Reviewed by Jodie Robson
I think I may have have mentioned before that I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing. A pretty unabashed fan, actually, a bit like Hayley Campbell, who has known him since she was six. That got her the privilege of rummaging in his attics to write this book, plus many hours of interviews. Incidentally, Gaiman says his fans range from “beautiful goths… to the people who look like somebody’s mum.” That’ll be me, then, that last.
The Art of Neil Gaiman takes the milestones in Gaiman’s career and devotes a chapter to each. Apart from a first section on his childhood, it’s not a biography as such. Events are part of the canon of work and only appear in relation to them – so that, for instance, the tale of his early stage-fright appears in the section on Short Stories, because they are often the subject of his public readings. Quite a large part of the book is devoted to his comics, most famously Sandman, but also those with much shorter runs: the early Black Orchid and the superb and original 1602. How each work came about is explained in detail – how collaborators were decided on, how things developed, whether Gaiman was happy with the end result.. famously, he was very disappointed with the TV drama Neverwhere:
“I hadn’t wanted to write a novel of Neverwhere. What I’d been looking forward to was making a terrific TV show and then bringing out a script book with photographs. That was my plan. And then I saw what they were doing with the TV show and suddenly it was like: no, I’m writing the novel.”
Actually, I have a great deal of affection for the series, which I think is better if you don’t have Gaiman’s expectations of how it ought to look, but I’d have to concede that the recent radio adaptation worked better. I am keeping my fingers crossed for the adaptation of American Gods that’s in the pipeline, as the technology is so much better nowadays, but it’s going to have to be long and slow and glorious to please me, because it’s the novel more than any other I want to have written. But I digress.
The Art of Neil Gaiman is lavishly illustrated in full, rich colour, like a scrapbook – does Campbell do journalling in her spare time, I wonder, because this is a concept as much as a book. Apparently it was a long time in the making, three years, in fact,* and I’m not surprised, because every new page is to be anticipated keenly and pored over closely. A disgruntled reviewer on Amazon, who was clearly hoping for a conventional biography, said that it was difficult to read, and it has to be admitted that it’s large and heavy and awkward to read in bed with (or even without) a purring kitten sitting on your chest. Frankly, I really don’t see this as a problem: it’s a wonderful book for browsing, for taking in the entire pages from comics that make you want to read/re-read them, for turning to the section on say, writing the script for Stardust, or less happily, Beowulf. There’s way too much information to remember, so you can always dip in at random and just enjoy losing yourself for a while. If it’s heavy, it’s because his output is enormous: children’s picture books, comics, screenplays, poetry, short stories, radio. The last, he says, is his favourite, because
“you’re experiencing it in real time. Yet… you’re still creating things… It’s similar engines to the engines of a novel, where you get to walk around Narnia, Middle-earth, or whatever, before there was a movie and build these places in your head from whatever clues you have, whatever clues you can get.”
There’s an index, too (I’m the sort of person who checks for an index before buying a book, and sometimes put it back on the shelf because it hasn’t got one), and a complete bibliography, and a list of sources which will actually make it invaluable to anyone who wants to write seriously about Gaiman’s work, as they undoubtedly will : a couple of years ago, reading them as part of an online discussion group, I became fascinated by his short stories and poems in the collections Fragile Things and Smoke and Mirrors. At first glance some of the shorter ones, especially, can seem very slight, and it’s easy to read and pass on, but start to think about why that particular word, and the layers of meaning it accesses, and before you know it you’ve spent the afternoon researching an obscure bit of mythology – or failing to, and realising he must have made that bit up, but it fits in seamlessly, and resonates with all the bits you do know. What had started as almost a quick skim turned into a dense and rewarding read.
All in all, The Art of Neil Gaiman is a must-have for the Gaiman addict, and an absolute joy. If you’re an addict too – and there’s every chance you will be, if you’ve read this far, because Gaiman treats his fans with immense generosity, blogging, answering questions, fitting in extra performances at short notice, spending hours chatting to the fans in the signing lines and drawing little pictures on the title pages of their books when all the other authors have packed up their pens and gone home – now’s the time to add it to your Christmas list, and to start dropping heavy hints to your loved ones.
Jodie Robson blogs at GeraniumCat’s Bookshelf, although the exigencies of earning a living with only one properly functioning hand mean that she hasn’t been there much recently.
Hayley Campbell, The Art of Neil Gaiman (Ilex Press: London, 2014). 978-1781571392, 320pp, hardback. (Harper Design: New York, 2014), 320pp, 978-0062248565, hardback.