It’s strange that we often have no idea we’re being inspired. Sure, sometimes a thing can hit us squarely between the eyes, maybe even literally, and we realise we’ve just been given an experience that will inform our mind and actions from that day forward. But often, inspiration is a slow creep. And often, the seed of that inspiration can become very special to us. I got waffling on Twitter last night about this one particular inspiring event in my life. I was drinking whisky, which is often when I gets to thinking, and said I’d blog about it today. So here I am.
It’s 1989. I’m an 18 year old nerd and martial artist, not long started at my first job after quitting school early because I hated book learning. All I wanted to do was train, play role-playing and video games with my mates and read, especially comic books at that time. I also knew I wanted to be a writer, but back then the urge hadn’t solidified into the powerful drive it later became. But it was there. I’d already tried and failed on several novels, written a bunch of hideously self-obsessed poems, all that stuff. But I was in a period of deep love for comic books that has never really abated. But it was never more exciting than it was then.
The mid- to late-80s were a fantastic time for comic books. It was when they evolved into something far greater than the superhero colours and penny dreadfuls they had been before. Partly in respose to things like Thatcher’s Britain and Wall Street greed and partly simply coming of age, comics writers began to develop more subversive stories and characters. The ideas became so much greater than before. Alan Moore wrote V For Vendetta, published between ’82 and ’85. Then he wrote Watchmen, released in ’86 and ’87, and that changed the face of comic books forever. In June ’85, Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and Jamie Delano created the character of John Constantine in The Saga of the Swamp Thing and Constantine went on to lead the Hellblazer comic book from ’93. All of these things and many more were a massive influence on me. I have original editions of all of the above. But perhaps the most influential of all was a new series I came across purely by chance.
I used to buy my comics most of the time from a shop in Aldershot. One weekend, we saw a notice up that there was going to be a signing with two young fellows by the names of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. I’d never heard of them. I guess, back then, not many people had. Not like now. They were promoting a new series called Sandman. I thought, Sounds interesting, might pop along. So I did. This Sandman #1 comic had a cover unlike anything I’d ever seen. Both Gaiman and McKean were incredibly nice guys, taking plenty of time to chat while signing the comics for us with fancy gold pens. I remember thinking to myself, This Gaiman’s a nice chap. I hope he does well.
He really did do well.
I also thought at the time that the comic might be pretty interesting. It really looked like my kind of thing. It turned out to be way more than interesting. It was outstanding. I was so impatient for every month when the new issue would come around. I devoured them, reread them and, when the run was finally finished, I read them all again and again. I’ve got the entire set in graphic novel now, and I’ve read that more than once. I’d love the huge folio editions, but I just can’t afford them right now. One day…
Here’s my signed copy from back in 1989:
Check out the inside, that old rough paper, not today’s gloss. This is the look and feel of comic books I spent so much time with.
And I write about this now because that event in an Aldershot comic book store was a turning point in my life, and at the time I had no idea. There is no question that Sandman is one of the stories which most influenced me as a writer. The style and voice as well as the subject matter and characters was instrumental in helping me find my own authorial voice. Of course, I’m still discovering that now as I go along, but reading Sandman was pivotal. And I remember how nice Gaiman was, and remember thinking, If I ever do get to be a successful writer, I want to be a nice guy like him. If I ever see a fraction of Gaiman’s success, or achieve a fraction of his niceness, I’ll be very happy indeed.
So that signed edition of Sandman #1, whatever it’s actually worth, is absolutely priceless to me. It’s one of my most prized possessions.
This is the power of storytelling. It changes lives. And not just the lives of writers, as I’m sure there are many thousands of people out there with no desire to be writers, who were equally affected by that comic book. Or one like it. Or a novel, film, play, short story, what have you.
So thank you , Neil Gaiman.
When I was blithering about this on Twitter, I mentioned that I couldn’t remember for certain if the shop was Aldershot or Guildford. I was fairly sure it was Aldershot, but quipped, “Maybe @neilhimself remembers”. This morning there was a reply from Neil Gaiman that said, “We definitely did Aldershot. Don’t think we did Guildford…”
So, while doing my best not to lose my mind because Neil Gaiman replied to me on Twitter, I’m now certain it was indeed Aldershot. I don’t even know if that store is still there. But these are the things that inform our lives and, at the time, we may not notice. It’s worth reflecting, tracing back those threads of inspiration and taking a moment to appreciate what happened.
I might ask some of my writerly friends what truly inspirational moments and/or possessions are most precious to them. Watch this space.