https://vimeo.com/90316800

Henry Jenkins: As the head of com­par­a­tive media stud­ies, I have to say that one of the things I admire most about Neil is the degree to which his work spans so many dif­fer­ent media. 

If we think about comics, we of course imme­di­ate­ly think of Sandman and Death: The High Cost of Living, but also we’d want to think about Books of Magic, Violent Cases, The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, 1602, The Eternals, many many oth­er books. He’s a fig­ure in chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, the author of The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, The Wolves in the Walls, The Dangerous Alphabet, which is about to come out. And prose works, American Gods, Anansi Boys, Angels and Visitations, Coraline. Television, the Day of the Dead” episode of Babylon 5, an BBC’s Neverwhere series. And film, Mirrormask, Stardust, Beowulf, the English trans­la­tion of Princess Mononoke. And audio record­ings, Warning: Contains Language, which is per­haps my favorite title of Gaiman’s oeuvre.

That said, I think you’ve heard enough from this stuffy old guy, and let me turn the floor over to Neil Gaiman, who I’m delight­ed to bring to this audience.


Neil Gaiman: It was a ter­ri­ble title, Warning: Contains Language. It took us about a year and a half to per­suade Diamond not to car­ry it in their cat­a­log as Untitled Neil Gaiman Album” and then Warning: con­tains extreme­ly bad lan­guage” as a warn­ing. We kept going back to Diamond and say­ing, No no, that’s the title.”

And they’d say, What do you mean that’s the title?” 

That’s the title. It’s called Warning: Contains Language. It’s a joke.”

Last clever title I gave anything.

So, thank you, and thank you all for com­ing. I thought before I actu­al­ly did the talk, I would begin by read­ing some­thing by some­body else, which is not some­thing I get to do very often in pub­lic. This will be the sec­ond time that I’ve read this, and this is a speech that Alan Moore wrote when Julie died, and sent me to read at Julie’s memo­r­i­al. And how often do you get to get up at MIT and read an Alan Moore speech?

Just off the plane from England, any­thing except fresh out of Kennedy, with­in an hour or two we’d all been intro­duced to Julie, all us early-80s eco­nom­ic migrants, awestruck, wide-eyed, star­ing like religiously-converted lemurs as at last we met our child­hood’s god, the inter­galac­tic cab­by who would­n’t shut up, the cura­tor of the space museum.

We loved Julie in the way that we’d love any­one we’d known since we were small, who’d shared with us that secret rustling flashlight-dazzled space beneath the mid­night coun­ter­pane. We loved him in the way that we loved cov­ers with goril­las on.

We fol­lowed at his heels, a quack­ing flock, along the migraine-yellow dot-toned hall­ways of the DC offices, and if he thought of us as irri­tat­ing Carl Barks nephews, as the Hueys, Deweys, and Louies that he’s nev­er want­ed, then he did­n’t let it show. Quite the reverse. Julie indulged us like a vis­it­ing school trip for pale, con­sump­tive, English orphans. Fragile, cough­ing invalids at Fresh Air Camp. 

He sneaked us presents. File copies of some trea­sured Mystery in Space pulled from the morgue draw­ers in his office, from which rose the per­fume of his life, long decades of pulp pages, 50,000 com­ic racks in every cor­ner mag­a­zine store that you ever vis­it­ed or dreamed about. 

He knew a cap­tive audi­ence when he saw one, and appre­ci­at­ed our appre­ci­at­ing. All the anec­dotes were new to us, the creak­ing, chair-bound jokes fresh as this morn­ing’s lox. The funer­al for a much-feared fel­low edi­tor he told us of where at the sec­tion of a ser­vice set aside for tes­ta­ments and kind­ly words con­cern­ing the deceased stretched into long, embar­rassed silence, until some­one at the back stood up and ven­tured the opin­ion that the late lament­ed’s broth­er had been worse.

We were a pushover. He made us laugh, he knocked us dead, and then there was the scrap­book with its pages full of let­ters, pic­tures, sig­na­tures. I am, sir, your devot­ed ser­vant, H.P. Lovecraft.” Photographs of Julie, young with diamond-cutter eyes behind wire-rimmed spec­ta­cles. Men in dark coats and hom­burg hats on win­ter cor­ners in New York, gray vapor twist­ing up from man­hole cov­ers, from cig­ars. You see the crew­cut kid, that news­boy there? That’s Bradbury.” We’d gape and nod. Could not pos­si­bly have been more impressed if he’d said, See that old guy in the toga stand­ing by Ed Hamilton? That’s Zeus.”

And now we hear that Julie has been…discontinued? Cancelled? But they said the same about Green Lantern and The Flash back in the ear­ly 50s, so we can’t be cer­tain. This is comics. There’ll be some way around it, be some par­al­lel world. Earth‑4 Julie, born thir­ty years lat­er to account for prob­lems in the con­ti­nu­ity, and decked out in a jazz­i­er, more stream­lined out­fit. A fun­ny, bril­liant, end­less­ly enthu­si­as­tic twelve-year-old got up in an old man suit, Julie spent his life min­ing the gold seam of the future. He is too big then to ever tru­ly be swal­lowed by the past. 

He was a friend, he was an inspi­ra­tion, he was the founder of our dreams. He ruined my rep­u­ta­tion as a gen­tle paci­fist by claim­ing that I’d seized him by the throat and sworn to kill him if he did­n’t let me write his final episode of Superman. And how now am I sup­posed to con­tra­dict a clas­sic Julius Schwartz yarn? So, alright it’s true. I picked him up and shook him like a British nan­ny, and I hope wher­ev­er he is now he’s sat­is­fied by this shame-faced confession.

Goodnight, Julie. It’s been our priv­i­lege to have known you. You were the best.
Alan Moore, Northampton, March 172004

Right. So this is the lecture‑y bit.

There are about 1,200 of us here, and at least one of was still sit­ting in his hotel room at 4:45 scrib­bling bits of this.

It’s the job of the cre­ator to explode. It is the task of the aca­d­e­m­ic to walk around the bomb site gath­er­ing the shrap­nel, to fig­ure out what kind of an explo­sion it was, how much dam­age it was meant to do, and how close it came to achiev­ing that. As a writer, I’m much more com­fort­able explod­ing than talk­ing about explo­sions. So if I pull exam­ples of some­thing, it’ll be from oth­er peo­ples’ work and not mine. This also will make me look like less of an ego­tis­ti­cal mani­ac when clips from this talk go up on YouTube.

Last time I was here it was 2001, and it was in the shad­ow of September the 11th, and I learned a lot about MIT by mak­ing a joke in an unpub­lished short sto­ry that I read about a web site, which by the end of that evening, the title, the web site had been reg­is­tered and had a webmistress.

What is genre? I think it’s prob­a­bly a set of assump­tions, and it’s a loose con­tract between a cre­ator and an audi­ence. But for most of you, genre is some­thing that tells you where to look in a book shop or a video store. Because there are too many books out there. So you need to make it eas­i­er on the peo­ple who shelve them, and on the peo­ple who are look­ing for them, by lim­it­ing the num­ber of places they’re going to be look­ing. So you give them places not to look. That is the sim­plic­i­ty of book shelv­ing. It tells you what not to read, and it tells you where not to go. 

You go, I’m not inter­est­ed in Romance.” You can skip great big areas of a book shop. You go, Young adult fic­tion, why would I want to go there?” You don’t have to walk down there. Now, the trou­ble is that Sturgeon’s Law (I’m at MIT, I can quote Sturgeon’s Law.) is a law pro­pound­ed by Theodore Sturgeon, a sci­ence fic­tion writer, who in an inter­view was talk­ing about sci­ence fic­tion. He said, Well of of course 90% of sci­ence fic­tion is crap, but then again 90% of every­thing is crap.” And Sturgeon’s Law applies to the fields that I know some­thing about, which would include sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy and hor­ror and chil­dren’s books and main­stream fic­tion and non-fiction and biog­ra­phy, but I’m sure it equal­ly applies to the places in the book shops that I don’t go, includ­ing the cook­book area and the super­nat­ur­al romances. Because the corol­lary to Sturgeon’s Law is that 10% of what­ev­er you’re look­ing at is prob­a­bly going to be any­where from good to excel­lent. And it’s true, I think, for all genre fiction. 

Genre fic­tion, it’s always worth remem­ber­ing, is relent­less­ly Darwinian. Books come, books go. Huge turnover, lots of them get pub­lished. Many have been unjust­ly for­got­ten. Very few get unjust­ly remem­bered. That rapid turnover tends to remove the 90% of the dross from the shelves, replac­ing it with a dif­fer­ent 90% of dross. But it also leaves you (par­tic­u­lar­ly with some­thing like chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture) with a core canon that tends to be remark­ably solid.

