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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

No matter how many TV shows and movies they inspire, no matter how many now fill the shelves of mainstream bookstores, no matter the buzz they generate on the Net, comic books remain the redheaded stepchild of literature.

Millions of passionate fans will argue that this essentially American art form no longer needs to explain or justify itself, and a broad reading public shrugs.

For five years now, an annual anthology of the best American comics represents a continuing effort to change that and provide a point of entry for curious readers, edited each year by a master. In a moment, Neil Gaiman will join us.

Later in the program, the debate over immigration terminology: aliens, illegal immigrants, undocumented workers. But first, comics fans, what drew you down the rabbit hole? Why do you keep coming back? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Neil Gaiman is editor of "Best American Comics 2010," novelist, screenwriter, the author of children's books and many, many comic books, most notably "The Sandman." He joins us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Neil, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. NEIL GAIMAN (Author): Hello, Neal, it's nice to be back.

CONAN: And maybe some curious readers can wander into a comic book store and simply be overwhelmed. The number of books and magazines out today is simply enormous.

Mr. GAIMAN: It really is. I - the strangest thing for me with all this is remembering what it was like 25 years ago, when I was a young journalist in the U.K. and there was so much exciting stuff happening in comics, and I was trying to persuade editors to let me write about it. And all I got was absolute and utter blankness.

And now I look at - you know, you were saying in your introduction that people shrug, and I really don't think they do. Books like "The Best American Comics" get taken seriously, and that they exist at all for me is a wonderful thing, that you can go into not only a comic book store but frankly any large bookstore and be overwhelmed by the choice in the graphic novel section. It's like the golden age.

CONAN: Like the golden age. The golden age of comics is traced back to the 1930s, when comic books first started up, a very different medium in those days.

Mr. GAIMAN: It's true. I think you can have a lot of golden ages, though. I mean, there's the classic golden age of comics, which is when you're 12, is the famous...

CONAN: Whenever that may be, yeah.

Mr. GAIMAN: Whenever that is, that's the golden age. You look back to when you were 12, and you read those comics, and you fell in love. But I think - as I said, when I was a journalist, I remember going to major editors of important newspapers and saying I want to write about what Alan Moore is doing, what Art Spiegelman's doing, "Maus," Frank Miller's doing "Dark Knight." It's big and it's interesting and it's important, let me write about it, and being told, no. You can't write about comics, and saying why not?

And they said, well, it was an English comic character named Desperate Dan's 50th birthday earlier this year, and we've written about comics already. We did a piece on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAIMAN: And feeling like, you are not getting it. There is something big and important happening.

CONAN: And bigger and more important than Dangerous Dan, perhaps.

Mr. GAIMAN: A lot bigger and more important than Dangerous Dan. And another story, which is again just as true and I think just as indicative of how much things have changed is I was commissioned back then by the English Times newspaper, the Sunday Times magazine, it was going to be very big and prestigious, to do a piece on comics and what was happening in comics.

And I went around, I interviewed everybody. I got unpublished art. It was going to be the first big and important piece on what was going on back then. And I sent it in to my editor, and I heard absolutely nothing, which was very, very strange.

And after a few days, I phoned him and I said, did you get it all? And he said, oh, yes. I said, well, what did you think? And he said, well, honestly, Neil, we have a problem with it. We think it lacks balance. And I said, well, what kind of balance does it lack? And he said, well, these comic books, you seem to think they're a good thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAIMAN: And I realized that whatever balance he wanted I was going to be unable to provide, because I do. I think comics are - I thought comics then and I still think comics now are a wonderful, absolutely unique medium.

It's a way of telling stories, a way of conveying information that is not superior or inferior to films, to novels, to radio plays, to poetry. It's comics, and it's its own glorious medium, and it's a combination of words and of pictures. And there's no limit to how good the words can be, no limit to how good the pictures can be and no limit to what you can do if you're making them work together.

CONAN: One thing that has changed enormously, as well, 40, 50 years ago, the industry was completely dominated by two companies, and if you didn't work for them, you didn't make comics. Then a group of underground comics started to come out, and you say that this has become one of the ultimate democratic art forms.

Mr. GAIMAN: Oh, I think comics - the glory of comics has always been democracy. The history of comics is such that it tended to be drawn by underdogs. Comics tended to be created by people who weren't getting work elsewhere.

