It’s a commonly accepted fact that we live in a world of recyclable entertainment. There are so many prominent sequels and reboots that to even complain about the recycle, remix, rinse and repeat nature of pop culture is, at this point, cliché.
But the purpose of this column is not to indulge in lamentations over pop culture’s “member berry syndrome” (as South Park calls it). Instead, I want to focus on how it can be done with artistic merit and analytic finesse. A thought-provoking reference to other works can enable a story to work its way inside of us and change our perception of certain of its fictional counterparts, rather than simply serving as a dopamine delivery system for easily amused nostalgia junkies.
That brings us to the concept of intertextuality. Intertextuality refers to the ways in which stories reference or draw on their predecessors, explicitly or not, those moments when one work gains meaning by referencing a different one. Some intertextual references are overt (the whole movie Spaceballs is an extended riff on Star Wars) and some are a bit more subtle (in Watchmen Ozymandias lives in Antarctica, a deliberate parallel to Superman and his Fortress of Solitude at the world’s opposite pole). These intertextual moments all have in common the use of other works, other authors’ creations, as a buttress for the present story’s themes and ideas. In my opinion, no one does this better than Neil Gaiman.
A large part of intertextuality entails the examination of archetypes. Taking archetypes and placing them within new contexts is a trope likely as old as the world’s second story. Gaiman has a passion for playing with archetypes, revealing their deeper psychological significance and highlighting their timelessness. In one of his rare forays into the Marvel universe, Gaiman reimagines all the superheroes transposed into the Elizabethan era. In 1602, he plays with the mythical qualities of the characters. Throughout his career he would reframe characters using different situations or mythologize them. This is fitting considering his love of mythology, gods, and immortal wanderers that become part of other people’s tales.
Gaiman has a particular penchant for the Norse myths. They play a role in Sandman, the novel American Gods, and they’re the subject of his recently released book Norse Mythology. He plays each character as a symbol of some facet of human nature, whether they are being deceptive or violent or capricious. As a result they are consistent in each tale but filling a slightly different narrative role each time.
Knowing the fundamental traits of each of the gods, he plays them off against his own original characters. In American Gods, he modernizes them and mingles them with a contemporary milieu, whilst in Sandman their portrayal hews much closer to pure archetype. Conversely, in Norse Mythology they are portrayed with unerring reverence for the originals. In all versions there is a core understanding of what purpose the characters serve in the original, and they are therefore reused with surgical precision. Loki plays a conman or spinner of yarns, Odin a capricious, lustful warmonger of epic proportions, but all to different effect in vastly different stories. This ties into Gaiman’s recurring motifs, and the way in which they bear upon the nature of fiction itself.
Neil Gaiman is probably at his best when he writes stories about stories—or, more accurately, stories about storytelling. There are references to other creators, storytellers or artists. He’s done this all throughout his career. Almost all his original works make playful use of subversive references. The Graveyard Book, for example, is an extended homage to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, with the undead acting as stand-ins for the animals in the original. Outside of wholesale thematic and structural borrowings, Gaiman makes use of other fiction within his stories as well.
He uses various settings to examine stories, their creators, and the power of narrative itself. It’s fitting that Gaiman uses African god Anansi as the centerpiece of Anansi Boys. In African folklore Anansi represents knowledge and the spirit of the storyteller. Fittingly, the novel is interspersed with folk tales of Anansi’s exploits, providing vivid illustrations of the power of stories and of songs. The villains are humiliated by Anansi’s stories and begrudge his entire bloodline for it. In other words, the story teller—and by extension stories themselves—holds immense power.
As with any story that examines the nature and power of narrative, