It is in some ways difficult to quite articulate why Neil Gaiman is good. Clearly he is. Even if I wasn’t fond of his writing, and I am, I’m not the sort of critic who is going to try to reject the volume of acclaim that Gaiman’s work has gathered. (Heck, I’ve contributed to it.) But despite all of this it’s maddeningly difficult to figure out what it is about him that makes him so substantial and important.
He is not so much the first of the British Invasion comics writers as he is the middle of them. The forefather, Alan Moore, had made the jump to DC some years before. His arrival coincided with Jamie Delano’s and Grant Morrison’s, with a later wave still to come consisting of Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, and, finally, Warren Ellis and Mark Millar whose British careers didn’t even start until after Gaiman had broken out in the US. In this regard he is, by and large, typical of the style. He’s probably the most successful of them, although Millar’s savvy in making creator-owned comics with the intention of having them turned into films needs some acknowledgment, and Grant Morrison seems perpetually on the brink of some film breakout or another. But much of this comes down to his skill at the business of writing – Gaiman is adept at working different media and at catering to a loyal fanbase. (Indeed, I’d argue that very little of what he’s written since American Gods has been as good as the highlights of his pre-American Gods career, largely because after the success of American Gods he started writing primarily for his built-in audience and not pushing himself)
Much of what constitutes Gaiman’s style is borrowed from Alan Moore, and the comparison does Gaiman few favors. Moore’s work is more complex and enlivening, and almost any time they’ve shared the same genre and approach I’d argue that Gaiman comes off as the poor imitation, turning out a slightly more populist version of the same techniques. But even here the line of argument contorts oddly. Yes, Gaiman comes off as the Alan Moore protege that he, as a matter of empirical fact, is. But on the other hand, some of Gaiman’s early work, most particularly his first collaboration with Dave McKean, Violent Cases, prefigures Moore’s work in the 90s just as much as Swamp Thing prefigures Sandman.
A cynical approach would suggest that Gaiman’s major innovation was his realization that goths and geeks had a significant overlap that nobody was marketing adequately too. Indeed, even a less cynical approach might acknowledge this – it’s something that Doctor Who was sniffing the edges of in the latter days of the Cartmel era – as a significant move. Indeed, there’s a book to be written about the transformation of geek culture in the early 1990s, and though the episodes themselves had too small an audience to be a major part of that, the Cartmel era was certainly in step with it. The move to turn “geek culture” from a designated set of signifiers (D20s, Spock Ears, computers) into a broader part of culture such that we are all geeks now, and geekiness is more a way of interacting with narrative than a genre as such. Gaiman, by pitching fantasy straight at the goth crowd, was moving forward decisively with the idea that Doctor Who was working with in stories like The Happiness Patrol or Survival, where the series seemed to muse that subcultures are at least partially interchangeable.
There is, however, more to Gaiman than just the realization that portraying Death as a goth manic pixie dream girl was a surefire success. He, more than anyone before him, figured out how to do metafiction that isn’t smug. He’s certainly not the first genre writer to do metafictional stuff, and he’s not even the first one to do it well, but he is the first to make a career out of telling stories about storytelling. And if you’re going to pick a singular thing that is why Gaiman is so acclaimed, this is it.
Sandman, in this regard, is blatant in a way that nobody could get away with anymore. Its basic conceit, that there are some transcendent beings called the Endless, is paper thin. That they only embody concepts beginning with D makes it all the more ridiculous, creating a wholly arbitrary list of seven concepts (Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Destruction, Delerium-Who-Used-To-Be-Delight). The main character being Dream, and thus a literal embodiment of, well, dreams and stories is such an uncomplicated bid to get away with telling metafictional stories that nobody could get away with anything remotely like it anymore. Even comics coming out today that unambiguously owe a massive debt to Sandman – Kieron Gillen’s Journey into Mystery, Mike Carey’s The Unwritten, or Bill Willingham’s Fables, for instance – come nowhere close to a premise that’s just “so there’s this guy, and he’s the literal embodiment of dreams.”
This, then, speaks to the extent of Gaiman’s influence. The fact that he could slip a premise that is, in hindsight, such an untroubled attempt to say “I’m going to do some Neil Gaimany stuff” past a discerning editor shows just how fresh Gaiman’s approach was. But if the premise is too thin to possibly get approved today, it’s also not entirely clear from it what the appeal is. The literal embodiment of dreams who looks like Peter Murphy. So what, honestly?
Well, here we get to the clever bit. Most metafictional stuff works from a narrative out to metafiction. So you start with characters who are in a “normal” type of story, then have them express metafictional awareness. (c.f. Moonlighting, to pick an example out of the air) Sandman, on the other hand, works exactly backwards. It starts from a big metafictional premise and then, given a set of characters who are explicitly and self-awarely archetypal, proceeds to tell perfectly ordinary stories about them. Sandman’s premise may be hugely metafictional, but its overall plot is as straightforward an Aristotelean tragedy as can be executed.
