Thursday, July 05, 2007

Hanging Out with the Dream King

Hanging Out with the Dream King by Joseph McCabe is a marvelous book. It is perhaps the only collection of its kind, documenting the personal interviews of Neil Gaiman and of about thirty or so collaborators that he had the opportunity to work with on Sandman and various other projects.

Sandman is perhaps the most famous of Gaiman’s works. It was Sandman which really made him famous. But it was not just that. It was Sandman that made him grow as a writer and creator. This is something that Neil understands and something that becomes clear as you read the book. Genius is not necessarily a quality that one is born with. It can be acquired. Going through the body of Neil’s work, this becomes clearer than ever.

The book is about collaborations – artistic and personal. It also deals with the Creative Process. It deals with what goes on in the artists mind as he is writing or drawing. Thus, it becomes an amazing read.

The first thing that Gaiman talks about is collaborations. Artistic collaborations are difficult to pull through. Writing and drawing are essentially solitary activities. However, in mediums like film or comic books, where different art forms come together and have to merge into a harmony, collaboration is essential. What Neil says is – within collaborations, it is essential to know when to give the center stage to the other performer. You cannot guide and direct everything. For example, Neil admits that he looks at an artist’s artwork, his strengths and shortcomings before he writes a script for them. He says that you have to play on their strength and hide their shortcomings – make them look good – because as a writer that will make you look good.

He goes on to say that collaborations work best within comedy. That is because if you are working alone, there is no way to tell whether a joke is funny or not. If you work in a group or in a pair, if you can make the other person laugh, you know that the joke works. Therefore, collaborations are more successful in comedy. However, looking at the sheer number of people Neil has collaborated with, that certainly is not a rule.

The book then moves on to interview various Sandman artists – both pencilers and inkers. Most people might not be aware of those terms. The way comic books are produced, some writer will first write the story. This story may be in the format of any other short story that you may have read, or it may be like a play with the dialogues of each of the ‘actors’ and stage directions, or, and this is the way Neil does it, extremely detailed instructions of how each panel is to be placed, what goes in where, what ‘camera angle’ the frame is drawn in and perhaps even suggestion on the coloring and lettering. Once the story gets written, a guy called the penciller will draw the comic out on paper. The inker will then take it and rework the entire drawing in ink, mostly drawing over what the penciller has done. Occasionally, the inker may even improve or modify the pencillers work. This is crucial to the look of a comic. The inker may enhance or mar the art of the penciller. After inking, the letterer draws in the bubbles and letters the text into the artwork. The colorist then fills in the color.

Each of these steps is crucial to the final look of the comic book. Synergy between the various artists is essential. Often, pencillers like to work with particular inkers and so on. The books gives interesting insight into how these things work and how important it is for various artists on a project to be comfortable with each other.

As a writer, it was interesting for me to note that visual artists also take inspiration from real life while designing characters. On second thought, that should be so very unusual. Mike Dringenberg, Sandman co-creator, says “Death is based on, primarily, Cinnamon – who was a ballet dancer – but also a couple of other people I knew. My girlfriend, at that time, posed as the character on a number of occasions. She was also like Cinnamon, bone thin.” Thus, the artists own experience becomes part of the creation. When this happens it is hard not to feel deep emotional attachment to your work. Mike goes on to say “My friends were in [Sandman], the various locations where things happened were in it, and so on. In that regard, it occupied a very fair-sized place in my life, more so because I was young and gave myself over to it whole heartedly.”

Artists also take inspiration from other art forms. Another Sandman artist Colleen Doran says, “I am solid on body language. The acting of the characters is a vital and largely ignored, element of the storytelling process in comics.” Not surprisingly, Colleen had tried to act at one point of time in her life but gave up because she was only given little blonde woman roles as she was a little blonde woman. “But cartooning means no role is beyond me”, says Doran, “It is exciting because I can be any character.”

That Artistic Process also comes out to be very different from the Critical Process. Thus, writing and reading are two very different activities. While academics will split even the hair already in shreds over why a particular author did a particular thing, most artists know that it was most probably nothing of consequence. Charles Vess who drew Sandman 19, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the only comic to have won the world fantasy award, recalls discussing books about Shakespeare with Neil. “We both had a bunch of different biographies, most of them were from academic viewpoints that had no idea what the creative impulse could possibly be. And they were making these bizarre assumptions about why Shakespeare would have done something. We kept saying, ‘Because he felt like it? Because it was a good day?’ They just didn’t know what happened.”

The book is a storehouse of gems like this. It gives a beautiful insight into the world of comic book makers. The tensions and trifles that fill their lives. But in the end it also tells you that besides being a great artist, one truly gets appreciated if one is a good person. There are numerous incidents narrated where Neil helped someone get a job that he deserved or apologized for some wrong that he had inadvertently done. Perhaps all that is there because this is a book about Neil and all this is supposed to be there, but even then, if so many people said that, there must be some ring of truth to it.

Neil Gaiman has been working for over two decades now. He has numerous comic books to his credit, movies, novels and song lyrics. He is a truly versatile artist. Linked below is a wonderful talk that he gave at the Google headquarters. He is an amazing speaker too. As one of his associates say, Neil is one of those fellows who can speak in perfect prose. The talk is full of humor, insights and is very entertaining. Do watch it. To give you an incentive, watch out for the blond girl in the end. She is hot and she works for Google! Neil also maintains a journal that he has been updating everyday (almost) since its inception in February 2001


  1. "Genius is not necessarily a quality that one is born with. It can be acquired. Going through the body of Neil�s work, this becomes clearer than ever"

    What an awesome line! :) I cant wait to read it Vinod!

    Truly, thanks for introducing me! :)