Now, life (and this is some­thing you think about a lot when you write fic­tion) does not obey genre rules. It lurch­es eas­i­ly, or uneasi­ly, from soap opera to farce, office romance to med­ical dra­ma to police pro­ce­dur­al by way of pornog­ra­phy, some­times in hours. On my way to a friend’s funer­al, I saw an air­line pas­sen­ger stand up, bang his head on an over­head com­part­ment, open­ing it, send­ing the con­tents over a hap­less flight atten­dant in the most perfectly-timed and most perfectly-performed piece of slap­stick I’ve ever encountered.

Life lurch­es. Genre offers pre­dictabil­i­ty with­in cer­tain con­straints. But then, espe­cial­ly if you make the stuff, you start ask­ing your­self well, what is genre?” Because it’s not sub­ject mat­ter. It’s not tone. For me, the answer came when I read a book more or less by acci­dent. It was sent to me to review, and it should­n’t have been, but it turned up and so I read it. I read a book by an American film pro­fes­sor named Linda Williams, and it was her study of hard­core porno­graph­ic movies called Hardcore and sub-titled Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible’ ” which made me rethink every­thing I thought I knew about what made some­thing genre, and what genre was. I thought I would share those insights with you.

Just as a side­note here, before I get on to this, because this is one of those moments where I can leave you on ten­ter­hooks and know you will still be here for me when I get back to my sub­ject. I was in Melbourne, Australia a few weeks ago at the Children’s Book Congress of all Australian teach­ers and aca­d­e­mics, and I had to give a talk. I was writ­ing the talk and real­ly enjoy­ing it, and I sud­den­ly got onto the sub­ject of genre and I sud­den­ly found myself writ­ing a lot of stuff about hard­core pornog­ra­phy and going, I real­ly can­not give this talk at nine o’clock in the morn­ing to a bunch of 6th grade teach­ers and chil­dren’s librar­i­ans. It will not work.” So I put it all aside and went, I bet they’ll lap it up at MIT.”

So back into genre. 

I’ve always known when you’re read­ing fic­tion, and espe­cial­ly when you start writ­ing it, you know some things are not like oth­er things. But you’re not entire­ly sure why. For me, the moment that my eyes peeled was the moment that Professor Williams sug­gest­ed that porno­graph­ic films could best be under­stood by com­par­ing them to musicals.

In a musi­cal, you are going to have dif­fer­ent kinds of song. You will have solo num­bers, duets, trios, full cho­rus­es. You will have songs sung by men to women and by women to men. You will have many men singing togeth­er. You will have slow songs, and fast songs, and hap­py songs.

Now, you stop and think about that. You go, Well, in a porno­graph­ic film you need the same kind of vari­ance.” And in a musi­cal, the plot exists in order to allow you to get from song to song, and also of course to stop all of the songs hap­pen­ing at once. So the hard­core porno­graph­ic film. The plot exists to stop all of the sex hap­pen­ing at the same time.

Furthermore, and pos­si­bly most impor­tant­ly, the songs in a musi­cal are— They’re not what you’re there for, as you’re there for the whole thing, the sto­ry and the songs and the danc­ing and the scenery and every­thing, but they are the things which if they were not there, you as a mem­ber of the audi­ence would feel cheat­ed. You’ve gone to a musi­cal and nobody sings…? What kind of a musi­cal is this?

The same goes for porno­graph­ic films. Many many years ago, I was on a sign­ing tour with Dave McKean, and we were in a small English town try­ing to fin­ish a com­ic which we were doing for Bryan Talbot’s birth­day for rea­sons that I have long since for­got­ten. In England at that time, tele­vi­sion was done by mid­night, but we’re still sit­ting there doing this com­ic. So we turned on the only thing that there was, which was the pay-per-view porn chan­nel. But in this par­tic­u­lar lit­tle English town, they’d done some­thing very very clever to the pay-per-view pornog­ra­phy, which was remove the sex from it. And Dave and I drew this com­ic watch­ing a film which as far as we could tell was about a bunch of tourists who went off to a lit­tle Greek island togeth­er, and every now and then for rea­sons that you could nev­er quite fol­low, they would go off in groups or one, two, or three. They’d head off into a lit­tle cot­tage. And then the sun would go down.

This was not a sat­is­fy­ing cin­e­mat­ic experience.

If you take the sex acts out of a porn film, if you take out the songs from a musi­cal, if you take out the gun fights from a Western, then you don’t have the thing there that the per­son came to see. And when I under­stood that, I under­stood so much more. It was as if a light had been turned on in my head because it answered the ques­tion I’d been ask­ing since I was a kid. I knew that there were spy nov­els, and I knew there were nov­els with spies in them that weren’t quite the same. I knew that there were cow­boy books, and cow­boy films, and there were also books and films that took place amongst the cow­boys in the American West that weren’t cow­boy films. But I did­n’t under­stand how to tell the dif­fer­ence, and sud­den­ly I did. 

If the plot is a machine that allows you to get from set piece to set piece, and the set pieces are things with­out which the read­er or the view­er would feel cheat­ed, then what­ev­er it is, it’s genre. If the plot exists to get you from the lone cow­boy rid­ing into town to the first gun fight to the cat­tle rustling to a show­down, then it’s a Western. If those are sim­ply things that hap­pen on the way, then it’s a nov­el or a film or a com­ic set in the West. If every event is part of the plot, if the whole thing is impor­tant, if there aren’t any scenes that exist to allow you to take your read­er to the next moment that the read­er or the view­er feels is the thing that he or she paid her mon­ey to get in to see, then it’s a sto­ry, and genre becomes irrelevant.

Subject mat­ter does­n’t make genre. Having said that, there are some huge advan­tages to genre, one of which is as a cre­ator it gives you some­thing to play to and play against. It gives you a net and it gives you a court to play on. (I wrote Sometimes it gives you the balls” but then I decid­ed not to say that line.)

Another advan­tage of genre for me is that it priv­i­leges sto­ry. Stories come in pat­terns, and those pat­terns influ­ence the sto­ries that come after them. In the 80s as a very young jour­nal­ist, I was once hand­ed a very high pile of best-selling romances, books with one-word titles like Lace and Scruples. I was told to write 3,000 words about them. So I went off and I read them with ini­tial puz­zle­ment and then slow delight as I real­ized the rea­sons why they seemed so famil­iar was that they were. They were retellings of sto­ries I knew, old ones since I was a boy, all retold in the here and now and spiced with sex and mon­ey. And although the genre in ques­tion was known in British pub­lish­ing at the time as shop­ping and fuck­ing,” the books were real­ly nei­ther about the shop­ping nor the fuck­ing, but most­ly about what would hap­pen next in an utter­ly famil­iar struc­ture. It was the struc­ture of the fairy tale.

I remem­ber cold­ly and cal­cu­lat­ing­ly plot­ting my own when I’d fin­ished read­ing my way through that pile, and it con­cerned, from what I remem­ber, an extreme­ly beau­ti­ful and incred­i­bly rich young woman plunged into a coma by the machi­na­tions of her evil aunt, so she was uncon­scious through much of the book as a noble young sci­en­tist hero fought to bring her back to con­scious­ness and save her fam­i­ly for­tune, until he was force to wake her with the Shopping And Fucking equiv­a­lent of a kiss. And I nev­er wrote it. I was­n’t cyn­i­cal enough to write some­thing I did­n’t believe, and if I was going to rewrite Sleeping Beauty,” I was sure I could find anoth­er way to do it.

But sto­ry priv­i­leged is a good thing for me. I care about sto­ry. I’m always painful­ly cer­tain that I’m not real­ly much good at sto­ry. I’m always hap­py when a sto­ry feels right, espe­cial­ly when they feel inevitable, when they come out prop­er­ly. I love beau­ti­ful writ­ing, although I’m nev­er con­vinced that what the English think of as beau­ti­ful writ­ing (which is writ­ing that’s clean and straight­for­ward as pos­si­ble) is what the Americans think of as beau­ti­ful writ­ing. And it’s def­i­nite­ly what the Indians think of as beau­ti­ful writ­ing, or the Irish think of as beau­ti­ful writ­ing, which are oth­er things entire­ly. But I digress.

I love the dri­ve and shape of sto­ry. As I get old­er, I’m more com­fort­able with genre. I’m more com­fort­able decid­ing what points a read­er would feel cheat­ed with­out. But still my main impulse in writ­ing is to treat myself as the audi­ence, to enter­tain an audi­ence just like me, who like what I like. That way in a worst case sce­nario one per­son enjoyed it.

People ask me what I mean by sto­ry. It’s the kind of thing that you get asked and you pon­der a lot. And I got it down to my favorite def­i­n­i­tion. I made a very very long def­i­n­i­tion then would cross bits out, work it down. And I got it down to any­thing that keeps some­body watch­ing, or read­ing, and then does­n’t leave them feel­ing cheat­ed at the end.” That’s my definition.