The effect of this is a reckless and almost giddy escalation of the increasing “epic” stakes that have been plaguing genre fiction, including Doctor Who, for decades now. Gaiman doesn’t bring the obsession with the epic to an end by any measure, but he certainly brings the concept of escalating stakes in terms of epics. You can even pinpoint the exact story he does it in: Seasons of Mist. Because the premise “Lucifer decides to close Hell down and give the key of it to the Lord of Dreams, who then gets visited by several pantheons of gods bidding for control of it” is pretty much it in terms of increasingly epic storytelling. You’re done. You’re not going to get a more preposterously ambitious plot than that.
Of course, what Seasons of Mist is really about is a man realizing that he was very, very mean to an ex-girlfriend, trying to apologize, and finding out that atoning for his past is more complex than he gave it credit for. And that’s Gaiman’s real cleverness. He sets up a premise that gives massive mythic weight to absolutely every detail of the world, and then proceeds to tell small stories about family betrayals and jealous exes. One of his biggest tricks in doing this is the use of the metafiction as a constraint for his characters. Dream may be a terrifyingly powerful embodiment of a primal concept of the universe, but he’s never just unleashed and shown to be powerful. Instead he’s constantly depicted as being bound by various rules, laws, and duties. The lesser characters are similarly constrained, their archetypal natures explicitly shaping what they can do. His characters constantly bump against the limits of their natures, but very few – only Lucifer and Destruction, really – ever rebel against them, and in both cases that rebellion is itself a part of their nature.
The result is a comic that consists of small stories taking place amidst the detritus of older epics. This is certainly similar to the reinventions of existing texts that, say Alan Moore or Ben Aaronovitch have been at for years. But Gaiman takes it further. He doesn’t just reinvent old texts and tell different sorts of stories in the rubble of their deconstructed signifiers. He tells stories that are about the very existence of signifiers and old stories. His stories are about storytelling, and by extension about their own power. In this regard, then, the observation that he’s a major influence on Paul Cornell seems almost too obvious to be worth pointing out.
It’s worth looking at an example. Since any comics writer worth their salt can hit single issue stories out of the park without blinking, let’s take one of his singles from around the period we’re talking about in Doctor Who – Sandman #38’s “The Hunt,” cover dated June of 1992, and thus, in practice, out the same month as Cat’s Cradle: Warhead. Like a lot of Gaiman’s Sandman stories, the issue employs a frame story so that there is a literal act of storytelling within it. (Gaiman eventually takes this to dizzying ends in his World’s End storyline, in which, counting the comic itself, there are momentarily seven distinct and nested acts of storytelling going on at once. It’s in issue #55, if you want to go looking.) As a result, two stories are going on in parallel. In one, a Russian grandfather tells his granddaughter a story of the old country. The other is a fairly traditional Russian fairy tale, ordered in proper Proppian fashion, in which Dream makes a brief appearance.
Crucially, the stories are intermeshed. Neither the folk tale nor the interaction of the grandfather and granddaughter are particularly lively on their own, but the interplay of the two stories is full of meaning and significance. Within the fairy tale is a moment of interesting elision. At one point the protagonist of the fairy tale has the opportunity to meet a beautiful noblewoman he’s been dreaming of all story, but upon seeing her in her bed decides simply to return the locket of hers he’s treasured and leave without further interaction. The grandfather tells this, and then focuses on the reaction of Dream and another regular Sandman character, Lucien, to that turn of events, saying that “when Lucien asked Vassily about the Duke’s daughter he shook his head and said nothing. But the Lord of Dreams knew that wishes are sometimes best left ungranted; and he did not need to ask.” But two pages later it is revealed that Vassily, the protagonist of the story, is in fact the grandfather himself. His story elided what it was that he saw and felt when he saw the Duke’s daughter, even as the grandfather points out that this is what the story was really about.
This is a very typical Sandman theme, where how a story is told and what is and isn’t included in it is the overt focus of the narrative. (Another story, in issue #40, takes this theme of secrets and mysteries even further, leading to one of Gaiman’s most quoted maxims, “it’s the mystery that endures, not the explanation.”) On a broad level “The Hunt” is a story about why we tell stories and what their roles are (the grandfather/granddaughter story is, broadly speaking, a debate about the fairy tale’s relevance), but it’s made up of smaller, more normal stories.
