Comics: unrepentantly in the gutter?

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This podcast is a conversation between political cartoonist Martin Rowson and writer Neil Gaiman, originally recorded for Index on Censorship.

In it, Gaiman and Rowson talk about Alan Moore and Milo Minara, whether comics are unrepentantly in the gutter, how the work of Hogarth and Gilray speaks across the centuries, how the bible contains more shocking stuff than they could make up, and how as children and teenagers they were enthralled by Judge Dredd.

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Martin Rowson: I wanted to talk about various themes. I wanted to talk about the visual and I wanted to talk about offence – how things are offensive and why they are in different ways. Have you caught up on this nonsense over here on Hilary Mantel’s short story the Assassination of Margaret Thatcher?

Neil Gaiman: Yes! I thought it was wonderful. I haven’t read the story, but I’ve read an interview with her and saw the thing from Sir Lord Emperor Bell. I thought it was wonderful that column inches in newspapers were being given to a short story.

Neil Gaiman (pic by Mika Stetsovski)

Neil Gaiman (pic by Mika Stetsovski)

There’s part of you that’s going, as long as people are getting upset, then a medium is not dead. And as long as a poem could send the editor of Gay News to prison in 1979 you knew that poetry was not dead. And as long as Tim Bell can call for the arrest of Hilary Mantel for writing a story you know that the short story is not dead.

Having said that, what for me immediately flashed up was some of these cases in America – some stuff that I’ve dealt with directly and some stuff that has just crossed my screen – where people would find themselves essentially arrested for ‘thought crimes’. Where people would write short stories – in which people would die, in which illegal sexual acts would occur, in which bad things happened – and find themselves under arrest, find themselves losing their jobs.

MR: It’s happening here, people sending texts about legal practices like fisting, it’s illegal to send a text about a legal practice like fisting. Likewise. I was tweeting last week about how grateful I was that Tim Bell showed himself to be so indestructibly stupid to actually say somebody’s got to be investigated by the police because of something they’ve made up in their head, which hasn’t happened, which isn’t real. I’ve got a quote here, “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 they were impounding Robert Crumb coming into Britain in the late 70s.

NG: 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 stuff coming into the country and it was stuff being imported to tie in with a BBC 2 Arena special on Robert Crumb!

MR: I always feel very uneasy about attempts to make the medium respectable. I actually think when there are Arena specials about Robert Crumb, that’s when the medium is dying. Attempts to turn what is essentially a specific genre which works in a specific way within the ecology of all fiction, shouldn’t be up there with the Booker Prize. It shouldn’t be treated as if it is respectable. That’s probably the satirist in me, because in the word of newspapers, I am down in the servants’ quarters drinking Mackeson, while my journalist colleagues are up in the drawing room drinking schooners of sherry! But you are a global star, treated with respect by a large group of people – don’t you feel that you should being doing something to get your books burnt in the high streets of America and indeed Britain?

NG: You covered three different things here. You’ve nipped carefully from topic to topic. The first is comics as gutter medium, yes or no? I would definitely put my vote in for yes. Partly because I loved being part of a gutter medium. I loved the fact that most of my life was spent writing comics and that anything else was just tiny hobbies around the fringe. Comics was still in the gutter, when I was journalist – which I was pretty much until I became a full time writer, so until about 1986.

In 1986 I remember calling an editor of a national newspaper I was working for and saying, “ I want to do a piece on comics. Dark Knight is happening, we’ve got Maus. Alan Moore is doing this thing called Watchmen, he’s about halfway through it. Something really interesting is happening, let me write about it.” And he said, “Neil it was Desperate Dan’s 70th birthday this year, so we’ve already done this year’s piece on comics.”

So I then went to the Sunday Times and convinced the editor to commission the piece. I went out and interviewed Frank Miller, Allan Moore, the Hernandez brothers, and I got Brian Bolland to do new artwork for the piece. I handed this thing in with more pride than I’ve ever handed anything in, because this was the end of ‘86 and this was the definitive comics piece and I knew that it was going to be huge. And the editor didn’t phone back. After about a week I phoned him and I asked, “Did you get it? Did everything arrive ok?” He said yes. I said, “well what’d you think?” He said, “Well I have some problems with the piece.” You always worry when they say that because it’s their way of telling you it’s not you and that’s always worrying. I said, “What are they, these problems? I’m sure I can fix anything.” He said, “Well I think the piece lacks balance.” “Well, what kind of balance?” Very long pause, and then he said, “These comics… You seem to think they’re a good thing.” And I realised I could not give him the balance that he wanted.

MR: Where does the balance come from? Do you get Kinglsey Amis to come in and say, “the novel is the top medium, children”?

NG: I think what he would have needed was a lot of people to say, “Comics are turning the world into an illiterate morass. And look at these pictures. They should all be imprisoned. And that Allen Moore is scary and hairy”.

I got a kill fee from that article and would have traded that kill fee, which was more than I’ve been paid for most articles, for the article being printed for nothing.

There was absolutely, starting out then, the knowledge that this was a gutter medium. But it was freedom, it was wonderful. I felt like we were making art while nobody was looking.

There was so much going on…..2000AD. I mean, you look at the concept of Judge Dredd and you have an ultimate fascist authoritarian cop, who at the same time was a wishful form of fantasy and a commentary to open people’s minds up to authoritarianism. And at the point where he’s shooting someone for having sugar, you’re like, hang on I’m a fan of Dredd, but you can’t do that! It’s a wonderful thing when you’re a kid and you’re a teen, to have your head opened up like that.

Yes, we are gutter medium. I think that is huge and wonderful, on the one hand I love that comics get power from being a gutter medium, and that it is, on some level, this bastard gutter medium. On the other hand, partly because I spent twelve years on the board of the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund, having to oversee legal cases and such where the whole point was proving that comics were literature, proving that comics were art, proving that comics were worthy of a first amendment defence and not just trash.

A beautiful example would be Paul Mavrides 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 because they can charge sales tax on sign painting. When a novelist finishes a manuscript and hands it in, the novelist does not charge the publisher sales tax because it is art. So it was the State of California telling Mavrides that he had to pay sales tax because it was sign painting. It was their way of trying to tax the Charles Schultz’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”.

So you’ve always got those tensions, but I think that comics, because of the capacity for 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 will be walking wobbly because it has one foot in the gutter.

In the same way that what you do, still, if it’s done well has the amount of offence and danger that Hogarth had because it’s a picture and pictures cannot be ignored, they sit there in your head. Comics are a target in a way that literature cannot be a target because the truth is you can grumble about Hilary Mantel’s short story, but in order to have an opinion on it you have to read the story. But the act of reading the story is going to change you. If you were going to have an opinion on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, you had to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and that act is going to change you. And it is an act that is considered, it has to take days, it takes time. The act of shocking people or upsetting people or rabblerousing people about an image is as simple as showing them an image or a portion of the image. You don’t even have to show them the whole picture and you can get them upset in all sorts of weird directions. Whether it’s Fredrick Wertham showing a shot of a man on a beach and trying to demonstrate that actually the drawing of his muscles are the lady behind his erogenous zones.

I’ve noticed over the last few weeks, a wonderful online foofaraw. Wonderful in the sense that everyone has an opinion about it – Milo Manara’s drawing of Spiderwoman’s bottom. There have been column inches a plenty. It’s basically people on one hand just saying, “this actually is the most offensive weird pornographic shot because there is no way this woman could be in this frame in this cover in this shape. Where would the body have to be?” And then there’s part of you going, “Its Milo Manara. If you ask Milo Manara for a drawing you’re getting a Milo Manara.” This is Milo Manara who did the most interesting sex comics of the last 40 years, he did Click, this is who he is. I got Manara to do a Sandman story, Endless Nights – Desire for that reason. It wasn’t hard-core, but I wanted every frame of it dripping with sex and it was.