And then in the '60s, you had the underground comics, where you had a generation who'd grown up on EC Comics, on Mad Magazine, things like that, and who just wanted to do it and wanted to make it. And they wanted to make comics in which no holds were barred, and that's where people like R. Crumb came from, Gilbert Shelton, some wonderful comics creators. And then that fed back into the '80s.

I loved the fact that in "Best American Comics," I was able to have not just an R. Crumb comic, but I felt actually an extract from probably the most important comic of the year, R. Crumb's "Book of Genesis" in there, which is such a glorious fusion of underground sensibility - and, you know, Crumb could arguably be said to have created the underground -with absolute strict fidelity to the "Book of Genesis" that somehow then gets to tell you a story that you can be infinitely familiar with in a way that feels like it's the first time you're ever encountering it.

CONAN: We had Robert Crumb on this program to talk about the "Book of Genesis" when it came out in hardcover. There's an excerpt that ran in the New Yorker magazine. And if you'd - any listeners would like to go back and take a listen to that program, it's in our archives. Just go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Neil Gaiman, editor most recently of "The Best American Comics 2010," and he joins us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Byron(ph) is on the line from St. Louis.

BYRON (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call. I'm a lover of comics, too, and I'm a lover of all sorts of graphic novels and superhero comics and everything. And I particularly love the "Best American Comics of the Year" anthologies.

They expose you to so many different things. One of the ones I loved was - I think it was the first one, guest-edited by Harvey Pekar. It seemed like so many of the comics in that one were really strong examples of writing. And I love a good - I love the art, but I need that good narrative, too.

CONAN: Neil Gaiman, it was interesting, in your introduction to this most recent edition, you said one of the best comics you'd ever read was, in fact, Lynda Barry's introduction to another edition of the - one of the ones that she edited.

Mr. GAIMAN: It really was. I think Lynda Barry is right now doing some absolutely marvelous work with words and pictures and storytelling and just imploring people to create, and talking about what she's doing.

But I think Byron's completely right. It's - the glorious thing of "Best American Comics" is that it's a sampler. And, of course, the drawback of "Best American Comics" is that it's a sampler. And one of the things that's changed over the last 20, 30 years is more and more comics now are being done at length. More and more comics are big, long, graphic-novelly works. They're 200 pages or so.

And the problem for any kind of anthology like this becomes: How do you select a scene, a sequence, a bit out of a longer work? It's like having a book called "Best American Novels" and going in and grabbing a chapter you like or several pages you like.

CONAN: Well, illustrate that for us by talking about the decisions that went into the excerpt from a book called "The Alcoholic," which is a -one of those long, difficult books. And it's not your - whatever - if you think there's an idea of a typical comic, this is not it. And you had to pick an excerpt.

Mr. GAIMAN: Well, "The Alcoholic" is fascinating. I mean, it's published by Vertigo, which is actually one of the arms of DC Comics. And it's written by Jonathan Ames, a well-known novelist and writer and occasional prizefighter, and drawn by Dean Haspiel very beautifully. And the section that I wound up choosing is from fairly early in the book, and it leads into the fall of the Twin Towers.

And again, it was that thing of trying to find a flavor of this thing, which is this wonderful, mad, slight... semi-autobiographical, but you're never quite sure how much the title character, who is called Jonathan Ames and is drawn to look like Jonathan Ames, actually is Jonathan Ames.

But it's - again, it's a great big long graphic novel, plays around with themes of obsession, of alcoholism, of all kinds of addiction, and also is a portrait of one life and of New York after the Twin Towers fell.

So trying to find something that encapsulated that was very difficult, and I wound up choosing, as I say, something early in the book.

CONAN: Byron, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

BYRON: Thank you.

CONAN: Neil Gaiman is with us. We're talking about the "Best Comics 2010." Comics fans, what drew you to comic books? Why do you keep coming back? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

And a programming note: Four weeks from today, January 6th, we'll be talking about the role of the explorer in the 21st century. Today, you can pinpoint a photograph on your house on the Internet in a few seconds, but there are still vast areas of the Earth no one has ever seen.

We'll be working with National Geographic, and we'll broadcast in front of a live audience from the Grosvenor Auditorium. If you're going to be in Washington, D.C. that day, join us January 6th. For tickets and information, email talk@npr.org. Please put tickets in the subject line.

Right now we're talking comic books, "The Best American Comics of 2010." Neil Gaiman edits this new collection. Fans will enjoy the picks, but it's also designed for those of you who've never cracked the cover of a comic book as a point of entry.

