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Sooner or later, every author with strong opinions seems to find a publisher willing to collect and print a representative sample of those opinions. The View from the Cheap Seats is such a collection of assorted non-fiction writings by Neil Gaiman on a vast range of topics. As Gaiman says in the Introduction.

"This book is not “the complete nonfiction of Neil Gaiman.” It is, instead, a motley bunch of speeches and articles, introductions and essays. Some of them are serious and some of them are frivolous and some of them are earnest and some of them I wrote to try and make people listen. You are under no obligation to read them all, or to read them in any particular order. I put them into an order that felt like it made some kind of sense—mostly speeches and suchlike at the beginning, more personal, heartfelt writing at the end. Lots of miscellaneous writing, articles and explanations, about literature, film, comics and music, cities and life, in the middle."

It is not surprising that one of the themes that runs through much of the collected work is a love of books, of reading, of ideas. (Indeed, I've found this to be a common theme in many similar collections of essays and the like by authors of all genres.) Gaiman writes movingly about the importance of books, of reading, and of his own history with these things, how the books of his childhood and his experiences around the reading of them made him who he is. He writes about himself as reader and as writer, and how these are linked. He writes about genre, and story, and the power of myth.

Between having spent some time as a journalist, finding fandom early in life, and apparently being quite a social sort of chap, Gaiman seems to have met and in some cases had long and significant relationships with a fair few British writers and other industry people - and has been called on to prepare introductions both to their books and to their personal appearances at conventions and such. These collected pieces provide insights not only into the subjects, but in many cases, into Gaiman himself - and they are often funny and wise at the same time.

Gaiman's subjects range from science fiction and fantasy books and authors to film to music (with, quite understandably, several articles on the work of his wife Amanda Palmer) to comics (quite extensively, it's clear that he has a deep and abiding love for the artform). And on all of them, he has interesting things to say. If this is the view from the cheap seats, the show is well worth the price of admission.
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I'm not a big comics/graphics fan. I rarely search out graphic novels, and my tastes in this form of narrative are heavily influenced by my preferences in both visual representation and subject.

Of the five finalists in this category, three are graphic novels/narratives and two are web comics. The first of the graphic novels is Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: Overture, drawn by J.H. Williams III. Most people have suggested that this is the odds-on favourite, and it's easy to understand why. First and foremost, it's The Sandman, and when you consider that even I have read The Sandman and been blown away by it, that's saying something. This prequel is a more mature work, in which Dream must take responsibility for a decision that will result in the end of the universe unless he can find a way to correct his error. It's thoughtful and beautiful and powerful and the story and art are so amazingly wound together and support each other. It is another masterpiece from Gaiman, and there's not really much more that needs saying.

The Divine, written by Boaz Lavie, with art by Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka, is an interesting piece. Inspired by a photograph of 12-year old twin child soldiers who were leaders of an army of Karen refugees fighting a war of resistance against the state of Myanmar, the story has been transmuted in the creator's hands into a narrative focused on Western (specifically American) involvement in Asia and its backing of exploitative and genocidal regimes. Mark, a former demolitions technician, is persuaded by an army buddy to join a short but highly paid mission to the (fictional) nation of Quanlom. Once there, he finds himself in the midst of a battle between government forces that want to explode a volcano to access the mineral wealth inside and a child army that is all that remains of the indigenous people who sought to preserve their way of life. Magic confronts bullets, as Mark chooses to side with the indigenous people. Intriguing story, decent art, but unfortunately the characterisation falls short. Mark's friend Jason is a caricature of the ugly American soldier, and the children are somehow made too supernatural to be sympathetic.

Invisible Republic Vol 1, written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, is a rather compelling beginning to a story about (as I understand it so far) the rise and fall of a political regime. The story unfolds in two time periods. In the story's present, a frame narrative set in the unrest and upheaval of the end of the Mallory regime on the colony of Avalon, down-on-his-luck and discredited journalist Croger Babbs, looking for a story to revive his career, stumbles on a priceless manuscript - the memoirs of Maia, the cousin of the vanished dictator Arthur McBride. The narrative cuts back and forth between Babbs' investigation and the events described in Maia's papers. In the issues contained in Vol. I. We really see only the beginnings of both storylines, but there's more than enough of interest there to make me want to keep following the story. The suggestions of parallels to the Arthurian legends are an additional draw for me though this may not be true of everyone.