MR: I’ve often typified what I do, within the topography of a newspaper, as being like a gargoyle sitting on top of a column. The reason I get more death threats then my text colleagues is because they nibble through the copy of my colleagues work, like Polly Toynbee, but very seldom does she get comments, with readers saying , “You call that an adverbial clause, a child of 5 could have written that!” Whereas I’m always getting, “You call that a cartoon? A child of 5 could have drawn that! Fuck off you cunt!” It’s because they swallow what I do whole. They don’t read it. I don’t know what they do. They see it, but there’s something more than just seeing it – I don’t think there’s a verb, interestingly, in the English language that describes what they’re doing. It’s a weirdly Anglo-Saxon thing, this suspicion of the visual.

NG: I think every culture has its own way of interacting with the image. But all those interactions are predicated on the fact that all images, particularly images of people, go straight into our heads and create empathy, create disgust. I think in your case, one of the reasons why you and Steve Bell get your death threats is because you can draw politicians in particular, in a way that shows us how much you hate them. And that is visceral. And what is wonderful is, that hate can communicate across centuries. You can look at 17th and 18th century political cartoons of fat people with their buttocks hanging out the window, shitting into the mouths of peasants and you can go, “oh I see this, I get it” and you hate that person. That is drawn with hate.

MR: Yes, if we have a collective view of what William Pitt looked like, it is courtesy of Gilray. Yes, as a respectable citizen, I insist I am doing this for the good of politicians, otherwise they would think they are gods! At one time I tried to have a conversation with Gordon Brown about economic policy and all he said was, why do you always draw me as fat? Because you are fat, Gordon!

This thing about the visual, which I’m very interested in, is this – when you were writing for graphic novels, were you thinking visually? I’ve never actually been able to work with anybody else writing my scripts, so I’m not quite sure how the process works because there will be stuff that comes out that may not be exactly what you were intending as a writer. Maybe stuff that comes out of your words that you may find offensive. Has that ever happened?

NG: Yes, once. I remember once, being offended. Being offended right in the beginning and we got one thing redrawn and even then we nearly wound up sending someone to prison. Before we get to that, yes there are probably as many different ways to write comics as there are for comics writers. I probably write a different way for every artist. I write, I think very visually because you never want to ask an artist to draw something that cannot be drawn and you have to know how you would do it. So I’m forever drawing stick men. Some writers I know actually send people their stick man drawings.

There are people like Dave Mckean, who I think are so much smarter and have so much more visual sense than I do, that all I do is give Dave words and watch him turn it into a comic because there’s no point because he’s better than I am.

One of my very first comics, back in 86 87, I worked with Knockabout on outrageous tales from the Old Testament…..

MR: I remember it well. Wonderful, wonderful volume – should be in every school in the country. Just for the record, this was produced in response to MPs saying that comics were disgusting and should be banned and Knockabout took stuff straight from the Bible and turned it into comic book form and sex, mayhem, genocide and violence ensued.

NG: It really did. I was fascinated by the book of Judges, mostly because it was these monstrous stories that do not feel like they have morals. God keeps telling people to commit genocide and they never quite do it the way he wants them to. It was a continuous cycle of the Jews failing to commit genocide in the way they were told to by God. I did one story which absolutely fascinated me, which was the story of a man whose wife whores around on him and he sends her away and then he has second thoughts. He gets her from her dad’s, brings her back. They’re 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, this wife, 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 was a gang rape and its awful and monstrous. Steve drew a gang rape so monstrous and terrible that Knockabout comics 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 Gibson’s. Even that wasn’t enough, there was a Swedish publisher of outrageous tales of the Old Testament who was arrested and threatened with prison for having basically published those pages, under Swedish laws against depictions of violence toward women. I think, honestly, it was only the fact that it was biblical and we hadn’t added anything and we haven’t done anything. I was saying, look, if you’re going to go after this, then there is this incredibly disturbing image of a guy nailed to a piece of wood hanging there in his death throws that we may want to start removing because its pretty harrowing and it seems to be some kind of image of torture crime. Yeah I think that was the only time I’ve looked at something and said yeah that’s too disturbing.

MR: I actually wanted to talk to you a little bit about reality, which is always an interesting thing to talk about, as we seem to be in it. You’ve written about how telling stories is almost what almost defines us as human. Am I right in saying that? I certainly think that is true. I think the reason we have language is so we can tell stories. To recreate reality. We use it to control and make sense of it, to appease our overactive cerebellum. Obviously the genre you’ve chosen, can be described as fantasy sf fantasy. Did you choose to go into that because that’s what interested you most? Or is there some realistic kitchen sink novel lurking inside Neil Gaiman?