And these are not superheroes in tights and capes. You can take a closer look at several of the comics we've mentioned, including "A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge," about life in post-Katrina New Orleans. Those are at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And comics fans, what drew you down the rabbit hole? Why do you keep coming back? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

This from Valerie in Berkeley: I started reading comics after Joss Whedon's television shows were canceled. He now has several comics based on "Buffy," "Angel" and "Firefly." Those comics had led me into others. I now have several comics I'm following. I especially love Brian K. Vaughan and the "Fables" series - I have to admit, one of my favorites, too.

I'm a 39-year-old mother of two and would love to start a mothers' group for comic fans. I never read comics as a kid, but now I'm at the comic book store every month.

Every month? New comics come out every Wednesday, Neil Gaiman.

Mr. GAIMAN: They do. And, of course, books just - books turn up, graphic-novelly books turn up in your local bookstore. So...

CONAN: You are some - you keep coming back. Some might say that you graduated from comics, yet you keep coming back to work in the medium as a contributor, but also in roles like this, as an editor. You have to have read an awful lot of comics to even begin to think about the -putting together an anthology of the best comics of the year.

Mr. GAIMAN: You do. And luckily, you have Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, who are the series editors of "Best American Comics." And they read everything, or try to. And they are the people to whom publishers send comics, and they go out and they scour the world, and they find stuff. And then they sent me boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff they thought was interesting.

And what was interesting was their tastes and mine didn't entirely align. They'd send me anthologies with stories marked that they'd like, and I'd read the anthology, and I'd pick a different one.

But I think it was a wonderful thing having them just doing the initial selecting process and finding stuff, and then, of course, they had to find me because last year, I was incredibly peripatetic and shooting off to China to research something and then going around America. So I kept turning up places and having large boxes of comics waiting for me. It was glorious.

CONAN: Here's an email from Andrew in Johnson City, Tennessee: We Americans have no Greek mythology, no Arthurian legends, no Norse legends. We only have folklore and comic books. I think Stan Lee realized this. I think Neil Gaiman understands this. And I think that one of the reasons that I fell in love with it, I love Homer's "Odyssey." Comics are my country's epic poems.

That's interesting. You wrote a book called "American Gods." It's interesting to reflect on that.

Mr. GAIMAN: It really is. What's even stranger is something that, if you stop and think about it, is really, really odd. Marvel Comics and DC Comics have both been going now for about 75 years, DC Comics very specifically 75 years, Marvel Comics a little less.

And if you actually view these stories as one huge narrative, which you - I think is a perfectly legitimate way to look at it, they have to be the largest stories ever created by humanity.

CONAN: I had not thought of it that way, that if you think of it all as one, big story.

Mr. GAIMAN: It's - I think it's a legitimate way to look at it, and especially if you start talking to anybody who's - has interest in comic book continuity. It is this giant mythology, imagining how many millions of pages this covers.

CONAN: They talk about the Marvel universe and the DC universe and why things have to be consistent in those worlds. But there are many new galaxies, if we're going to be extending the metaphor here, that are unconnected with anything those companies have ever done.

Mr. GAIMAN: Oh, absolutely. And I think one of the things that's great about comics now is that superhero comics have just become one option amongst many. Again, going back to what I was dreaming of when I started writing comics, when really it was just superhero comics, that was what you had.

CONAN: But was...

Mr. GAIMAN: I remember just...

CONAN: What was the first one you wrote?

Mr. GAIMAN: The first comic I wrote. The first American comic I wrote would have been "Black Orchid," I think. Yes, following an English comic that I - an English original graphic novel that I did called "Violent Cases" with Dave McKean, which was about my childhood and memories of Al Capone - or Al Capone's osteopath, actually.

CONAN: Al Capone's osteopath?

Mr. GAIMAN: Al Capone's osteopath. It's an overused genre, I know, but I think I may have come up with some new wrinkles on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: "Black Orchid," I'm trying to remember which particular character she was.

Mr. GAIMAN: Black Orchid was a purple flower-lady who flew, and it was -from my very, very early days, one thing that I realized as a young writer was that while I loved superheroes, I was absolutely terrible at writing them.

I was good at everything else - well, not everything else, but I had strengths. But they probably weren't strengths in which people put on brightly colored costumes and then hit each other through walls and then got up and said now you've made me really angry and did some more hitting. That just wasn't where my strengths lay.

