Interview with Neil Gaiman, published in Index on Censorship / by Rich Hobbs

The science fiction, horror and fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and I have never met. But

when he spoke to me, via Skype from his home in Boston, Mass, one warm afternoon

early this autumn, we bonded instantly. As a writer of scripts for graphic novels like

his groundbreaking Sandman series for DC Comics, Gaiman shares my interest in

both the power of the visual and its role in cartoons and comics (I’ve written and

drawn comic book adaptations of Eliot’s The Waste Land, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy

and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as well as being a political cartoonist). But far more

important than that, as Englishmen of a certain age, we are inescapably joined at the

hip by Doctor Who, the BBC science fiction series that’s now been airing for over 50

years, during which time it’s woven itself into Britain’s cultural DNA.

Gaiman, to be sure, has got one over on me by having written actual scripts

for the show. Even so, he appreciated my blunt analysis of Doctor Who, where the

Doctor exemplifies a specifically British, post-war kind of Butskellite, technocratic

state interventionism as the Time Lords police the universe and protect it, with

eccentric charm, from monsters like the daleks. So it’s hardly surprising, I told him,

that after 30 years of Thatcherism, since the show was revived a decade ago the

Doctor is now the very last remaining Time Lord, the clear if unstated message being

that Thatcher killed off the rest of them.

But as he replied, in our brutal yet over-sensitive world, there’s something

else about Doctor Who. "When I was being interviewed in America about the movie

of Coraline [Gaiman’s 2003 children’s horror novel] they would say, "You’ve made

something scary for children." As if I’d done something terrible that nobody else had

done before. And all I could try and explain to them was the joy of watching Doctor

Who from behind the sofa, the joy of climbing into your dad or your mum’s lap and

being scared and being safe at the same time."

We had, eventually, to move on from Doctor Who and its comforting and

redemptive power to scare small children witless. Instead, I asked Gaiman if he’d

caught up with recent news stories about the response to Hilary Mantel’s short story

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, and Thatcher’s former adman Tim Bell’s

demand that Mantel be investigated by the police under the terrorism laws.

"I thought it was wonderful. That column inches in newspapers were being

given to a short story. That’s just the author in me. As long as people are getting

upset, then a medium is not dead. As long as a poem could send the editor of Gay

News to prison in 1979 you knew that poetry is not dead. And as long as Tim Bell

can call for the arrest of Hillary Mantel for writing a short story you know that the

short story is not dead." But while I agreed that it was heartening that Bell had shown

himself to be so indestructibly stupid he’d actually called out loud for a writer to be

investigated by the police because of something they’ve made up in their head -

which hasn’t happened, which wasn’t real - I suggested to Gaiman there was an ever

present danger here, and quoted him the following line of his own: "A nice easy place

for freedom of speech to be eroded is comics because comics are a natural target

whenever an election comes up." We’re both of an age where we can remember the

authorities impounding the works of the American underground comic artist Robert

Crumb coming into Britain in the late 70s.

Gaiman corrected me. "The last Robert Crumb thing that I remember was

about 1987 or 1988 and it was particularly notable because on the one hand customs

were impounding Crumb while it was stuff being imported to tie in with a BBC 2

Arena special on Robert Crumb."

It was a nice irony, but as a practitioner myself, I’m conscious of deeper

ironies, particularly in genres like comics and cartoons. I told Gaiman that when there

are Arena specials about Robert Crumb is when I think the medium is dying. So I

asked him if he didn’t feel that he should being doing something to get books burnt

in the high streets of America and, for that matter, Britain too? He recognise the

dilemma at the heart of my question.

"On the one hand, I love that comics get power from being a gutter medium.

But on the other hand I spent twelve years on the board of the Comic Book Legal

Defence Fund, having to oversee legal cases where the whole point was proving that

comics were literature and art, and were worthy of a first amendment defence and not

just trash. A beautiful example would be Paul Mavrides [an American comics artist

whose produced, among many other things, artwork for The Fabulous Furry Freak

Brothers], where the state of California tried surreptitiously to reclassify comics from

art to sign painting. To make them, very literally the same as sign painting so they

can charge sales tax as is done on sign painting. It was their way of trying tax the

["Peanuts" creator] Charles Schulz’s of the world. And suddenly here’s the Comic

Book Legal Defence Fund having to get out there and muster our experts to say no

this is art, this is absolutely art. [In 1997 a California State Board of Equalization

ruling found in Malrides’ favour]. So you’ve always got those tensions, but I think

that comics, because of the capacity of offence that an image can give, will always

have one foot in the gutter. You know it may be walking wobbly because it’s got one

foot on the pavement, but it really will be walking wobbly because it has one foot in

the gutter."