NG: My first question is what makes you think I have any choice in the matter? I think when I was a kid, a teenager even, if you had told me I was going to grow up to be a writer I would have been very happy and despite any evidence to the contrary I would have thought I would grow up to be a sort of Larry Nevin-like hard science fiction writer. I’m not even sure why I would’ve thought this because it’s never where my mind went.

My mind tends to build peculiar, slightly fantastic constructs. For me something like The Ocean at the End of the Lane was really interesting because on the one hand, there is a novel in there that is pretty much a kitchen sink novel, about being a seven year old boy in 1968 and what you see and what going on. On the other hand you, you have weird fantastic shit happening. On the other, other hand you could go, all the weird fantastical shit that is happening in this book is a false memory. All of the weird fantastic shit is a way of trying to make sense of what actually did happen. That’s a perfectly valid way of looking too.

So far I think I’ve only ever written one completely mainstream long work, which was Signal to Noise, which I did with Dave Mckean a long time ago. A lot of that was because of the nature of the story which was about a film director who was turning fifty (which at the time was such an old age and so far in the future he might have been 150!). He had cancer and was essentially making his last film in his head before he died. That story could not, by definition, have any elements that were fantastic, that were not natural that were not realistic because I needed it to take place in a universe in which death was dark and final and that the lights were going to go out. There could be no possibility of any continuance or anything else; there could be no monsters because where there is a monster there is a miracle and there could be no miracles either.

MR: Do you think that’s the definition? Where there’s a monster there’s a miracle? I am always slightly intrigued by this idea of realism. A few years ago there was a wonderful listing in The Guardian that described a film as in ‘hyper realistic black and white’ – which is true if you are a dog with no colour vision! Tristram Shandy (which I turned into a graphic novel) is hyper-realistic, the point is that it takes him so long to write it – like the Borges map that covers the same amount of space as what he is mapping – he is trying to keep pace with reality. And yet Dr Johnson said ‘Nothing odd will do long, Tristram Shandy did not last,” because he was mediating reality through something else. And there are miracles every day.

NG: There’s a wonderful and probably not true story about Picasso after World War ll finding himself in a conversation in a bar or outside a bar with an American servicemen who started haranguing him about naturalism and art and realism and why couldn’t he draw anything that was like it was. Toward the end of the conversation he pulled out a picture of his girlfriend from his wallet and Picasso’s meant to have looked at it and then looked at the serviceman and said, “is she really that small”.

It’s that thing, we map reality and our own realities are these strange, slightly haunted, slightly peculiar things anyway. Which leaves aside the subject of dreams where each one of us gets to close our eyes at night and go stark staring mad and enter worlds that would’ve driven Lewis Carroll mad.

MR: But you work in a genre that clearly appeals to millions and millions of people because it recreates reality to help us control it. Do you think if you just skew it slightly off of the sort of humdrum utilitarian Gradgrindian way our leaders would like us to lead our lives, where the only thing we’re interested in is choosing which energy supplier we’re going to change to and you just tip it slightly off, you introduce a few ogres, a gremlins in the corner, it invites the reader into a world he can control? And that’s actually the appeal of fantasy?

NG: I’m not sure that its control, but I do think that part of the appeal of fantasy is seeing everything from an ever so slightly tilted angle. An example to me would be Neverwhere. I loved the idea of writing a novel about the homeless and dispossessed, in London, in the 90s, where suddenly you’d entered this world where people were sleeping rough en masse in London.

It seemed like it was something that I’d never seen before in my lifetime. Where the care in the community had become something like Orwellian devil speak for uncaring in the community and the community was defined by people who were not sleeping on the street. It was strange and hard and I would talk to people who were falling through the cracks or had fallen through the cracks. What I realised was that I couldn’t write a story that was,’ here is my book about homelessness in London’ because the only people who would read it would be people who were interested in reading a book about homelessness in London. I could write a book set in London below, about the experience of falling through the cracks, I could take everything and just tilt it 45 degrees and I could have people read a book and then come to me and say oh my god I haven’t realized that I mentally blanked and stopped seeing people who are homeless, I’ve been not seeing people in doorways, I’ve started talking to them, I’ve started smiling at them, giving them money, I’ve started buying the big issue, I’ve started doing what I can do.

