Gaiman Knows Fairies

COMIC: Stardust
Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess

Vertigo/DC Comics - 1998

Stardust may or may not be an actual "comic" depending on your definition. It's a storybook, in prose, punctuated with paintings an illustrations, which many people wouldn't consider or recognize to be comics, but according to Scott McCloud's definition in Understanding Comics (see Sequential Smarts) it qualifies. Furthermore, both Gaiman and Vess made their reputations in comics, and it's published by a comics publisher, so there you have it.

Gaiman and Vess previously collaborated on one of the standout stories from the Gaiman-penned Sandman comic series, in which William Shakespeare encountered the denizens of the realm of Faerie who would inspire A Midsummer Night's Dream. Gaiman presented these characters as Shakespeare did (albeit in a somewhat intensified form), as petty and meddling creatures who were bound to the strict letter of their agreements, but who were more often motivated by cruelty and self-interest. Stardust, while being an unrelated project, feels like a return to, and expansion on that same interpretation of "the lands beyond the fields we know."

Foremost, and quite literally, Stardust is a fairy tale in the most traditional sense. It maintains the sense of danger and the macabre that the sanitized and Disneyfied fare we've become used to throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. It's an adventure and a romance which gives Gaiman another chance to explore these worlds through the eyes of his characters, and leaves the reader wishing he would have explored it even more.

Gaiman's strength has always been creating fascinating worlds and telling stories within them, and he does that here in satisfying fashion. What Gaiman, for my money, doesn't do as well, is create interesting characters with sympathetic motivations. Every one is an archetype who behaves accordingly, providing no surprises and very little insight. In a book like this, that isn't a fatal flaw, but the slim bit of development we do get from the principals just left me hungry for a larger helping. But that wasn't the thing that bothered me...

I've been reading Gaiman's comics for almost as long as he's been writing them. I was one of the people who told all the other people that they needed to be reading Sandman during its original publication. More recently, however, he's been made a name for himself as a writer of straight prose fiction. I've had more than a couple friends ask if I've read his novels, and subsequently question why not. Rereading Stardust, nearly 10 years after its original publication, I'm reminded why I've avoided his other work. While I enjoy his storytelling; free of the strictures of traditional comics, I find his narrative voice to be overly affected. While I have been assured that this is not the case with his other writing, it took me a good quarter of the series (Stardust was initially serialized as a 4 book series, and later collected into a single volume) to get past it. Now I'm perfectly aware that this affectation was deliberate, with the book intending to emulate the classic age of Victorian fantasy writing, but it struck me as excessively self-conscious.

Charles Vess' art has always been something of a mixed bag for me. He is a masterful stylist and a skilled craftsman, but I've always found his anatomy to be somewhat hit-or-miss. The faces of his characters are often flat, with their eyes appearing too high, or the domes of their skulls too shallow. With his more fanciful creatures, this is rarely a problem, especially since many of them have grotesque, gnarled faces with beakish noses that counter this effect, but for his barefaced human (or nearly human) characters, I'm occasionally left with the echoes of a high school crafts fair.

There are also places in Stardust where Vess seems not to have been given -- or not to have read -- Gaiman's text; where the textual descriptions (which frankly are a little more specific than I found necessary in an illustrated book) don't match the illustrations. More than once, the hair color described in the text doesn't match the one shown. While this could be a result of palette choices for a given scene, there's one in particular that isn't. In Chapter 3, the text describes the dying Lord of Stormhold with his sons gathered about him, the living on the right, and the dead on the left, while the accompanying painting clearly shows the opposite arrangement. Of course, most people aren't going to catch this, but it just seemed to me to be symptomatic of the way that a stronger editorial hand could have guided this to a stronger package.

All petty complaints aside, however, Stardust is an enjoyable entertainment, and I would have liked more of what both creators do well; more rollicking exploration of the Realm of Faerie from Gaiman, and more big, beautiful paintings (allowing for fewer of the less thrilling spot illustrations) of it from Vess. It's for these reasons that I'm looking forward to the film version, which will naturally be more visual, and less reliant on the narrative voice.

Crosspost Classic!  08.14.2007

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