After proceeding through a snaking queue, an eager crowd packed into the Arie Theatre at the Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo Saturday night to hear acclaimed author Neil Gaiman read from his work. Gaiman, who wrote the perennial “gateway” comic with “Sandman” and more recently penned “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” for DC, has cultivated a following beyond comics in recent years with novels such as “American Gods” and “Anansi Boys,” children’s books like “Coraline,” and the Newberry Award-winning YA novel “The Graveyard Book.” His comic book core remains strong, though, particularly as an advocate for the Comic Book Legal Defense fund, which the evening’s event will benefit.
Artist and recently-promoted DC Comics co-publisher Jim Lee gave the introduction. He praised Gaiman as a professional and for his work with the CBLDF, and noted that “Sandman” played a significant role in attracting female readers to comics. “On a creative level, he has been almost single-handedly responsible for a lot of the diversity you see in comics,” Lee said. “He’s a shining example of what you can do with great talent and a lot of drive.”
Gaiman began with a new story, titled “In Relig Oran,” the name of the cemetery on the Scottish isle of Iona where the kings of Scotland, Ireland, and Norway were buried. The author said that the poem originated after reading the strange but true story of St. Oran, who was buried alive by St. Columba in order to consecrate Pagan ground, then dug up, at which point he told the monks around him that there is no heaven or hell and “God is not what you think.” In order to save the monks from being corrupted, St. Columba re-buried St. Oran. Gaiman was most taken with the line “When St. Columba landed on the island of Iona,” which he worked into a poem while walking his dog. “Sometimes when you walk, your mind goes into rhythms,” he said. A print of poem illustrated by Tony Harris was available for sale at the event.
The next story was “Chivalry,” which Gaiman said he used to open his CBLDF readings with, which tells the story of a woman who finds the Holy Grail for sale at an Oxfam charity shop for thirty pence and is subsequently visited by the earnest Sir Galahad. After finishing that story, Gaiman remarked, “That was fun.”
After that came a poem that Gaiman said originated with a friend who was editing a book asking Gaiman if he’d written “a scary, unsettling story that takes place by the seaside.” “I hadn’t but I thought, I could.” The tale, “My Last Landlady,” is set in Brighton, England, and was indeed unsettling.
“This was something that I wrote for a newspaper article, or a magazine article,” Gaiman said of his next offering. “It’s one of those things where they tell you, ‘we want to do something on alcohol.’ Yes? ‘And we want you to write something. On alcohol.'” So Gaiman wrote “Being an Experiment Upon Strictly Scientific Lines,” which follows his creative writing abilities through several glasses of whiskey.
Another poem followed, “The Day the Saucers Came,” which finds an alien invasion, zombies, and Ragnarok happening simultaneously – among other calamities – and all going unnoted by an unnamed listener.
After an intermission, Gaiman began a Q&A session, based on note cards submitted before the panel.
Asked about the best way to get the attention of a publisher, Gaiman went into an anecdote about a reading he gave on the Queen Mary, which Harlan Ellison was meant to introduce but could not attend. A man came up to Gaiman later looking for Ellison, explaining that, “he got me fired.” “He worked in the mailroom of Ace Books, at a time when Harlan was having a dispute with Ace Books,” Gaiman said. According to the story, Ellison mailed the publisher a dead gopher and arranged to have it delivered the Thursday before Easter weekend, so that it would be sitting in the office for an extended period. “And this was the guy who left a dead gopher on the desk of the publisher of Ace Books on the Thursday before Easter weekend. When they came in on Tuesday, the eau de gopher was permeating the building, and it was uninhabitable for many weeks,” Gaiman said.
“So I’d say that’s away to get a publisher’s attention.”
Asked whether he prefers writing comics, novels or screenplays, Gaiman said that he’s been fortunate in that he’s built his reputation in a way that permits all three, and that further, he’s not locked into any one genre. “I have always just wanted to be known for being me, that way I can write whatever I want,” he said. He joked that, while publishers tend to want more of what an author is famous for, Gaiman can tell his, when asked what his next book will be, “I think it’s going to be a pornographic cook book! And they’ll say, ‘ok.'”
