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Neil Gaiman, TV’s new angel

  • Famed comic writer and grandmaster of mythology Neil Gaiman rolls up his sleeves to take over television
  • From ‘Good Omens’ to the recently announced ‘Sandman’ series, everyone’s looking to adapt the author’s work

The British writer Neil Gaiman.
The British writer Neil Gaiman. (Photo: AFP)

Television is hailed as art now. It is frequently likened to the novel, and to cinema. I believe these comparisons miss the mark because the genius of television lies not merely in merit, but in sustained, serialized storytelling—in the way we discover characters and experience narratives over episodes and seasons, months and years. The closest current equivalent, I venture, is that TV may be the new comic book.

Comic writers work precisely like TV showrunners. They write scripts for artists, tell stories over elaborate arcs, they chip away to reveal characters bit by bit—even finding new facets to characters created decades ago. They are required to find emotion, drama as well as buy-the-next-issue cliffhangers.

Neil Gaiman is stepping up to this very wicket.

Gaiman, 58, is the eternally leather-jacketed creator of the enormously acclaimed comic series Sandman; novels American Gods, Anansi Boys and Coraline; books on subjects as far removed as Norse mythology and Duran Duran; and several superhero comics—one of which reimagines Spider-Man as a 16th century boy trying to help Queen Elizabeth I.

Good Omens (2019- ) Gaiman turned screenwriter for this show based on his novel, co-written with Terry Pratchett, about an angel and a demon getting together to prevent Armageddon.
Good Omens (2019- ) Gaiman turned screenwriter for this show based on his novel, co-written with Terry Pratchett, about an angel and a demon getting together to prevent Armageddon.

Gaiman flops into a chair in front of me in London on an overcast afternoon, a day after the world premiere of Good Omens at the end of May. He has converted the 1990 novel he wrote with iconic fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett into a preposterously absurd series for Amazon Prime. Gaiman insists he has made the show for one person and one person alone.

“Terry asked me to make it so that he could see it—and then he died," says Gaiman, who started writing episode 1 as soon as he got home from Pratchett’s funeral in 2015. “My attitude was that I am going to make a Good Omens that Terry would have loved. That sort of changes the way you make it. Because your audience, if you will, the person that you are making it for in your head, becomes somebody for whom it’s very important that it is the book."

Asked if those unfamiliar with the book might find themselves at sea with the series, Gaiman firmly says it hasn’t been made for them. “Books can be best-selling without being beloved, but you have seen people’s copies of Good Omens. They are these wonderful battered things they carry around with them. They matter."

The author feels these loving readers needed comfort and loyalty. “They have been abused over the years. They know that things they love may or may not turn up in the form that they love them, and they are just waiting for somebody to say is it like the book, or not." Oh, it is.

Good Omens is a dazzlingly inventive romp where an angel and a devil sabotage the end of the world because they would rather collect rare books and drive cool cars. Pratchett, a dozen years older, was eight novels deep in his Discworld series when Gaiman brought up a story idea that compelled Pratchett to suggest a collaboration. Gaiman, frequently referring to this invitation as “Michelangelo ringing you up to come paint a ceiling together," says Terry had not yet grown into his legend.

“I knew he was Terry Pratchett," he says, unmistakably italicizing the I with a cartoonishly long syllable. “I had been Terry’s friend since 1985, and I knew how good he was. I remember saying to Terry, it’s somewhat like record shops: The day you stop being ‘Miscellaneous, P’ and become the ‘Terry Pratchett-aisle’ is the day things are going to change." One of Pratchett’s early-draft readers, Gaiman used to help with plotting, and suggested gags. He’s visibly proud to point out that he coined the word “inhume" for Pratchett’s novel Pyramids.

Writing together happened mostly over the phone. “You know the E.L. Doctorow analogy where he says, ‘I write a novel like somebody driving through the fog with one headlight out. You’re moving slowly forward, but you can drive from New York to Los Angeles like that.’ That, for me, was how Terry plotted."