Henry Jenkins: As we’d been get­ting ready to do this event, I’ve talked to a vari­ety of peo­ple, many of whom said the even­t’s like­ly to attract mul­ti­ple con­stituen­cies who’ve become inter­est­ed in your work through the years. Some will know you pri­mar­i­ly from your comics like Sandman and some will know you pri­mar­i­ly from your prose fic­tion. And per­haps there are now a few who know you pri­mar­i­ly through your TV and film work. 

Neil Gaiman: Don’t for­get the blog. There’s peo­ple who nev­er read a word that I’ve writ­ten that just like the blog.

Jenkins: The blog’s amazing.

Gaiman: They want to know how the bees are doing.

Jenkins: So what would each of those groups have missed if they only knew you through a sin­gle medium?

Gaiman: In a lot of cas­es, they’d miss the good stuff. It’s very hard for me to explain to peo­ple who are incred­i­bly proud of hav­ing read every word that I’ve writ­ten and love it and think it’s great that actu­al­ly, they should read Sandman. It’s real­ly good. They’d like it. And they explain that no, they don’t read comics. And it’s like, No, read it. You will get the same kind of pecu­liar buzz that you get from the fic­tion.” And vice versa. 

Probably the one that I hope peo­ple don’t miss is the chil­dren’s stuff, because I think some of the best stuff is in the chil­dren’s fic­tion. Incredibly proud of The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, of The Wolves in the Walls. I think Coraline is one of the coolest things I’ve done. I think The Graveyard Book is prob­a­bly the best thing I’ve writ­ten. And there’s that weird kind of knowl­edge that a large adult con­stituen­cy will not pick up The Graveyard Book because it will be pub­lished as a chil­dren’s book.

Jenkins: A high per­cent­age of your work has either been writ­ten for chil­dren or about chil­dren. What is it that has drawn you so con­sis­tent­ly to chil­dren both as a theme and as an audience?

Gaiman: Partly it was hav­ing them. I def­i­nite­ly start­ed writ­ing about the point where I was a fair­ly young father of a very very young son. Violent Cases, I think, was the first thing I wrote that was any good and sound­ed like me. And a lot of Violent Cases came out of hav­ing a three year-old son and remem­ber­ing what it was like to be three, and see­ing things from dif­fer­ent angles and try­ing to explore the nature of mem­o­ry. So def­i­nite­ly hav­ing kids around is part of it. 

Also, I used to get real­ly real­ly irri­tat­ed as a kid read­ing kids’ fic­tion with kids in it, where I’d go, We’re not like this. What have you been drink­ing? This is weird.” You’d read these books, and you’d go, You must’ve been a child. By def­i­n­i­tion, if you are an adult… How can you have for­got­ten so com­plete­ly what it’s like? It’s noth­ing like this.” And occa­sion­al­ly, most of the time that would be aimed at real­ly irri­tat­ing, bad— The kind of writ­ers who wrote down to you. I remem­ber read­ing Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, which was a book I loved, and then you get to this chap­ter about this kid who’ll do any­thing to get these sneak­ers in which he can run for­ev­er, and I’m read­ing it going, This is bol­locks. I’m twelve. I don’t want a pair of sneak­ers I can run for­ev­er. Hey, any­one around here, you’re all twelve. Anyone want sneak­ers you run for­ev­er?” And every­one’s going, No [mum­bling].”

Anyone here who would actu­al­ly do a job to get the joy of wear­ing sneak­ers that would be enough to keep you run­ning all over Waukegan, Illinois deliv­er­ing things because you got sneak­ers?” And every­one’s going, No…sounds a bit weird.” Terrible of me. But most­ly, it was a deter­mi­na­tion at that age not to let that go. A deter­mi­na­tion to remem­ber. A deter­mi­na­tion if I ever got to be a writer, to write about that, too.

Jenkins: Many oth­er crit­ics have observed this kind of dark­ness in your chil­dren’s fic­tion, but in fact the best chil­dren’s fic­tion has always been incred­i­bly dark. We tell sto­ries at bed­time to kids to scare them to death and then to reas­sure them that it’s not going to hap­pen to them.

Gaiman: I think kids are lot cru­el­er than adults. You dis­cov­er that when you start talk­ing to kids, telling them sto­ries. They want the bad peo­ple to die. Preferably in pain. You don’t want to get into a sto­ry with a bad queen or an evil wiz­ard and say, And then he died in his sleep.” It’s like, No!” Adults, we are fall­en in nature, we are for­giv­ing, we can see our own imper­fec­tions, we do not demand painful jus­tice. Kids do. I think that’s part of it. 

I actu­al­ly had­n’t real­ized that my kid’s stuff was dark­er than my adult stuff until Kim Newman point­ed it out in a review in the Independent of Anansi Boys. He said this is one Neil Gaiman’s adult nov­els, which means it’s much lighter in tone.” And I thought, My God, he’s got a point there.” 

And the first three pages of The Graveyard Book is prob­a­bly the scari­est thing I’ve ever writ­ten. Not a sen­si­ble com­mer­cial move. I’m going to make this very very clear. If you want to wor­ry your pub­lish­er, write a chil­dren’s book with three— Make the first three pages a man with a knife walk­ing around a house in the dark. There were four peo­ple liv­ing there, two par­ents, a child, a lit­tle tod­dler. He’s dealt with all of them except the tod­dler. He’s walk­ing up the stairs.

If you’re going to write a scene like that, what I fig­ured out I should’ve done is slide that in and just make the first scene all about flow­ers or some­thing. Then par­ents or teach­ers who would pick it up and say, I won­der what’s on the first page,” would go oh, it’s flowers.

As it is, the first line’s There was a hand in the dark­ness, and it held a knife.” It nev­er gets that bad again. Kids don’t mind it.

Jenkins: In prepar­ing this, I ran across the quote from you that says, We have the right and the oblig­a­tion to tell old sto­ries in our own ways because they are our sto­ries.” I’m won­der­ing in what sense that’s a right and in what sense it’s an obligation.

Gaiman: I think it’s a bit of both. I think if you’re a writer, you want to try and leave things a lit­tle dif­fer­ent to the way you found them. You want to try and leave stuff behind. And part of that is the idea that you’re allowed to pick up the stuff from the back shelves that has got dusty and peo­ple aren’t look­ing at it any­more, and just buff it up and move it to the front again. It’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly an act of cre­ation, it’s much more…sometimes just act of say­ing this is a real­ly good thing and every­body’s for­got­ten about it. Or, say­ing this is a real­ly inter­est­ing thing and nobody’s look­ing at it from this angle. 

I remem­ber the very very strange feel­ing I got read­ing— I was lying in the bath read­ing Neil Phillips’ Penguin Book of English Folktales. And most­ly read­ing it for new and inter­est­ing and odd lit­tle folk sto­ries, and then I get to some­thing that’s a retelling of Snow White.” And I’d read the sto­ry of Snow White.” This is Snow White and rob­bers, not Snow White and dwarves, but it was the same sto­ry. And she’s eat­en the apple, she’s uncon­scious, she’s believed dead, they put her in a glass cof­fin, prince rides up and says, I’m in love. I must have her. I must take her back to my cas­tle.” And I thought, what kind of a prince, what kind of a per­son, says, Oh, look at this beau­ti­ful corpse? I’m tak­ing it back to my cas­tle with me.”

And once you’ve thought that, the next thing that hap­pens is she coughs up the apple and she’s alive again. And I thought, what kind of per­son has skin as white as snow and lips as red as blood and hair as black as coal and gets to lie in a cof­fin for six months or what­ev­er and then get up? I’m going, This is a real­ly pecu­liar sto­ry, actu­al­ly.” And it was that love­ly moment of going, It’s Snow White” and why don’t I just retell the sto­ry of Snow White” from the point of view of the wicked queen in which we learn that she was­n’t wicked at all. She just nev­er went far enough?” and make her sto­ry about the way that sto­ries are told by the sur­vivors? Stories are told by the win­ners. And it was enor­mous fun. 

But what made it odd­er was going, you know that sto­ry, peo­ple have been trip­ping over it for years. It’s prob­a­bly the first, maybe the sec­ond sto­ry I remem­ber learn­ing. And you don’t inspect it. And then I just sort of looked at it from an odd angle and inspect­ed it, thought it would be a real­ly good thing to retell, and did.

Jenkins: Are there sto­ries that should­n’t be retold? I don’t mean the 90% that Sturgeon’s talk­ing about, but I mean sto­ries either that are so well-told the first time, that we sim­ply want to leave them lie, or sto­ries that are sacred that we don’t want to med­dle with, or for what­ev­er reason.

