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King of all media Neil Gaiman still writes in Sandman’s shadow 

Gaiman speaks and signs books Dec. 14 at Agnes Scott

The Walt Disney of our time may be a 49-year-old, scruffy-haired, leather-jacketed Englishman with a horde of followers bedecked in goth garments.

Writer Neil Gaiman and his fans might balk at the comparison with the famed, notorious animation mogul, but as cultural forces, the pair has more similarities than you might dream. Both initially found their fortunes with young, underappreciated art forms. While Disney broke ground with animated cartooning, Gaiman caught the wave of the 1980s comic book renaissance. "When I was working on Sandman, I felt a lot of the time that I was actually picking up a machete and heading out into the jungle. I got to write in places and do things that nobody had ever done before," Gaiman told Wild River Review earlier this year.

Both men made the reinterpretation of classic stories and fairy tales part of their modus operandi. Where Disney sugarcoated the likes of Snow White and Pinocchio for the American movie-going public, Gaiman decorated archetypal narratives in fresh, modern trappings. With an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature, Gaiman's imagination can place mythological deities alongside, say, Mark Twain or Marco Polo.

Gaiman's output equals only the tiniest fraction of the Disney corporate empire – at least, so far – but he's a staggeringly prolific and eclectic creator. In the past 15 years, he's shifted his creative focus away from comics to other forms, including best-selling novels, kid-friendly picture books, an amiable blog, and high-profile screenplays. Gaiman didn't personally write or direct the screen adaptations of Stardust or Coraline, but both films lovingly capture the author's sensibility. Soon enough, "Neil Gaiman" will rival "Walt Disney" as a multimedia brand name.

In a sign of Gaiman's international rock star popularity – and his gentlemanly ways – the author encouraged a contest among North America's independent booksellers to win a personal appearance based on the best Halloween party tie-in to his recent young adult novel The Graveyard Book. Decatur's Little Shop of Stories was America's winner (a shop in Canada also earns a visit), so Gaiman will speak and sign books Dec. 14 at Agnes Scott, a venue large enough for the inevitable crowd.

Gaiman reigns in pop culture as the king of all fantastical media, but so far, he seems to be a master of one. His 75-issue comic book series, The Sandman, remains his artistic peak, and while his cottage industry maintains a high standard, Gaiman's attentions seem so divided, one wonders if he'll ever equal his epic graphic novel.

The Sandman's status as a work of genius was not immediately apparent. As part of DC Comics' Vertigo line of "sophisticated suspense," The Sandman debuted in 1989 as the unearthly exploits of Morpheus, the immortal lord of dreams and hence the shaper of human creativity. The Sandman's first years proved heavily influenced (if not the outright derivatives of) the work of Watchmen creator Alan Moore, but Gaiman proved to be a quick study. By the time of Season of Mists and A Game of You, two Sandman storylines from the early '90s, Gaiman clearly attained Moore's level. If he was never as stylistically innovative, Gaiman infused his work with a warmth and emotional richness that often eluded Moore.

A Sandman subplot almost provides a parallel to this dynamic. William Shakespeare himself occasionally popped up in the series, first as a promising playwright in the shadow of his contemporary Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare struck a bargain with Morpheus and eventually became the greatest writer in the English language: Gaiman ended Sandman’s runs with “The Tempest,” a tale of Morpheus’ last meeting with Shakespeare. That’s not to say Gaiman and Moore are Shakespeare and Marlowe’s equals. They’re similarly huge figures on the comics scene, however, and Gaiman’s crossover popularity has unquestionably eclipsed Moore’s. 

Since the mid-'90s, the two writers have sharply diverged. Where Moore's interests prove increasingly dense and arcane, Gaiman's grow ever more accessible. The author seems intent on breaking down story forms to their essentials, so the simplicity of young adult fiction comes naturally to him (as well as being a good career move in a publishing industry dominated by Harry Potter). Of his recent books, Odd and the Frost Giants features Norse gods as supporting characters, while The Graveyard Book takes inspiration from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Gaiman envisions a boy raised from infancy not by wild animals, but by the ghosts in a century-spanning English cemetery. Instead of Shere Khan the tiger, an enigmatic slasher called "the man Jack" stalks the young hero.

If Gaiman's work has a weakness, it's that his reliance on timeless formulae and frameworks becomes more apparent, even predictable. You can practically set your watch by his use of time-tested narrative devices. Innocent young hero? Quests that often involve three trials? Mysterious mentor? Ah, here come the animal familiar and the working-class comic relief, right on time. The young heroes of Frost Giants and Graveyard have practically the same name: "Odd" and "Bod," respectively.

Gaiman has yet to do with prose what he did in comics with The Sandman. His two biggest novels, American Gods and Anansi Boys, hint at an equivalent to the Morpheus mythos with a vision of how ancient gods evolve in contemporary civilization – although Anansi Boys takes a well-intended but labored detour into comedy. Gaiman teams up with distinctive artists for his recent plethora of picture books, but seems still in that imitative phase, like his first years with The Sandman. The Dangerous Alphabet feels highly reminiscent of Edward Gorey's classic The Gashlycrumb Tinies, while Crazy Hair has the rhythms, rhyme scheme and absurdity of Dr. Seuss.

He still dabbles in comic books, even with famous superhero properties. His recent Batman graphic novel, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, showcases Gaiman’s abundant ideas as well as his weirder storybook impulses. The book envisions alternate versions of Batman’s death, and in one tale, Alfred the Butler reveals that, as a former actor, he invented the Joker and other supervillains merely to give Bruce Wayne a distracting outlet for his vigilante obsessions. The graphic novel ends with an affecting but deeply strange climax that riffs on, of all things, the bedtime story Goodnight Moon.

It's not that these aren't good. The Graveyard Book is perhaps Gaiman's loveliest prose work to date. They just don't seem proportionately good, given that the man can write like a dream.

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