Gaiman describes it as being a journeyman alongside a master craftsman. “What I learnt was not so much structure as it was trusting your intuition. And trusting the process. That we are craftsmen and we are trying to build something that works, as a construction"—he thumps a chair as he talks—“it’s got four legs and you can sit on it."

I recount my own Pratchett boast—how I once bought him a beer, and a year later he named a dragon “Raja"—but I promise I wasn’t (specifically) angling to appear in a future Gaiman adventure. I brought it up because Pratchett, recommending Good Omens to me, had said that regardless of what I think of his work, “At least you will love all of Neil’s bits." Gaiman, moved, lets out an exclamation, “Oh, bless!" On the 28 May world premiere at the Odeon in Leicester Square, Pratchett’s hat occupied the seat beside his.

“One of the reasons people think they know who wrote what is a theory that Terry obviously wrote all the funny bits. I have seen descriptions of Good Omens which basically say Neil Gaiman wrote a solid horror novel and Terry Pratchett came behind, scattering jokes like little flowers as he went." This would ring daft to any Gaiman reader: This is, after all, the same chap who snuck a tiny f-word (in a tiny font) into his fable Stardust to reassure grown-ups they too were meant to enjoy the book.

Gaiman’s shaggy hair shakes as he laughs. “The truth is, both Terry and I spoke fluent classic British humour. It’s something that goes through P.G. Wodehouse, Alan Coren, various other people, includes Douglas Adams, includes Monty Python."

Gaiman is overjoyed that Python members Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle loved the show. Their straight-faced silliness is a clear influence. “Before making it, we were talking about the combination of seriousness and absurdity. Nobody in Life Of Brian makes any jokes. Everybody believes what they are saying." Brian’s mother does indeed think her son is not the messiah, just a very naughty boy. “She does! Nobody’s saying that to be funny."

The point of Good Omens is defiantly human. “Peace is better than war, talking is better than shooting, killing people to prove that you are right is fundamentally immoral. And we only have this one planet, and it’s a fantastic place to live, and it has tea, and it has toast, and it has sushi, and it has Beethoven music, and, despite everything else going on in the entire universe, there isn’t any more tea or toast or Beethoven music as far as we know anywhere out there. We should be looking after this planet and handing it over to our kids."

Lucifer (2016- ) This series, about the Devil opening a nightclub and consulting with the police in Los Angeles, is based on a character from Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ comics.
Lucifer (2016- ) This series, about the Devil opening a nightclub and consulting with the police in Los Angeles, is based on a character from Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ comics.

This isn’t the only Gaiman show. He had written the 1996 BBC series Neverwhere, and when it came out as a novel—my most re-read Gaiman book—the “liner notes" explained how he accepted changes from television executives and creative ignominy, forever telling himself he would “fix it in the book". Now the shoe is on the other foot. Perhaps both feet. Lucifer (Netflix) is based (very loosely) on his characters, while American Gods (Amazon Prime) adapts his most ambitious novel, and had a dazzling first season (where Gillian Anderson briefly dresses as David Bowie). It fell off the rails last year during its second season—when Gaiman was supposed to take charge. “They made an announcement that I had become co-showrunner on season 2. I don’t know how Chris Albrecht (head of the Starz network) thought or said that, because at the time I was in England doing 16-hour days in post-production on Good Omens. I think they just wanted people not to panic—but I think it did me no favours."

American Gods (2017- ) This heady adaptation of Gaiman’s fantasy novel about a war between the old gods and the new has been renewed for a third and fourth season.
American Gods (2017- ) This heady adaptation of Gaiman’s fantasy novel about a war between the old gods and the new has been renewed for a third and fourth season.

“There was one scene I stopped Bryan (Fuller, the showrunner) doing in episode 1," he says, about the American Gods makers wanting Gaiman’s hero, the morally upright Shadow, to get a blowjob on his dead wife’s grave. “I said, ‘Yeah, you are not going to do that.’ And they said, ‘We think it works, he has been in prison, hasn’t gotten to fuck a woman for three years, and it’s going to be this amazing sex scene.’ I just said, ‘No. If you do that, I will step in front of a bus, leaving a note saying this is why.’"

