Neil Gaiman’s singular vision

“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you: your voice, your mind, your story, your vision.” Novelist and screenwriter Neil Gaiman, at the University of Arts commencement Thursday. Gabriela Barrantes.
“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you: your voice, your mind, your story, your vision.” Novelist and screenwriter Neil Gaiman, at the University of Arts commencement Thursday. Gabriela Barrantes.
Posted: May 19, 2012

Neil Gaiman has spent a career mapping out the myths that make our world worth living in.

A cartographer of the fantastical, terrifying, chaotic, and sublime world beneath our waking life, he perfected the graphic novel into a work of high literary art with The Sandman (1989-96), an epic 75-part comic-book series about the adventures of an unlikely hero named Dream, who is the very personification of dreaming. (He’s the baby brother of Death, a charming, perky, and likable, if awfully pale, antiheroine.)

On Thursday, Gaiman, 51, delivered the commencement address at the University of the Arts’ graduation ceremony, where he also was awarded an honorary Ph.D. in fine arts.

“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you: your voice, your mind, your story, your vision,” the British-born, Minneapolis-based novelist and screenwriter told the 526 newly minted graduates.

“So write and draw and dance and play as only you can. ... Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”

In a sweet bit of irony that he pointed out to his audience, Gaiman never attended college.

Like fellow comic-book pioneer and friend Alan Moore (The Watchman), Gaiman is an autodidact who has mastered an impressive range of literary, artistic, and philosophical subjects without any formal education.

“I learnt to write by writing,” said Gaiman, whose works include more than half a dozen traditional prose novels, including Neverwhere (1996), Anansi Boys (2005), and The Graveyard Book (2008), the first novel ever to be awarded both the Carnegie and Newbery medals.

Two other books, Stardust (1998) and Coraline (2002), have been adapted into hit films, while his extraordinary dissection of American myths, 2001’s American Gods, is being adapted into an HBO series.

Gaiman flew into town Wednesday morning with his wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, who is about to launch a world tour. (“I’ll have 18 months where I don’t have to be anywhere,” Gaiman said of her impending departure.)

Not the least bit nervous on the eve of what he admitted was his very first commencement address, Gaiman took some time out for a chat about his growing body of children’s books, including Graveyard, which is being adapted into a film by Coraline director Henry Selick.

“The thing I have done over the last decade that I am probably the proudest of is the Graveyard Book,” said Gaiman, whose unruly, curly, graying black hair contrasted with the inky blackness of his slightly rumpled all-black trouser-shirt-jacket ensemble. “[It’s] the one time I’ve sat down and written a book and felt that the book I wound up with was better than the thing I had in my head when I started.”

Gaiman laughed when it was pointed out the book has been in his head virtually his entire adult life — he conceived the idea in 1985, when he watched his then-2-year-old son, Michael, playing in a nearby graveyard.

An “all ages” book, Graveyard concerns a boy named Nobody “Bod” Owens, whose entire family is slaughtered when he is 18 months old. He manages to crawl to a graveyard, where he is adopted by its inhabitants, a gaggle of ghosts, one werewolf, and one very crafty vampire.

By book’s end, the now-16-year-old Bod must face off against the vicious gang who killed his parents.

So much darkness!

Gaiman, a self-described Maurice Sendak disciple, said that without darkness, fairy tales lose their meaning and purpose — to give children an honest look at the world and how to survive in it.

“I feel there is something fundamentally dishonest in ... Disney Channel-style programs, where the plot is something like, somebody thinks somebody forgot their birthday and the twist is actually they haven’t forgotten,” says Gaiman, “and then everybody hugs.”

The usually very laid-back Gaiman pushes on with passion. “I’m not telling kids the world is dark,” he said. “Any kid who is living and walking and breathing and is worried about what’s in their closet and what’s under the bed and who has to deal with mean kids at school ... they know there are dragons out there.”

Paraphrasing a famous line from G.K. Chesterton, Gaiman added: “Fairy tales aren’t true. They are morethan true, and not because they tell you that the dragon exists, but because they tell you the dragon can be beaten. That is the key to children’s fiction. For me it’s about empowering children.”

Gaiman admits he also is willing to write about sweetness and light.

“At the same time, one of my next books, Chu’s Day, is about a baby Panda who sneezes.”

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com

|
|
|
|
|