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A Special Issue on the works of Neil Gaiman

By Elizabeth Sandifer and Tof Eklund

The question of introducing a special issue on Neil Gaiman seems almost incidental. Gaiman is one of those comics creators, along with Spiegelman, Moore, Crumb and a few others, who one could assemble a special issue on without having to justify the worth of the endeavor. Everybody knows that Gaiman is a touchstone of comics scholarship. If anything the question seems to be “Why do we need more scholarship about Gaiman instead of…” (with an option to fill in the ellipsis with any number of less-well-known but worthy creators). But that’s where the problem comes up – the question is not why we need to say more about Gaiman. It’s why, despite his iconic status, comics scholarship has said so little.

Much of the existing work on Gaiman has used him in order to legitimize comics as a medium. We do not dispute the sense of this – few, if any, comics writers fit more straightforwardly into the literary studies model than Gaiman. His tendencies towards intertextuality, literary and historical reference both deep and broad, and his clear skill as a writer of comics, short fiction and novels make him so obviously a good choice for literary scholarship that the claim “We ought to teach more Gaiman” seems as close to indisputable as a claim about comics scholarship can be.

Gaiman’s merit isn’t the problem. The problem is that his literary merit and vast popularity have propelled him into the nascent comics canon so quickly that there is not yet a basis of critical scholarship about his work. When the existing scholarship is not concerned primarily with the politics of literary canonization, it has largely defaulted to a Jungian/Campbellian reading perhaps epitomized by Stephen Rauch’s Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth. While there is nothing wrong with this model, it is only one of many theoretical approaches to the medium, and has become an overworked paradigm in the field. The currency and excitement that surround Gaiman’s oeuvre begs for a variety of equally current and (we hope) exciting critical paradigms.

Beyond this, the desire for legitimacy has pushed comics scholarship into a contradictory position, in which literary merit is valued, and Gaiman valued for his literary qualities, but the “low” cultural tradition of popular comics and comic art is devalued. This is tragic in Gaiman’s case, as he is deeply steeped in many of the traditions of comics that are abjected or erased by the focus on canonization. Gaiman’s Sandman began as a revamping of the DC’s “Golden Age” superhero of the same name, was published by DC, originally conceived of as being part of the DC universe, and, at several moments, clearly situates itself as part of the superhero genre that efforts at purely literary canonization have to dismiss or downplay.

We felt that an intervention in the field was needed, and that ImageTexT was uniquely positioned to address the problem. The questions inherent in broadly theoretical and interdisciplinary comics studies are exactly the sort that Gaiman scholarship needs. We do not presume this issue to be a new foundation for the field, let alone the final word on the man or his work. More modestly, we hope that the essays presented here will help begin a larger series of critical conversations about Gaiman independent of the field’s struggle for legitimacy.

To that end, we offer eight essays, representing a variety of theoretical and disciplinary perspectives, and offering a variety of interpretations and evaluations of various parts of Gaiman’s imagtextual ouvre. Some, such as Clay Smith’s essay, are openly critical of the project of canonization, offering a view of Gaiman in which his intertextuality and referentiality are read in terms of marketability rather than literary value. Other papers see Gaiman’s work as successfully fulfilling traditional literary concerns. Zuleyha Oktem, for instance, provides an impressively thorough documentation of the ways in which Sandman can be read in terms of medieval literature, both well-known and obscure, while Jon Saklofske’s essay turns the paradigm of intertextuality inward, looking at Gaiman’s short piece “Wordsworth” in terms of the complex interconnections among its words and images.

The question of intertextuality central to Smith’s paper recurs across the issue. Meredith Collins dissects the relationship of Gaiman and Vess’s illustrated novel Stardust to Victorian illustrated fairytales. And Gaiman’s intersection with contemporary pop music is explored by Alexander Reed in his essay on the mutual referentiality of Gaiman’s writings and the music of Tori Amos. In all cases intertextuality is not a mere passport to legitimization, but rather the starting point for an understanding of Gaiman’s and others’ work.

Most of Gaiman’s work has been produced in collaboration with other creators, especially artists, as he is not himself an illustrator, and several of our contributors tackle this particular intertextual issue. Saklofske and Matt Feltman both consider Gaiman’s chief collaborator, Dave McKean, in Feltman’s case in terms of Mirrormask, a film collaboration between Gaiman and McKean, and Cages, a solo project of McKean’s. Both find McKean to be a major influence and not a mere executor of Gaiman’s vision. Similarly, Collins’ reading of Stardust pays particular attention to illustrator Charles Vess, another frequent collaborator of Gaiman’s.

Collins finds that Vess’s Stardust illustrations are in the style of and often in homage to the Victorian tradition, and a deep historical focus is typical of Gaiman’s work. An intense interest in British culture, history, literature and myth is one of Gaiman’s distinguishing marks. The roots of this history, as Oktem thoroughly shows, run deep within Gaiman. But Gaiman has also always been interested in the intersections of this history with contemporary culture – indeed, in many ways, this intersection is the central concept of Sandman. James Fleming’s essay analyzes the role of history and contemporary culture in another of Gaiman’s works, his Marvel Comics superhero story 1602.

The relevance of contemporary literary theory to comics studies and Gaiman in particular is central to Fleming’s work. His reading of 1602 applies Derrida’s work on memory and trauma to Gaiman’s use of history in that work, revealing it as not a simple “What If” story but as a particular reaction to and response to the inherent problems of superhero comics in the immediate wake of 9/11. Derrida also informs Rodney Sharkey’s essay, which treats Morpheus’s role as hub for multiple mythologies not as a Campbellian ur-myth but as a specific and troubled signifier, and Smith’s project is the deconstruction of the myth of Gaiman as the perfect fusion of popular and high culture.

Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism also stakes its claim to Gaiman herein. Sharkey’s essay puts his Derrida in conversation with Lacan reading the meaning of Morpheus as the first signifier (or S1) of the signifying chain, using Sandman to stage a debate between these giants of theory. Feltman’s reading of Mirrormask and Cages is deeply situated in the tradition of Lacanian psychoanalysis and of object-relations theory as exemplified by Abraham and Torok. And Reed’s reading of Gaiman and Tori Amos takes as its theoretical heart a Lacanian mirror stage mutual mis-recognition.

None of these are, in our opinion, the last word in these conversations. Indeed, in several cases (different for each of us) we quite disagree with the authors. Truth be told, it’s a wonder we were able to complete this introduction in a tone of general agreement with each other. But if this issue contains an excessively tangled set of critical engagements, it seems only appropriate for a collection about a writer whose work is valued precisely because of its tangled literary and cultural engagements. We hope, then, that this issue is in turns satisfying and dissatisfying – dissatisfying enough, ideally, to provoke further essays, rejoinders, and commentary both in ImageTexT and elsewhere.

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