CCI XTRA: Spotlight on Neil Gaiman

Fri, August 3rd, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Jim MacQuarrie, Guest Contributor

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Welcomed with a standing ovation, Neil Gaiman greeted the audience with a soft "sit down." As the laughing crowd did so, he opened the "Spotlight on Neil Gaiman" panel at San Diego's Comic-Con International in San Diego this past Friday by saying, "there's nothing like coming on at Comic-Con for a spotlight panel, and looking out over five, six thousand faces, to make you think, 'I really should have prepared something.'"

After briefly mentioning the previous evening's screening of "Stardust," Gaiman reminisced about his first Comic-Con visit in 1989, at which he was given a cassette tape of an unknown singer named Tori Amos, the giver telling him "she sings a song about you, please don't sue her."

He then showed some new t-shirts featuring two designs; "Anansi Boys" features a spider design and "Scary Trousers" showing a melancholy schoolboy. Gaiman concluded the t-shirt pitch by explaining that the shirts are available at his booth, "money to go to CBLDF, blah blah blah, the usual, there." Gaiman described the origin of the "scary trousers" term, saying that he was having dinner with Alan Moore, at which Moore described one of the murders in his then-in-the-works book, "From Hell," in such gory detail that Gaiman had to leave the table. Sitting outside getting some air, "feeling faintly green," Gaiman was taunted by Moore, who said "well, well, well... Neil 'Scary Trousers' Gaiman."

Gaiman went on to address a few frequently asked questions before taking questions from the audience. He said that the answers to some of the questions "are different to what they were the last time I was here, a few of them being exactly the same. The answer to 'what's happening with the 'Good Omens' movie' continues to be, Terry Gilliam really wants to make it, Terry Gilliam has a script, nobody wants to give Terry Gilliam $70 million dollars. Anybody here have $70 million dollars that you don't want, don't need, found in the crevices of the sofa? Terry Gilliam. 'Good Omens.' He's just waiting."

On the topic of Sandman's 20th anniversary, Gaiman said that he won't get to write anything new, "which is rather a pity, because I was hoping to." He then went on to announce that P. Craig Russell is adapting "The Dream Hunters" as a graphic novel, and that the last two volumes of "Absolute Sandman" are in production and will be "as cool as the first two; you guys have only seen the first volume, but the second is even cooler. And of course it would kill somebody if you dropped it on them. Useful. For some."

Addressing the long-running controversies surrounding the rights to Miracleman, which Gaiman recently addressed in an exclusive interview with CBR back in June, Gaiman elaborated, "Every time I think that the can of worms thatis Miracleman legally is just about to get sorted out, I discover that inside the can of worms is another can, and when you open it, an amazing number of new worms crawl out, and we're still trying to sort it out. Currently, Todd [McFarlane] is suing me for the Miracleman statue that we brought out; there are people in the UK who've done a deal with Mick Anglo and have apparently discovered, as far as I can tell, that all the rights of the people who did the original round of Miracleman, the Dez Skinns and so forth, claimed that they had obtained from Mick Anglo, they hadn't, and Mick still has them, and Todd doesn't have anything, and it's all wonderfully complicated. I'm sure one day somebody will write a really fun book about Miracleman; meanwhile, Mark Buckingham and I look at each other, and 'Miracleman' #25 is drawn and finished and lettered in 1993. It's fourteen years old and I want to finish the story while I still remember it! I want to finish the story while I still remember where my keys are, what I had for breakfast. At the point where we finally get the rights and everything is sorted out, I'll say 'oh yes, now who is Miracleman again?' and it's going to be terrible. So that's where things are at, which is no closer, but you never know."

Audience members had lined up to ask questions, but someone in the crowd shouted "Death," referring to Gaiman's popular character from the Vertigo "Sandman" series, to which Gaiman responded, "'Death,' wait, you can't just shout things out! There are people in line here!" Turning to the line, he asked "Of you people in line, did any of you plan to ask a question about 'Death?'" When a hand went up, Gaiman told him to come to the front and ask his question.

The fan asked if there will be anything new coming out. "Things are happening with 'Death,' but things are happening slowly," replied Gaiman. He went on to explain how Hollywood operates, saying "nothing ever happens the way you expect it to, and nothing that you think is going to happen ever happens, or not in the way you expected it to, and the things you don't think will happen always happen in the way you lease expect them to."

Gaiman illustrated the point by telling about a blog entry he wrote in 2002, in which he plainly states that the first of his properties to make it to the screen would obviously be "Books of Magic" and "Neverwhere," while some other projects are "completely dead," citing "Beowulf" - out this November 16th - and "Interworld," which was recently bought by Dreamworks Animation.

