Gaiman airs his work to appreciative audience

By Tim Michaels

A sold-out audience gathered at the Court Theatre to hear award-winning graphic novelist and author Neil Gaiman reflect on his past work and read from his soon-to-be published novel, Anansi Boys. The Presidential Fellow in the Arts Program collaborated with the Committee on Creative Writing to sponsor the event, which was moderated by Gretchen Helfrich, the host of Chicago Public Radio’s popular show, Odyssey.

Gaiman began by reading from Anansi Boys, which will be published in late September. The work is the author’s first novel since American Gods, which brought Gaiman international acclaim and several honors including the Nebula award for best science fiction novel and the 2002 Bram Stroker award. While the new work is significantly shorter than the 624-page American Gods, the author said it is much wittier, preserving a sense of humor at even the saddest moments. Gaiman elicited a chorus of laughs as he read about his protagonist Fat Charlie’s discovery of his father’s death.

The event was part of a series presented by the Presidential Fellows in the Arts Program that seeks to foster arts on campus and display the interaction between artistic theory and practice at the University. As part of the program, Gaiman participated in a small, informal conversation with students and faculty prior to his presentation at the Court Theatre. Heidi Coleman, a member of the Arts Planning Council introduced the program. A book signing at the Smart Museum followed the presentation.

Gaiman and Helfrich touched on some serious topics as well, discussing at length the creative process needed to produce a comic strip or graphic novel. Gaiman admitted that sometimes he did not know what form his stories for his comic strip Sandman would eventually take, but he stressed the importance of choosing an illustrator carefully. Some are more adventurous than others and others are “just weirder” Gaiman said. He also emphasized the value of letterers who make his comics stand out.

Helfrich asked several questions about the blur between fact and fiction within the fantasy genre. Gaiman explained that fantasy reflects problems of the real world. “I use fantasy to show you familiar things from an unfamiliar direction” he said. Responding to Helfrich’s questions about the theme of family relationships, Gaiman said that he tries to reveal how all the quirks of the dysfunctional family are not so weird, but actually quite normal.

During the question-and-answer period, avid fans bombarded Gaiman with in-depth questions about his work. One member of the audience, a recent graduate of the College, commented that four years ago she struggled to write her B.A. thesis on Gaiman’s work, and asked the author to comment on the changing perception of graphic novels as serious literature. While Gaiman did not give a definite response about what should be studied, he hopes to maintain his status, described by Forbes Magazine as “the best-selling author you’ve never heard of.”

Gaiman’s comments reached some audience members who were unfamiliar with his work. “I have never read anything by Gaiman, but I find that his work is heavily influenced by mythology,” said Steve Grzesiak, a Michigan resident who drove to Chicago specifically for the event. “He seems to have caught those common themes that intrigue so many of us, and put them into his writing.”

Gaiman’s diehard fans were also pleased. “He was a really good public speaker, and he managed to cover a lot of his material, which I didn’t expect,” said Marty Gleason, a juvenile probation officer from Chicago.

Helfrich’s interviewing style added to a further dimension to the event. “Gretchen Helfrich is an adept questioner, very personable and unthreatening,” said David Levin, an associate professor in the Department of Germanic Studies and the College. “She has a very clear sense of how to listen, and adjust her questioning to fit the particular situation.”

For fans and newbies alike, the event presented graphic novels and comics as a serious and important literary genre. “Gaiman’s presence symbolizes an important change in curriculum and a recognition of renewed interest in creative writing,” Levin said.