On Writing the Comics—and Queer Characters—We Need
Neil Gaiman and N.K. Jemisin in Conversation
We asked Hugo Award-winning authors Neil Gaiman and N.K. Jemisin to sit down and talk about books, writing, comics and whatever else came to mind. What followed was a wide-ranging discussion of cultural representation in comics, rereading your own work (or listening to it, as the case may be with audiobooks), and fighting for accurate television adaptations. The conversation begins with Gaiman’s series The Sandman, which was first published by DC Comics in 1989 and ran for 75 issues.
N.K. Jemisin: I have been a giant fan of Sandman. It is the thing that made me like American comics again, because I was a giant manga nerd for years and years. It’s one of the things that reminded me that American comic books could be an art form. I had forgotten that.
Neil Gaiman: I wrote Sandman because when I ran into Alan Moore’s work I went, “here is this thing that I thought, when I was 15, was an art form.” And by the time I was 17 I was like, “if it is an art form, it’s not for me anymore.” But then Alan was writing things that had more emotional depth and the knowledge and the wisdom and the power of anything I was experiencing in cinema, in literature, or on the stage. And he was doing it in comics. I thought, “oh great, I want to do that too.” Here is the comic that didn’t exist and I’m going to create it and it’s my thing and nobody can tell me what to do because no one even knows what I’m doing. And I’m not quite sure what I’m doing. I’m just doing this thing that I think has to exist.
NKJ: See, I wondered about that. Because as I’m reading Sandman, I can kind of see the fluxes of not only the styles but also of the story direction. But at the same time, you’re still creating a myth. It still works. It still flows. Myth-making is a thing that has always interested me, but the way that you do it, and the organic fluxes of it kind of emulate that myths change over time. Was that intentional?
NG: It was very intentional. Going back to Sandman 9 when I got to make up an African myth and go, “here is the idea of a story that is going to be told, and it is two men telling it.” And it is made very clear all the way through it, this isn’t even the version of the story that the women tell. And then men do not get to hear the version of the story the women tell. I tried to build the story in such a way—there’s a point in the story that goes into why the weaver bird has a black breast, or whatever.
NKJ: Who tells the myth.
NG: Who tells the myth, what are they for.
NKJ: The tangents—all of that is part of it.
NG: And so, that was always part of Sandman. The idea that things, that actions become myths. That things begin as holy mysteries and eventually wind up as fairy tales, and myths are somewhere along the way.
NKJ: That comes through. So that’s my squee-ful fan-girl moment at you. I’m trying to be very cool and calm and relaxed because I just got out of a cab.
NG: That makes me so happy. I’ve been such an admirer of yours.
NKJ: Thank you. It is one of the things that I will definitely say is an influence on my work. It’s one of the things that’s helped me understand that you can kind of not give a fuck and actually be okay. Like if you know the thing that you’re trying to do, even if no one else does.
NG: It’s also kind of great to do that because they can’t stop you. There aren’t rules yet, to stop you doing that thing, because it never occurred to anybody that you would. And I think that is huge. I look back on Sandman now—here is this thing that began for me over 30 years ago.
NKJ: Sorry, I just suddenly feel really old. [laughs]
NG: How do you think it makes me feel?
NKJ: Alright, good point.
NG: I was asked yesterday, somebody said “Sandman was the first place they ever encountered gay characters, lesbian characters, or trans characters. Would you write them like that now?” Well, no.
NKJ: Things have changed. You’ve changed.
NG: Things have changed. And because now there are lots of fantastic trans people making comics and telling their own stories. And I no longer would go, “hang on, I have trans friends. I am not seeing people like my trans friends in the comics that I am reading. So I am going to put people like my friends in my comics, because that’s reflecting my world.” By the way, if you are a 15-year-old boy in Middle America reading my comic, I want you to meet people that you aren’t otherwise going to meet.
NKJ: Or meet people who you may be yourself and haven’t figured out.
NG: What’s weird for me is that hadn’t occurred to me when I was writing it. Maybe just because I was stupid or naive or whatever, but it didn’t occur to me. All I was going was, “I love Wanda. I will write Wanda. She will be like my friend Rachel. She will be like my friend Rose. She will be like all of the friends of Rose’s that she’s introduced me to.” What made me feel like I had done the right thing was the letters. Back then people wrote actual letters to the editor, and they would reach me a few months after they had done the letter column, in a big FedEx box with 100 letters.
NKJ: Oh god, a hundred at a time?
