When Neil Gaiman was fifteen, a career counselor asked him what he wanted to do for a living. His answer was simple: "I want to write American comic books." Instead of advice on how to go about it, he was given a blank stare, and asked if he'd ever considered accountancy. This answer made Neil give up on his dream until 1984, when an issue of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing caught his eye.
At first he resisted, but eventually he bought his first issue and was hooked. A few years later Alan Moore would be the one to teach him how to write a comic book script. Neil's second attempt at a script was a Swamp Thing story, "Jack in the Green." In 1986, Neil met DC comics editor Karen Berger at a convention, and decided to mail the script to her. She read it, and when they met again several months later, he was able to convince her to assign him and the enormously talented Dave McKean to do Black Orchid.
But this was not his and McKean's first comic. That was 1987's Violent Cases, a brilliant tale of childhood and memory, framed by the narrator's attempts to recall meeting Al Capone's Osteopath. He and McKean would return to this world in 1994, masterfully combining the struggle of the narrator to remember his childhood with the stark and oftentimes cruel tale of Mr. Punch in The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch. In both cases these works push the envelope, stepping outside the regular comic. The art is amazing - what McKean does with layouts, and later, with photography is beautiful, fitting the often wistful and tragic writing as the narrator attempts to piece his memories together.
Black Orchid (1988) was published as a three part prestige format series, an unusual format for two newcomers. Originally DC intended to hold back the project, giving Neil his own monthly series and McKean another assignment in an attempt to gain them a following. They ended up changing their minds, and Black Orchid did fine despite fears, and would later generate its own series with a different team. This would not be the last time Neil created a world so broad and enchanting that it would create its own regular series under other writers.
Part ecological allegory, part quest, Black Orchid fights for survival and peace in a world she can not comprehend, against villains she barely remembers. Though well received, Neil felt the character was too stiff, and he longed for something that would allow him more room.
In 1989 Neil got his wish, and began the series which would become the comic work that he is best known for - The Sandman. The title character is not the crime fighting Wesley Dodds of earlier comics, but the anthropomorphic personification of dream. The series begins as Dream is captured by a coven of wizards. His capture, and the space of years he is imprisoned will shape the events of the series, for while imprisoned, Dream had time to think, and that means, though he will deny it, time to change. The series took off with issue eight, which introduced his older sister Death. An ironically perky foil to Dream's melancholy, she won reader's hearts with her sweetness mingled with common sense.
The Sandman has won several awards, including, for issue 19, The World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story - an event unlikely to happen in the comics field again. A complete and impressive list of awards is availed here. One of the reasons this series is so loved is because it is accessible to everyone. It opened the doors for many like comics, and it became the flagship of Vertigo, a line for mature readers. Finally, not only were comics for everyone, but they were taught in classes and mentioned in magazines. The Sandman is about dreams and the nature of tales, and why, as Neil Gaiman says, "We owe it to each other to tell stories." The seventy-five issue series ended in 1996, because Neil knows that the best stories have endings. (For more information on The Sandman, visit The Wake : http://www.dyve.net/wake/home.asp)
Neil has not left Dream's world behind. Death was the star of two miniseries, The High Cost of Living (1993) and The Time of your Life (1997). In both Death, ironically, forces the characters to consider the importance of life. We visit Dream again in Sandman: The Dream Hunters , (1999) a romance between a monk and a fox-spirit, and will soon meet him and all his family again in Endless Nights (2003). The Dream Hunters is not in the usual panel/word balloon comic, but employs full page illustrations and spot illustrations along side prose stories. Endless Nights features a short story written for each of the Endless, each story illustrated by a different artist, giving Neil a chance to work with some amazing people, such as Milo Manara, Bill Sienkiewicz, Miguelanxo Prado, Barron Storey, Glenn Fabry, and Frank Quitely.
Perhaps the greatest proof of Neil's influence is how his comics are now published. In the past, comics were considered only a little more permanent than newspapers, and sometimes it was impossible to get all the issues in a series. Because of Neil's popularity, they began collecting The Sandman into trade paperbacks and even the more expensive hardbacks. His recent works, such as The Dream Hunters , have come out in beautiful hardback editions first, and have been happily bought by fans. This would have been unheard of twenty years ago.
During his Sandman run, Neil worked on another Alan Moore series, Miracleman , (1990). Starting with issue 17, he wrote eight issues before Eclipse Comics went out of business. The series premise was unusual - Miracleman has taken over the world, creating a benevolent dictatorship where evil is not tolerated. Even though all the conventional devices are stripped away, Neil does a marvelous job of creating a comic with tension, filled with people we care about. (More on Miracleman: http://www.persiancaesar.com/miracleman.htm). He also wrote The Books of Magic miniseries during that time, which featured Tim Hunter, a young man with an incredible gift for magic. He must choose whether to embrace that magic, or put it aside and live a normal life.