He remains chipper about the show’s future, having discussed seasons 3 and 4 with the incoming showrunner. This underlines another way television is starting to behave like comic books: Someone can come along and mess up issues of Batman for a few months, but then another team takes over and makes it all better. As shows spin off and reboot with no end in sight, we may well be headed to a time when a bad season or two might not damn an entire series.

Gaiman wrote every scene of Good Omens but doesn’t plan to do that again, despite a multi-year deal to develop content for Amazon Prime. This surprises me. Television in its current incarnation is heralded as the ultimate gig for a writer, especially one who gets to hold the reins: well-staged worlds and characters created over time, written with the care of a novel but in serialized doses, work that is more lucrative and more eagerly lapped up than literature. “Ah, but I can do just that with a comic," Gaiman interjects. “Or even a radio play, where you can make people build up the pictures in their heads. But if I write a comic book or a radio play, I can get enough sleep and see my family."

Gaiman cites Good Omens as the reason for not being in India this January, despite confirming his attendance at the Jaipur Literature Festival. “I promised (organizer William Dalrymple) that I would go, but in January I was still grading the picture and finishing the effects, finishing episode 6. I couldn’t leave. There’s a lot of very upset people," he sighs. “I very much hope I get to India at some point."

An astonishingly prolific writer, he cracks out novels, children’s books, short stories and non-fiction too quickly to keep track. There’s no coming back after you dive into the exquisitely literary comic The Sandman, stories about the telling of stories. There are too many flavours of Gaiman: Neverwhere, a personal favourite about a subterranean London under the real thing, the disconcertingly creepy children’s book Coraline, the beautifully mythological American Gods, his Batman comic Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? Oh, and that one time he wrote an erotic Cherry Poptart story.

With all that intellectual property—and the rock-star-level adulation he enjoys among people who read or tweet—Gaiman’s new position as a TV super-boss isn’t a surprise. “I would love to be in a place where—and I think we can get there—I have a team of people that I love and rely on, enough that if I want to go and write a script or make a TV thing, we can make it. And I don’t have to showrun it in the way that I showran Good Omens."

He is currently hooked on Barry (Hotstar), where Bill Hader plays an assassin who wants to ditch it all to become an actor. “I think Barry is amazing. I have known Bill Hader forever and I am just so proud of him," he smiles. “I really like (vampire mockumentary) What We Do In The Shadows (Hotstar). So much that I actually find it frustrating, in a weird way, because the pacing becomes the pacing of The Office. There are these 24-minute episodes, and one of the things I loved so much about the pace of the movie was that jokes and storylines could just expand and take their time. So it’s one of those things that I look at and go: ‘Well, it’s kind of long-form television, but it feels so episodic and sitcom-shaped that I just wished they would expand more. Because I love that world, I love the tone of voice, I like the atmosphere. They are wonderful."

Stories dictate their own shape. A movie couldn’t contain The Sandman’s sprawl. “Sandman wasn’t made for 30 years because the economics didn’t work, and you didn’t have people who understood it. And it was too big, you had 85 stories that you were trying to compress into a 2-hour movie." Gaiman takes a deep breath, then grins in a sly way, winking without actually closing an eye. “Now, 85 stories moves from being a bug to being a feature. So I would love to see Sandman, and I would love to help make it."

On 1 July, that near-wink became clearer when it was announced that The Sandman would become a massive budget Netflix series. The writer will indeed help. For starters, he will be executive producer, and co-write the premiere episode.

Despite plans to the contrary, Neil Gaiman might not, therefore, be getting as much sleep as he would like. I asked Pratchett’s long-time business manager and friend Rob Wilkins what he thought Terry would have liked best about this Good Omens adaptation. “Oh, he would have liked to have seen Neil working so hard, every day," smirked Wilkins. Television beckons. Have at it, Neil Gaiman. Somewhere up there, the bearded wizard approves.

Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter: @rajasen

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