Neil Gaiman's mega-selling graphic novels are adult comics, sneered at by the literary world. One US critic thinks he's worth a Pulitzer Prize, though: could it happen here?
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A GAUNT, melancholy character clad in black, Morpheus, Prince of Sleep, strides through the realm of dreams with eyes like deep-set stars. Sometimes they are twinkling con-stellations, at others smouldering red dwarves or bottomless black holes.

"I dreamt I was the Sandman once," says Neil Gaiman, Britain's best-selling adult comic book author and creator of Morpheus. "He was a head taller than me and the eyes were weird. They were real, though. I could actually see through them."

Gaiman's Sandman is not for children. He is about as far as it is possible to get from the steroid-enhanced heroes of traditional comics with their goody-two-shoes morals, absurd super powers and busty but platonic love interests. "Unlike John Major," says Gaiman, "Morpheus does not wear his underpants over his tights."

The Lord of the Dreaming is also immensely popular. More than 1.2m monthly Sandman comics sell each year, plus 500,000 compilations to date. In the business of comics, where Superman and Batman far outlive their creators, that level of commercial success should have made the Sandman saga as endless as its title character. Instead, just six more episodes remain to be written in the final series, The Kindly Ones. After seven years, Gaiman is bringing it to a close, as he always planned to do.

"When I started it was intended to be a horror comic, but not a-monster- a-month. I wanted it to be a machine for telling stories," said Gaiman during a visit to London last week from his new home in America. "During the first year I just hoped it wouldn't get cancelled, but even then I was building in things that I knew I would close with if I ever got there."

His US publisher, DC Comics, was stunned that he did not want another writer to pick up the storyline after he moved on. "They said I was crazy, that it had never been done before." Although DC hold the rights, Gaiman persuaded them that it was in their interests to maintain a good working relationship with him.

The Dream King's retirement will leave Gaiman with more time for his other projects. Death, who regularly appeared in Sandman comics as his chirpy, streetwise 16-year-old sister, has already been given her own spin-off series starting with The High Cost Of Living. Two recent comics, Signal to Noise and Mr Punch have broached radical new territory by dealing entirely with the real world rather than magic or science fiction. Neverwhere, a six-part pilot for BBC 2 about a subterranean London where there really is an angel named Islington and an Earl holds court in an underground train, is likely to go on the air next spring.

His refusal to do more Sandman comics is not the first time Gaiman has said "No". Twice he has talked Warner Brothers out of making a Sandman film. "The first thing they would start doing is listing the things they would throw out," he said, sipping fizzy water in a hotel near his UK publisher's office on the Strand. "The odds of getting a good movie out of the Sandman after that are small." A third effort by the studio is presently being scripted. "If a Sandman film does come out all bets are off. I probably wouldn't be able to stop them relaunching the comic."

The influence Gaiman has in Hollywood - "the Egosphere" - and with his publishers reflects the critical acclaim he has garnered in a segment of the industry that is often sneered at by the literary world. At least three doctoral theses have been written about Sandman, mostly debating whether Gaiman's work is post-modernist. A Shakespeare scholar at Brandeis University in America intends to deliver a paper this spring on Gaiman's treatment of A Midsummer Night's Dream - commissioned by Morpheus and first performed in a field before Oberon, Titania and the Faerie court.

His works are also included in an English literature course taught by Professor Frank McConnell at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "He's the ideal guy to use when you're teaching a course on the idea of narrative. He thinks in terms of stories," said McConnell. In his opinion, Gaiman is in the same league as such noted writers as William Golding, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo or John Barth.

A former chairman of the three-member Pulitzer Prize Committee for Fiction, McConnell said he would have fought vigorously to give Gaiman a prize if his British citizenship hadn't disqualified him. The outcry would have been enormous. The science fiction world, itself still on probation in some respectable circles, was outraged when his Shakespeare piece, appearing in the comics ghetto, won a World Fantasy Award for best short story. Imagine what would happen if he took home the Booker Prize.

Gaiman was not the first writer to break out of the superhero mould. Alan Moore, another Briton, holds that distinction for giving the bot- anical monster "Swamp Thing" a human soul. America's Frank Miller became famous for reshaping Batman into a darker character. Together they changed their superheroes into anti-heroes and pointed English-language comics towards Europe's dystopian vision.

"Moore and Miller opened the door and Gaiman went through it," said Dick Jude, manager of Forbidden Planet, the London comic and SF store where Gaiman used to shop. "All of his characters are real people, even those that aren't human. They're flawed. They make mistakes."

