Sunday, January 24, 2010

Neil Gaiman: "Lookin' like a Gothy Bob Dylan"

Neil Gaiman
Lookin' Like a Gothy Dylan
Photo by Eric Ogden
(Image from The New Yorker)

Some scholar over at the Milton List alerted us (an ecletic group of misfits) to Dana Goodyear's New Yorker piece on Neil Gaiman, "Kid Goth: Neil Gaiman's fantasies."

Goodyear's is a mostly engaging portrait of Gaiman that incidently also alerted me to the news that Gaiman probably has more women fans than male readers. I'm not sure what that says about me, especially since he's particularly popular among female Goths, starting with his early career as a DC Comic-book writer:
"Young women dressed in black and black eyeliner would walk into the comic store and pick up 'Sandman' and just walk out."
So says Karen Berger, Gaiman's editor at DC Comics, back when he was writing the Sandman series. I've still not read The Sandman, so I suppose that I'm not yet one for eyeliner. About Gaiman's career as a comic-book writer, Goodyear quotes another writer:
"He's got incredible storytelling drive," the novelist Michael Chabon, who has written extensively about comics, says. "The stories just exfoliate off each other, and mythology and folklore are so confidently and freely appropriated, with such chutzpah."
Goodyear doesn't bother to identify Chabon because she assumes that all readers will recognize the name. I do, because my oldest brother gave me his well-read copy of Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, but I couldn't dredge up his 'unpronounceable' (for me) name the other day when I was alone in Seoul's biggest bookstore. Chabon tells us how to pronounce it:
"Shea as in Shea Stadium, Bon as in Bon Jovi."
Thanks, man. How are those pronounced? But I'm talking about Gaiman, and so is Goodyear, who opens her portrait with this gambit:
In "The New Mother," a children's story published by Lucy Clifford in 1882, two previously well-behaved little girls turn so bad -- dousing the fire and breaking the clock and dancing on the butter -- that their mother is forced to go away, and a new mother, a demon with two glass eyes and a horrible wooden tail, comes to take her place. At the story's end, the girls flee to the forest to live; they miss their mother terribly and long in vain for the chance to redeem themselves. Sometimes, at night, they sneak back to their old cottage, where through the window they can see the glint of the new mother's glass eyes.

Gothic horror was thoroughly out of fashion in children’s literature when, in the early nineteen-nineties, the writer Neil Gaiman began to work on "Coraline," a book aimed at "middle readers" -- aged nine to twelve -- in which he reimagined Clifford's demon as "the other mother," an evil and cunning anti-creator who threatens to destroy his young protagonist. "The idea was, look, if the Victorians can do something that deeply unsettles kids, I should be able to do that, too," he told me recently.
I've read both stories but never made the connection, just as I didn't notice that The Graveyard Book is a retelling of Kipling's Jungle Book. I'm suddenly struck as I write this by how 'Calvinist' Clifford's story is -- it's about damnation, expulsion from the 'garden' with no means of redemption for the preterite. Gaiman's Coraline, on the other hand, is about self-redemption by outsmarting the demon. Children love the book:
Gaiman reported to the nursery, where there was a long crafts table covered with bins of pompoms, googly eyes, and crayons . . . . Gaiman stood at one end of the table.

"I wrote 'Coraline,'" he said.

"Yay," a few of the children said, mechanically.

Gaiman ventured that some of them might have seen the movie and been frightened.

A tiny five-year-old in a cape looked up. "I was scared by it," he said. "I was really scared."

"My cousin, who's one, she was screaming," another child said.
Well . . . maybe not all children love the story, unless a wildly screaming one-year-old means "I like this very much!" I ought to say, children who can read love the book. I can read, and I loved it.

But I've said enough. Go forth and read for yourself -- and discover why Milton fans like Neil Gaiman. Meanwhile, a special Gypsy Scholar award to the reader who can identify the quote in today's blogpost heading . . .

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