Joseph McCabe,
Hanging Out with the Dream King:
Conversations with Neil Gaiman
& His Collaborators

(Fantagraphics, 2005)

For a start, it's got a really cool title.

But Hanging Out with the Dream King, a collection of interviews by Joseph McCabe, has much, much more. For anyone who has ever peeked into Neil Gaiman's quirky, funny, deeply philosophical and richly imagined worlds, this book has incredible insights into the ways in which he thinks, creates, works and interacts with the many writers, artists, editors and others who have helped advance his vision.

For many fans, the defining moment of Gaiman's career -- and certainly the one that propelled him into the public consciousness -- was the creation of The Sandman series for DC Comics. The Sandman, for those who somehow missed that boat, is Gaiman's voyage into the realms of the Endless, the seven incarnations of immortality, reality and fantasy who oversee the doings of mortals and immortals alike. The book centers around Morpheus, the angst-ridden architect of the Dream world, and his siblings Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Delirium (nee Delight) and Despair.

For this book, McCabe gives us one side of the coin with bookend interviews with Gaiman himself. The meat of the collection, however, is a series of conversations with the editors, pencilers, inkers and other creative forces that helped bring Sandman from obscurity to the level of cult icon, as well as other collaborators who have helped define and develop Gaiman's body of work.

Sometimes, they talk about Gaiman -- what it's like to work with him, to shape vague ideas into full-blown graphic novels, to stay at his house and drink with him down at the pub -- and sometimes they discuss their own creative processes and the thoughts that go into their work. It starts with artist Dave McKean, Gaiman's most frequent collaborator, and early writing partners Kim Newman and Stephen Jones. Then there's Karen Berger, the editor who helped to shape DC's Vertigo line in general, The Sandman in particular.

Most of the book is filled with an impressive lineup of Sandman artists, beginning with several pages of gloomy prose from co-creator Sam Kieth, the book's first penciler. Kieth, a talented artist, seems filled to the brim with self-loathing and disdain for his work in that period; it's a welcome relief when we move on to Mike Dringenberg, the book's original inker, Kieth's successor on pencils and the man credited with crafting (with Gaiman's guidance, of course) the goth-chick appearance of Death. His interview, thankfully, is much more upbeat!

The parade of talent moves on, and you'll find plenty of folks here who have no problem plumping their own egos or bolstering those of their peers. More importantly, they talk candidly about their art and the task of collaborating with Gaiman. Look for interviews by Kelley Jones, Charles Vess (one of my personal favorites), Colleen Doran (also the model for the witch Thessaly), Shawn McManus, Jill Thompson (simply delightful!), P. Craig Russell, Bryan Talbot, Marc Hempel, Michael Zulli (who is no great fan of Renaissance fairs), Daniel Vozzo and Todd Klein (the unsung hero of lettering).

Also featured is singer Tori Amos, who penned the song with the infamous "Hanging Out with the Dream King" lyric long before she actually met Gaiman. The Flash Girls -- the musical duo Emma Bull and Lorraine Garland -- give an immensely entertaining interview about Gaiman's songwriting talents in a chapter that could serve as their audition to play Charles de Lint's beloved Crow Girls. The Fabulous Lorraine is also the backbone of Folk Underground, the second of Gaiman's personal "house bands," who follow with a chapter of their own.

Other interview subjects are Alice Cooper, Mark Buckingham, Chris Bachalo, Yoshitaka Amano, Andy Kubert, Terry Pratchett and Gene Wolfe, all of whom collaborated with Gaiman in one form or another. (Still hoping for a sequel to Good Omens? Don't count on it. See the Pratchett interview to learn why.)

Of course, the most important collaboration for Gaiman is with his audience, which he tells McCabe is "all-important, because if it's not there you're masturbating. There are writers out there who write for themselves. While I write for myself in some sense -- I get to be the first reader and I don't like writing things I don't enjoy -- the audience and the existence of the audience is the most important thing for me."

If there's any failing of the book, it's the limited number of pages devoted to art. These are mostly artists, after all, and reading their stories makes you want to see more than a sample or two of their work! Still, it shouldn't take long to find most of them in the collection of Sandman reprints doubtlessly at your fingertips, so it's no great loss.

Perhaps the greatest success of this book, on the other hand, is the feeling that you're there with Gaiman, Vess, Thompson and all the rest, sitting down somewhere at a convention -- or, more likely, the pub next door -- jawing about gods and comics and everything else that blows across your table. McCabe is an excellent interviewer: pointed but not intrusive, thorough, candid, extremely knowledgeable about his subjects and their work, admiring without ever exposing himself as a rabid fan.

I'm sure Gaiman would agree the best way to know him is to read from the vast library he has created: novels, short stories, comics, scripts, poetry and song lyrics, one and all. But to dig a little deeper and know Neil Gaiman as others see him, Hanging Out with the Dream King provides an unusual degree of insight into the mechanics of one man's creative mind.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 22 January 2005

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