If it weren't for his rounded cheeks, broad smile and cheerful demeanour, Gaiman, 34, could be the Sandman. "We share the same dress sense," he admits. "He has bits of me in him, but he's much more stuffy than me." The author is not the least bit embarrassed about the field he works in. "Comics are something that happen in the interstices of words and pictures," he said. "It's an utterly unique medium, like film or television, not a genre at all. I want to take comic books and see what can be done with them."

Neil Gaiman was brought up in East Grinstead in Sussex, where his father owns a vitamin company. An early fan of US super-hero comics, he found teachers at school - which he attended with Private Eye editor Ian Hislop - unsympathetic. When he was 15 a careers counsellor asked him what he wanted to do. "I said I wanted to write American comics," he recalls. "There was a long pause and then the counsellor asked if I'd ever thought about accounting."

By the time he left school, Gaiman had given up on comics for a career as a freelance journalist, writing science fiction reviews for Time Out and dreaming of writing short stories and novels. Then in 1983 he came across Moore's Swamp Thing. "I sent Moore one of my stories and he phoned up and said he'd just lost a day's work because of me."

The break came in the mid-'80s after he met Dave McKean, then a budding young artist and now a well-regarded contributor to the New Yorker with a string of credits for book and CD covers. They collaborated on Black Orchid, a beautifully sombre book with an uplifting ecological ending. Short prose, poetry and a collaboration with Terry Pratchett on the novel Good Omens followed. He has worked with a wide range of artists and letterers, though McKean remains his favourite.

For three years, Gaiman and his wife Mary, three children and two cats have lived in a three-storey brick house near snowbound Minneapolis, Minnesota - a classic prairie gothic structure with a turret on the top floor and a wide veranda in front. The upper storey and turret, eventually destined to be Gaiman's study, still need renovation. He writes in the basement.

Typically, his day begins at around noon with three hours or so of "fuffing around the house doing absolutely nothing". By then his older children - Michael, 11, and Holly, 9 - have returned home from school and he is a father. Only after they are in bed does he write. "I sit down at the computer until I fall asleep about 4am," he says.

Although he has a rough idea of where he wants to go before he starts writing, he never knows clearly how to get there. "I'm the sort of writer who tends to start with a blank piece of paper,'' he says. "It's like jumping out of an aeroplane and hoping you can knit a parachute before you hit the ground."

Writing in monthly instalments makes that doubly difficult. A novelist, coming to the end of his first draft and realising he needs a gun in the final scene, can go back to the third chapter and subtly insert one. By the time Gaiman gets to that point in one of his stories, chapter three has long since appeared in print.

"I have to toss a lot of balls up in the air at the beginning and hope that I'll be able to catch them all before the end," he explains. Sometimes he misses. The only example he gives is from Season of Mists, in which the Sandman plays host to ambassadors from other mythical realms who are vying for the keys to hell after the Devil has abdicated. Two humans in pyjamas make a brief appearance, waiting on tables, then disappear. "I always meant to tell their story one day, but I haven't."

Despite working in a serial format, he eschews the more obvious tools like cliff-hanging endings. "These aren't soap operas,'' he claims. One of his heroes is Charles Dickens, the first great serial author. "Whenever I read him I go: `Cell mate across the ages, I know what you're doing.' "

Some shadow-truths come straight from Gaiman's imagination, such as the gruesomely banal convention of serial killers; other elements are backed by thorough research. A piece on Caesar Augustus involved poring over primary Roman sources. He draws on history, literature, mythology and fable. Calliope is the story of a modern author who imprisons the youngest of the nine Greek muses, raping her rather than wooing her. Soft Places opens with Marco Polo lost in a desert. The Song of Orpheus retells the Greek myth of Morpheus's son, with some added material from Robespierre's Terror.

Professor McConnell believes the best of Gaiman's work is yet to come. Two recent books point the way. Signal To Noise follows a dying film director as he struggles to script his final work, a movie about the last night of the first millennium. "The world is always ending for someone." The BBC's Radio 3 is interested in turning it into a radio play.

In Mr Punch, Gaiman's latest comic, he tells a young boy's story of family horror intertwined with the metaphor of a seaside Punch and Judy show. "I wanted to do a story about the strange double vision one has as a child," he said. "A seven-year-old is always looking in the wrong direction." Of all his works, it is the one that comes closest to expressing the mental images he started with.

So what does Gaiman really think of dreams? "Delightful nonsense. It's like going down into the ocean in a bathysphere and seeing all these weird fish that look like kites or inside-out glowing things. It's never anything you can use." On the other hand, perhaps Morpheus does have a soft spot for his principle chronicler. "I very often go to bed not knowing what happens on the next page," says Gaiman, "and wake up in the morning knowing exactly what comes next."

! `The Sandman' is published by Titan Books at £9.99. `Mr Punch' is available from Gollancz, price £8.99