Sunday, 7 July 2013
In 1995 the BBC announced they'd hired an up and coming young writer named Neil Gaiman to write a television series for them. Of course in 1995 Gaiman was not up and coming and was fast losing his claim to young. He'd been writing Sandman for Vertigo for six years at this point (it would conclude the following year when Neverwhere aired). He was a natural guy for the BBC to hire, but he was not a complete unknown.
Sadly several important people thought he was. That's what led to the decidedly slight budget Neverwhere received. And it was that slight budget that led to Neverwhere failing to live up to the hopes of its writer and his fans. The production just didn't have enough cash to make all of Gaiman's elaborate ideas into reality, which led to him keeping a notebook for all of the ideas he had that the show couldn't afford, jokingly telling the producer and director that he'd put an idea in the novel when he was informed of its omission.
Which is exactly what he did. If you've come across Neverwhere before it will almost certainly have been as a book. It's far more available, affordable, and well-known than the DVD of the series, aided I'm sure by Gaiman's status as a novelist who writes some TV as opposed to a TV writer who has dabbled in novels.
Both the TV series and the novel tell the story of Richard Mayhew, an Arthur Dent substitute who gets sucked into an unseen version of London (known as London Below) when he meets Door, a young girl who has the power to “open things”. The story mostly revolves around Gaiman taking the city's odd place names and reworking them, often into something more literal. This approach delivers an Earls Court that's an actual medieval court on a tube train; a street that heads straight down into the centre of the Earth and has an odd relationship with gravity; a bridge where it’s alays night; and an angel called Islington. It's the sort of thing Gaiman does quite often but because the novel was arguably the point at which he became a bankable name for publishers to associate with Neverwhere holds a special spot in his bibliography.
The comic version of Neverwhere is an adaption of the novel and not the TV series. This is because Gaiman feels happier with the novel as it contains all of his ideas. It is notably not penned by Gaiman himself. Instead his pal Mile Carey was roped in for the job, with Glenn fabry providing pencils, and Tanya and Richard Horie on colours.
This is a terribly faithful adaption, so much so that I was a little disappointed with it. Things are obviously cut from the plot in order to get the story into the nine issues (a peculiar number I thought) but for the most part the story remains intact.
It feels like a wasted chance. It's unlikely Neverwhere will ever get the comics treatment again (why would it, after being done once?) which means this was the one and only chance to build on Gaiman's creation with striking images and ideas that couldn't be afforded for the TV show or, crucially, were too outlandish to be described in prose. Gaiman writing this himself could have made it a must-read, his final iteration of a sprawling mass of concept and idea. That it is instead an adaption means that the focus is on converting ideas that already exist, rather than joyously throwing out new ones to add to an impressive creation.
The adaption has its moments though. Most are attributable to Fabry's art. He brings a sense of bustling wonder to the Floating Market, for example. The Earl, of Earl’s Court fame, looks satisfyingly ravaged by an excess of good living. Speaking of the Earl, there’s a lovely moment where a character leaps through a stain glass window in his court and comes crashing through a train window. It’s a minor moment, but one that could easily have gone wrong. The Abbey, Down Street, Islington, and the Beast and striking images too. His work is what makes the comic worthwhile in the first place. It feels like the art team are working together to emulate the work of Brian Bolland. If they weren't that's a good thing. If they weren't then it’s a happy accident.
Taken on its own terms Neverwhere is an enjoyable enough read. The artwork is excellent, so much so that it’s a wonder Fabry’s not had more work since. Ultimately, as good a comic as it is there’s little point to looking at it unless you’re a big fan of Gaiman or comics (or, I suppose, tie-in comics). It has things to offer, but don’t skip the book in favour of this. Do both.