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
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 together...it’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."