Returning to the subject of "Death," Gaiman explained, "I wrote a script for 'Death'; originally it was going to be for Warner Brothers, because technically Warner Brothers owns the Sandman characters. They have the rights to that, so we were going to do it through them. Then I got this phone call, saying, 'This thing you've written, it's like a 15 million dollar movie.' I said 'Well, yes,' very proud of myself for coming under budget, and they said 'Warner Brothers doesn't really make movies that small, and we don't really know what to do with it.' I said, 'What are we going to do?' and they said 'We're not sure.' Then somebody came up with the idea of taking it over to New Line, so we took it over to New Line, who went 'Great, great, 'Death,' yes, maybe it should have more running 'round and shouting and blowing things up, because it'll be more like New Line if we do that.' I wrote a draft with a little more running 'round, shouting and exploding,' and they budgeted that, and it came to like 28 million, because time had past and now there was running 'round and shouting and blowing things up.' They said, 'We're really not sure, we may do it, we may not, oh, yes... no, oooh, no.' Then we went to talk to Warner independent Pictures, and they said, 'we really like it, but we don't like any of this running 'round shouting and blowing things up, because we like the sort of more Graphic Novel-y approach where people wander around and talk,' and I said, 'We have a draft like that.'"

Currently, "Death" is at Picturehouse Films, which Gaiman describes as "the artsy bit of Warner's." There are some issues to straighten out regarding the rights, which reverted back to DC Comics after the deal at New Line fell through, which means more lawyers are now involved. Gaiman is in the process of compiling a list of actors he would like to see in the cast, "and if you think I'm going to name one name, you are out of your mind." The film will probably be shot in London rather than New York for a variety of reasons, explaining that "I'm working the script to change New York to London, which is harder than you would think, because New York is a character, and now I have to make London a character, and they're two different characters."

Gaiman's daughter Maddy has been posting "secretly" on his blog at the convention, posting video on YouTube in which she is seen "showing off the hotel room, modeling a t-shirt, and being Maddy." He hopes that she will blog the premiere of "Stardust" (held at the Paramount lot in Los Angeles last Sunday afternoon) "for a start, I'm crap at famous people; I don't even recognize them. And then, when I do recognize them, I think, 'you can't go and put this on the blog' because it's name-dropping or whatever, but she doesn't care, she's 12. I figure, if she gets to see somebody famous, she'll put it in. It'll be great."

Asked if he had ever thought about making the "Endless Storybook" as an animated short, Gaiman replied, "I would love it if somebody did that, I adore Jill [Thompson's] art. If you'd like the idea of something like that, go and accost them at the DC booth and tell them they should do it. We had a tremendous amount of problems with that book anyway, because they were terrified that children would get their hands on it; even though it's a children's book, they were very scared that children would get their hands on it because the rest of the Vertigo line and 'Sandman' is for mature readers, and DC was terrified that this would have appalling consequences of some kind unspecified. So, to be honest, the idea of them doing an animated version of the 'Endless Storybook' is almost negligible, because then children might watch it and enjoy it and then something terrible would happen."

Moving on to the topic of any possible film adaptation of his novel "American Gods," Gaiman said, "roughly once every two or three months I get a call from my agent saying 'so-and-so wants to talk to you about 'American Gods.'' I talk to the person, and invariably they say, 'I read 'American Gods' and I really love it. How would you go about making it into a movie?' I have to confess, if I had any idea how to do it, I probably would have done it as a movie. When I wrote it, I had been working on a lot of screenplays and I was really sick of three act structures. I was sick of 20-page beginnings, 18-page middles and 20-page endings. I was sick of the shape, I was sick of neatness, I was sick of tying things up at the end. So when I went off and wrote 'American Gods,' it was with the idea that I was going to write something messy and it was going to be a road trip, and it was going to go all over the place, and a beginning that started in an odd kind of place, and it would have five endings, it would have short stories in the middle whenever I felt like it because, ha, it was my book and I could do that. So that was very much part of what I wanted to do in 'American Gods.' One director wanted to do it like 'Kill Bill'; make a seven-hour film and then cut it in half and release it in successive months, which I thought was a really cool-but-goofy idea, but he couldn't find any studio who also thought it was a cool-but-goofy idea. I think the goofy outweighed the cool. I think sooner or later, one of these directors or producers will come along and say 'I want to do 'American Gods' and this is how and why I want to do it' and I'll say, 'What a great idea, go for it.' It hasn't happened yet, but it could be right around the corner - you never know."

On the similarities between his "Books of Magic" and the Harry Potter series, Gaiman demurs, "I always feel uncomfortable when people ask Harry Potter/Tim Hunter questions, because what I've discovered is, I am uniformly misquoted." He told of having been "completely misquoted" by a Scottish newspaper in 1999 or 2000, described as accusing Rowling of having stolen his story, "and I'm saying I didn't say any of that stuff, that's not true, and fired off a bunch of letters and actually got apologies from these newspapers, and then six months later, the same story turned up." Gaiman is adamant that he does not believe Rowling copied anything from him, saying "some stories need to be told." He states plainly, "I love the Harry Potter thing, I think it's wonderful."