MR: But in that thought, you’re also empowering the completely powerless, the totally dispossessed by turning it into a kind of Homeric epic.

NG: Absolutely, and also I hope saying ‘look, and these are people’, which is the bit that there is this weird kind of idea that without a roof over your head suddenly you have become an un-person.

MR: I was just thinking about a wonderful Kilgore Trout story in Slaughterhouse Five, about how God adopts a bum who’s being crucified on Golgotha, and he says: “That bum down there, he’s my adopted son, and this is just a message, you don’t push people around anymore you bastards”. That’s why we have fiction. But unfortunately it is fiction. Well, is it fiction? I don’t know whether it’s fiction or not, whether it’s actually hardwired into us. I think it’s hardwired into us, actually a constant attempt for us to occupy the ground being stolen by the sort of psychopathic alpha male chimpanzees out there who try and run the place.

NG: Well I think that you cannot underestimate empathy. And fiction is such a peculiar brain-to-brain art, you know when it works, suddenly you’re looking out of somebody else’s eyes, you are thinking somebody else’s thoughts and – the scariest statistic that I’ve seen recently is that 40% of poor white males in the UK will leave school unable to read for pleasure.

MR: Can they play video games for pleasure?

NG They probably can, but video games are all about shooting, I’m not going to knock video games as an art form, but they are fundamentally about, being in your own head, being somebody and going out and having adventures and the joy of, you know for me – fiction is empathy – and fiction, I think it would be a wonderful thing for Tim Bell to read a story from the point of view of somebody who would like to shoot Margaret Thatcher.

MR: My clever agent, David Miller, when I was telling him about how I felt as I was reading Wolf Hall, this extraordinary thing Mantel does, with such a sparsity of language and what appears when you read the first page, such weird language because of the way she refers to Cromwell using a mixture of pronouns, but yet she can evoke things, in about 12 words she can evoke an entire room, all the people in it and what they’re thinking and he said: “Well that’s the thing about books, they’re the absolute converse of what the incarnation of Christ is meant to be, it’s the flesh made word.”

NG: Very, very clever, and true, and the strange and glorious thing about that is that is that we can pack flesh down to words and then unpack those words 2,000 years later, 200 years later. 3,000 years later you can read the Golden Ass, you could read what we have of the Satyricon and you know these people and you’re there at Trimalchio’s feast and you understand how they thought, and who they were. You can read Dickens, bless him, and know an awful lot suddenly about…

MR: I’d put a word in for the Shawnee cave paintings as well, you know the one that Herzog did in the Cave of Forgotten Dreams which, before I give talks, I sort of say look at these things look at these extraordinary images, many of which are actually by modern definition cartoons because any rhino with a horn that big would fall flat on its face, it is therefore by my definition a caricature. It’s what I do, where the rhinoceros-ness of it is exaggerated, to make it more like a rhinoceros than a rhinoceros which is what a caricature is about. These things were drawn 25,000 years before agriculture, which is extraordinary. It suggests that we are more about mediating reality through our consciousness then recreating it, than we are about agriculture.

NG: I love the fact that at the centre of the Cave of Forgotten Dreams was an image that was fundamentally pornographic and suddenly, I found myself remembering one of those sort of great transcendent conversations; I once found myself being talked to by Neil Armstrong, very small lecture, and he was telling us the story of the moon landing and he began in Holland, with the microscope makers apprentices who discovered that if they put a lens, a microscope lens on one end of a cardboard tube, and then another lens on the other end of the cardboard tube and they looked through it, they could see the naked ladies upstairs in the brothel over the road, close up. I just love the idea of, of course you know we get driven by technologies and those boys with their proto telescope, lead us straight to the moon. And that drawing of the mystery of all mysteries, you know that sculptor drawing, leads on to everything.

