Deconstructing: Neil Gaiman Pt 1

This is the first in what I hope to be an ongoing series of posts. I took a number of commerce and law courses throughout my formal education, and they taught me that there is much to be learned about examining case studies. There are people out there who will be far better than I at deconstructing the actual writing styles of various successful authors, so here I’m going to focus on the business decisions that were made, and see if we can’t all suss out some lessons to run our businesses as creatives better.

The Beginnings

Neil Gaiman has described his origins as a writer in broad strokes in a number of places. He has discussed that he always wanted to be a writer and, in a commencement address, suggested he didn’t go to post-secondary education because it was standing in the way of him and being a writer. In the same address, he lightheartedly suggests that he basically lied to get a number of writing commissions for articles in different magazines.

What he left out of this address was an experience he had with a guidance counselor when he was a student. He told the counselor he wanted to write “American comic books”, and the counselor promptly told him to go become an accountant instead. Disheartened, he didn’t read comics for years. This did not stop his love of the arts though.

Writing for magazines presented Gaiman with two important takeaways; it was essentially a paid form of apprenticeship as he improved his writing through writing articles, and it put him in touch with creatives. From this period, it seems that Gaiman, at the least, made contact with Terry Pratchett, Alan Moore, Ray Bradbury, and Douglas Adams, not to mention a number of other authors. Charming bloke that he is, Gaiman struck up friendships with a number of these creators, developing what was in essence an ad hoc mentorship program. In many ways, this is better than the modern and artificial mentorship programs that often result in stilted conversations. Instead, we see a lot of these programs result in stilted and awkward relationships. He also was able to reach out to all of these creators with a genuine sense appreciation of their work, notably having picked up Saga of the Swamp Thing by Moore and devouring it.

During the 1980’s, he wrote his first novel alongside Kim Newman, and considered it to be a failure. The publisher in question had gone out of business before Gaiman went to relinquish his rights. In the late 1980’s, he wrote Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide Companion. These two books, alongside his years writing for magazines, show that Gaiman was not born with some blessed level of skill beyond other mere mortals, but instead spent years developing and honing his craft. In addition, not to begrudge him in the slightest, but it is important to note the difference in markets at the time, and though Gaiman wasn’t by any stretch wealthy at this time, one could more easily live off of this type of work.

By the late 1980s, he had struck up a strong friendship with Alan Moore, who suggested him to take over Marvelman after Moore’s run had finished. Gaiman wrote for this for a short period of time before the publisher went bankrupt before going on to write other comic strips and comics between about 1986 and ’87. In this time, he demonstrated a strong writing voice and great skill, prompting DC Comics to hire him. Moore had also been talking with Gaiman previously, including inviting him to attend a convention with him, a convention which Gaiman was covering as a journalist, and even talking over how to structure a comic script together.

This develops what is an important lesson from Gaiman’s life and career – being good is great, but knowing people is going to be part of your success. Several writers were impressed with Gaiman in his early years, and from the snippets that have been shared with us from a variety of writers, it sounds like this was, in part, because he asked questions. He learned. And he was supported with them along the way. It was one thing for Alan Moore to be a friend and able to support Gaiman as a comic writer, but it was also important that when that opportunity came up, Gaiman was able to deliver.

This is part 1 in an ongoing series that will eventually be collected on, where I also write. Watch this blog for part two, which will be out Monday, July 13, 2015. Next time will be Sandman!

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