So "Black Orchid," for me, was a way to try and do a sort of vaguely feminist, vaguely pacifist, ecological fable with a purple flying lady who hit people, who didn't actually hit people.

CONAN: Then, of course, you went on to win fame and - maybe not fortune, but fame, anyway, drawing characters who wore capes - or at least black a lot of the time, anyway.

Mr. GAIMAN: Well, "Sandman," yes. And, I mean, I remember how incredibly unusual it was for you to have me on TALK OF THE NATION, what, 15, almost 20 years ago now, talking about "Sandman." You know, that was one of the very first times anybody had ever actually got to get up on NPR and talk about comics, and it was very, very strange and very new. Now, I love the fact that it's not weird. I'm on NPR talking about comics, as have hundreds and thousands of people in the last 20 years. It's great.

CONAN: It was a shameless effort just to get free comics. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAIMAN: Now the truth comes out, and I hope it worked.

CONAN: It did.

Mr. GAIMAN: But yes, it was glorious, me - writing Sandman was just so much fun because Sandman really was, it was my mythology. I got to try and create my own new mythology. I got to go and try and write a comic that was serial fiction, and serial fiction is its own wonderful, strange, magical thing, as Dickens discovered, as J.K. Rowling discovered.

If you're writing a story in chunks that people have to wait for, it adds a certain magical power to what you're doing. And Sandman was 75 issues, and people had to go down to the comic store every month to find out what was going to happen next.

And that was, on the one hand, really wonderful, and on the other hand, I was very worried about crossing streets and getting hit and having, you know, dying mid-story and having 100,000 readers very, very angry with me.

CONAN: I have to say, Neil Gaiman, that I have read an awful lot of things in my life. I read "The Sandman" religiously, and toward the end, I could not bring myself to actually finish it. I could not bear the idea that it was going to end. And I think there are three comic books at the end I have yet to read.

Mr. GAIMAN: You know, one of my favorite authors is a man named James Branch Cabell, who's a long-forgotten American author of the 1920s. And I have - I've religiously collected everything he's ever done, and I have two books that I haven't read because if I read them, I will have finished it. So I know exactly how you feel.

CONAN: Email from Paul in Salt Lake City: I have always loved comics, but my taste has evolved away from superheroes when I was younger to different comics today, such as "Fables" and "Walking Dead" as an adult. And it's proof of how creative the artists and writers are when we look at all the TV and movie adaptations of comics.

And that, particularly movies, Neil Gaiman, that's a medium you've been working in a lot.

Mr. GAIMAN: It is. I love movies. They're great fun. And I'm always fascinated by the peculiar interdependence that comics and movies seem to have these days. But I'm also fascinated by how many, you know, really good movies are out there that people actually forget started life as comics, from, you know, "Ghost World" to "Men in Black." There's an awful lot of them out there.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Leon's calling from Oakland.

LEON (Caller): Hi. I just - I wanted to answer the question about how I got into comics. I think because when I was a little kid, I didn't know how to read, so I could look at pictures and follow the story. And then as I got older, I saw things like "The Cartoon History of the Universe." Actually, before that, it was like "Asterix and Obelix," but stories where you could get what was going on by following pictures. And then as you learned to read, get into more complicated material that you couldn't read at that age. So I've continued to enjoy things like that. I think I remember "Barefoot Gen," about the atomic attacks on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, that kind of thing.

CONAN: Hmm.

LEON: There was no access to that, as a little kid, without comics.

CONAN: The comics would address a lot of issues that little kids did not get to address in a lot of other ways, particularly during the Cold War. And I think he's right, Neil Gaiman. There was an amount of apocalypse not available to small children.

Mr. GAIMAN: I think that's very, very true. And I think the other thing that people - that I think Leon puts his finger on is that comics are an amazing gateway drug to literacy.

I was puzzled, as a kid, when teachers would tell me not to read comics. They'd say you can't bring comics to school. Comics are banned here. I'd say why? They'd say, well, if you read comics, you won't read other stuff. I said, well, that's not true. And they said, well, comics impede literacy. And I would point out rather grumpily that the reason why I'd scored full marks on the school vocabulary test was all of these great words that I got from Stan Lee that I knew how to spell. I was the only kid who could spell "originally" and "origination" correctly because I knew "origin," because it was on the cover of all these great Stan Lee Marvel comics. There were origins all over the place.

