A night with Neil Gaiman, let alone one with his multi-talented partner in crime Dave McKean, is always a bit weird, really. Even though I've shot the breeze with Gaiman's eclectic contemporaries like Christopher Moore and Chuck Palahniuk, those nights still feel like, well, readings. Neil, the bestselling author of "American Gods" and the "Sandman" series, always seems more like a visiting rock star.
So it was with "An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean," here in London at the Congress Centre, sponsored by the independent bookstore Foyles. The faithful, cloaked out in ebony and crimson and ankhs, were there as usual but so were a broader base of fans from both the Gaiman camp and those familiar with the artwork, photography and films of Dave McKean. Far from simply launching a children's book, the newly released "The Wolves In The Wall," the event was a complex look behind the scenes of an astounding creative partnership that has lasted over 17 years.
The night began with a complete reading of "Wolves" by Gaiman, who turned 43 the week he was in London. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he retains an extraordinary theatrical ability to present his own work. Neil, bedecked in the same uniform black t-shirt and leather jacket he has worn for years, reads his work with as much passion and grace as he must use in reading to his daughter, who inspired the book.
Unfortunately, due to abysmal planning on the part Foyles, it was the last time anyone in the audience had a clear view of Gaiman. Sitting on a low-standing couch, the pair was interviewed for an hour before the mob was dismissed en masse to form a disjoined queue. In the chaos, fans that had stood for hours in line to get into the event were forced to the end of the line for signatures. The bookstore's staff should be ashamed of themselves.
That said, everyone was treated to the audible delight, at least, of a brilliant interview by BBC broadcaster Jonathan Ross, a dead savvy conversationalist who obviously knows his subjects both professionally and personally.
Lucy and the Wolves
"Actually, the first thing on this was my daughter Maddie having a nightmare," Gaiman said in explaining the origins of "Wolves." "That was where it began. When people ask writers where they get their ideas, we're normally very vague but in this case I can tell you that I stole it from Maddie. She was about four and she woke up and said, 'Dad, the wolves came out of the walls,' and I said, 'I think you've had a nightmare,' and she said, 'No, I can show you the space in the walls where they came out.' So I phoned Dave and told him I thought I had our next children's book."
McKean and Gaiman, for those not in the know, have collaborated for years. Beginning with the graphic novel "Violent Cases" in the early 1980's, through the famous "Sandman" series for DC Comics, they have now started the millennium with the children's books "The Day I Traded My Dad For Two Goldfish," "Coraline," a new "Sandman" collection and now "The Wolves In The Wall," in which the lead character Lucy is sure that there are wolves in the walls of her home.
"I ended up reading it one night, thinking that this is actually quite creepy," said McKean. "We had done the kid's book previously to this one, which has a sort of sweet kid's logic to it. This one has a kid's logic to it but it's sort of creepy so that went into the pictures." In fact, the art is a brilliant amalgamation of styles that appeals to children in its simplicity but has such deep layers and subtle effects that the book is worthy of any adult's coffee table.
"People ask me who my favorite artist to work with is and I have now worked with ninety percent of the good comics artists out there. I always say Dave and they say, 'Why?' and I say that it's because he surprises me. I give him something and I have some idea of what he will do but it would never occur to me that he would paint all the people, use computer-manipulated images for any physical objects, and draw the wolves," Gaiman said.
In fact, because of the intricate nature of Gaiman's words and McKean's art, even their editors are never sure what genre the book is in.
"None of us are very sure if it is (a comic book) or not," Gaiman said. "I asked Art Spiegelman (author of the award-winning "Maus"), who is meant to be the expert on comic book art and he says that it's not because he likes it and he doesn't like painted comics." At one point, McKean remembered deciding to computer generate the effusive jam that seems to get everywhere in "Wolves."
"No, no," McKean said. "I knew somebody would say, 'blood, blood, blood,' on the jam so it had to be photo generated. There was no way I could possibly draw it."