The Art Of Neil Gaiman is one of those titles that doesn’t tell you what you’re getting. I didn’t know whether to expect a coffee table book filled with pictures of the amazing artwork that has graced Gaiman’s work, or a biography that looks at exactly how he makes art from words. Either of those would have been fine with me, incidentally, but I found myself reading a very different book. I think maybe the title springs from Gaiman’s wonderful 2012 commencement speech in which he tells us all to ‘make good art’. He suggests that everything that happens in your life can become part of your art; well, in these pages the process reaches an end point, and his life is art in itself.
A more truthful title might have been ‘The Art of Being Neil Gaiman’. It’s a look back over all of his projects with a focus on how they evolved from events in his life. He doesn’t work so much as travel, make friends, read, watch things and people that form ideas that become other things, and eat sushi. The process of connecting is everything – connecting childhood to adulthood, thoughts to paper, ideas to people. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sections relating to his comics and graphic novels, where finding the right illustrator is so important. But it’s not just about the drawing. It’s about finding a person who can finish your sentences, and Gaiman’s life is blessed with those.
All of these connections are seen through rather rose-tinted spectacles. I think that may have something to do with the author, Hayley Campbell, who has been a friend of Gaiman since her childhood. So we don’t get the starry-eyed version of events that one might expect from a biography of a Hollywood star, but neither are we getting the whole picture. It’s interesting to see him through a lens of an emotion I would describe as adoration, rather as someone adores their cool uncle, but it does mean it’s difficult at times to appreciate his journey to well-loved author. At one point he writes to a friend going through a difficult time, “When things get really bad I go to the writing place.” But we don’t get a sense of things getting really bad for him; his life seems to be an arrow fired directly into the bullseye of his target of becoming a great writer. Everything is about that end point of being the Neil Gaiman we all think we know and love.
That’s not to say I want to read about the bad stuff. It’s only that human curiosity dictates that we want to poke our noses around the corner of the unsaid, and there are those tantalising sentences in this book where you get the feeling something darker is lurking out of sight. I think, for me, the real strength of the book lay not in the description of Gaiman’s life lived as an artist, but in the quotes from him that remind us of how wonderful his writing is. In the sections that deal with his time as a writer learning a craft we get the sense of the terror, selfishness, luck and skill that lie at the heart of his art. He bullshits, networks, charms and then relies on talent to make it through, and his honesty about this makes him a very likeable figure.
Considering how many projects he’s worked on there are bound to be areas of the book that interest a reader more than others, although as this isn’t a chronological journey it’s worth delving into the pages randomly just to see where you end up. As befits a film lover I found the chapter on Silver Screens to be fascinating, from his work on the scripts for Princess Mononoke and Beowulf to those projects that haven’t yet made it out of development. At one point he talks about how Mirrormask, his 2005 fantasy film, relates to Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, and I felt I could have easily read a whole book of non-fiction written by him simply on the subject of films he loves. If I’m very honest, I think I would have preferred that kind of book to this one.
By the time I reached the end I found myself thinking of Hob Gadling. In Sandman Vol 2, The Doll’s House, Hob appears as an ordinary man who decides death is for idiots, and he simply refuses to follow suit. So Death grants him life for as long as he wants, and every 100 years Dream meets Hob in a pub, and they talk about how his eternal existence is treating him. When life is packaged up in such a way it becomes much easier to view it objectively as a series of start points and end points, and it occurs to me that Gaiman is a bit of a Hob Gadling. Each writing project provides a frame within which experience can be viewed, making it that much easier to declare that life can be art. And, of course, the chances are that he will live on for a good while yet in his words. If you haven’t guessed by now – yes, I am a huge Neil Gaiman fan. But the truth is I’m not sure I want to see him in the way Hayley Campbell sees him. I prefer to think of him as the Sandman, the creator of dreams, and to keep a little bit of distance from that wild hair and those black sunglasses. And I’d rather read something that has sprung from the strange spirals of his ever-turning imagination than read about him, no matter how much of a cool uncle figure he is.
Being a Gaiman fan is, it turns out, a complicated business. If you know a fan and you want to buy them a great-looking present, The Art of Neil Gaiman might be a very good choice. If you’ve already fallen a little bit in love with the Neil Gaiman who creates characters that walk through your imagination on a daily basis, then you might consider if you want to see him through another set of eyes before you commit to this book.
The Art Of Neil Gaiman will be published on Monday the 14th of July.
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