CONAN: Leon, thanks very much for the call. This an email from Sarah: My husband introduced me to comics when we first began dating. I've been hooked ever since. Now we bring our two toddlers with us whenever we go to the comic book store and are raising a new generation of comic lovers. How great to get lost in another world for the price of a cup of gourmet coffee. P.S. Loved "The Sandman."

We're talking with Neil Gaiman. He's the editor of a new anthology, "The Best American Comics 2010." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

Let's get Julie on the line, Julie calling from Grand Rapids.

JULIE (Caller): Hi. I - okay. (unintelligible). Yeah, I just wanted to say that, you know, I never got into comics as a kid, like they were saying, it used to just be superheroes and stuff. I didn't like those things. And then I became a stay-at-home mom and got into an artist named Heather Cushman-Dowdee.

CONAN: I don't know her.

JULIE: What?

CONAN: I do not know her work.

JULIE: She's - she started out with "Cowgoddess," was her superhero, and her superpowers were things like birthing and lactating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JULIE: And it's stuff that, you know, parents could relate to. And I don't think I would have gotten any of the jokes before I had kids, but she writes on current events and parenting issues and things like that. And she's online, and she's got a few books out. And now she has another series called "Mama is...". So she's got the "Cowgoddess" and "Mama is..." and I highly recommend her.

CONAN: Neil Gaiman, are you familiar with her work?

Mr. GAIMAN: I'm not. But I've jotted the name down, and will go and look. That's...

JULIE: You check her out. Heather Cushman-Dowdee.

Mr. GAIMAN: ...that, for me, is - I absolutely will.

JULIE: Okay, good.

Mr. GAIMAN: And that's the delight right now for me of what's going on in comics. We were talking early on about the democracy of comics...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GAIMAN: ...and the fact that, you know, if you want to make a movie, you need to find somebody who's going to put together a few million dollars for you. If you want to make a comic book, you need a pen and some paper, or a computer and a tablet. These days, with the Web, you have instant access to - with your comic - to everybody in the world. You have this wonderful, flat playing field. You don't even have to worry about getting it printed.

So there is a glory there of just democracy. It's very, very easy to go and make comics and to go and make good ones. And as a result of which, there are more and more good comics, I think, being made every day.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Anne(ph): I'm trying to get my daughter into an art school next year, and they have expressed that they do not want to see any comic art in her submission. I think that is so sad, as if to say comic art is not art. And that almost brings us full circle, back to where we started this conversation.

Mr. GAIMAN: I think it does. But I think that it's - I think, in terms of drawing, I'm reminded of what Dave McKean, who drew my very first graphic novel and did the covers of every "Sandman," and who I've worked with and done all sorts of comics now for 25 years, said, which is the best thing for him about going to art school, wanting to draw comics, was the fact that right at the beginning, they told him that he couldn't draw comics, that he was going to have to - what he was going to have to do was learn to draw everything and learn to draw in every single style. And comics can be one style. Cartooning, it's one way of doing it. But learn everything.

So I think, you know, if you're going to college, you're going to an art college, great. Learn figure drawing. Learn everything you can. And then, if you want to do comics, take it back and make really cool comics that nobody's ever seen before.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you, also: Have you seen Sophie Crumb's book which just came out?

Mr. GAIMAN: I've seen some of Sophie's work before, and I read an article about Sophie's book and have it on order, and don't have it yet.

CONAN: Well, we...

Mr. GAIMAN: But I'm absolutely fascinated by the idea that you have an entire life of drawings summed up in one book.

CONAN: Neil Gaiman, thank you so much for being with us. And good luck with "The Best American Comics 2010."

Mr. GAIMAN: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: Neil Gaiman is the editor of "The Best American Comics 2010." We've posted excerpts from a number of the comics we've talked about. You can get a look at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He's also the author of several novels, including "Anansi Boys" and "American Gods," creator and writer of "The Sandman," and joined us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

Again, we did talk with Robert Crumb about his illustrated version of "The Book of Genesis." That interview is on our website. You can go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Robert and Sophie Crumb were also with us to talk about her new book. That's another program you can find there, as well.

Coming up, we're going to be talking about the importance of words in the immigration debate, specifically the terminology to describe those we are talking about - illegal immigrants, aliens, undocumented workers. Is the language important? And if so, why?

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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