What he found frustrating about the unfortunate similarities between his graphic novel and the Potter series was DC Comics and Warner Brothers' reaction to the coincidence. "The time it irritated me most, I'd been asking DC Comics for years and years, we had that very abstract cover for 'Books of Magic,' the original graphic novel, and I'd said, insanely, for many years, could we have a pictorial cover that makes it look more like what it is, and maybe Tim and his owl could be on his skateboard or flying or some magic thing.' It took about two or three years to get DC to agree to do a new cover, featuring a new cover by artist John Walden, and then Warner Brothers was going to bring out the first Harry Potter movie, and I was informed, quite seriously, and it happened, that that edition of 'Books of Magic' was not allowed to come out at that time, and it actually sat for nine months in the warehouses before it came out, because they were really worried that some journalists might get hold of it and start going 'aha, Harry Potter, Tim Hunter...' and it would embarrass DC, and thus it would embarrass the corporate Warner people further up."

Gaiman reiterated the point, saying "but by the same token, one is continually having to explain to journalists who think they've just discovered this, that obviously she didn't steal Harry Potter from Tim Hunter, because she's really, really smart, and if she had, she would have changed it! You're dumb, she's smart, very, very smart, and, you're going to nick it, you file off the serial numbers! You make him blond, you lose the glasses, you change the owl into a hawk, it's easy."

Gaiman discussed his more recent comics work, saying "'1602' was just me being given a completely blank slate by Marvel and being told 'you can do whatever you want.' Then 9/11 happened. I'm suddenly going 'OK, I can do anything, but all I know is I don't want anything in New York, nothing with skyscrapers, and nothing with things that blow up.'" He came to the conclusion that the solution was to set the story hundreds of years in the past, then realized that "...I could actually have the kind of fun that I had as a reader of discovering these characters in these English reprint comics in the '70s, and that seemed a lovely way of re-imagining them."

Moving to his revamping of Jack Kirby's series "The Eternals," Gaiman said, "The Eternals, they've been kind of messed up; the Eternals was like something really nice that somebody had brought over to your house, like a sofa or something, twenty or thirty years ago, but by this point, the cat's peed on it, it's scratched up, and it's now sitting in a corner of the garage and it's upside-down and nobody's even sure it's a chair anymore." This was the state the Eternals were in when Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada asked him to fix the series, said Gaiman.

"[I set to work] but then I read all the stuff that'd been done with the Eternals since Jack had done them, and some of it was good, but most of it was completely not good. It really was the equivalent of the cat peeing on it." Gaiman finally decided that the best he could do with the Eternals was just try to turn it into a coherent story that made sense within the Marvel Universe. "Jack Kirby did not build this thing to be part of the Marvel Universe; it has been dragged into the Marvel Universe and made part of it by people making it up as they go along, and now it's a mess." He said that his agenda with the book was "trying to create something people could read, and go, okay, I understand what the Eternals are, what they're here for, what they're doing in the Marvel Universe, and I could build a lot of stuff so that they can come in for the next few years and have a certain amount of fun."

Turning to general questions about the creative process in general, Gaiman addressed the topic of Writer's Block. "Gardeners don't get Gardener's Block, cellists rarely get Cellist's Block, and I'm fairly certain that people who sell shoes do not get shoe-selling block," said Gaiman. "But writers claim to get Writer's Block, and I've seen writers talk about getting Writer's Block, at length, in very long letters, especially on blogs. And you're going, 'If you have Writer's Block, how are you writing about this?'" Gaiman insisted there's no such thing as Writer's Block, explaining, "What you do is, you get stuck on something. Especially if you're writing stories - it's easy to get stuck on a story; you don't know what happens next, or the thing that you thought you knew what happens next, those characters aren't quite how you thought they were when you began, and now you're at this point in the plot, it doesn't feel right. It feels tinny or shallow or just wrong." He suggested possible solutions for that problem. "I have two things that I'm working on at any one time. If I get stuck on one, I can always go on to the other, or I'll have an introduction to write, or, worst case scenario, I'll have a blog entry. Something I can go and do, and get my mind off the thing that I'm stuck on." He suggested putting the problematic story away for a few days, then read it from the beginning. "It's amazing how often I'll be convinced that I've got myself to a point in the plot where there is no way out and I am doomed, and I'll put it aside for a day or so, and then I'll pick it up and I'll read everything I've done, and I'll go 'Oh, hang on! I'm not doomed, because I've got this guy that I didn't know what he was for, standing here already!'" His final suggestion was to just accept that sometimes a story may have to wait. "I got stuck on 'Coraline' in about 1992, and picked it up again in 1998, and it was six years where I wasn't really sure what happened next, so I stopped until I did, because nobody was waiting for it; it was my story. And six years later, I had sort of figured it out."

