The Long, Strange History of Phase II

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Good Things for the CBLDF


Second Quarto: The Interview


I’d like to apologize for leaving Paul Gravett of Escape magazine out of the cast of characters at our press reception at the Savoy in 1986. Escape, to me at the time, was a fanzine—an observation for which I profusely apologize, as it would certainly be far more accurate, both in terms of its contents and its influence, to describe it as an “early magazine about comics” (which puts it in very select company: the only other one I can think of was Joe Brancatelli’s Inside Comics). But Escape was still “in the family”—the comic-book community. I did a number of comic-book community interviews on the tour. The press reception at the Savoy was intended to be for real-world (or as I like to think of it now, “real world”) media.

I don’t really have too much to contribute to this portion about the actual interview that Neil conducted with me at the Savoy. It is an unpleasant truth of this side of the journalism game that your own interviews are completely unmemorable, consisting almost in their entirety of taking very complicated memories and cutting out all of the really valuable parts in order to give the “right-sized” answer (magazine answers being longer than newspaper answers and newspaper answers longer than television answers but not quite as long as, say, public radio answers). After you’ve done enough of them, you develop an inventory of stock answers of varying lengths that you trot out in response to recognized stimuli. Here’s the “why an aardvark?” question and it’s for a magazine piece. Cue track F-8: that kind of thing. I’m quite certain that I would’ve been less fastidious in my answers with Neil than I had been with Dave Dickson for the reason that I wasn’t sure why (exactly) Neil was there or for whom (exactly) Neil was doing the article, so there was no way to “get his range”. With Dave Dickson I just tried to make comic books sound as much like rock ‘n’ roll as possible, under the assumption that that was the angle from which he would be coming at the story for a music magazine. As I recall, I don’t think even Neil knew who he was doing the article for at the time and I have no idea if it was ever published in any form. In “300 reasons…” he describes himself as being, at the time, a “starving journalist”. A starving journalist is usually wondering how he can “spin” the material in such a way as to sell the piece to a high-paying market while asking general enough questions so that, if need be, he can change the piece to fit, say, The Ladies Home Journal if it’s rejected by, say, Esquire. Because the questions would, as a result, have been generalized and all over the map, my impression would have been that it was just as likely (under the circumstances) that Neil was just a Cerebus fan using the possibility of an article as a means of getting to “hang out” with Dave Sim and talk about the book. Someone who is as completely un-famous as I was (and am) in a general sense—but exponentially more interesting to a small group of people than his level of fame would indicate—is particularly susceptible to this. Had a half-dozen Cerebus fans told the Forbidden Planet publicist that they were freelance journalists who wanted to write an article, I’m sure he would’ve brought them along to flesh out the crowd and would’ve thought nothing of it. I’m not famous enough for a publicist to consider the propriety of imposing on me in that way.

I finally got to the point, years later—with those occasional flickerings of interest which flare very briefly and then extinguish themselves in the journalistic darkness which surrounds Cerebus (post-1994, anyway)where I would just ask them how much space they were being given and I would then tailor my participation to the space in question. If you’re attempting to describe a 26-year project in 800 words, there is nothing I can say that is going to be particularly helpful and it seems more sensible to just offer to write a quote to fit whatever the subject is. This, of course, runs afoul of the perception most journalists have of themselves as a combination of detective and therapist…

(A perception which holds that if I spill my guts to them for two hours, their journalistic expertise will allow them to select the two or three phrases that will most clearly define forever who and what I am—the interest in my work taking a distant second place to my political opinions. I am in good company with Whistler and Wilde in that, to date, the universal journalistic assessment against me, at least in my own country, is one of lunacy.)

It is usually more accurate to say that the average piece of journalism is written in the journalist’s head by the time they show up for the interview and the hour or two hours of interviewing is most often taken up with trying to lead you into saying things in proximity to what they already have you quoted as saying in the article which, in their minds, they’ve already written.

I’m pretty sure that’s Neil’s tape recorder on the table between us.

