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Review: Two new Gaiman-ic works

One is for kids, the other for very big kids

By Porter Anderson

Neil Gaiman returns to his popular
Neil Gaiman returns to his popular "Sandman" series with Wednesday's release from Vertigo/DC Comics of a new graphic novel, "The Sandman: Endless Nights."

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Neil Gaiman

"The Sandman: Endless Nights"
Vertigo/DC Comics
160 pages
"The Wolves in the Walls"
56 pages
Both by Neil Gaiman

(CNN) -- The day on which Neil Gaiman finally breaks through to the culture-at-large -- and it seems a good bet that he will -- a lot of folks will be blindsided.

Such may be the "overnight" success of someone who not only toils in the fields of fantasy but does it in so eclectic a way as the British-born, Minnesota-based Gaiman. His two latest efforts are "The Sandman: Endless Nights," a graphic novel for adults releasing Wednesday, and last month's "The Wolves in the Walls," a graphic novella for young readers and their bravest adults.

Gaiman also works in the more traditional prose novel format ("American Gods," 2001), television ("Neverwhere," 1996) and in film -- he adapted "Princess Mononoke" for the screen (1997) and his "Mirror Mask" is being directed by Dave McKean for a 2004 release. His 2002 novel for youngsters, "Coraline," has become a bestseller, as has "American Gods." Publishers Weekly reports interest in "Gods" for a possible screen adaptation, and there's a Disney deal on "Coraline."

As the bouncing career ricochets between media, you'll find three great constants.

• First, Gaiman is an ironist, always, eloquently subversive.

• Second, he's a forceful advocate for fantasy in literature, whether his settings are right out of this world or in an Italy so here-and-now that it's full of overweight American tourists buy silly trinkets from canal-side vendors (don't miss that one's title, "Death and Venice").

• And third, Gaiman is an enviable self-promotionist, keeping his fans informed of his busy doings on his Web site and credited by his faithful Writers House agent, Merrilee Heifetz, for seriously bolstering the success of "American Gods" with his blogging.

But a new and fine discovery awaits you in "Endless Nights" and "Wolves": Gaiman is also an accomplished alchemist in artistic collaboration, to the point that he'll sometimes allow his meditative texts to take a secondary position to illustration.

Bright 'Nights'

"Endless Nights," a long-awaited new entry in the cult hit "Sandman" series from DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, brings together Gaiman's text with the work of seven self-assured visual artists. The seven D-named Endless uber-characters (Death, Desire, Delirium, Dream, Despair, Destruction and Destiny) are summoned up here in a wide-ranging aesthetic lingo, from the relatively traditional comics-artistry of P. Craig Russell in a story about Death to the collage-impressionism of Bill Sienkiewicz for Delirium.

This is a detail from artist Barron Storey's
This is a detail from artist Barron Storey's "Despair with Dolls" from Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman: Endless Nights."

Most compelling is the tortured hue saturation and sketch art of Barron Storey's 15 "portraits of Despair," an unnerving outpouring of craft and concept, designed by McKean as something akin to an exhibition catalog and scratchily reminiscent of Francis Bacon.

You get the closest to full-power Gaiman in a couple of these "Despair" portraits. In one, a priest accused of sexual abuse asks a bishop's secretary what Jesus would do: "If he had to deal with the insurance companies," the secretary replies, "he'd probably hang you out to dry, same as the rest of us." In another, a man collects what keepsakes he can from the TV-star lover who "exists for him chiefly as a body in a sequence of hotel rooms."

By comparison, the book's centerpiece -- about a confab of the Endless and some celestial entities including Sol -- reads like exposition and holds some of the only rather pedestrian illustration in the book, Miguelanxo Prado's woozy drawings of the star-characters.

Neil Gaiman's work comprises prose and graphic novels, children's literature, television and film.
Neil Gaiman's work comprises prose and graphic novels, children's literature, television and film.

"What I've tasted of Desire" is a curious sword-swinger about missed chances and the drive to be wanted as much as one wants. Here, Milo Manara's illustrations are sexily egalitarian, outweighing a somewhat inconclusive text with luminous moxie and muscle.

But a funny thing has happened on the way to "Endless Nights." Those who do know Gaiman now know too much about him. The devotees have seen the Hugo-winning breadth and profound potential of Gaiman's intelligence in "American Gods." By comparison, this graphic novel, however lavishly it's set out on Vertigo/DC's handsome buffet of these artists' mastery, is literary finger food. Take two, they're small.

'Walls' of fame

You may find Gaiman's August 5 HarperCollins release, "The Wolves in the Wall," the more satisfying of these two labors. It's surely one of the year's most beautifully conceived and produced graphic works for young readers and it catches with a gypsy's grace the essential wry charm of Gaiman-ia.

Artist McKean (he contributed the cover art for "Endless Nights") employs his sculptural vocabulary of mask and puppetry in a stunning medium of what appears to be "built" illustration -- drawing and color merging with hauntingly dimensional photographic elements. And McKean's as funny as Gaiman. Lucy's mom wears a collared sweater Versace would be proud to display while she piles up a stack of homemade jam to rival a Warhol facade of soup cans.

In "The Wolves in the Walls," Neil Gaiman's Lucy is told, "If the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over."

For his part, Gaiman here is doing what he may just love best: taking a premise -- especially the kind that only childhood's dire worries can propel -- and following it right to the bottom of the garden. And back again. Adult denial meets the bravura of little-girl truth, the wolves do come out of the walls (just as Lucy warned everybody they would) in a jam-slinging, tuba-tooting riot of domestic dementia.

Gaiman may still ply his parables on the filmy frontier of the "edgy," but he's been closing in for some 15 years now. Soon he'll have us all surrounded, a multimedia maestro who likes to tell you what "everybody knows" and then rush past before you can object.

To paraphrase the writer's key line in this superb novella, the day Gaiman comes out of the woodwork, "it's all over."

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