Erin Dies Alone, a webcomic written by Grey Carter, art by Cory Rydell (dyingalone.net), is an ongoing story about a woman who hasn't left her apartment or physically interacted with another human being in two years. She sits around doing nothing much except smoke weed and shop online - until her imaginary friend, a raccoon in a red bandana, lures her into reviving her old gamer instincts. Both from the characterisation and the style of the art in the scenes set in Erin's reality - grey, monotone, faintly drooping - Erin is in the grip of serious depression. Overlying this narrative exploring Erin's pain and depression are some very funny representations - sometimes even parodies - of popular video/online games and common situation in the gaming life. The question is, will gaming bring Erin back to herself, or take her further away? There's a complexity and ambiguity about this narrative that lifts it above the ordinary.

The other webcomic nominated in this category, Full Frontal Nerdity by Aaron Williams (ffn.nodwick.com), is a humorous look at nerd life and culture, with particular focus on gaming, comics and media. The art style is very basic cartooning, and there is no ongoing narrative, although portrayals of familiar gaming situations are spread over several individual strips. It's often funny, and portrays the obsessions and idiosyncrasies of gamers and gamer culture with a knowledgeable and kindly eye, but in my mind it lacks the extra "oomph" an award-winning work ought to possess.

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Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman

There’s a thread of sorts that runs through a lot of Neil Gaiman’s work, and that thread has a lot to do with the concept of the interaction of dual or multiple realities – dream worlds, parallel worlds, shadow worlds, otherworlds, and afterworlds. It’s the sense that no matter where you are, there is something else going on just over there, or under the hill, or through the mirror, or some other place that you are just barely aware of, that would turn your understanding of your own world upside down or inside out if you ever really noticed it.

Something else that Gaiman pays a lot of attention to is storytelling as an act, as a frame, as a way of providing context or counterpoint. When he writes stories in the first person, they are often the stories of a conscious and self-conscious narrator, who knows he or she is telling a story and is aware of how it sounds, how it is shaped. Sometimes his protagonists are storytellers, or his stories draw on the words of other storytellers for settings or images.

One of the reasons to enjoy Fragile Things is that there are lots of stories that are perfect examples of what Gaiman can do with these two themes in his work – separately or together. Stories about people telling stories about ghosts, stories about writers trying to tell fantastic stories about autocars and bank mortgages in a world where daily life is profoundly gothic in nature, wonderful stories about the art of storytelling while looking through a glass, somewhat obscurely. Many, but not all of these stories have a distinct flavour of the supernatural or of horror, and there are a good many stories that qualify as ghost tales - explicit journeys into the otherworld.

And for the reader who enjoys watching writers play with the issues, ideas, characters, themes and worlds of other writers writing otherworlds, there are some particular pleasures here, as this collection includes such stories as “A Study in Emerald” – Gaiman’s truly magnificent imagining of how certain characters from the Holmesian tales of Arthur Conan Doyle would behave were they to find themselves in a mirror world where the Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft held sway – and “The Problem of Susan” – a story that asks the reader to consider the situation of Susan, the young woman that C.S. Lewis barred from the higher, deeper, inner Narnia (which is to say, Heaven) because she found lipstick and boys interesting.

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Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman likes to mingle humanity and divinity; even more, he likes to suggest that divinity has a lot to learn from humanity. That's fine with me, I'm not comfortable with unexamined uses of power in the first place, which is in large part why Anansi and most other trickster gods have never really been my cup of tea.

Doing something just because you think it's going to be funny is not, in my mind, a good principle for organising your life, especially if, as a god, you can survive, even laugh off the consequences of practical jokes that do damage to the other people involved. Tricksters are often little more than bullies who use their brains, not their brawn.