I would’ve taken that as a good sign. When someone interviews you for an hour and all they have is a notebook that they scribble little notes in, you can pretty well count on being misquoted extensively (partly because of bad penmanship: what they thought they wrote down as opposed to what they actually tried to write down). With the “tape recorder-free” journalist you just repeat two or three phrases twelve times each and hope that that’s what they use because it will be all that they remember but most of the time they just make up your quotes to fit their thesis, whatever it is.

I’ve gotten into trouble with journalists who have asked me about being interviewed by Neil because I always tell them, “It was pretty clear that he wasn’t going to be a journalist, because the questions he asked were too good.” I actually don’t mean any offense against journalism in saying that—journalism is what it is—what I’m trying to indicate is that, from the questions Neil was asking, he was as much (if not more!) trying to figure out if writing comic books was something he would want to do for a living (maybe I’m not a starving journalist at all, maybe I’m a starving comic-book writer) as he was trying to figure out why I was writing them so that he could explain my reasoning to the readers of his magazine piece.


“I remember asking him what he’d do if there was something he wanted to write about, something he had to say that didn’t fit into Cerebus. “I’d use a big hammer,” he grinned. “I’d get it in somehow.”


See, that’s not a journalist question, that’s a comic-book writer wannabe question. What Neil was actually asking was, “I have a lot of ideas for different kinds of stories. That’s why I wouldn’t want to do one story for twenty-six years. Why doesn’t it bother you that you can’t tell different stories because you’re telling this one big one?” It wasn’t a “lock” that that was “where he was coming from”—he could just have been an “extreme empathy journalist”. The “extreme empathy journalist” tries to imagine being you and then asks himself the most obvious question that comes to mind while he’s play-acting being you (which is really kind of intrusive although the extent to which that’s intrusive isn’t apparent unless you’ve been on the receiving end of it, which I assume Neil himself has been many times by now and I assume he has found it as intrusive as I had). So, on the one hand, I was answering the “writer wannabe” question if that was what he turned out to be. (i.e. “The scope of a three-hundred issue story allows for a greater range of ideas than you’re picturing, as a result, tangential but relevant stories can be made to fit in direct proportion to the extreme length”) while also scaring the “extreme empathy journalist” if that was what he turned out to be (i.e. “You don’t strike me as someone who likes the idea of big hammers.”) in the same way that a pitcher will intimidate a hitter who is “crowding the plate” by throwing a 95 mph fastball “inside” (it’s euphemistically known in baseball as “chin music”). It seemed to have worked on both counts. Sandman is the second-longest sustained narrative in human history and Neil developed a lot of interesting ideas in the seventy-five issue story that didn’t, in any conventional literary sense, fit the core of the narrative—“Dream of A Thousand Cats” being a good example—but which in no way diminished the core of the narrative (quite the contrary: many of the seemingly unrelated diversions are some of the Sandman narrative’s greatest strengths)—and as for scaring the “extreme empathy journalist,” two pages later in “300 Reasons…” Neil writes


Dave Sim is the conscience of comics. It’s a lousy, thankless job, and if he wasn’t doing it we wouldn’t have to invent him. We’d probably just be pleased he wasn’t around to bug us. Remember: Jiminy Cricket was squished by a wooden hammer by the end of chapter four in the original Collodi novel of Pinocchio. Were there a wooden hammer large enough, and did he not live out in Kitchener, and were there no fear of societal retribution, Dave would probably have been squished long since.


As Alan Moore once, rather famously, remarked (with a jovial smile upon his hirsute kisser and, I’m sure with no small measure of collegial writerly affection),

“Neil...‘Scary-Pants’ …Gaiman.”

