Wednesday, September 10, 2008

NEVERWHERE, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman made his name with the Vertigo comic series SANDMAN, a dream-centered epic that inflected traditional mythologies with 90s goth culture. In the end SANDMAN ran for 75 issues, later collected into 10 graphic novels, and it was celebrated by everyone from Norman Mailer to Stephen King. I've got friends that are crazy about Sandman, but my own experience with the series has teetered between mildly entertained and just plain bored, and I quit slogging through it after the 8th graphic novel. The fact that I spent so much time with the title character "Dream," and then gave up in the story that concerns his death, shows how tedious the series had become for me--all that time together, and I couldn't even finish for the sake of closure.

Since SANDMAN, Gaiman has gone on to work in novels, and he's had a lot of success in this field as well. I'd been curious to see how the man stood up on his own, in a less collaborative medium than comics (which is often a baby shared by a writer and artist), and I got my chance to read NEVERWHERE, Gaiman's first novel, when a co-worker started reading it in the office, and raving about it daily. Once he'd finished the book, he handed it off to me.

One of the things I found most interesting about NEVERWHERE was how much it reminded me of SANDMAN. I'd assumed there'd be significant differences between Gaiman on his own, working with words alone, and his collaborations with artists in a visual format, but I was wrong. Part of this might arise from the fact that Gaiman rarely worked with one artist for very long; excepting Dave McKean, who did the covers, SANDMAN saw a new artist every few issues. That might mean that the artists had less involvement in the story or the characters--the artists might have dressed SANDMAN up in different clothes, but it remained Gaiman's baby alone. Another thing that might be responsible for the similarity is Gaiman's rudimentary use of words; he's hardly a stylist, more of an idea man who uses words simply, in order to express those ideas. The final thing that really draws the two works together is the fact that so many of the ideas in the novel are the same as those in the comic. Both works, for example, show an adoration of female characters, often presenting them as powerful and mysterious while the male character's are either inept or wily. Both works portray reality as a mere illusion, and those who can't see past that illusion are shown as vulnerable and weak. Both works feature villains that munch on rats. It goes on and on.

Also interesting about the similarities between SANDMAN and NEVERWHERE are what they reveal about Gaiman himself. We get the sense, from reading these stories, that Gaiman likes to play a bit rough--he's not afraid to kill a character, even a central one, with little explanation or compensation. I get the feeling that this is one of the things that his fans like about him--they see this as evidence that Gaiman doesn't pull punches. Gaiman also uses clever humor as a tool, or an easy way out: "Varney connected his crowbar with the dwarf, who instantly stopped bouncing and darting, and instantly began lying insensible."

One notable difference between SANDMAN and NEVERWHERE is that as the novel progressed, it became more interesting, while the comic completely lost me by the end. I think that part of this comes from Gaiman's passage concerning "the ordeal" that Richard (the protagonist) has to go through, which is a passage that carries a lot more power than much of the rest of the book that preceded it. Before this passage Richard comes across as a bit of a lovable buffoon, endearing but not especially interesting. After the passage he becomes more than that--he's faced a truly harrowing experience, an experience the reader can relate to with more emotion than a cleverly described blow with a crowbar. We actually respect him, and feel like he merits our concern.

Maybe this improvement toward the latter half of the book relates to the fact that NEVERWHERE started out as a television program that Gaiman later adapted into the novel. In the start he was mucking about, playing with a new medium, establishing the story and the characters. In the middle it loses its sense of direction. But by the end Gaiman had a stronger idea of where to take the story, and he gave us more meaningful plotting.

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