Gaiman: No, I don’t think there are. I prob­a­bly would’ve giv­en you a slight­ly dif­fer­ent answer a few weeks ago. But one of the things that I stum­bled over when I was in Australia was a graph­ic nov­el adap­ta­tion of The Great Gatsby by Nicki Greenberg, in which Gatsby is a sea­horse and Daisy—I’m not entire­ly sure what Daisy is, she seems to have a sort of head that’s maybe a puff­ball. She could be some kind of flower or maybe a bird, or maybe a kind of rather pret­ty mush­room. You’re not quite sure. And her hus­band is appar­ent­ly a troll. It’s a com­plete­ly straight retelling of Gatsby, done with this amaz­ing cast of grotesques which some­how man­ages to be so much— Why would it be more mov­ing that Jay Gatsby’s a sea­horse? It does not make sense, and if they ever sort out the copy­right prob­lems and actu­al­ly allow it to be sold over here, I think that would be a won­der­ful thing.

I think my answer to that ques­tion would’ve been dif­fer­ent pre read­ing Gatsby, because I would’ve said, Well, I think there are sto­ries that you should­n’t…” Now it’s like, Nah.” Retell it. Use sea­hors­es. It’s brilliant.

Jenkins: You raise the vil­lain in the piece, which is at least some­times copy­right, right? How do we rec­on­cile our right to tell our sto­ries with a world cer­tain char­ac­ters, Miracleman among them, gets tied up with copy­right issues for extend­ed peri­ods of time.

Gaiman: You cope. I don’t know. It’s a bal­anc­ing act. On the one hand, I love copy­right. Copyright’s great. Copyright is what puts food on my table. There is noth­ing more joy­ful, as an author, than receiv­ing a check from some­where like Indonesia for the rights to a trans­lat­ed and pub­lished book that you wrote 15 years ago. And look, here’s $600 I did­n’t earn. It’s the best thing in the world. I get checks now com­ing in from coun­tries I did­n’t know exist. Sometimes I get copies of books. I have to go on the Internet, typ­ing out words that appear on what seems to be the copy­right page to try and fig­ure out, as I des­per­ate­ly Google, what tiny Middle-European coun­try this was actu­al­ly pub­lished in. It’s wonderful.

On the oth­er hand, I think that there’s def­i­nite­ly copy­right stuff that has been pushed as far as it gets pushed. And I think there’s places where the con­cept of Fair Use is one that it’s too easy for it to get erod­ed. And I think it needs to be vig­i­lant­ly patrolled. I’m real­ly wishy-washy on the whole copy­right thing. I’m absolute­ly rub­bish. Because on the one hand, and then on the oth­er. But I do think that you should be allowed to do things that are trans­for­ma­tive. The Jungle Book is still in copy­right. It was out of copy­right back in the mid-80s for a cou­ple of years. 

There was a lit­tle peri­od, copy­right was orig­i­nal­ly death plus 50 years, and then they made it death plus 75 years. A lot of books that had wan­dered out of copy­right just leapt back into copy­right again. But The Graveyeard Book is absolute­ly inspired by the cen­tral idea of The Jungle Book, and it’s almost like a dia­logue with it in some places. 

It’s the old­est idea I’ve ever had. I was 25, some­thing like that. The old­est idea that I’ve had that I had­n’t used. There were ideas I had as a kid that I wound up using on The Sandman, but I was about 25 and we lived in a very tall, spindly house over the road from a grave­yard, and we did­n’t have a gar­den. So when my son Mike need­ed to ride his lit­tle tri­cy­cle, I would take him down the stairs and over the road into the grave­yard, and I’d sit and read on a bench and he would ride his tri­cy­cle between the grave­stones, very hap­pi­ly. And one day, I just remem­ber look­ing at him and going, You know, The Jungle Book was all about a kid whose fam­i­ly were killed and got adopt­ed by wild ani­mals, raised in the jun­gle by jun­gle ani­mals, taught the things that jun­gle ani­mals know. I could do a book about a lit­tle kid whose fam­i­ly are killed, wan­ders into a grave­yard and is adopt­ed by dead peo­ple, and taught all the things that dead peo­ple know.” 

And it was this imme­di­ate point of going okay, well if I did that then my Bagheera char­ac­ter, the black pan­ther, would be a vam­pire. And I’d prob­a­bly have a were­wolf in it as my Baloo, and that would work. All of this stuff sort of clicked, and when I wrote the book, there were a cou­ple of sto­ries that are direct­ly bounc­ing off. One of my favorite sto­ries in The Jungle Book itself is the one where Mowgli is tak­en away by the apes, or the mon­keys kid­nap him. And I thought I’d do one like that, only they’ll be lit­tle ghouls. So these strange lit­tle ghouls kid­nap him and they call each oth­er the Duke of Westminster, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and the Honorable Archibald Westgate, and they… There are more ghouls, actu­al­ly you meet more. You meet the 33rd President of the United States. After a while you fig­ure out they aren’t actu­al­ly those peo­ple, they just got to name them­selves after what­ev­er they ate first after becom­ing a ghoul.

Jenkins: Many of your sto­ries repur­pose and expand upon themes from clas­si­cal mythol­o­gy, folk tales, and fairy tales, we’ve already allud­ed to. What writ­ers about those themes have informed your work? Joseph Campbell, Robert Darnton, or…?

Gaiman: No, actu­al­ly. Joseph Campbell is one of the very few writ­ers who I gave up on inten­tion­al­ly. [I] quite enjoyed the first cou­ple of the Masks of God, which weren’t real­ly about mythol­o­gy, but when I got to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I got about 20 pages into it, I thought, I should­n’t be read­ing this.” This is like a schemat­ic for how these things should work. This is wrong. If I’m doing my job, it’ll work like this anyway.

Mostly it’s pri­ma­ry sources, wher­ev­er you can. I mean, the peo­ple who got me addict­ed to myth would’ve been peo­ple like, there was an English writer called Roger Lancelyn Green who wrote books with titles like Tales of the Norsemen and Tales of Ancient Egypt. The kind of stuff that you’d pick up as a kid. 

I love myth. Wherever I’d be, going around the world, I’d always pick up local books of myths, fig­ur­ing they’ll prob­a­bly be slight­ly more like­ly to be clos­er to pri­ma­ry sources. But I’m real­ly rot­ten at read­ing what peo­ple have writ­ten about myths. I just like read­ing myths.

Jenkins: Are there mytholo­gies in the world today that we’ve under­mined, that you think would be rich sources for future stories?

Gaiman: I think there are def­i­nite­ly a few myths that we’ve sort of lost, which I think is real­ly sad. When I was research­ing American Gods, I fell in love with the sort of Eastern European/Russian stuff. I put Czernobog and The Zorya in there, and found just one book on myth which had a lit­tle chap­ter on them and deter­mined to go out and find all the rest of it, because obvi­ous­ly there was so much more. And after about six months of writ­ing let­ters to peo­ple and going to libraries, I real­ized that there was­n’t real­ly that much more. You had an incred­i­bly effi­cient Eastern church who got rid of a lot of this stuff, and you had nice peo­ple like Napoleon busi­ly burn­ing things as he marched to or from Moscow, and we don’t real­ly have much. Which was rather sad, because it looked like there was some­thing just as inter­est­ing and just as odd as we’ve got in Norse.

But then again we’ve only got Norse more or less by acci­dent. There are very few man­u­scripts that’ve sur­vived, and there are prob­a­bly huge quan­ti­ties of Norse mythol­o­gy lost. Norse is the one I always keep com­ing back to as well. I just love how deeply, utter­ly fucked up on every lev­el… The Romans and the Greeks were alright. They’re busi­ly run­ning around and get­ting laid and turn­ing peo­ple into flow­ers… The Norse, they’re cold, they’re mis­er­able, they’re grumpy, and it’s all going to end in tears and death. And in the mean­time, let’s get drunk. It’s great.

Jenkins: One of the things that I always love about your sto­ries is the way you brush up against myth­i­cal themes and very mun­dane details of our every­day life. I’ve often won­dered if that’s par­tial­ly a prod­uct of try­ing to immerse a world that sees itself in high­ly ratio­nal terms, that does­n’t believe in mag­ic, often is post-secular, with this kind of mythol­o­gy that comes out of a world where peo­ple did believe the myth­i­cal fig­ures were all around them and maybe they want to hold them at bay. But they saw the world as a mag­i­cal place, so is there a chal­lenge in writ­ing such sto­ries for today’s society?

Gaiman: No, it’s fun. You do it for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, though. There are com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent rea­sons why you’ll go off and decide you need to yank a myth and drag it over and pol­ish it up and do some­thing with it. In American Gods, I’d been liv­ing in America for I think about sev­en, eight years. I was very puz­zled by it. I thought it was a real­ly inter­est­ing place that bore much less resem­blance to the America that I’d seen on the movies than I was expect­ing. And it was filled with odd lit­tle bits off at the side that I did­n’t quite under­stand. And I was very puz­zled by things like the way that peo­ple’s rela­tion­ship with their home­land as immi­grants, and the way that America seemed to treat oth­er cul­tures. In England, if you got Poles com­ing into England, or Italians, they were very Polish or they’d be very Italian, and that would con­tin­ue. In America you got the feel­ing that that was… I would run into peo­ple who there was no sense of con­ti­nu­ity. Maybe some food, maybe something.