NG: Oh yeah. And I’d read them, because that was the only feedback. There was no internet. There was no way of knowing that what you were doing was doing anything. And I remember the first Game of You that came out, people going, “This is weird. Why do you have this person in our comic? We don’t like him/her. We are offended. We are threatened.”
And then six issues later, the same people are writing, “Oh fuck, I can’t believe they buried Wanda in a suit. They didn’t put her name on the thing. How could they do that to her.” And at that point I’m going, “Good.”
NKJ: People were talking about that stuff then, it’s just you didn’t see it happening in mainstream media. And you didn’t see it in American comics. And seeing it in those spaces, seeing any kind of representation of people other than straight white guys.
At the time I was—oh god, I must have been early twenties, maybe late teens—but at the time, it was one of my first encounters with characters that were queer. It was one of my first encounters with just discussions about race and gender that I think you got into a little bit into a comic book. This was around the time that I was finding Octavia Butler and all these other people who I really needed to see. And I was having that same kind of awakening of “hey wait, this is a thing that can be for me.” And that was part of it.
”If you are showing reality as it exists, people as they exist—that’s political as fuck.”
NG: What is fascinating for me now looking back, is while Sandman was going on, it was criticized quite a bit for not being political. And I was fascinated by this. Because people were going, “here are these comics that say Margaret Thatcher eats babies. And your comics are completely apolitical.”
NKJ: People don’t understand what political is, do they?
NG: Exactly. And I was going, “I think they’re political.” And the weird thing now, you look back at a lot of the Margaret-Thatcher-eats-babies comics and you go, “yeah they’re fine.”
NKJ: There’s making a statement, and then there’s the engagement with people. People, politics, polity, all of these things—that is what politics is ultimately about. If you are showing, like you said, just the people you have in your life, if you are showing reality as it exists, people as they exist—that’s political as fuck.
NG: I like that now that has come into focus. At the time people were standing too close to it, and people were like, “oh Neil’s just doing this weird airy-fairy comic with fairies in them.”
NKJ: Not everybody was too close to it. The people who were craving that representation, they saw it. They saw exactly what you were doing. The people who you are saying now did not see it, they were the ones that needed to see it. And they were the ones that needed the step back that the comic book created. Everybody else desperately needed to be right there in it. So thank you for that.
NG: I love that. Sandman saved my life while I was writing it. It turned me into a writer. Sandman, we grew together. As the demands of the story needed a better writer and needed a bigger writer, I became a better writer and a bigger writer because I had to be to write that story.
Odd thing, I’ve never said that before. You know that odd moment in interviews where you realize “I’ve said so many things” but I’ve never said that before. I’m not sure I’ve ever even thought it before. But it’s true. It made demands on me. It’s 2,000 pages long and for every page of comics there would be about four pages of script. There’s 8,000-plus pages of script written.
”Sandman, we grew together. As the demands of the story needed a better writer and needed a bigger writer, I became a better writer and a bigger writer because I had to be to write that story.”
NKJ: I’m just learning to write scripts and I’m doing it by reading comic books and observing what’s happening on the page and then trying to then render that in script form.
NG: All a script is, is a letter to an artist to tell them what’s in your head. The mantra that I would go back to in every script, while telling an artist what to do, was “if you can see a better way of doing it, do that.” This will work.
NKJ: The whole point is to trust the artist.
NG: It is a personal a letter between you and the artist which bears much the same relationship that architectural diagrams do to the finished house. And it’s also—there is a magic to it, in that it allows you, or at least it allowed me to enjoy what I was making in a way that I could never imagine picking up a book I had read and reading it for pleasure and thinking, “ah here is a short story I’ve written.”
NKJ: Because you’re too close to it?
NG: Because I’m too close to it. Because I wrote it.
NKJ: You need that visual distance?
NG: Because I made it: every word choice, every awkward comma, every place where I go “ahhh” is going to be there for me. I can read a comic that I wrote with pleasure. Because in the same way that I suspect as an architect I could walk around a house that I designed and with pleasure go, “Oh look at the light here and didn’t they do a beautiful job on that.”
NKJ: For me it’s audiobooks. But for me, with audiobooks, I listen to an audiobook of my work and I go “hey this is good” and I go “wait, I forgot I wrote this.”
NG: Do you do your own audiobook?
NG: See, I do my own audiobooks, which means I have the thing when you actually hear your own voice and you just writhe with embarrassment. But I can take pleasure in the occasional full cast audiobooks that they’ve done of my stuff.
