The Boston Phoenix
September 23 - 30, 1999

[Book Reviews]

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State of the Art

Neil Gaiman

by Peg Aloi

What haunts the bowels of Boston streets? Rats, of course. New York? Albino alligators. London? Well, rats. And rat speakers. Velvet vampires. Ageless assassins. Fallen angels. These are the denizens of Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman's 1997 bestselling novel. This afternoon Boston audiences can view the BBC mini-series of Neverwhere (soon to be a feature film from Jim Henson's company) at the Brattle, and tonight they can attend a benefit reading by Gaiman.

This native Brit now living in the Midwest says Neverwhere springs from his dissatisfaction with London in the early '90's. "On the one hand, there was this incredible affluence, and on the other hand, walking down the Strand toward Trafalgar Square, in every doorway you see people unrolling their sleeping bags. You glance at them once, they become invisible. I wanted to explore what happens when you fall through the cracks. And it became an adventure novel, a sort of Narnia on the Northern Line."

The novel follows a London businessman taken in by a group of rag-tag warriors who live in abandoned subway stations, and it's written in two versions: British and American. "English readers know London; but someone picking up the book at a Wal-Mart in Kansas knows as much about London as they know of the Palace of Kubla Khan in Xanadu. I thought: let me treat London as if it were a city on the moon."

Gaiman is perhaps best known for his popular graphic novel series The Sandman. A new installment of the series, inspired by a Japanese Sandman poster and entitled The Dream Hunters, is due out October 27. Two days later, the Japanese anime feature Princess Mononoke will open in the US, with an English screenplay written by Gaiman and director Hayao Miyazaki. It was while researching the film that Gaiman was inspired to return to the Sandman series. "I was steeping myself in Japanese folklore, and seeing that beautiful poster of a Japanese Morpheus it struck me: in all 10 volumes I had never done a Japanese Sandman story. This one has a fox spirit, a monk, a Buddha, and an evil magician."

Such characters are Gaiman's stock in trade -- adult fairy tales rich with myth and metaphor, but also occasionally subversive and violent. "The coolest American thing is this thing called the First Amendment," says Gaiman, a passionate supporter of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which is sponsoring his appearance in Cambridge along with Million Year Picnic. Says Chris Oarr, director of the CBLDF, "Neil has been one of our champions -- he's been doing a benefit reading tour every year since 1993." The fund helps pay legal costs for comic artists who have been convicted on (usually ludicrous) obscenity charges. Recently one such artist was jailed for three days, barred from touching anyone under 18, and subjected to random 24-hour searches -- all for giving his son a copy of the juvenile comic Elfquest depicting a childbirth scene. "The problem is that comics are an underground art form," Oarr points out. "If some of these same cases involved rock music or novelists, they'd be on the front page."

Gaiman agrees: "Bless comics, they are a gutter literature. That is their power."

Neil Gaiman appears at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle Street in Harvard Square, this afternoon and evening, September 23. He will introduce Neverwhere at 3 p.m. and read from his work at 8 p.m. Call 493-6763 for ticket info, or (800) 99CBLDF for info on the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.


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