As to how he would cast a “Sandman” film, Gaiman responded, “Very carefully.”
Another question was, “Who was your meanest teacher, and what did they do to you?” Gaiman cited one Mr. Hull, who “tried very very hard to teach me physics – he did not do very well.” “He would punish me by making me write essays about things. I would go and write a 1000 word essay, without any full stops [periods],” Gaiman said. The author’s plan for revenge later took on an even more mischievous tone. “I wasn’t very proud of what I did; if you are under the age of 18, do not do this. I was incredibly nice to him – but not in a good day. I would pass in the hall, and say, ‘Good morning Mr. Hull, you’re looking particularly healthy today.’ Or, ‘Good morning Mr. Hull, that’s a very stylish tie you’re wearing.’ He knew I wasn’t someone who would say such things, so he knew I didn’t mean it. Finally I said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Hull, you’re looking terribly nice today.'” This got the young Gaiman sent to the headmaster’s office, with beleaguered Mr. Hull shouting, “Tell him what you just told me!” Gaiman did, and the headmaster’s reply was, “You can’t be treating your teachers this way. Apologize!”
The playful note continued when the question came up, “Did you ever balance on a curb and pretend you were on a tightrope?” “Everybody balances on a curb and pretends they’re on a tightrope,” Gaiman answered.
Asked if he always knew he wanted to be a writer, Gaiman said that, as a boy, “I didn’t just want to be a writer; I wanted to be the person who wrote ‘Lord of the Rings.'” He even concocted a plan to achieve this. “I was going to slide into a parallel universe where Tolkien didn’t exist, with a copy of ‘Lord of the Rings.’ And then get an adult to type it up for me, because I couldn’t type, so I could submit it to a publisher. And then I’d have to murder the adult, because they’d know. I abandoned the plan because it was too long and complicated, and involved murder.”
Of two “Doctor Who” questions, Gaiman answered that his favorite in the lead was #2. “Patrick Troughton was my Doctor,” he said. Later, when asked whether he’d ever want to write an episode of the series, the audience began tittering before Gaiman could respond. “I would love to write for Doctor Who so much, that I wrote an episode,” he said, recapping the long-rumored and recently-confirmed project. Gaiman said that his episode was meant to be the eleventh of the current season, but budgetary constraints pushed it to series six, “when they have more money.” He also added that, now that show runner Stephen Moffatt has confirmed the existence of the episode in interviews, the writer is free to reveal all of the details Moffatt has: “It will be on television, it is in color.”
There were also questions about sequels to Gaiman’s books for younger readers, including “Odd and the Frost Giants” and “The Graveyard Book.” “I am working on, in a lazy way, a new story with Odd,” the author said. Inspired by an episode from “The Orkneyinga Saga,” it will be titled, “Odd Goes to Jerusalem.” Gaiman described the original Viking saga as “boring, except for one bit in the middle where they all go on holiday.” After much travel and, presumably, pillaging, “they go to Jerusalem, look around, buy some souvenir ashtrays, and go home!” Gaiman noted that there’s a character called Little Ody on the boat, “so he’s there already.”
For “The Graveyard Book,” Gaiman said, “Yeah, but it probably won’t be a sequel, but it will.” He explained that the next book would feature the same characters but be “bigger and darker,” similar to the relationship between “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.”
Asked if he had any strange pets, Gaiman answered uncertainly, “I have bees.” He added, “they’re not really pets, though. They don’t come in the house. That would be nightmarish. A quarter of a million bees, just hanging around.”
After the Q&A, Gaiman ended with two final stories: “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar,” about an American tourist whose walking tour of Britain takes him to Cthulhu’s seaside retreat; and the poem “100 Words,” a short rumination on death which has previously been featured on a CBLDF print illustrated by Jim Lee.
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