MR: Likewise, an anthropologist once posseted to me, the only reason why we have agriculture is because grain alcohol gets you higher quicker than the stuff that was previously available by chewing and spitting it into a log – so it’s actually driven, not by scarcity or by a war economy but by the need to get pissed and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way of looking at human history.

NG: I love the recent discoveries from ancient archaeological digs where they rather tentatively put up their hands and suggested actually it’s not that, for years there’s always been the idea that beer came out of bread making because you had this extra yeast, so on and so forth, and now they’re going, well the way that it actually looks is we started out making beer and then somebody went, we’ve got this sludge and when you add it to this thing and bake it…

Although I heard a wonderful thing on radio four which is still, to quote the vernacular, ‘doing my head in’ in all sorts of nice ways. Which is the idea that human beings were domesticated by grain, in the same way that we domesticated cows or whatever, and dogs – that grain domesticated humans and took these otherwise relatively useless anthropoids and got it to become this thing that just spreads grain around, grows grain, all of this happy grain all over the planet, the wheat and the rice, and the corn, chatting to each other, having this glorious civilisation and all because they’ve managed to domesticate humans to grow them.

MR: That’s doing my head in!

NG: They are the most successful things on the planet pretty now – wheat, rice and corn. And also the glorious thing which is – they were no good for us, you look at hunter-gatherer human being skeletons and then you look at the agricultural human beings’ skeletons and we shrank, and we got sick.

MR: Also, look what it led to, it led to settlement it led to inequality, it led to capitalism, it led to war, it led to kingdoms.

NG: Exactly, we were doing just great before we were domesticated by those evil grains! We should rise up against our wheat overlords!

MR: Those bastard cereals!

Do you think you’re mainstream? Or do you think you’re still out there on the left field, doing the weird stuff that’s actually subverting whatever the mainstream is, because we live in a sort of consumer capitalist world where everything’s a supermarket and you can choose whatever you want wherever you want it, and so we get the illusion of freedom as a result of that?

Do you think you’re serving your readers well by making them question this, or have you just sold out, Neil?

NG: I think that the nature of the civilisation and the culture have changed profoundly in the last 30 years and I think that people like me and Alan Moore got to be some of the people who were driving some of that culture change.

30 years ago, I was sushi, in a world In 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 sold sushi and you had to go there, 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.

Or the weirdness of someone like Kate Bush. If you’d asked me where Kate Bush was in relationship to the mainstream, I would have said well here is the mainstream and here is Kate Bush, off here, in a little town in Oxford, a long way from the mainstream. And then you watch her doing her gigs doing these weird glorious things that are all straight out of her head, uncompromising in any way but doing them to 22 full nights at the former Hammersmith Odeon and all of her albums are back on you’re going, “well, I don’t know are you mainstream? What the fuck are you?”

And I think I’m kind of there, I haven’t changed doing what I do. I definitely was very weird and out here when I started doing it, you know not Ivor Cutler level weird and out there but still definitely not part of the mainstream, definitely something that was liked by the people who liked that sort of thing. We’re now in the third generation of that, whatever it is, as people who were kids and new-borns and not conceived when I was writing my first stuff, when I started writing Sandman and now breeding and for them, and also to some extent I think for school kids just because of things like Coraline.

Coraline’s a great example because when I started it, I showed it to my editor Richard Evans at Gollanz who declined to publish it, incredibly kindly, he said: “I think it may be the best thing you’ve ever written and it’s absolutely unpublishable in every way, because you’re writing horror for kids and that’s not publishable, you’re writing a book that seems aimed equally at adults and kids and that’s not publishable, but I love that you’re doing this but Neil, do something else.” And finally I finished it, a decade later, and when I finished it a decade later, it was publishable but I had to fight for it to be a kids book, it would have been easy to publish it as an adult book and it didn’t hit huge, but it sells the same number of copies every year, and then it became a movie.

MR: Presumably to new groups of people.

NG: Exactly, people find it every year. New kids find it, they pass it along to each other and I look on the American, the list of children’s names and Coraline has crept from being nowhere on the list of top 100,000 children’s names, it’s now up in the 600s

MR: Oh that’s nice, but doesn’t that fill you with a slight terror of the enormous power you have over people’s minds, you know you could use this for evil, if you chose to, many people do you know.

