the larger text. Those illustrations for Coraline, the book, established the visual style of Henry Selick’s beautiful stop motion animated film adaptation. The illustrations for The Graveyard Book do what good illustrations do – namely help to establish a visual tone for the reader.

Gaiman’s evolution into more traditional non-illustrated fiction came in the form of a collaboration with Terry Pratchett, the author of the Disc World books. The very mention of Pratchett tells you that here I am using the word “traditional” loosely. The book, Good Omens; the nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990) is a metaphysical romp dedicated to G. K. Chesterton, which sets one immediately into a particular mind set. It is now a cult classic. In an interview with who knows which, an unnamed questioner asks, “What was it like working with Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett?” The answer: “Ah. You have to remember, you see, that in those days, Neil Gaiman was barely Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett was only just Terry Pratchett.” The interview goes on to describe a chaotic and improvisational collaboration, mostly by phone and floppy disk, and more for the fun of it than anything else. This approach smacks of The Goon Show, (See Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers) and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This is the kind of madness you get when you live on a small island in the North Atlantic in which most of your culture comes out of a world that used-to-be and everyone knows everybody else. Good Omens is too much to dissect in a column like this so you can expect to see more about it in the future. Suffice to say, this collaboration helped to refocus Gaiman’s authorship and provided a yellow brick road beyond journalism, films and television.

The literary collaboration I am most eager to explore in this column, however, came in 2007 with a novel for younger readers called Interworld. In that effort, Gaiman joined Michael Reaves (b. 1950) to produce, according to the back cover, “an astounding tale of adventure, danger, magic, science, friendship, spaceships, and, oh yeah, the battle to save all the people in all the worlds in all possible dimensions.” What more is there to say?

Well, the thing that draws my attention to this book is the very attention Gaiman pays to the parallel worlds of virtual and actual realms as mentioned above. In this book, that potential dichotomy takes the form of “magic” versus “science.” Gaiman’s instincts for fiction come out of the great English tradition of the late 19th and early 20th century that produced the work of C. S. Lewis, J. R. Tolkien and the like. In fact there are subtle references to both in Interworld. But there is also what one might call an American wing of speculative fiction that is more Sci-Fi than classical fantasy and is expressed in Star Wars, Star Trek and such. This fiction plays more with postmodern concepts like parallel universes, quantum math and physics and psychology rather than fairies, fates, philosophy and metaphysics. Michael Reaves comes out of this American wing, having written material for both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. Other American writers have explored this side of speculative fiction, not the least of which being Madeleine L’Engle in her Time Quintet starting with A Wrinkle in Time.

In literary collaborations there is often an impulse on the part of the reader to parse the product to discover who wrote what. Of course, this is irrelevant in a successful collaboration. The conflict in Interworld, however depends on these two separate streams of speculation – “magic” versus “science.” These two interpretations of the world are presented as rival powers and their conflict threatens all of creation. In a note at the very beginning of the book that reflects their use of parallel universes in the plot, Gaiman and Reaves tell us that “[Interworld] is a work of fiction. Still, given the infinite number of possible worlds, it must be true in one of them. And if a story set in an infinite number of possible universes is true in one of them, then it must be true in all of them. So maybe it’s not as fictional as we think.”

Interworld is a terrific story, especially for boys. The engine of the plot is the need to find a balance between “magic” and “science.” This need arises, it would seem, as a result of recent discoveries, coming out of contemporary scientific theories that suggest that indeed, there are stranger things in Heaven and Earth than we have been able to discover in the Enlightenment universe. Interworld is another one of those books for young readers that works for older readers as well. The best thing about it is the conviction that the path out of dichotomy lies in the integrated collaboration of mind and will with heart and spirit.