Neil Gaiman, 2012. Image courtesy The University of the Arts.
Hayley Campbell met the subject of her debut book, The Art of Neil Gaiman, in late 1992 when she was six years old and he was a visiting friend of the family. Beyond the fact that he “was the writer of my favorite story at the time, ‘A Dream of a Thosusand Cats,’ otherwise known as The Sandman #18” – as she writes in the introduction to her just-published coffee-table biography of the novelist, comics writer, poet, and artist – she didn’t know who he was. That year he tried out his children’s story in progress, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, on Hayley and dedicated the book to her upon publication. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and she would know who he was, and then some.
With what seems to be all-encompassing access to Gaiman’s personal notebooks and early, sometimes unfinished work, Campbell traces his evolution from teenage punk singer steeped in the DIY ethos that would inform his whole career, to struggling journalist in the UK, to bestselling author with a cult following. To create this visually stunning compendium (available only in hardcover; an e-book could never do justice to what The Time Traveler’s Wife author Audrey Niffenegger calls “one-stop shopping for Neil scholars of the future” in her foreword), Campbell sifted through mountains of manuscripts, Post-it notes, cartoons, drawings, and personal photographs stored in big plastic tubs at the top of the “Addams Family house” Gaiman shares with his wife, Dresden Dolls frontwoman and TED talker Amanda Palmer, in Wisconsin.
In a chapter called “Punk,” Campbell traces the roots of Gaiman's “just do it” approach to creativity and cites his 2012 “Make Good Art” commencement speech at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts (see video below). Of the many gems contained in the address, published in book form with design by Chip Kidd last year, this analogy might be its most powerful:
“A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.”
In poring through Campbell’s book, I experienced a sensation of time travel that blasted me back to Gaiman’s side as he knelt by the shore, carefully compiling and launching his own bottled messages. This portrait of the artist as a young man is especially resonant for the fact that so many of the bottles he let go have come back, and then some. It's reassuring for new graduates (and for all of us) to hear Gaiman admit that at the time of conception, he was the least certain of what he now considers to be his best and most successful work.
“When things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art … Make it on the good days, too,” Gaiman advises, following that inspired common sense with the reminder, “While you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.” Hayley Campbell seems to have absorbed that lesson from the man she calls godfather, and we're fortunate to join them both on shore.