I remember the first book I bought that was written by Neil Gaiman. I was browsing the shelves at The Funny Papers, a comic book shop in the Outer Richmond in S.F. Way out on Geary, surrounded by fog, people who loved comics, and a blissfully long commute home, I would buy my weekly stash of Batman books and occasionally sneak glances at books placed above my line of sight. I was 15.
One day, I saw a book with a stark white cover. The thin line drawing was of a San Francisco Victorian, and vibrant windows shone an orangey-gold inside that fictional house. I bought it, and devoured a strange tale of Emperor Norton I, the King of Pain, and insanity. I had met a Sandman story by Neil Gaiman, and came away completely entranced.
I would soon meet one of the Sandman artists, Mike Dringenberg, at the next Wonder-Con, and even met Neil himself briefly while at a party at Comix Experience, another excellent comic shop in S.F. Nice guy, I thought about Neil, not realizing until years later that Neil was in part known for his genuine courtesy to fans. In 2001, I would even experience that friendliness firsthand, interviewing Neil prior to an on-stage appearance he was doing with Harlan Ellison and Peter David, and just after American Gods had come out.
There are few writers who’ve both entertained me and inspired me as much as Gaiman has, so when I had the opportunity to help out at Comix Experience as part of Brian Hibbs’ ongoing 20th anniversary year, I wasn’t going to sit on my butt. Brian has maintained one of the best comic book shops in a city that has no lack of good ones, so I would’ve helped even if it hadn’t been Neil as the star attraction.
The first people in line had on display what popular culture has taught us since the first release of The Phantom Menace: Show up early. More than an hour before Neil was due to arrive, let alone open the doors, a handful of ticket-holders were waiting. From that point on, everything that could go wrong, didn’t. It was as flawless an event as I’ve ever seen or participated in. Neil showed up, we let the crowd in, Brian gave a little background on his friendship with Neil, Neil read, Neil signed, and about two hours after we were supposed to be finished, Neil left.
Brian has recounted much of the history in this blog post, which is worth reading simply for its unique historical perspective. However, it’s also important to note that Neil made a correction to it after Brian introduced him on Sunday morning. The gist of it was, Neil stopped Brian from ripping off the covers of a misprinted Sandman #8 with a forcible shout, and convinced him to hand them out for free. Brian took it further, leaving copies all over San Francisco with the store’s contact info inside, and the rest is history. As many tech observers have noted, and even the somewhat technophobic Brian himself has pointed out, having a devoted fanbase takes time and effort, and requires collaboration between the “star” and the reseller.
Besides helping out Brian, the reading on Sunday was, in my mind, the real reason to lug weighty bookshelves around and play Krowd Kontrol Kop. Although, the crowd control bit we all knew was just for making the customers’ lives easier: Neil Gaiman fans are not, say, Vince Neil fans. Thankfully. Neil’s ability to read his work, both in person or as an audiobook or over the radio, is a rare talent among writers. As the FMA pointed out to me, Philip K. Dick would’ve had even more influence if he’d just hired an actor to read for him all the time. Neil, on the other hand, reads like he writes: the words flow, they sound as natural as if he were coming up with them on the spot, and even if you’ve memorized the story you’ll be happy to hear him read it to you, again.
Neil pointed out the obvious difficulties in reading from a comic book, so instead of reading from “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader,” he read from his other new book with a question mark at the end, “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” When I read them to myself a few days before, I thought they were good-but-not-great examples of Neil’s ability to adapt and twist conventional tales in unconventional ways. Read aloud though, and by somebody who knows where to pause and what to tonally emphasize, made them sound more than entertaining enough to make the entire crowd forget the sweaty and cramped setting.
At just over 100 people, the crowd would’ve been happy enough with Neil reading the phone book. What we got was about 30 minutes of pitch-perfect storytelling.
The signing was no different. Neil spent significant time talking to each of the fans, and affixed his signature to a wide range of his books, a C.S. Lewis book (“The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Not by Neil Gaiman”), and one girl’s arm. She had a tattoo of one of his characters, a baby gargoyle named Goldie, and once she had Neil’s name inked below Goldie, she ran off to Haight St. to have it done in more permanent ink. She also ran back to show us.
I think the highlight of the day for me, though, was when Neil asked Brian to sign a copy of his collection of retailer observations. Tilting at Windmills might not have the print run of The Graveyard Book, but even writers get other writers to sign their books.