Then I ran into a quote by Richard Dawson, the folk­lorist. It was just this odd lit­tle quote where he was talk­ing about the fact that there was no mag­ic. The old peo­ple who he would go around and inter­view would tell sto­ries about fairies or about mag­ic, but they would set those sto­ries in Greece or wher­ev­er they came from. And when he would ask, Well, what about America?” they’d say that stuff does­n’t cross the seas. It did­n’t come here.

That kind of went into, I was read­ing a lot of the Jack sto­ries at the time, the Appalachian Jack sto­ries, which are these sto­ries that came from England with the first set­tlers, they moved into the Appalachian. They kept telling these sto­ries long after they’d stopped being told in England, which meant that folk­lorists could go around in the 1920s and 30s and col­lect them. And what’s real­ly odd is the mag­ic had gone. You’d get sto­ries that in England were all about giants or witch­es or Jack doing some­thing very clever, which would involve some mag­ic, and the American ver­sion would just be about him doing some­thing quick-witted, with­out mag­ic. You’d still have kings in there, although they would keep explain­ing the king was just a man who had a big house, which I loved. And the kings would still have beau­ti­ful daugh­ters, but the mag­ic had gone. 

I was pon­der­ing that, and try­ing to pon­der if there was some way out of that, and some­thing I could do with that, some­thing I could use to tell a sto­ry. I was incred­i­bly tired. I had to go to Norway to sign some books, as one does. My trav­el agent at the time said, Did you know you can stop over in Iceland for 24 hours for noth­ing, if you fly Iceland Air from Minneapolis.” I said I did­n’t know that. (It’s not the kind of thing you know.) So I got the plane. It was July 2nd, 3rd, 4th, some­where around there. I flew to Reykjavik, got off at Reykjavik air­port. It was 6:30 in the morn­ing. It’s a very very short flight, because you just nip over the pole. I left at sev­en o’clock that evening, it was now mid­night but now it’s six o’clock in the morn­ing, and I thought I’ll just keep going til it goes dark, then.

So it’s three o’clock that morn­ing. It is still day­light. There are incred­i­bly thin, white cur­tains. My body is going, I’ve no idea what you’re doing. We’ll just keep going.” There is no sleep, of any kind. Around mid-day the fol­low­ing day, it’s Sunday. I’m walk­ing around Reykjavik, I pass the only sushi restau­rant in Reykjavik, and notice in my sleep­less delir­i­um that they have what appears to be pony sushi and I’m very glad that it’s closed. I wan­der into a tourist dis­play, and the tourist dis­play shows the lit­tle map of the voy­ages out to Newfoundland to found the Viking colonies, and I thought Gee, I won­der if they took their gods with them.” 

And all of a sud­den, every­thing that I’d been pon­der­ing just fell into place and I had a sto­ry. And I thought I can absolute­ly talk about the immi­grant expe­ri­ence, I can talk about what it’s like to leave cul­tures behind, I can talk about America, I can talk about all this stuff that I don’t under­stand like why peo­ple go to see the second-largest ball of twine in Illinois. I can put it all in here. And I did. Mythology became a won­der­ful tool at that point.

Jenkins: We both began by pay­ing trib­ute to Julius Schwartz, and one form of American mythol­o­gy is the superhero.

Gaiman: Absolutely.

Jenkins: What do you think about that Silver Age peri­od has proven so fer­tile to sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers? What emerged then about the fig­ure of the super­hero that makes it a rich resource for us today?

Gaiman: I think what Julie did was absolute­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. Without Julie and with­out Stan Lee, prob­a­bly with­out Jack Kirby as well, there would be no super­heroes today. What Julie did was rein­vent them, and rein­vent them very clean­ly and sim­ply. The DC uni­verse was a very odd sort of place. It was real­ly good if you were in England, and you were about 8, maybe 9, 11, 12, some­where around there. The rea­son why it was real­ly good was because they pressed the reset but­ton at the end of every com­ic. At the end of every sto­ry, you reset. So you real­ly only had to know who Batman was, and you would get a full Batman sto­ry, which if your comics are com­ing across as bal­last in boats and you’ve got Batman #171 and the next one you’re going to see is Batman #183 is real­ly good. 

Stan Lee…bit prob­lem­at­ic. People would keep swing­ing off and you’d have a lit­tle thing at the bot­tom say­ing Continued in Daredevil #36 —Smiling Stan” and you would know your chances of ever see­ing Daredevil #36 were right up there with your chances of your see­ing a uni­corn. That has absolute­ly noth­ing to do with Julie Schwartz, I just want­ed to throw it in. 

You peo­ple, who had prop­er news­stands, you did­n’t know how lucky you were. We did­n’t have direct mar­ket com­ic shops back then. We had to carve our comics on the side of a brontosaurus.

Actually what was real­ly inter­est­ing is what Julie did was very dif­fer­ent for each of the things he did. He took a sci­ence fic­tion sen­si­bil­i­ty, first of all, and infused that in. You’ve got the whole Mystery in Space, Adam Strange, you’ve got a Green Lantern who was an absolute­ly bril­liant rip­ping off of E.E. Doc” Smith’s Lensman series. (Talk about the inter­est­ing­ness of copy­right.) And actu­al­ly in many ways were bet­ter, and clean­er. But it was tak­ing that idea, you would take a stan­dard sci­ence fic­tion idea. Making the Flash much more a sci­ence hero, these won­der­ful clean Carmine Infantino lines. You got the very clean SF influ­ence on the ear­ly Silver Age.

You get the Justice League. The way that Julie told me, he said the guy who ran DC Comics was incred­i­bly pleased with the orders on Justice League #1. He played golf with Martin Goodman, who owned Marvel and was more or less ready to shut the whole thing down, and bragged to Martin Goodman about Justice League, and Martin Goodman went into the offices and told Stan, Superhero team, it’s work­ing for DC.” And Stan spoke to Jack Kirby and they came up with The Fantastic Four. That was how Julie told it, and wher­ev­er it’s Julie Schwartz’ word against the truth, I always go with Julie, anyway.

Jenkins: As John Ford said, Print the legend.”

Gaiman: Absolutely. I got into trou­ble once with that on an intro­duc­tion to an H.P. Lovecraft col­lec­tion. Because Julie had bragged to me sev­er­al times that he sold At the Mountains of Madness to Astounding Science Fiction and it was the only sale that H.P. Lovecraft had made that was­n’t to Weird Tales or to the less­er pulps. So I put this in my intro­duc­tion and one of the many H.P. Lovecraft schol­ars explained that this was rub­bish. I’m going, But Julie told me! It has to be true. It’s bet­ter than true. It’s Julie.”

Jenkins: You men­tioned Jack Kirby a minute ago and you’ve recent­ly revis­it­ed some of his fic­tion with The Eternals. What did you find inter­est­ing about the Jack Kirby world?

Gaiman: Last time I said this, I got peo­ple online, John Byrne or some­body com­plete­ly mis­un­der­stand­ing what I’d said and writ­ing screeds online about how dare I com­pare myself to Jack Kirby and stuff like that. What I loved about The Eternals was that it was­n’t top-notch Kirby. It was prob­lem­at­ic Kirby. I would have had no inter­est in doing some­thing like The New Gods, which I think is per­fect. Why would you mess with it?

The Eternals had prob­lems, and a lot of the prob­lems were actu­al­ly prob­lems that I then found when I start­ed try­ing to write it. But The Eternals was also some­thing I did to a brief, and it was a very spe­cif­ic brief. It was Joe Quesada say­ing to me, Neil, do you remem­ber The Eternals?” And I said, Yes. How could you for­get some­thing in which Ikaris goes under the nom de plume of Ike Harris?’ ” Great Kirby names. 

And he said, We don’t real­ly know what they are. They’re part of the Marvel Universe but they’re not real­ly. They’ve been off to one side, and we want to try and do a thing where we have the mutants and we have the heroes and we have the Eternals. Can you just sort of bring them back and clean them off and plug them in?”

So I went back and reread all the Jack Kirby stuff, and you could feel Jack’s frus­tra­tion. You could feel Jack’s frus­tra­tion because he obvi­ous­ly had come up with this won­der­ful idea which is, okay I’m doing Chariots of the Gods? and the idea is these are the char­ac­ters who inspired the leg­ends of the gods. Which means by def­i­n­i­tion they can’t real­ly be part of the Marvel Universe, because how can you have the char­ac­ters who inspired the leg­ends of Thor or Hercules in a uni­verse where you’ve got Thor and Hercules wan­der­ing around? It is a bit prob­lem­at­ic, to say the least.

And you’d watch Jack obvi­ous­ly get­ting orders to make this more part of the Marvel Universe, his ways of try­ing to get round it. There’s one which as The Incredible Hulk on the cov­er, but then you dis­cov­er that it’s not actu­al­ly The Incredible Hulk. It’s a robot­ic, cheer­lead­ing mas­cot of The Incredible Hulk that then goes wild and does all the things the Hulk does. 

