Enter Sandman's world

By David Larsen

A Neil Gaiman self-portrait, in shades and leather jacket.
A Neil Gaiman self-portrait, in shades and leather jacket.

This is a very strange book. It's about Neil Gaiman, so it can probably afford to be. In Gaiman's house, we're informed in the introduction, "The ghost lives in the attic, and runs down the hallways and causes some house guests to run out of the house screaming in the night, although as Neil explains to visitors dragging their suitcase up to the spare room, it has never bothered him."

Being strange has been part of Gaiman's public persona ever since he set out to create one, which, on the evidence presented here, was when he was about 6.

When Hayley Campbell was 6, Gaiman stayed a while at her house. She became the guinea pig for the first of his and Dave McKean's children's picture books, The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish; he dedicated it to her. Gaiman has an improbably large group of close friends, many of them famous and career-advancingly useful - "He was networking before networking was invented", someone comments in an early chapter here. So it's unsurprising that the person writing a major assessment of his work should turn out to be not just a lifelong fan, but a lifelong Gaiman acolyte.

Unsurprising, but unfortunate. "Part of the art of Neil Gaiman is how he traverses the terrain and flits between worlds, how he bluffed his way in and then nobody asked him to leave because he's nice and smiley and funny. Above all, they let him stay because he is an incredible storyteller with a beautiful heart and an ability to make you fall in love with anything at all."

The only good thing about this passage is that it occurs on page 19. No one encountering Campbell's dizzying lack of critical distance in later chapters can claim she didn't provide fair warning.

As a work of criticism, the book is a flat failure. As a semi-biographical career-to-date overview, it's exhaustive, lush, and at once unnecessary yet curiously satisfying.

The production standards are coffee table, not bookshelf: semi-gloss paper, high quality illustrations on every single page. The coverage is comprehensive: every one of Gaiman's comics, novels, story collections, non-fiction books, films, television scripts, radio plays, and picture books gets a little "how it came to exist" chapter to itself.

Some of these chapters are very little indeed. Some, notably the one on the Sandman comic series, are substantial, and include details even long-time Gaiman-watchers (I'm one) may not know. Most of these come via quotes from interviews Gaiman has done over the years, most of which are available free online.

The book's two most obvious failings, after its lack of analytical depth, are this lack of original content, and the bias inherent in its profusion of illustrations: Campbell does not intend the "art" in her title to mean "visual art", but, inevitably, Gaiman's comics and films, which offer such rich pictorial pickings, get more space here than his prose works.

The book's primary appeal is to the serious fan, but the serious fan will already have most of these images, since most of them come from the works, and will already have read most of the Gaiman quotes, which provide most of the informational content.

And yet as a one-stop nostalgia shop, the book is undeniably satisfying. It's one thing to know that Gaiman's work covers a ridiculously broad range. It's another to see it all referenced within one set of covers.

The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell (Ilex $65).

- NZ Herald

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