NKJ: See I haven’t had that yet, so maybe one day.
NG: They’re really fun.
NKJ: It’s almost like a radio play, right?
NG: It’s a kind of hybrid because they lose the he said’s and she said’s on the whole, which occasionally irritates me because I’ll put them in for the rhythm of the sentence and now the rhythm goes away. But I’ll have the joy of Derek Jacobi narrating The Graveyard book and think, “this is so cool.”
NKJ: I have not seen the TV show for that or American Gods because I don’t have cable anymore, but I’ve got to find a way to bang through that.
NG: I love what they did with American Gods. It was weird because it’s that thing where you go, “Okay, here is my thing and you guys make a go of it.” And there were things that were written in stone.
Anansi Boys actually made one of those things very real for me because when the book was published I got a call from a director so famous even I had heard of him—and I’m horrible with those things. He said, “I picked up the book in the airport, read it, love it, we want to buy it. We want to make it a movie.” And somewhere in that conversation I got him and his producer on the phone and they made representations to my agent. They are about to pay life-changing sums of money. And then they say, “They’re going to be white.” And I say, “No, but they’re black.” And they say, “Ah black people do not like fantasy movies.” And I’m like, “Then we’re done and I’m sorry. And we’re not even talking about this. This conversation is done.”
But what was lovely about having done that is then going into American Gods, before we hired Brian Fuller as a showrunner or anything like that, when Fremantle were wanting to buy the option to American Gods, I went, “None of the race is negotiable. We will begin with all race in the book, including Shadow being mixed-race, these are non-negotiable, and we can go on from there.”
NKJ: I think my dream is to get big enough to say that to people. I’ve sold TV rights now, and I accepted the fact that as an author who is relatively new-ish on the scene and you know, I don’t have any major movies under my belt or any of that proven money-maker stuff, I’ve kind of accepted the fact that that’s something I don’t have the strength to negotiate on. I’ve tried. And to the degree that I’ve felt like I have the power to do so, I’ve done that. But I think that to me is going to be the marker or when I made it is when I can say, “No do it this way or I walk.” And they do it this way instead of walking.
NG: I’ll say one thing about that, quickly: I’ve just spent the last six months showrunning—you know I’ve spent several years adapting, and I’ve spent the last six months showrunning Good Omens and the reason I did that is because even on a day-to-day basis, you do not actually have control over things unless you’re doing it.
For me, Good Omens was like being given this thing by Terry Pratchett before he died and “you have to do this and you have to make the thing that will make us proud.” And at that point I couldn’t actually risk the crapshoot of “I’ve written the scripts and I think they’re good and I’m going to hand them over to a bunch of strangers. You know, I’m giving you my baby, I’m giving you my kid, and I have to trust you.” Actually, no, I’m going to be there behind the camera. I’m going to be there in the casting process. I’m going to be there every step of the way because I have to.
NKJ: What’s something you always want to talk about in interviews and guided conversations and interviews that you never get to?
NG: The best thing about the stuff in interviews that you never really get to talk about is it’s normally the stuff you have not yet figured out, and you’re trying to figure it out. And the reason why you don’t say it in an interview is you don’t want to say something stupid. So for me, it’ll be watching the nature of what the internet is at this very moment. And watching the change in the pluses and the minuses of what I thought was going to be a tool that would allow people of all kinds to communicate as equals and see each other’s points of view and usher in a new era of peace and harmony.
NKJ: I felt that way once too.
NG: Exactly. And watching that turn into a place where people retreat to their villages and shout at each other. There are billions of people on this planet, and this is actually a way for people to talk directly. And there was a point where I thought, “Ah it’s going to be memes of fluffy cats. I guess I can get into that.” And then it seems to become a thing to allow–
NKJ: The worst.
NG: The worst. Growing up, I thought I was really lucky because I all the bad stuff was in the past and now we were heading toward a sort of Star Trek-future in which we would fix everything here and then we would have to go off and find the planet where they were all dressed as 1930s gangsters. That was a sort of “we’re going to get everything fixed here.” And my disillusion with this, my going “It’s a good thing that the Nazis didn’t have the internet.” Things start getting much more real. You start to remember how hard it was for the UK to persuade the US to come down on the side of… and if that were going on now they would call Pearl Harbor a false flag operation.
NKJ: They already are. I’m sorry to tell you that.
But that’s constructed, remember. The changes we’re seeing to the medium are a thing that are being done and can be undone. That’s the little bit of hope that I’ve got.