NG: Mostly what it tells me is that what you do yourself, because Coraline was essentially a book I was writing for my daughter, what you do for yourself has an effect when you make art outside, but it’s also not something that you have any control over.

MR: I’m absolutely wrong you know I think you had a choice, but of course you didn’t. I just think that the mainstream seems to be oblivious that what’s happened is that this river, with its mainstream in it, has reached a floodplain and has washed over everything that was apparently on the fringes.

NG: 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. You can’t look right now at, for example, looking at kitchen sink drama and trying to say well this is what fiction should be, this is proper fiction and the other stuff is… you look at what fiction is and there’s nothing now that seems to privilege kitchen sink drama, and the people who write kitchen sink drama are fans of mine 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.

MR: My very good friend Will Self recently started opining in his usually delightful Eeyore-ish way about the death of the literary novel and I tried to explain to him , “No, no it’s not going to die, it’s going to become like jazz. It’s just another thing. It just means you’re not riding high on the cultural hog anymore and maybe we won’t have to pay any more attention to Martin Amis, thank God, just ‘cause he’s a bloody literary novelist.” There is no reason why there should be a hierarchy for these things.

We agree it’s a good thing that we’ve reached the floodplain, that all these things were previously allowing people like the editor of the Sunday Times, to say essentially the type of big up trash for what you and I have both been involved with in terms of graphic novels and things like that, has reached that mainstream or has been engulfed by the mainstream, so what are the threats? This all sounds good, but clearly the reason why we have organs like Index on Censorship, is because there remain threats, there remain people who want to ban Sandman from school libraries and on it goes, when do you get to the point when everything’s too big?

NG: firstly, I think those threats will always be there. I had to watch one get fought over a paragraph in Neverwhere, where a hero is standing invisible while a couple are making out on a bench and you learn that the man’s hand is exploring underneath her jumper, you know, an adventurer in an undiscovered country and they’re a bit drunk. And a parent decided that nobody should read Neverwhere because that paragraph, which in context, I think, is absolutely about being alienated, and being outside and being invisible, that paragraph and thus that book should not be read by anyone.

The Fault in our Stars has just been taken out of a California, 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 which is probably the bestselling book of the last three years and was a huge movie.

I think popularity and mainstream success does not mean that the people who are looking out for your best interests and 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, nor should it – their mission is to save.

MR: So in a way, if we sort of come full-circle, where we started off this conversation, by agreeing that graphic novels, comic books, really belong in the gutter, they’re the art of the gutter and that’s a very good thing and they should outrage people and we should applaud it when the avaricious psychopaths in charge try to actually control them, and stop them and we win a little victory in ournhearts every time somebody reads that book. Likewise the fact that they’re still there is a counter to this wonderful line from Bunuel’s autobiography, My Last Breath, one of my favourite books, where he’s describing a funeral and Andre Breton at the graveyard says, “my life isn’t worth living anymore, nobody is shocked anymore,” but of course they still are, we win on all fronts – we’re in the mainstream and people are still shocked.

NG: That’s true and what fascinates me right now, is what shocks people. It’s a good place to stop because it’s also a good place to talk for the next four hours! What shocks people, what is now unsayable, changes and redefines and moves around. 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. I had a character in it who was transsexual and was sympathetic and was smart and charming and fucked up as 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 guys.

MR: Well it’s a good point to finish, because as you say, we could go on because this is, one thing that will be with us forever is, offense is in the eye of the beholder and taking offence is one of the most effective political offensive weapons around.

NG: Absolutely, and shock, and the point is that Andre Breton looking around going, “nobody gets shocked anymore.” And you say, “well no, Andre, actually nobody gets shocked because you hand them cold spaghetti at an art opening and say, “this is the vagina of my grandmother.”” But you can shock them in other ways. We can always shock. But, I always think that shocking, actually, is much less interesting, than making people think, because making people think has long term effect, that go well beyond the shock.

MR: : I like to make them laugh as well

NG: Yea, but that’s just drawing fat Gordon Brown!

MR: This has been absolutely wonderful Neil, thank you very much for your time.

Pic by Mika Stetsovski

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