A more virtuoso approach to this comes in the arc A Game of You, a six-issue storyline in which Dream appears on just twenty pages out of a hundred-and-forty-four. In this regard A Game of You prefigures some of the New Adventures’ marginalizings of the Doctor, telling a story about the space around a main character instead of about the main character as such. But more significant is the way in which A Game of You takes its central ideas – a young woman’s old childhood dreams – and turns them into a dark and heartbreaking story. Again, the overall tone is in part about stories, and endings, and the question of when a story is past being useful. It’s a story about the death of the childhood dreamworld itself, but again, all the events make up a straightforward enough story in their own right. It’s not a story whose central “theme” is a metaphor for growing up and losing your childhood fantasies. It’s a story that is actually, straightforwardly about childhood fantasies. The material components of the narrative are what the narrative is about.
The final thing we should note about Gaiman’s style is his propensity for throwing the “show don’t tell” maxim out the window at strategically opportune moments. This is a trick he inherits from Alan Moore’s deft narration, but Gaiman hones the technique into a particularly effective trick that became, for better or for worse, one of his most enduring influences. It’s now standard practice for genre stories to just blithely declare big thematic concepts without attempts at subtlety – the outright declaration, for instance, that “the Doctor is worth the monsters” in The Girl in the Fireplace, for instance.
Again, it’s worth looking at how Gaiman himself uses this technique. Let’s use the first chapter of Seasons of Mist, There’s a three-page section of the issue in which each of the Endless (save for Destruction) gets a few paragraphs of prose description. Some bits of these descriptions are suitably show-don’t-tell, revealing details of characters through nice, proper objective correlatives. Of Despair, Gaiman writes: “Many years ago, a sect in what is now Afghanistan declared her a goddess, and proclaimed all empty rooms her sacred places. The sect, whose members called themselves The Unforgiven, persisted for two years, until its last adherent finally killed himself, having survived the other members by almost seven months.” This would raise no eyebrows with a creative writing teacher save perhaps concern about melodrama. Much is revealed about Despair, but obliquely.
Compare to Desire: “Desire is of medium height. It is unlikely that any portrait will ever do Desire justice, since to see her (or him) is to love him (or her), – passionately, painfully, to the exclusion of all else… Never a possession, always the possessor, with skin as pale as smoke, and eyes tawny and sharp as yellow wine: Desire is everything you have ever wanted. Whoever you are. Whatever you are. Everything.” You’ll not be getting away with that one in a creative writing seminar.
And yet these passages are among the most quoted bits of Sandman. Clearly they work. Why? The first thing to note is that even though he’s just expositing, Gaiman is working with a poetic lilt. Up until the word “passionately” the line parses in almost perfect iambs, with an extra beat at the ends of sentences (which is common in poetry). The use of alliteration and assonance together for “passionately, painfully” is similarly deft, as is the switch to a dactylic/trochaic rhythm for those words, creating a point of emphasis at that turn. Note also that “never a possession, always the possessor” splits into two phrases with identical cadence. Then we’re back to iambs for “with skin as pale as smoke, and eyes,” before a quick insertion of a trochee for “tawny,” creating a point of emphasis again right around the word sharp, so that the content and rhythm feed off of each other. This is very sharp, controlled writing, with a rhetorical structure that’s elevating itself so that the declarative content carries extra weight.
And, of course, there’s the mildly archaic tone – the slight overqualification of “it is unlikely that any portrait,” or the use of “tawny.” You can get away with telling if you break out a more poetic register to do it with. (And this is something both Moffat and Davies are meticulous in when they use this trick.) The result is an added power to the narrative – the ability to have its themes and implications hit har and directly, instead of being oblique.
The result is a compelling sort of story. It’s at once populist and literary – dense and full of implications, but wearing all of them on its sleeve. It provides a new way of playing with existing tropes, using them as a jumping off point to tell new stories that are in a large part about the impact of the old ones. And obviously I don’t want to go too far down the road of talking about how this approach can apply to Doctor Who because, well, in 2011 it was applied to Doctor Who and we’ll get there. And, heck, we’ll get to Neverwhere soon enough.
More important, for now, is the basic fact that Gaiman was a massive influence on anyone writing sci-fi or fantasy in the 90s. It’s blatantly obvious that most of the New Adventures writers had read him, with Paul Cornell being both the most blatant and the most skillful at adopting his style and techniques. The aggressive and explicit reconceptualizing of the Doctor, the focus on stories that are overtly about who the Doctor is and what the implications of his actions are, the defaulting to giving him big, mythic forces to fight, and even, in the end, the New Adventures’ basic assumption that to tell real and challenging stories requires being for “mature audiences” all owe a debt to Sandman, whose run coincided almost exactly with the New Adventures, starting in the final year of the classic series and ending the same year as the TV Movie. As much as the Hammer Horror films were to the Hinchcliffe era and Quatermass and Doomwatch were to the Letts era, Sandman is the overt and clear model for this era of Doctor Who.