Arts: Comic books are for grown-ups

Ten years ago Neil Gaiman taught the British that graphic novels could be literature. Now he's a worldwide cult author. By Marianne Brace
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The Independent Culture
WHEN NEIL Gaiman was 15 a careers adviser came to his school. "This portly gentleman asked what I wanted to be," recalls Gaiman. "I said I wanted to write American comics and he just looked at me. After a while he said, `Have you ever thought about accountancy?'"

It's a long haul from Croydon schoolboy to award-winning author of graphic novels but Gaiman always knew that's where he was headed. Since it began 10 years ago, Sandman - his horror-weird comic series set in a giant necropolis - has become a cult. Published by giants DC Comics, it sold over a million copies a year. And the ghouls and necromancers continue to sell in large numbers in bound collections. As well as novels, Gaiman has written children's books and the English language script for Miyazaki's hugely successful Japanese animation, Mononoke Hime, which Miramax is releasing this autumn. Quentin Tarentino recommended him for the job.

Gaiman has begun to command the kind of attention which can sometimes be "occasionally embarrassing". Teenage girls go into hysterics all over him at signings. In Brazil, where he was giving a talk, security men had to carry him bodily out of a side door when 2,000 people rushed the stage. Fans include Norman Mailer, Lenny Henry and Tori Amos who mentions Gaiman in several of her songs.

Gaiman is in London promoting his new novel Stardust. He moved to America some years ago. ("I said to my wife, `If you can find me an Addams family house, I'll give it a try'"). But he misses England. With his Russian- Polish-German-Jewish background he feels European. Dressed in black leather jacket and jeans, and with his slight American inflection, he seems boyish and not at all like someone who spends his creative life among mad morticians and fairy folk. "Fun" is a word he uses a lot.

As a youth Gaiman read everything he could lay his hands on. But there was something special about comics and the possibilities of the medium. He kicked off with the Beano, the Dandy, Hotspur. "And girls' comics too." What, like Bunty? Gaiman nods. "Yes, Bunty. Those horrible, wonderful tales of cruelty. Awful things always happened to girls. Boys' comics are full of `will he find the magic football boots and against all the odds win the game?' But with the girls it begins: `I have a secret pony.' When you go to find that secret pony it's just been killed or kidnapped. Girls go home and they have wicked step-parents and a little sister who lives in the chimney."

Adult comics started getting serious in the 1970s. "In France they had a bunch of cool people like Moebius. I remember going over on a school French exchange and picking up Metal Hurlant - the first great French comic magazine aimed at adults. I read it with my limited French and assumed that because the art was so good, the stories would be too. It wasn't until later I realised the stories were terrible - word balloons saying things like `I've done too much drugs' The stories I imagined were much better."

In the mid-1980s when Gaiman was freelancing as a journalist, he was invited to submit work to a new comic using untried talent. The project fizzled out but Gaiman did meet illustrator Dave McKean who has since done all the Sandman covers and collaborated with Gaiman on a number of graphic books. Gaiman loves collaborations. He has co-written Good Omens with Terry Pratchett and worked on a concept album with "the very funny, very nice" Alice Cooper.

But Sandman was Gaiman's first real hit. Over the years it became 10 graphic novels within 75 issues. There isn't an English equivalent. "It's partly to do with the way American comics are produced with a penciller, letterer, colourist. We tried publishing colour comics in England but the economics rarely work."

Unlike, say, French comics which are artist-driven, Sandman had one writer and as many artists as the storyline required. "Sandman is like a movie script but more detailed. Writing good comics is harder than writing film where lots of decisions will be made by the director, cameraman and editor." Comics are governed by a need for economy, which needs careful planning. But surely the episodic nature of comics means they can only tackle the broadest themes? "Sandman is very much about sex, death and the nature of stories. I loved the idea of setting an entire story in a huge city of the dead with people telling each other stories." The fact that readers had to wait for a month to get the next instalment allowed "that whole Is Little Neil dead yet? phenomenon." `For Gaiman the hardest thing was persuading DC Comics to stop publishing Sandman when he was ready to move on. "Until that point writers had been seen as interchangeable craftsmen. Gradually they saw that this was my story."

The graphic novel, Mr Punch, remains one of the works Gaiman is most proud of. It's a strange lyrical mix of Gaiman's text with Dave McKean's brilliant visuals - both illustration and photographs. It's spooky too, set around a failing amusement arcade in a seedy seaside town. "It fascinates me the way that as an adult you look back on things that happened as a child and get these moments of illumination. Punch and Judy seemed a perfect metaphor for that."

In a Deptford junk shop Gaiman had found a 1915 book explaining how to put on a Punch and Judy show. The plot was summarised this way: Mr Punch is left with the baby. The baby won't stop crying so Punch kills it. Judy complains. He beats her to death. A policeman comes to arrest Mr Punch. He beats him to death. A hangman is tricked into hanging himself. The devil comes and Mr Punch kills him. Then Mr Punch goes off up and down the country delighting both old and young. Gaiman laughs. "There's this lunatic serial-killer story, a story I'd seen a dozen times as a small child and had no recollection of anything other than the crocodile and the sausages."

Mr Punch, dealing with "childhood, memory and violence", also uses a horror of a kind. (Mr Punch's face is enough to give you nightmares). Horror in comics seems to draw heavily on such silent classics as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It's no surprise then that several of Gaiman's own works are being turned into films. His novel, Neverwhere, (which became a BBC series which flopped) has been optioned by Jim Henson and Miramax. Gaiman is also working on a treatment for Stardust.

Pitched somewhere between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree stories, Stardust is a fairytale. "I liked the idea of going back to a literary tradition which was pretty much abandoned in 1925. But I didn't want to write something which was part of the Tolkien family tree."

The tale involves a young man's quest to find a falling star. When he does so she isn't a meteorite but a bad-tempered girl with a broken leg. Gaiman's friend, Tori Amos, lent him her house to write Stardust. In exchange she wanted to feature in the novel as a talking tree.

Ask who Gaiman's readership is and he answers without missing a beat: "Bipeds." By that, he surely means humans rather than apes. But considering he keeps company with stars with broken legs and others who want to be trees, you can't be entirely sure.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman is published by Headline, pounds 9.99.