Brain Pickings

The Art of Neil Gaiman

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Irreverent self-portraits, naughty love letters, and other ephemera of a wildly creative mind at work.

Neil Gaiman is one of the most successful and celebrated authors of our time, not only for his beloved books, but also for his un-self-righteous and widely resonant wisdom on the creative life, the psychology of storytelling, the secret of genius, what it takes to be a successful writer, and writing itself.

In The Art of Neil Gaiman (public library), English journalist Hayley Campbell peers into Gaiman’s creative conscience through the wide lens of the author’s personal archive, from his drawings and comic sketches to youthful photographs and musings to never-before-revealed original manuscripts for his most famous works as well as a number of abandoned projects. What emerges is a panoramic picture of a visionary creative mind contained in a deeply human human.

Seventeen-year-old Gaiman in a photo booth

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

Campbell writes in the introduction:

Neil Gaiman describes his job as making stuff up and writing it down. He has managed to avoid getting up in the morning by writing the kinds of stories that people fall in love with so hard that they lend them to friends and lovers and friends never give them back, or they disappear into the suitcase of an ex-girlfriend as she closes the door on a relationship. Gaiman’s work, like life, is sexually transmitted.

Like a number of other writers with a penchant for the visual arts — including J.R.R. Tolkien’s drawings, Sylvia Plath’s ink illustrations, Richard Feynman’s sketches, Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age art, and Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons — Gaiman’s pain isn’t reserved for writing only. He dabbles quite regularly in the seemingly irresistible authorial self-portrait category:

Self-portrait of the cartoonable Gaiman, in shades and leather jacket. Date unknown.

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | drawing by Neil Gaiman, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

Other sketches are self-portraits not just of likeness but of style and spirit:

Gaiman's four-panel strip on sunglasses to artist Steve Bissette, 1991

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | drawing by Neil Gaiman, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

Hi Steve.

Well, inspired by your 24 page / 24 hour strip, I decided to draw my own strip. First since I was 15. Just four panels, mind you, and no hands. I draw crappy hands…

My strip’s about sunglasses.

You know. Shades…

People sometimes ask why I wear shades. I avoid answering — say something about having light-sensitive eyes. You know the kind of thing.

What I don’t say is this:

What the people who don’t wear shades don’t know is that some of us wear shades because they’re all that stop us being eye-naked — forced to gaze, unprotected, at the wet and bleeding face of reality as it squirms and pulses and writhes like a razor slicing a child’s eyeball or the sight of something dead, twitching, just once before collapsing and bloating [words missing]

… It’s all that stands between me and the pit.

Three pieces of moulded plastic, two lenses, and a couple of screws.

Best,

Neil

Also included is a treasure trove of artwork — sometimes weird, always wonderful — by artists who contributed to Gaiman’s most popular comic book series:

Dream on a Lobster, from the Sandman Gallery, by Eddie Campbell, 1994

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | drawing by Eddie Campbell, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman has also illustrated some of his own comics:

Two-page comic Gaiman wrote and drew for the Chicago Comicon 1994 ashcan called 'Harlan & Me'

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | drawing by Neil Gaiman, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

Design sketches for 'Harlan & Me'

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | drawing by Neil Gaiman, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman.

But among the book’s most delightful treats are Gaiman’s personal ephemera that bespeak how admirably he has mastered the elusive integration of the public writerly persona and the private person. Take, for instance, this irreverent and loving “appreciation” penned for his wife, Amanda Palmer:

A poem Neil wrote for Amanda and read aloud at her concert at the Sydney Opera House in 2011

From The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell | writing by Neil Gaiman, NG Archive | Image copyright © Neil Gaiman

For Amanda, an appreciation
(After Christopher Smart. Sort of.)

For I shall enumerate my lady’s charms, although they are numberless.

For FIRSTLY, she has a smile like a beam of sunlight breaking through a cloud in a medieval painting.

For SECONDLY she moves like cats and panthers and also she can stand still.

For THIRDLY she has eyes of a color that no two people can agree on, which I remember when I close my eyes.

For FOURTHLY she laughs at my jokes, sings unconcerned on the sidewalk and gives money to buskers as a religious act.

For FIFTHLY she fucks like wild cats in thunderstorms.

For SIXTHLY her kisses are gentle.

For SEVENTHLY I would follow her, or walk behind her, or in front of her, wherever she wished to go, and being with her would ease my mind.

For EIGHTHLY I dream of her and am comforted.

For NINTHLY there is no one like her, not that I’ve ever met, and I’ve met so many people, no-one at all.

For lastly she squeals when I say “waste-paper basket” and also in the morning, eyebrowless and waking, she always looks so perfectly surprised.

[signed] Neil Gaiman
(for the fireflies)

Complement The Art of Neil Gaiman with Gaiman’s 8 rules of writing, his advice to aspiring authors, insight on where ideas come from, and his wonderfully soul-affirming counsel on the doggedness of making good art.

All images courtesy of Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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