I loved it, but you could taste Jack’s frus­tra­tion. He’d come back to do some­thing and peo­ple were push­ing him around, and it did­n’t end… Obviously it was going some­where and sud­den­ly it just stops. It actu­al­ly seemed like a real­ly inter­est­ing project to go okay, well this thing was not built to be part of the Marvel Universe. I won­der if I can unscrew it, clean it off, pol­ish it up, plug it back in, and see if I can get it to work as part of the Marvel Universe.

Jenkins: Recently a num­ber of peo­ple have begun play­ing around with the Sandman mythol­o­gy that you helped to cre­ate. What has that expe­ri­ence been like, to watch oth­er peo­ple mon­key with your stories?

Gaiman: It’s hard. A lot of the time it’s like watch­ing your kids go off to col­lege. They come back with nose rings, then the next time you see them they’ve got a lip ring. And then you’re going not a facial tat­too, dear God, not a facial tattoo.”

Mostly I like it. DC Comics and I drew some ear­ly lines in the sand a decade ago when I fin­ished with Sandman. I said, Look, all of this stuff you can play with. You can play with any­thing that exist­ed before I start­ed that I dragged in. That’s all yours, any­way. And you can play with this, this, this, and this. And fur­ther­more, I think some­thing like this would be great.” It took me about five years to per­suade them to do a Lucifer com­ic. I kept say­ing, I think he’s real­ly good. I think he could do a spin-off.”

They said, Well, we’re not sure.”

No, he could.”

And Mike Carey did the Lucifer com­ic and it was won­der­ful. I loved it. That was, I think, my favorite of all of them. Just because it was­n’t what I would’ve done. It was­n’t some­body try­ing to do me, but it was some­body tak­ing a char­ac­ter or char­ac­ter’s back­ground and just going off and hav­ing fun with it.

Jenkins: Various writ­ers have described you as cre­at­ing com­ic strips for intel­lec­tu­als, or have not­ed the lit­er­ari­ness of your comics work. This is in some sens­es a back-handed com­pli­ment. They’re treat­ing you as a seri­ous artist only inso­far as you break with oth­er com­ic writ­ers. What do you think or feel about this rep­re­sen­ta­tion of your work? It seems like while many peo­ple who break with par­alit­er­a­ture as it’s been called and move into the main­stream or the slip­stream as you talked about ear­li­er, sort of break with their pulp roots. But you seem to thrive on it. You seem to con­stant­ly come back to it. So I’m curi­ous about how you see your­self nego­ti­at­ing between high and pop cul­ture in your work.

Gaiman: I guess I feel like I’m from the gut­ter and I don’t ever want to for­get it. And I’m proud of it. And I think there’s an incred­i­ble amount of life in the gut­ter. It was much more fun, Henry, doing comics and com­ing to uni­ver­si­ties. Back in about 1996, I think, I was invit­ed by a St. Louis uni­ver­si­ty, and I went out there. The English depart­ment boy­cotted it because I wrote comics. That was so cool. I miss those days.

I’m very impressed when peo­ple get away from their pulp roots. I like my pulp roots. And I think pos­si­bly that’s because I have a lot roots, and some of them are pulp and some of them aren’t. Kipling is as much part of it as Julie Schwartz, and I would­n’t put one of those two as more important—well I would, actu­al­ly. Julie’s more impor­tant than Kipling. 

But what actu­al­ly fas­ci­nates me now is you’ve got sort of the reverse going on in a few places. Michael Chabon is edg­ing clos­er and clos­er. He starts off being incred­i­bly respectable and then you get Kavalier & Clay and it wins the Pulitzer. Now he’s much hap­pi­er because he’s win­ning Hugos and Nebulas. Oh, he has­n’t won the Hugo yet, but he’s won the Nebula. He’s up for a Locus Award. I think it’s so cool. I think watch­ing him grad­u­al­ly edg­ing into our camp… It’s nicer here in the pulp world.

Jenkins: Jonathan Lethem’s writ­ing comics.

Gaiman: Jonathan Lethem now doing Omega, yes. It’s live­ly. The par­ties are bet­ter. Or at least louder.

I think there was prob­a­bly a peri­od of time, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the 70s/80s when it actu­al­ly was impor­tant for writ­ers to go, No, I am not a sci­ence fic­tion writer, I am a prop­er writer.” Or what­ev­er. There was a peri­od in there where the Bradburys and the Ellisons and var­i­ous oth­ers sort of made their bid and staked their claim for lit­er­ary credibility. 

I don’t real­ly care about the lit­er­ary cred­i­bil­i­ty stuff. I start­ed in comics. That’s so much fur­ther down. The first major award I got was the World Fantasy Award, and I was told the day after I got it that they’d changed the award to make sure no more comics got it. I say I was told the day after because I notice there is now a small fac­tion that says, No no, that nev­er hap­pened.” It’s like, Did.” [nod­ding head]

Jenkins: You were part of a gen­er­a­tion of comics writ­ers who came from the UK and shook up the American com­ic scene at a cer­tain point. Why so many British writ­ers all at once? What was in the water over there?

Gaiman: You just took my joke, Henry.

Jenkins: Sorry about that. 

Gaiman: No, it’s alright. That was what I was going to say to give me 30 sec­onds think­ing time.

What was it? I think part of it was the strange way these comics turned up. Part of it was how very very dif­fer­ent the entire cul­ture was. And part of it was the fact that you had a gen­er­a­tion in England who loved American comics, start­ing out with Alan Moore. You had me, you had Grant Morrisson, loads of us. We loved American comics, and we loved oth­er things, too. 

And we did­n’t see why you had to keep doing the same things in comics. It just seemed like a won­der­ful medi­um that you could do cool things in. I’d want­ed to write American comics since I was 12. I’d nev­er, ever want­ed to write English comics. I want­ed to get my hands on those won­der­ful Julie Schwartz four-color characters.

And also I think part of it is that Alan Moore set the bar real­ly high. Alan came in and start­ed doing Swamp Thing, did his amaz­ing last Superman sto­ry. Did Watchmen. It was a real­ly high bar, but you’re also going, Oh my gosh, you can do cool stuff.” And that in itself I think was an inspi­ra­tion for us. 

But most­ly it was, I don’t know, the right time. We’d grown up in the 60s. We’d watched the Batman TV show. We had­n’t quite under­stood it. In England, it was­n’t just the death traps. In England, they actu­al­ly had a film clip filmed espe­cial­ly for the UK in which Adam West and Burt Ward stand there and point out that they can’t fly. Actually Adam West points out that he can’t fly, nei­ther should you, and then Burt Ward goes, Holy bro­ken bones!”

This was not nec­es­sary in America. Nobody in America went, I’m Batman. I can fly.” For some rea­son the English, these kids kids jump­ing out of win­dows all over the place, off bridges. 

Jenkins: It’s clear­ly all those miss­ing issues that you were talk­ing about.

Gaiman: If only we’d read them.

Jenkins: Shifting gears, you’ve been very active in the Comics Defense Fund. Why do you think comics have proven to be par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to cen­sor­ship through the years?

Gaiman: Because they’ve got pic­tures. Because you can take things out of con­text in comics bet­ter than you can with any­thing else. If you want to show some­body why a book is offen­sive, you’re going to have to reprint a great big slab of prose. You want to show them why a film is offen­sive, you have to show it to them. 

Comics is bril­liant. It even gets down to… Frederic Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent has a sequence in it where he actu­al­ly just takes out indi­vid­ual pan­els, and prob­a­bly my favorite of all of the pan­els is one cap­tioned some­thing like There are hid­den pic­tures every­where for those who know how to look for them.” It’s man at a beach in front of a girl who’s also on the beach. And if you sort of squint and turn your head side­ways, and have a real­ly real­ly filthy mind, you could sort of imag­ine that maybe some­where in the mus­cle struc­ture of the man’s shoul­der, there is some sort of some­thing faint­ly pubic going on.

It’s a stretch. It’s a very very long stretch, but Frederic Wertham made it, and the truth is that there are a lot of pan­els you can find that are much less of a stretch. EC comics were par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to this. EC Comics did these won­der­ful hor­ror comics, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the 50s, and they were deeply moral, and filled with delight­ful and awful ret­ri­bu­tion. They were dark and they were won­der­ful. And you’d just have to take a few pan­els out of con­text, and sud­den­ly we’re ban­ning hor­ror comics.

Comics are vul­ner­a­ble because it’s real­ly easy. Comics these days are still vul­ner­a­ble because you can still just about, if you are a news reporter on a slow news day, some­where in a very bor­ing town, you can actu­al­ly go down to your local com­ic store, stand in front of the kids’ comics, and say, You thought that comics were all Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Archie, but look what your kids are read­ing” and then grab some­thing from the adults-only shelf and put it in front of the cam­era, and you’re away. You’ve got five min­utes of this filth should be put out.”