It’s worth noting that, even as I was terrifically amused by Alan’s observation I thought it unfair in those exact areas of proximity to Neil Gaiman’s inherent niceness it addressed thereby (in my view, inappropriately), creating the illusion that Alan was addressing Neil from a higher vantage point. Which, even at the time, I didn’t think was the case. Whatever faults you may want to attach to Sandman as a creative work, at this point it is—apart from Cerebus—the most ambitious work attempted in the comic-book field in terms of not only length but theme, structure and complexity against which Alan would have From Hell to offer (and, to a lesser extent, Watchmen) both of which, in my view, would fall short of the mark in those areas about which Neil was inquiring in the 1986 interview and which, it seems to me, Neil applied to his own extended narrative when the time came. In the case of both From Hell and Watchmen, the relentless and single-minded forward momentum of the narrative had to be sustained because of the length. Simply put, neither graphic novel is in Cerebus or Sandman’s category: neither is long enough to allow for tangential narratives which complement and enhance the overall structure of the work (a good analogy might be that a twenty-foot length of two-by-four is more flexible than a five-foot length of two-by-four and it is that flexibility which allows for tangential development) and are therefore, different kettles of graphic-novel fish entirely. Of course if your frames of reference are purely commercial, then Watchmen and Sandman beat Cerebus hands down. Or, at the lunatic extremes of commercial assessment, From Hell beats all three because it was adapted into a movie and the others haven’t been. It depends on how you define success.

As depicted in the Second Quarto, the experience of the interview skewed my perception of Neil from the outset as an interview is going to do (I wrote recently about running afoul of Howard Chaykin a number of years ago where he informed me that he couldn’t take my criticism seriously because when he looks at me what he sees is a teenager with long stringy hair and zits. Same idea, er, except for the “stringy” part and the zits). The four images of Neil-the-starving-journalist overlap the principle image of Neil and make for a more-than-somewhat ridiculous composition. It is the author of Sandman, or—perhaps more relevant to the subject—the New York Times bestselling author of American Gods (the principle image having been adapted from that novel’s dust jacket photo) with four little starving journalists stuck onto him. I’m actually quite pleased with the way it worked out: If you are close enough to see what it is made up of, it’s actually quite dignified: Neil, as I first met him—who was certainly a most distinguished-looking individual as starving journalists go—framed in a tight photorealistic illustrative composition of the four-times-repeated image coupled with Neil Gaiman, the best-selling author he would become. But if you take a step back it becomes ridiculous. Neil is wearing himself like a pair of Mickey Mouse ears. The point that I’m trying to make is that this always needs to be factored into my thinking about Neil: I always have to observe closely in order to perceive accurately. The size of the starving journalist relative to the best-selling author he has become is critically important to accurate perception: the increase in stature is in no way exaggerated. In my most accurate assessment these images here are as big as he was then and that image there is as big as he is now. There was, to me, an intrinsic necessity in depicting—through the repeated image—the multiple aspects of the starving journalist I met: Neil, Dave Dickson’s friend and journalistic peer; Neil, Roz Kaveney’s literary protégé; Neil, the inquiring graphic novelist in utero; Neil, the Cerebus fan. These are aspects of Neil Gaiman that I was privy to, however briefly, that his legions of admirers are not. In any conventional sense, that can’t—nor, in my view, should—be discarded But in this instance, as a result of knowing “pre-Neil,” distance not only doesn’t imply overview, it results in an opposite effect. Whenever I see Neil I can never “not see” the sort of nerdy young fellow that I first met. As on the occasions when Neil would say to me, “I’m so proud of you.” And I would—very much amused—correct him: “No, Neil. I was in the business before you were. I’m proud of you.”

And it’s quite true. I am proud of Neil, proud of the graphic novelist who was the first person besides myself and Gerhard to attempt a marathon graphic novel, proud of his commercial success and proud of—and what is more a direct beneficiary of—his status as a breakthrough person who has served to legitimize the comic-book medium both by his triumph with Sandman and by his success in the world of television drama, short stories and novels which have led so many people TO Sandman and through Sandman TO the comic-book medium.

Even though when I look at him from any distance, I see these little starving journalists sticking out of him.

Next: Third Quarto