The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

Heroes Week 2009: American Gaiman

We have reached the end of Heroes Week (and yes, it's a couple days late. Sue me), and the final entertainment sphere I must cover is the written word. I originally planned to write about the comic work of one Matt Fraction, one of my favorite current comic writers out there, but I wanted to switch things up and write about books. You know, book books. Like, with words and stuff. And little to no pictures. Shocking, I know. I read lots of books. Many of them, especially these days, are philosophy related, but I still get some time sometimes to actually read a novel for fun. This year has been the year of Neil Gaiman. I love his books. And, of course, he got his start writing comics, and his prose start writing a book about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The man was destined to be a favorite of mine. In the past year, I’ve read nearly everything he’s written. I’m amazed by the constant quality in his comic work and both his long and short form prose. I’m not really a poetry guy, so the poems in Fragile Things didn’t do much for me. What does do it for me is, well, everything else.

I think his comic work is exceptional. His little two issue run of Batman and Detective Comics (Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?) was a great, weird little aside to the massive weirdness of Batman RIP and Final Crisis, and I also managed to read all 75 issues of his Sandman run, which is just a hell of a thing. I can’t really describe it all that well, but it was certainly an experience. Within the last year and a half, I’ve also read NeverwhereAmerican GodsCoralineAnansi Boys, and Fragile Things. I think what really makes Gaiman work as a writer is his ability to set a mood. All of these works are different in their content and who they appeal to, but there is a unifying mood to all of his books. Much like the subject of day three of Heroes Week, Mr. Terry Gilliam (as an aside, I saw some footage of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus over the weekend that looks simply amazing), Neil Gaiman is a dreamer. You can see why Sandman was such a good fit for him.

There is a way that Gaiman writes his fiction that creates a general sense of unease. Things are never right. They’re usually close to being right, but there’s always something a little off. It’s ephemeral. It’s not always something blatant (though it certainly can be at times), but when you have things like Richard Mayhew slowly realizing he has lost is connection to the real world, or the buttons on the eyes of the Other Mother. It’s not played up to be actively creepy or unsettling, but it’s always there on the periphery and leads to an overall sense that something’s just not right. This is essential storytelling for the stories that Gaiman writes, and he carries it off with aplomb. To be honest, I’m not really up on the release of new novels. It’s not like comics, movies, video games, music, DVDs, etc when I know when things are coming out. But I pay attention to Gaiman. When his next book is released, it’ll probably be the first instance of me buying a novel on the day of its release since The Salmon of Doubt.

Top Five Characters from Neil Gaiman Stories

5. Other Mother (from Coraline)

Other Mother is a creepy character. That’s for sure. Her character is designed to actively subvert the conventions of the loving mother. In her first appearance, she is loving, kind and warm to Coraline, but the black buttons where her eyes should be belie the danger within. She goes through constant upheavals and eventually twists into a truly frightening visage (this is pulled off very well in Henry Selick’s film that was released earlier this year). The great villain of the piece is an excellent example of Gaiman’s ability to have things not quite right eventually lead to a big payoff.

4. Fat Charlie (from Anansi Boys)

Fat Charlie has had a rough life. He is constantly in the shadow of his father, and soon discovers a brother he never knew he had that proceeds to wreak havoc on his life. Fat Charlie is the quintessential sad sack protagonist that has to deal with life acting as an overly aggressive bully toward him at all times. He goes through quite the odyssey during Anansi Boys, and he a nice change of pace from the standard Gaiman hero. It breathes some fresh air into his prose, which was admittedly a needed change. Fat Charlie is an example of Gaiman’s well-roundedness, which is a necessity in storytelling.

3. Door (from Neverwhere)

Door has one of the better entrances for a character I’ve read in a while, and her initial frailty is soon replaced by the courage of royalty. I love her power. The ability to make anything open to her stretches beyond the simple ability to open doors. She makes you feel for Richard and his plight as he fights to get away from London Below before he finally decides to embrace his destiny. Door is the emotional center of the book (I still need to watch the miniseries).

2. Shadow (from American Gods and “The Monarch of the Glen”)

Ah, Shadow. Gruff, a bit simplistic, but so effective as a protagonist in what is arguably the craziest of Gaiman’s non-comics work. Shadow does not act to change things. He is the ultimate passive observer. Everything he does is because he was told. Everything. But in the case of the story of American Gods, this makes perfect sense. I won’t spoil things (and I’m realizing while I’m typing this that it probably actually will spoil things, so this is your official spoiler warning), but for anyone that’s played Bioshock, you’ll understand how having such a passive and susceptible main character is essential to make things move forward. Shadow is a sad individual, and it works perfectly.

1. Delirium (from the Sandman series of comic books)

Ah, The Endless. Death, Despair, Dream, Destiny, Desire, Delirium and Destruction. The family of, well, things (gods?) that are at the center of Gaiman’s magnum opus, Sandman. Dream is obviously the main character of Sandman, and he is a very strong character throughout, full of the Greek tragic mix of nobility and petty flaws that eventually lead to his downfall. But, to be honest, the real stars of the book are the other members of The Endless. Delirium is one of those mentally simple and staggeringly innocent characters that get a lot of pathos from me, and her character design is great throughout. Death was a popular enough character to continue on past the series. Destiny is a classic trope of literature, but his character design and the mood surrounding him is fantastic. They’re all great, but I do think Delirium is probably my favorite at the end of the day. Dream is the focal point of Sandman, but the rest of The Endless is what makes the book sing.