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Dreamland : When Neil Gaiman Writes the Last Chapter of 'The Sandman' This Fall, the Greatest Epic in the History of Comic Books--Seven Years and 2,000 Pages--Will Come to a Close.

September 03, 1995|Steve Erickson | Steve Erickson's last article for the magazine was "American Weimar," an essay on modern democracy and politics . His latest novel, "Amnesiascope," will be published next spring by Henry Holt and Co

"I loved comics when I was growing up," Gaiman says, "and I never saw any reason why they should be considered inferior. I thought they could have as much power and passion and elegance as any other medium." At the age of 9 he read his way through the entire children's section of the Sussex library where his mother, a pharmacist, and his father, the owner of a vitamin company, would drop him off on their way to work. "When I finished the children's library," he remembers, "I moved on to the adult's library. I started at A." Some of his favorite authors were C. S. Lewis, Michael Moorcock and a Virginia writer named James Branch Cabell, whose strange oeuvre presently occupies three shelves in Gaiman's office. "Ghosts, space," Gaiman sums up his childhood interests, "anything indicating the imagination," and when his teen years coincided with a new wave of science-fiction writers as incorrigible as they were literary, Gaiman's own sensibilities crystallized. His heroes included Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny, all of whom went on to become Neil Gaiman fans, sometimes littering the covers of Sandman books with blurbs or composing those effusive introductions.

The first stories Gaiman wrote, around the same time he was at the local library lost between A and Z, were about a day in the life of a penny; a professor, his young assistant and their pet white mountain lion; and an alien Gaiman distinctly remembers looking like a frog, with a spaceship he distinctly remembers looking like a football. At the age of 20 he sold his first article to a small newspaper--a review of a 10cc concert--stepping in for a rock-journalist friend who couldn't make the gig. Over the following years he wrote features about science-fiction for "Time Out," "Punch" and "Penthouse," while submitting short stories to anyone and everyone. Waiting for success, it crossed his mind that perhaps he had no talent, "a conclusion which," he says, "for reasons of arrogance I declined to believe though, looking back, it now occurs to me there may have been more to it than I thought."

He really didn't have so long to wait: Within a few years he was writing comics on both sides of the Atlantic. If part of success' secret is timing, Gaiman's was about to prove perfect. He came along just as American popular culture was mid-whiplash on the subject of comics. While in Europe and Japan comics have long been read by everyone from proles riding the Metro to intellectuals in cafes, in the United States the form had been mired for 50 years in the adolescence of its audience, and the not-entirely unfounded biases of grown-ups who think nothing of watching one inane TV sitcom after another but assume that comics are beneath them. Then in the early '80s appeared a book called "American Flagg!" written and drawn by Howard Chaykin. Set in a future bluntly polarized between authoritarianism and anarchy, "American Flagg!" was comic-strip Godard in its visual density, frantic energy, jagged jump-cuts and subliminal story logic. For the next several years there was a renaissance in American comics, led by hip, smart writers and artists usually from England or the more disenfranchised pockets of American society, who had come of age with comics but brought along with them everything else they had come of age with as well--the excitement of movies and the passion of rock 'n' roll and the influences of novelists from Dostoyevsky to and Orwell to Chandler to and Pynchon.

"We were suddenly in a world," recalls Gaiman, "where comics could be as good as anything. It was simply another medium with its own set of strengths and its own set of weaknesses. You could have words and pictures counterpointing each other, and you could get to a level of complexity that might be difficult in a film, for instance, because in a film you have no control over time, whereas in a comic you can go backwards and forwards " In a blur rushed one landmark after another: Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing"; Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's "Love and Rockets"; Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus"; Jamie Delano's "Hellblazer"; Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns," which resurrected Batman from camp and turned him into a multizillion-dollar phenomenon; and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' epochal "Watchmen," with its not-very-pretty conclusions about why we need supermen, and how the childish innocence of that need curdles to something pathetic and fascist.

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