So one good thing about Anansi Boys is that the demi-god son of the Trickster learns a little about human compassion, connection and love. But then, that's what happens to boys, in most cases - they grow up to become adult human beings.

Other good things about the book are that it's funny, it reverses the conventions of most European and North American writing that says "if the person's race is not signified, then they must be white," and while the boys are the headliners, there are a goodly number of very well-written, strong and distinctive women who talk to each other about many things other than boys.

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The Sandman Papers: An Exploration of the Sandman Mythology, ed. Joe Sanders

Neil Gaiman's The Sandman - taking the entire run of the comic series as a whole - is a remarkable work. The individual stories within the arc of the work are intelligent, entertaining, highly literate examinations of interesting and often powerful themes and ideas. The characters are intriguing, fascinating. The plots are occasionally straightforward, more often intricate and entrancing. Plus it's fun to read and it looks cool.

So it's no wonder that The Sandman has achieved that lofty status which demands that people start writing critical papers about it. Which is where The Sandman Papers comes in.

The critical essays collected in this volume cover a range of topics, and the success of the collection can be seen in the fact that, having read the papers, I now want to go back read The Sandman again so I can "talk back" to the essayists in my mind, and decide whether I agree with their insights and arguments or not.

As with any critical collection, I found some essays of greater interest than others. As one might expect, having a deep appreciation for the works of Shakespeare, I was particularly interested in the essays that focused on Gaiman's use of the Stratford Bard as a character, and riffed on the themes of some of his plays. In choosing to incorporate "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Tempest" within the narrative of The Sandman, Gaiman makes possible multiple levels of exploration of the themes of dream and reality, creation and creator, as is made evident in the three Shakespeare-themed essays in this collection:

"Of Stories and Storytellers in Gaiman and Vess's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'" by Joe Sanders
"Prospero Framed in Neil Gaiman's 'The Wake'" by Joan Gordan
"Aether/Ore: The Dreamworld Descends to Earth" by Alan Levitan

I also enjoyed Leonora Soledad a Paula's "Imaginary Places and Fantastic Narratives: Reading Borges Through The Sandman," particularly since she mentions some of the same echoes of Borges' writing that struck me in my reading of The Sandman, such as the resonance between Gaiman's depiction of Destiny's garden in "A Season of Mists" and Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths."

One essay in the collection has left me spinning the wheels in my braincage over something that's also an issue in the Joss Whedon universe - what type of character does the author choose to kill when someone "has to die." In Whedon's buffyverse it was Tara, the wholly good and apparently expendable lesbian. In Gaiman's "A Game of You," it's Wanda, a transwoman, and Maisie, a black woman, and the only black character.

David Bratman devotes a large part of his essay "A Game of You - Yes, You" to countering arguments made by Samuel Delany (in the introduction to "A Game of You") and writer Rachel Pollack that the deaths of Wanda and Maisie raise questions of how queer characters and characters of colour are presented in cultural products. Bratman argues that Wanda has to die because she is the character we are most engaged with, that we experience her struggles all the more intensely by seeing her die, seeing her identity erased in the funeral her family gives her, and then seeing her in Barbie's dream, imaged as a "pretty" and apparently female-bodied woman - a Real Girl at last, but only after she's safely dead. Bratman gives a little space to Maisie's death too, but his only counter to the criticism that here is another Magical Negro who dies to save the white main character is that other characters die too - those other characters being Wanda, the talking animals, and the male villain.

Now, I respect and enjoy Gaiman's work, and in a world where everyone else (especially everyone else writing from a position of serious privilege, such as white and either heterosexual or passing males) wasn't busy killing off the queer, trans and non-white characters in their work, I would have a different reaction. but the problem is that everyone else is killing off those characters, when they write them in at all. So - I disagree strongly with Bratman's arguments in this essay.

But that's why one reads critical essays - to look at arguments, and decide whether you agree with them or not.

There are a number of other interesting essays in the collection as well, exploring all sorts of things, from Orientalism in "Ramadan" and female power in "The Kindly Ones" to the implications of Dream's wardrobe. There's probably something for just about any fan of The Sandman.

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