From Comics to College Professor, Insights From Neil Gaiman

Gaiman HorizontalKathleen Murray listens in as the legendary writer discusses the creative life with ‘Maus’ visionary Art Spiegelman.

This month about 15 very lucky Bard College students are the first to take a course with recently appointed Professor of the Arts Neil Gaiman. The literary legend is the author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theater and films.

Among his best-known works are The Sandman series of gothy graphic novels, whose strong female characters attracted huge numbers of women readers; Coraline, a novel for younger readers that was adapted into an animated feature-length film; and the Hugo Award- and Nebula Award-winning novel American Gods. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, his latest adult novel, is a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller. And those of us with preschoolers have Chu’s Day on bedtime rotation.

Gaiman’s first course, an advanced writing workshop that “explores the history of the fantastic, approaches to fantasy fiction, and the meaning of fantasy today,” is for Bard students only.

I love collaborating … and I love not collaborating.

But as part of his appointment, he is hosting a series of conversations, open to the public, at the bucolic Hudson Valley liberal arts college. The series launched April 4 with none other than cartoonist Art Spiegelman, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus as well as provocative New Yorker covers and the subversive Garbage Pail Kids cards from Topps.


Gaiman and Spiegelman discussed their influences – MAD Magazine was huge – and approaches to the creative life. It was a pleasure to hear how their lives have intertwined over the years. The conversation turned somber when the friends discussed similar childhood experiences of writing out family trees with missing branches due to the Holocaust.

When discussing with Gaiman the virtues of “packing” a comic or graphic novel with information, Spiegelman quoted Gene Wolfe: “My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure.”

For me the power of comics is the point where you can go silent. You can’t do that in a novel.

Here are some gems about the writing process shared by Professor Neil Gaiman in conversation with Art Spiegelman:

  • On creative partnerships: I love collaborating … and I love not collaborating. There’s nothing more glorious than saying, ‘Right, you’re all idiots, and I’m going to do it my way.’ (In reference to his novel and short-story writing.) “And then I’ll look around and realize I haven’t spoken to anyone in 11 months. So then you go write a TV script (a reference, no doubt, to Doctor Who or perhaps American Gods) or work on a comic.”
  • On the subversive nature of MAD Magazine: Gaiman asked Spiegelman: “What’s the difference between MAD telling you to always question, and cynicism?” Spiegelman’s response: “(MAD was) always pushing you to understand something more, not less. Cynicism is just shutting down.” (Google Mickey Rodent! What Makes a Glass of Beer Taste so Good? and Superduperman!)
  • On narration without words: “For me the power of comics is the point where you can go silent. You can’t do that in a novel.”
  • On character creation: “The script is an iceberg.” Gaiman said most of his Sandman scripts were 10,000 words long, yet the actual word length of an issue would run about 3,600 words. Those other words in the scripts were directives: “You say Page 1, Panel 1 and you put it all in.”

One of the evening’s highlights was to hear Gaiman read the first few pages of his version of Hansel and Gretel. Neil Gaiman reinvigorating a classic creepy fairytale with illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti? It’s the ultimate fan fiction.

Now if only I could get my hands on that course syllabus …

Photo: Kimberly Butler


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About Kathleen Murray

Kathleen Murray has worked as a reporter, editor and producer for international, national and regional news organizations with a focus on feature writing and arts journalism. Follow her on Twitter: @KMurrayWriteEd


  1. Wish I could take the class. I am a big fan of Neil Gaiman. His mind is an adventure onto it’s own.

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