We just won the Gordon Lee case in Rome, Georgia. Gordon Lee, very nice man, comics retail­er. For Halloween, they gave away comics to the kids in the neigh­bor­hood for free. Kids walked in, they’d get a com­ic. This is done by a junior kid on the till. Gordon’s doing the till, junior kid is giv­ing away comics. They checked them through, but not thor­ough­ly enough, and one nine year-old, possibly—actually let’s go with alleged­ly at least in one ver­sion of the police com­plaint” because they actu­al­ly changed it after 18 months. It got a bit puz­zling. But, prob­a­bly, a nine year-old was giv­en a com­ic that he should­n’t have been giv­en. It was­n’t a porno com­ic. It was sort of an anthol­o­gy title, and one of the sto­ries fea­tured Pablo Picasso in France in the 1920s, paint­ing in the nude. Which is how Pablo Picasso paint­ed, appar­ent­ly. I did­n’t know this. These tiny, wee­ny lit­tle pan­els of Picasso. This tiny tiny tiny, wee­ny wee­ny wee­ny wee­ny lit­tle Picasso pee-pee.

Now, any sane par­ent whose kid says, I’ve got this, this is inap­pro­pri­ate.” would go back to the com­ic store when it opened the day after Halloween and say, You guys gave my nine year-old this. This is real­ly not on.” And they would say, We are ter­ri­bly sor­ry. Here is a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles graph­ic nov­el, with our apolo­gies.” and that sort of how these things go. But what this par­ent did was call the police. And they threw the book at him. This was not just minor offens­es, these were felonies, they found obscure Atlanta statutes about nudi­ty, and they went for it. And they were plan­ing to send Gordon to jail. 

It took about two and half, three years to get that one sort­ed out. And they got weird­er and weird­er… We were a day away from going to tri­al and the pros­e­cu­tion sud­den­ly announced that all of their evi­dence was wrong, and that actu­al­ly the com­ic had­n’t been giv­en to the nine year-old, it had been giv­en to his five year-old broth­er. Then the next time we went to tri­al, which is anoth­er sev­en, eight, nine months lat­er, we final­ly get back to tri­al, and the pros­e­cu­tion, who’d been told that there’s stuff that they can­not men­tion and have agreed that this stuff can­not be men­tioned, stand up and in their open­ing speech men­tion it. So the judge declares a mis­tri­al and starts it all over again, which appar­ent­ly they did because they just did­n’t like the look of the jury. 

So about a month and a half ago, we were up to the point of get­ting to the next ver­sion of the tri­al, but at this point the DA was com­ing up for re-election. The edi­to­ri­als point­ing out that she was mak­ing a laugh­ing stock of Rome, Georgia were start­ing to get to her, I think. And they agreed that in exchange for an apol­o­gy from Gordon Lee for giv­ing the kid this book, they would drop all the charges.

Now, the dark side of this is that it cost about $100,000 to get to that point in the American jus­tice sys­tem, espe­cial­ly when you have to pre­pare for three dif­fer­ent tri­als. This is wit­ness­es get­ting flown in, expert wit­ness­es are com­ing in to try and point out that your tiny lit­tle Picasso pee-pee is not break­ing laws. It’s expen­sive, and so that’s why I do it. But that’s the kind of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that comics have. The fun­da­men­tal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is very very sim­ply just the idea that comics are for kids, and that by doing comics not intend­ed for kids, you are some­how doing some­thing wrong. 

Cases like that are the high-profile ones. Right now, as much of what the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is doing is things like edu­cat­ing librar­i­ans. They’re get­ting calls from librar­i­ans all the time say­ing, Somebody’s put in a for­mal library com­plaint that we have Daredevil on our shelves, or what­ev­er. Somebody’s decid­ed it’s offen­sive. How can we defend the Frank Miller Daredevil?” So they’re putting togeth­er edu­ca­tion pack­ets and offer­ing help to librar­i­ans, who right now are get­ting it hardest.

Jenkins: Shifting gears a lit­tle bit, many of your works cir­cle around themes of games, toys, dolls, and pup­pets. What rela­tion­ship do you see between these child­hood play­things and the process of storytelling?

Gaiman: They’re just real­ly sin­is­ter, aren’t they?

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen any­thing as creepy as an old doll. There may be some­thing, but old dolls, real­ly dusty Victorian ones made with glass eyes and wigs slight­ly askew with that expres­sion on their face… You put that next to an orig­i­nal, func­tion­ing iron maid­en, and the doll is creepi­er. Especially if they’ve got mold going on. 

I don’t know. It’s always dan­ger­ous, or non-productive, or you get lied, to when you ask a writer about themes. Because the truth is I don’t think we know. I’m not say­ing it’s all uncon­scious, but I’m say­ing that themes pick us as much as we pick them. From the per­spec­tive of being a writer, what you’re des­per­ate­ly try­ing to do each time (or at least for this par­tic­u­lar writer) is you’re try­ing to do some­thing new. You’re try­ing to do some­thing you haven’t done before. You are des­per­ate­ly try­ing not to repeat your­self. You’re con­vinced that what­ev­er you’re doing next is absolute­ly and utter­ly dif­fer­ent from any­thing else you’ve ever done. And then you do it. And then peo­ple come along and point out how exact­ly and pre­cise­ly it lines up with every­thing you’ve ever done, and they point to all the com­mon themes.

I remem­ber once, some­body asked me about the kiss that would occur in my books three-quarters of the way through to indi­cate that we were now mov­ing into Act 3. And I said, What?

And they said, Well you must be con­scious, you do it every time.” 

What?”

There’s always a kiss. Rarely sex­u­al, it’s sort of a not-sexual kiss.”

And I’m going, Okay, well I’ll make sure I don’t do that ever again.” At the time, I was fin­ish­ing off American Gods and I hand­ed it in, and I’m sit­ting there reread­ing it very proud­ly, and sud­den­ly there’s this com­plete­ly asex­u­al kiss between Shadow and Sam, and they’re kiss­ing in the pub, and we’re now into Act 3, and it’s like, Oh, bugger.”

Jenkins: I will try to avoid falling into the trap of inter­pret­ing your work.

Gaiman: But actu­al­ly what I was say­ing right at the begin­ning of the speech— I think it’s com­plete­ly fair game for any­body to inter­pret the work. And I also think it’s com­plete­ly— I am not a writer who believes that my point of view about some­thing that I’ve done is nec­es­sar­i­ly right. Obviously I’ve prob­a­bly thought about it longer and hard­er than you have. But I could be wrong, and I think some­times I am. I will always try and cor­rect peo­ple on mat­ters of fact if they say, I’ve done my PhD on you. Here you go.” I will go through and say, That issue was actu­al­ly pub­lished before that one so it can’t have influ­enced that” or whatever.

But beyond that, once it’s pub­lished I fig­ure absolute­ly any­body has as much right to an opin­ion about it as I do. That I’m the per­son who wrote it does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly priv­i­lege my opinion.

Although obvi­ous­ly real­ly it does.

Jenkins: Given the appar­ent per­sis­tence of games as a theme in your work, it’s curi­ous that that’s the one medi­um so far at least that you haven’t worked within.

Gaiman: That was­n’t real­ly inten­tion­al. It had more to do with my slow-growing con­vic­tion that I was a Jonah. The first time I was ever approached to do a game was about 198687, and Kim Newman and I were approached by this guy to do a game and we came up with this game. It was text games at the time, and the whole thing was you woke up in a hotel room, and if mem­o­ry serves you need­ed to fig­ure out (you had no mem­o­ry) that you were a bomb. And actu­al­ly there was no way that you could­n’t not explode and die. But if you did it in the right place, the right time, you could actu­al­ly win the game. We came up with that and we did the whole thing, and we hand­ed it in, and the peo­ple went out of business. 

At the time, I thought noth­ing of it, until 1991-ish when I did the Alice Cooper project The Last Temptation, and was asked if we’d do a game to go along with it, and worked on a game. Did about a week’s worth of work for a game that was going to go along and get released with it. And watched as the com­pa­ny went out of business.

During the 90s, com­pa­nies would approach DC Comics and buy the rights to Sandman, which they would plan to do as a game, and I would come in as a con­sul­tant. And they’d go out of business.

By the end of the 90s, every­body had gone out of busi­ness that I’d ever been involved with on a gam­ing basis. Nobody had ever stuck around long enough to pay me. So although I had spent many hap­py weeks in hotel rooms and offices plot­ting things, I’d nev­er been paid— Actually I did sort of get paid once. I got a phone call from a com­pa­ny, the very first thing they were going to do was give me a new note­book com­put­er. And I got a phone call from this guy say­ing, Just let­ting you know, we’re going out of busi­ness and tomor­row the offi­cial receiver’s com­ing in to lock the doors and shut us down. But I have your com­put­er on my desk so I’m about to post it to you and lose all doc­u­men­ta­tion on it. If any­body asks you, we nev­er had this con­ver­sa­tion.” So I did actu­al­ly get a note­book computer. 