Gaiman concluded his comments on Writer's Block by saying "You keep writing, but don't believe in Writer's Block. I think it's an excuse. I think it's one of these magic things, it's a magic 'Get out of jail free card,' 'Oh I can't write that, I have writer's block.' But you don't really, because it's so much easier to say 'I'm stuck' on that story. Being stuck actually gives you a way to fix it that Writer's Block doesn't.

"Another thing that's really, really good, if you want to be a writer, is writing, and not doing something else. Writers, all human beings, but particularly writers, are really good at doing something else. You may never have thought that your herb cupboard needed to be sorted alphabetically, you may not be the kind of person who normally says 'I think I'll clean the bath,' but then suddenly, you're writing, and something else seems easier. Daniel Pinkwater, who is a marvelous writer, talks about how he goes off to his writing place, and he is allowed to either write or not do anything at all. He's not allowed to do something else; not do a crossword, not read a book, not do a blog entry or e-mail or something, can't doodle. You can do absolutely nothing, or you can write. And it's amazing how quickly the joy of sitting in a chair not doing anything at all palls, and writing just gets much more fun, and all of a sudden you're writing again."

When asked what makes a great story and storyteller, Gaiman replied "The biggest problem I have is, I'm like a magician - not a proper magician, not the Alan Moore kind, who burns things and has giant snakes appear, but the sneaky Penn & Teller kind who has somebody behind the stage with a wire that they pull at the appropriate time; watching magicians now, when I read fiction, you're sitting there, and you may admire the speed of the transformation, you may admire the skill with which something was done, but you almost never sit there going 'he's going to cut that woman in half' because you've been backstage too long. For me, what I really, really admire and care about most, are those writers who can make me go 'Oh my god, he's going to cut that poor woman in half!' The writers who make me forget that there's anybody behind the curtain, who can make me just have to know what happens next. Beautiful writing is part of it, I love beautiful writing, but I really want to be able to wander into the story in such a way that I can't find my way out unless I keep reading through to the end."

Another audience member asked what books he had read that contributed to his vivid imagination and a mildly exasperated Gaiman replied, "There isn't a magic bullet. I wish I could say, 'Ah, you mean the book? You want to read the book of stories? Come to my room tonight. There will be a payment. You'll never walk quite the same again. I will hang your toe around my neck, but I will give you the book and you will read the book, and then you'll have a vivid imagination.' It would be lovely if the world were as simple as that."

Continuing, Gaiman said, "Why do I have this imagination? This is all I've got. I'm honestly useless at other things; you would not want me to drive your taxi. What did I read? I was a voracious reader. I was an obscenely and insanely voracious reader. I was the kind of kid who would go up to the school library and start at A. I didn't realize what an odd kid I must have been until Maddy, who was my third, was about seven years old, and I realized that once again one of my kids had turned seven and had not alphabetized their books. By the time I was seven, I'd gotten my parents to give me my own bookshelf, and I was agonizing over whether Roger Lancelyn Green was in the Ls or the Gs. I worried about this stuff. That was the kind of kid I was. Wherever I was, I had a book. My parents would frisk me before weddings or bar mitzvahs or important occasions just to try to remove the book, and there'd be no point, because somewhere in the place I was going, I'd find another book, and I'd sit under the table and read the book. That's what I did. That's who I am."

When asked which authors had made him realize that he wanted to be a writer, he replied that the first one was C.S. Lewis. "I loved the way he put things in parentheses." He then rattled off a list including Len Wein ("Len and Bernie's 'Swamp Thing' was the first time I read a comic and said 'now this is art'), Archie Goodwin, Will Eisner, Gene Wolf, Jonathan Carroll, Ursula K. LeGuin, Roger Zelazny ("Roger's a wonderful writer - you can watch him having fun writing"), and others.

A young fan asked about "Stardust" and why he chose to make it a graphic novel instead of a comic book series or movie script, and Gaiman explained that he had planned to do it as a comic, but artist Charles Vess convinced him to make it a graphic novel. "He said the problem with comics is you always have to draw the next panel. Of course, after having done 175 paintings, he hadn't realized that he would have to do the next painting, so it was really just as bad."

Finishing things up, Gaiman gave a little information about his current project, "Graveyard Book," a novel about a young boy whose family has just been murdered by a knife-wielding maniac ("this is a childrens' book, of course"); the child wanders into a cemetery where he is adopted by the dead people, who raise him as their own. The fourth chapter of the book was published in M is for Magic under the title "The Witch's Headstone." Graveyard Book will be turned in to the publisher by the end of the year, as soon as Gaiman finishes typing it, since it's currently "a big book written in longhand."

 
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