Stephen Spotswood

Stephen Spotswood

The cover artist was Dave McKean. The book was The Sandman. And that’s how I discovered Neil Gaiman.

I hadn’t bought a comic book since I was 11. Amazing Spider-Man #316 with Venom standing over our bloody hero was a step too far for my parents. Too strange, too violent, too demonic.

I should have hid it better, but it was too late. In the trash they all went.

Cut to five years later. My high school drama class is doing secret Santa and the person whose name I drew wants an obscure graphic novel. Bookstores don’t carry it, so I’m directed to Captain Blue Hen Comics in Newark, Delaware. Wandering the store I notice a couple of boxes of comics on sale for ten cents a piece. Curious, I start flipping through.

Midway through the first box, I stop. It’s the cover that gets me. A shadow-box assemblage of lost objects and mysterious figures whose meaning I can’t hope to stitch together on my own.

It begs to be taken home and opened. So I do.

The cover artist was Dave McKean. The book was The Sandman. And that’s how I discovered Neil Gaiman. Idle curiosity and a handful of dimes.

These days millions know and adore Gaiman. From American Gods or Good Omens or Coraline. Thanks to Netflix, tens of millions were just introduced to The Sandman.

To me, at 16, it was a revelation. This story of a god learning to be a better person. It mixed the mythological with the base muck of everyday life; glorious schemes with petty emotions; grand overtures with dirty limericks. And the cast was full of queer, trans, and gender-fluid characters, which in 1994 was not something you saw on the regular.

My parents had given up on policing my reading material by then, but oh if they’d only known. Here was a comic with actual demons. With the Devil himself–brooding and beautiful, a four-color Renaissance sculpture questioning all the rules that had been imposed on him.

I could relate.

Neil Gaiman The SandmanI followed The Sandman to its bittersweet end a few years later, and then followed Gaiman into his career as a novelist and eventually carried him with me into my own career as a writer.

He taught me through example that it doesn’t matter how strange or larger-than-life a character is as long as at their heart they have things they desire, things they fear, things they would risk it all for. If they have dreams and nightmares.

Sometimes you end up loving those characters, or sometimes you end up hating them, but the important thing is you understand them. Maybe see yourself hiding beneath their skin.

And–with the very special ones—you take them home and invite them to hide beneath yours.

Stephen Spotswood (he/him) is an award-winning playwright, journalist, and educator. As a journalist, he has spent much of the last two decades writing about the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the struggles of wounded veterans. His dramatic work has been widely produced across the United States. He makes his home in Washington, D.C., with his wife, young adult author Jessica Spotswood.