Neil's works also find themselves being transmitted into other mediums. Signal to Noise (1992) was first a serialized comic in The Face magazine. Since then it has been collected into trade paperback, and has been made into stage and radio plays. It is the story of a filmmaker who must face the worst crisis in his life, contrasted with his film about a group of people waiting for the end of the world. In 1994, Alice Cooper contacted Neil about doing a concept comic. The result was a three part series called Alice Cooper: The Last Temptation , where Alice Cooper's character, The Showman, tempts the main character into watching The Grandest Guiginol, and forces him to make an impossible decision.
Stardust (1998) was a romantic fairy tale about a young man and his quest into the lands of Faery to get a fallen star for his beloved - only the star is a beautiful young woman who isn't pleased about being drug across Faery on some silly boy's whim. It is a magical story that has made the rare transition to novel, in 1999's Avon book of the same name.
2002's Harlequin Valentine gave him a chance to work with Books of Magic artist John Bolton again. This Comedia dell'arte inspired piece follows Harlequin...bratty and brash...in his attempts to convince Missy that she is his Columbine.
Neil has written much more than can be discussed here. Neil did pieces for Secret Origins , and his works are in Negative Burn and WIIndows . One of his most acclaimed short pieces is "Hold Me", done for an issue of Hell Blazer . It and others are collected in Midnight Days , an anthology for DC. Also included is that first script "Jack in the Green", which was brought to life by past Swamp Thing artists John Totleben and Steve Bissette. For more information visit The Neil Gaiman Visual Bibliography.
As I mentioned earlier, many of his works have inspired others to create related works. Caitlin R. Kiernan was one of the main writers for The Dreaming series, which took place mostly in Dream's realm. Jill Thompson went back to the events of Season of Mists, creating a beautiful Manga story focusing on Death and how she has to deal with all the newly freed souls. It's called At Deaths Door . His short stories have made the transition to comics, such as when P. Craig Russell adapted the short story "Murder Mysteries" into a full length comic of the same name in 2002.
Neil Gaiman's commitment to comics reaches far beyond creating the works that have evolved a medium. In 1997 he earned the Defender of Liberty Award from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and is now on their board of directors. He has donated time and items in an effort to help support the first amendment rights of comics. (http://www.cbldf.org)
His latest project is 1602 , an eight issue mini-series for Marvel. The profits for this project all go to a company called Marvels and Miracles. The story behind this is a long one...so I'll be over simplifying it. Neil wrote some comics for Todd McFarland and Image, creating the characters Medieval Spawn, Cagliostro and Angela. For Angela he wrote a three issue mini-series, collected as Angela's Hunt. He didn't receive royalties for any of the comics or the derivative works (such as the highly popular toys) and after awhile, Todd McFarland offered his share of the Miracleman rights. Neil already has partial rights, since Alan Moore, the original creator, gave Neil and the artist Mark Buckingham his portion of the rights...McFarland bought his from Eclipse when they went out of business. He sent Neil boxes of films that would allow him to reprint the comics, then changed his mind about allowing Neil to do anything with them. Neil attempted to resolve the issues in October 2002, where a judge decided in Neil's favor. To help defray the court costs and administer the Miracleman rights, Marvel's CEO Joe Quesada and he formed a company called Marvels and Miracles, and part of this agreement is for Neil to create two works for Marvel, of which 2003-2004's 1602 is the first. (For a more information, please visit Icv2: http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/1878.html)
1602 starts the Marvel universe 400 years early...to quote Neil: We are dealing with analogues of characters that we know and love. We're in a world in which Sir Nicholas Fury is the head of Queen Elizabeth's intelligence organization. In which Dr. Steven Strange is her court physician and court magician. In which young people with remarkable powers known as the Witch Breed are being persecuted by the inquisition...Into this world, as issue one kicks off, there is some very strange stuff going down. Peculiar weather. People are starting to talk about the end of the world. The mysterious thing that may be a weapon and may be a treasure is being sent to England from the Last of the Templars. We're not quite sure what it is, we're not even sure they know what it is, but Nicholas Fury sends his top agent, a blind Irish ballad singer named Matthew Murdock, off to bring it back safely. That's where everything begins. (For more about the press conference I took this quote from, please check out http://www.comicbookresources.com/news/newsitem.cgi?id=2406)
The final thing that has hit shelves is Art Spiegelman's Little Lit 3 book, which has a story by Neil, illustrated by Gahan Wilson. (More information on that can be found on HarperChildrens.com at http://www.harperchildrens.com/rd_om/neilcomicsessaycom/book/ 0060286288) As for the far future, 1602 will be winding up around March 2004...then we'll see what's next.