So at the end of the 90s I thought I am bad luck. I destroy… All I have to do is say, Yes, I will be part of this thing” and they’d go out of busi­ness. And I retired from the busi­ness of not mak­ing com­put­er games at that point. Maybe I will one day return to the busi­ness of not mak­ing com­put­er games, caus­ing oth­er­wise harm­less com­pa­nies to go out of business.

Jenkins: Many American farm­ers have lived for years off not grow­ing crops, so it’s… This event would not have been pos­si­ble with­out Gene Fierro and Geoff Long. Geoff sent me a ques­tion that sort of grew out of his the­sis research, and I thought I’d read it and get a response for him.

One of the things that makes Sandman work so well is its art­ful deploy­ment of neg­a­tive capa­bil­i­ty, the con­stant use of char­ac­ters and events out­side the cen­tral nar­ra­tive that keep read­ers guess­ing about what your char­ac­ters are talk­ing about. How much of this is inten­tion­al­ly planned? Was this planned out from the begin­ning, or added as you went along? Where did you pick up this tech­nique? And are we ever going to find out how Delight became Delirium?

Gaiman: I like the way he slides that last ques­tion in. I don’t know. To be hon­est, it depends a lot on DC Comics. I would love to get togeth­er with Jill Thompson and do that sto­ry, but whether or not it will hap­pen is much more to do— I thought we were prob­a­bly going to do that or some­thing like it for Sandman’s 20th anniver­sary, but it was impos­si­ble to get the behind-the-scenes stuff to come togeth­er. Is that suit­ably cryptic?

Jenkins: About neg­a­tive capa­bil­i­ty more generally…

Gaiman: There we go. Yes. Anything to avoid talk­ing about con­tracts with DC Comics.

Was it inten­tion­al from the begin­ning? No. But it became fair­ly appar­ent­ly fair­ly quick­ly in Sandman that I was writ­ing a sto­ry in which I was going to have 12 issues a year to tell a big, over­ar­ch­ing sto­ry that was going— I did­n’t quite know how long it was going to take, but I knew the shape of the sto­ry I was telling. Sort of like if you set out in Boston and you’re going to hitch­hike to Manhattan. You know the shape of the jour­ney, you don’t know every­thing that’s going to hap­pen on the way, and you don’t real­ly know how long it’s going to take.

So I’m writ­ing Sandman, and real­ly while I’m on the way I fig­ure out for myself that if I keep him off-stage some­times, if he becomes neg­a­tive space, if peo­ple are talk­ing about him, if we see the impact of what he has and does, you get to see him from a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent angle. As long as you’re inside his head look­ing out, you’re see­ing things one way, but he became so much more, for want of a bet­ter word, myth­ic. Also more impor­tant, when he was off. 

When Geoff asked me this very same ques­tion in the taxi on the way from the air­port to the hotel, in the man­ner of some­body who has a the­sis to write and is going to make damn sure his ques­tion gets asked and is not going to rely on Henry to ask it for him in front of an audi­ence of 1,200 peo­ple, I tried to say look, when you’re doing some­thing at that scale, it’s almost like draw­ing a char­ac­ter. You can draw a pic­ture of Morpheus, and then cut it up into lit­tle squares. He’s not going to be in every square. Some squares are just going to be cor­ners. Some might just have a bit of foot in. But the over­all thing that you’re doing is always describ­ing this char­ac­ter, whether he’s on or off. 

And that was real­ly how I felt about it when I was writ­ing it. There was def­i­nite­ly the knowl­edge that a sto­ry­line like Game of You,” in which he’s bare­ly on, and when he is it’s pret­ty much as a god would con­trast real­ly nice­ly with some­thing like Brief Lives,” where we’re down at his lev­el being dri­ven across America look­ing for his broth­er. And it was much more intu­itive. It’s the kind of thing that you def­i­nite­ly don’t sit down there— You would have to be mad and some kind of ego­ma­ni­ac to sit down in 1987 and go, Right, I’m going to do this whole thing, and I will have these comics which there will be neg­a­tive space there and the char­ac­ter will be defined by his absence, ha ha.” 

What you’re sit­ting and think­ing in 1987 is, Okay. So. I think I’m writ­ing some­thing that will prob­a­bly be a minor crit­i­cal suc­cess, which means it will be a com­plete­ly com­mer­cial fail­ure. The way that DC are cur­rent­ly behav­ing is they give every­thing a year so as not to lose face. Which means I get 12 issues. Which means the call that will come in can­celling me will be at issue #8. So what I need to do is plot out the first 8 issues so that’ll be a sto­ry arc, so when they phone me at issue #8 to say that we’re can­celled and they’re run­ning to issue #12, I can do four short sto­ries and then we’ll fin­ish up there.”

So that’s about what you’re think­ing when you start out, and every­thing else that you’re build­ing in, all the grandiose and bizarre plans that you have for the end of this thing, are just that. They’re bizarre, grandiose plans that you’re not even— Some of them you’re admit­ting to your­self, none of them are you telling your edi­tor. And then you get to issue #8 and it’s sell­ing more than any­thing of its kind has sold before and they aren’t can­celling you. So then you start going, Okay. I think I can do this thing now.” And you’re going I have this sto­ry­line which at the time in my head was called Suppose They Gave an Inferno and Nobody Came” but in the end I called it Season of Mists.” 

I thought, Everyone’s going to love that one, so I’m not going to do that next. I’m going to do this oth­er stuff next that they won’t love as much. But that’ll give me this thing” and you’re sort of work­ing out things in a real­ly strange kind of way in order to get to the end. It was anoth­er cou­ple of years before I idly start­ed say­ing in con­ver­sa­tion to my edi­tor and then to the pub­lish­er of DC, I would say things like, You know, I was think­ing it might be a real­ly good idea if Sandman fin­ished when I was done, and you did­n’t get anoth­er writer in.” 

And they would say things to me like, Neil… You know that’s not what hap­pens in comics. When it’s done, it’ll be Paul Kupperbeg’s turn” or whatever. 

And I’m going, Well, but [indis­tinct nois­es]” And then I did­n’t men­tion that again to them. But in inter­views over the next few years, I would casu­al­ly say when asked what would hap­pen in Sandman, Well, I hope it fin­ish­es when I fin­ish, because oth­er­wise I’ll nev­er work for DC again.”

And some­where in there, we’re 18 months/2 years before the end, I get a phone call from Karen my edi­tor say­ing, You know, we’ve been think­ing. We can’t car­ry on after you’ve left, can we?”

I said, No.”

And she’d say, You are plan­ning to fin­ish the story.”

I said, Yeah.”

She said, Well, maybe we could do a spin-off and call it The Dreaming.”

I said, What a good idea.” 

There’s a lev­el on which you have to— You’re play­ing an incred­i­bly com­pli­cat­ed game when you’re doing a month­ly com­ic that runs over sev­en, eight years and is all telling one sto­ry. And hon­est­ly I’ve been spoiled now, going off and doing nov­els. Novels are mag­ic. There’s this thing you can do with nov­els where if you’re on the last chap­ter and you have a real­ly good idea for some­thing that you could set up in the first chap­ter, you just go back and set it up. Nobody knows.

In comics, if you have a real­ly good idea for some­thing that you’ve set up in the last chap­ter and it was­n’t in the first chap­ter, peo­ple have owned it for five years. You can’t sneak back and draw some­thing in to every­body’s com­ic, much as you’d love to. If that gun was­n’t in the draw­er… So you had to sort of put it in. And some­times you’d put it in know­ing what it meant, and some­times you wouldn’t.

Reading Dickens, always very odd for me because I’ll read Dickens and my Sandman head, my lit­tle Sandman brain starts click­ing and whirring, and lit­tle lights start flash­ing because Dickens was writ­ing seri­al­ly and could­n’t go back and do any­thing. And I will read him going, Okay, that’s part of your plot. That’s some­thing that you don’t know what it is, but it’ll be use­ful lat­er. That’s some­thing that you think is just a way to pull two pages togeth­er but I bet you’ll find you actu­al­ly need­ed that.” 

Which is the real­ly weird thing about writ­ing. At some point in a sto­ry, you’ve always built some­thing, that sort of real­ly oddly-shaped wrench, and you’re not even sure why you put it in. You thought it was just for fun, and then three-quarters of the way through the sto­ry you’ll go, I’m real­ly in trou­ble here. If only I had a real­ly oddly-sha—oh!”

But it is that feel­ing with read­ing Dickens of going okay, I know what you’re doing here. This is part of your over­all sto­ry, this is stuff that you’re doing to enter­tain your­self, this is going to be use­ful, this is a ball in the air and you’re going it will come down lat­er” and you’re not quite sure when but you know that it will.

Jenkins: Thanks so much for every­one com­ing, and thanks to Neil, and thanks to Gene and Geoff.

Further Reference

Neil Gaiman: The Liveblog


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