This condition, in comics, is compounded by the nature of the visual: while

readers nibble through text, they swallow the images they see whole. No wonder

images can be choking hazards, provoking deep offence. Gaiman understands this

better than most, although his position is different from mine, in as much as he writes

stuff others draw to. I wondered how this worked, and how well, so asked him if he’d

ever been offended himself by something someone had produced to illustrate his


"One of my very first comics was for Knockabout’s Outrageous Tales from the Old

Testament [a 1987 portmanteau comic book published by Knockabout Books

illustrating biblical stories and produced in ironic response to the latest calls from

MPs and religious groups for comic books to be banned]. I was fascinated by the

Book of Judges, mostly because it was these monstrous immoral stories where God

keeps telling people to commit genocide and they’re never quite doing it the way He

told them. I did one story about a man whose wife whores around and he sends her

away but then has second thoughts. Gets her from her dad’s, and on the road to

Bethlehem they stop in a little village. A nice stranger takes the guy in and that night

a whole bunch of people come out in the street and say, "that bloke who came to stay

with you tonight, we want to have sex with him." And the host says, "Good people,

you are being evil, what an awful thing you are saying. You cannot rape this nice

man, but I’ll tell you what, he’s got a concubine and I have a virgin daughter who’s

known no man, you can have them." So he threw them out and according to the Bible

they used them and abused them till dawn and left them dead on the doorstep. The

guy puts his wife on the back of his donkey, takes her home, cuts her up into twelve

pieces, and sends one to each of the 12 tribes in Israel to let them know what a

terrible thing has happened. I had Steve Gibson who is a fantastic artist drawing this.

When he got to the rape page, I had said this is not a sexy rape: it’s awful and

monstrous. Steve drew a gang rape so monstrous and terrible that Knockabout and I

agreed it should not see print. We had Mark Matthews draw a replacement page. So

there is one Matthews page in there among the Gibsons. Even that wasn’t enough.

There was a Swedish publisher of Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament who was

arrested and threatened with prison for having published images breaking Swedish

laws against depictions of violence toward women. I think, honestly, it was only the

fact that it was biblical and I was saying, look, if you’re going to go after this what

about that incredibly disturbing image of a guy nailed to a piece of wood hanging

there in his death robes that we may want to start removing because it’s pretty

harrowing and it seems to be some kind of image of torture crime. I think that was the

only time I’ve looked at something and said yeah that’s too disturbing."

That was nearly 30 years ago, when the point of Gaiman’s work was defined

by a punkish mission to offend. These days he’s rich, very influential and very very

successful. So does he think he’s now part of the mainstream? Or had he, perhaps,

just sold out?

"You know 30 years ago, I was sushi, in a world n which if you wanted to

have sushi in any little town or any big city you had to go and find the one place that

sells it and it might be full, but that was the one place because it definitely wasn’t

mainstream. And now every little town seems to have sushi and any big city has a lot

of places that sell it."

But maybe thirty years of Post-Modernism (co-terminus with neo-liberalism,

but there you go) have just seen what we used to call the mainstream hit the

floodplain and engulf the whole of the culture?

"The key word for the last 20 years, for me, is confluence, and I love the fact

that you’ve said it’s become a floodplain because that is a confluence, it’s all of the

rivers, all of the mainstream and the outlying tributaries, have come’s that

point where you turn around and I discovered Zadie Smith was a Sandman fan and

Michael Chabon loves my stuff, and Doctor Who, and you can see it feeding back

into what they do."

Nonetheless, however apparently respectable both Gaiman and the genres he

works in may have become, the old threats remain. It’s not just banning Sandman

from libraries in the US; it’s banning practically everything.

"The Fault in our Stars has just been taken out of a Los Angeles school

system with a note saying it could not even be donated, if it was donated it had to be

given back or burned or whatever and you think, this is The Fault in our Stars, by

John Green! Probably the bestselling book of the last three years. Now a huge movie.

I think popularity and mainstream success does not mean that the people who want to

save you from the stuff that could contaminate your brain will not save you, they are

out there and they are determined to save you from anything, and popularity for them

genuinely means nothing."

And, of course, even if Gaiman’s not moved an inch while the culture’s

washed over him, the fault lines of taking offence never rest. He finished our

conversation with the following story.

"I was pondering the fact that in 1987 one of the Sandman graphic novels was getting

banned and attacked because it featured the first transsexual character in a

mainstream comic, who was transsexual and sympathetic and smart and charming

and fucked up like all of the characters in Sandman were and I was getting attacked

from conservative elements, from people who thought there should be no transsexuals

in comics. The American Family Association put me on their banned list because of

that and the Concerned Mothers of America actually boycotted DC Comics and as far

as I know, never lifted their boycott because of me writing my transsexual character.

And now I get attacked by young transsexuals, young trans activists, going, "look at

this character, you kill this character and bad things happen to this character which

proves you are transphobic and why could you do this? Gaiman’s transphobia makes

Sandman unreadable for me and this is offensive and this is awful." And I’m going,

you know a part of me just goes, I wish you could have been there in 1988 when I

was writing it and looked at the world that you’re in now, guys."