By their sheer brilliance The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Maus all pushed the potential and the acceptance of graphic novels to new heights. But in my opinion the individual who was more influential and more responsible for expanding the medium into mainstream than any other creator is – Neil Gaiman.
I first met Neil Gaiman shortly after I got to DC Comics. Martha Thomases, who was the Publicity Manager for DC at the time, wanted me to meet him. I think the three of us may have gone to lunch together – I remember being outside somewhere and Neil was this thin, handsome British guy in a black leather jacket. Martha even had on a leather jacket – I think I wore a suit. At that point in time Neil had published Neverwhere the novel and the last trade paperback in the Sandman Library – Sandman: The Wake, had been released that year. Even back then Neil wanted to talk about how we could expand the presence of graphic novels into bookstores –I could tell he was on a mission.
I watched him over the years as he crisscrossed the world to promote his books and in turn promote graphic novels. He has appeared in bookstores, theatres, auditoriums, libraries, comic book shops, and god knows where else, to talk about and sign his work. He has been photographed and interviewed, appeared on television shows like The Cobert Report and CBS Sunday Morning. He has been profiled by Publishers Weekly, USA Today and in 2003 Entertainment Weekly proclaimed Sandman “The Best Comic Book Ever”. I challenge anyone to point out someone in this field who has worked as hard and as effectively as Neil has, to get spread the word about graphic novels. He is the hardest working man in comics.
Neil used the internet to communicate directly with his fans, by writing a journal, long before everyone blogged or twittered. He built an intimate relationship with his readers. Those fans would come, to trade shows and comic shops and bookstores, to get his autograph and have a moment with their hero. I once saw a woman at one of Neil’s bookstore signings arguing with the staff, because she wanted Neil to personally break the shrink wrap on her copy. Read into that what you want, but it showed the amazing connection he has with his fans. He is known for signing his books until everyone who waited in that very long line has a book and an autograph, no matter how long it takes.
It’s 1999 and Neil releases Sandman: The Dream Hunters. Now, I know purists will say that this isn’t a graphic novel but an illustrated novel. The purist can bite me. It was a story with pictures and words aimed at an adult audience and a comic book publisher was publishing it, so I’m calling it a graphic novel. It was a gorgeous book with art by Yoshitanka Amano that was Neil’s first Sandman book in a few years. It was my job to sell and promote the book. Neil was kind enough to write an exclusive piece for a new internet book retailer called Amazon. They created a special Sandman store to highlight the piece and sell the Sandman Library and it worked.
The week it went on sale the great Karen Berger, Neil’s editor and the woman behind the Vertigo imprint, called me in my office and told me to take a look at the position of the book on Amazon. It was in the top 100 – we had never had a book in the top 100 before. The word got out around the office and it was suddenly like we were watching the stock market. “Hey did you see where it is now!” It reached as high as number 74 on the list of all books selling at Amazon. It was a huge break through – a book about a comic book character in the top 100. I can’t think of anyone else at that time who could have accomplished this feat. I printed out the chart as proof of what graphic novels could do. I still have the print out.
This would be the first of many firsts that Neil would accomplish with graphic novels. Neil was responsible for what proved to be huge tipping points for graphic novels and their acceptance in the mainstream, both in front of and behind the scenes. All the while he was giving the new market some much needed attention he gave every bit as much of his attention to the direct market. Both are important and viable and he was giving them the respect and attention that they both deserved.
Behind the scenes and in the public eye he has acted as an ambassador for comics. This week is National Library Week and Neil Gaiman is the honorary chairman for the event. Why am I not surprised that after these many years he is still out there making the effort and drawing attention to comics and graphic novels. Neil has appeared not only at almost every comic book convention you can name, but he has made numerous appearances at; BEA, ALA and other book related trade shows and events. His continuing efforts have helped changed the industry for the better and we owe him our thanks.
I just wish that more graphic novels artists and authors would follow his lead and go to bookstore trade shows and events in bigger numbers. I think it’s great that they appear in droves at the various comic cons around the country, but if more creators would take the time to go to build their profiles in other markets, it would be good for them and for the medium. If that’s not going to happen publisher could do things that would promote the talent better. One is pretty simple; put their names bigger on the covers of the book. That would be a good start. Many of these creators deserve to have their names bigger on the books – particularly the ones that are creator owned. That way if the author or artist moves on from their successful series of books and they start another series of books, the customer might recognize their names a little better. It’s pretty simple marketing.
But let me return to the world back in 2002 – Neil Gaiman’s American Gods hits The New York Times Bestsellers list, and it propelled his career to a new level. Neil Gaiman was becoming a “brand name” in the world of publishing. His name was getting bigger than the title of the book – a certain sign of making it in the world of publishing. That same year I was told Neil was coming back to comics and to Sandman. He was writing an original graphic novel that would be released in hardcover in 2003.
Wow, this could be huge.
Next week – Sandman: Endless Nights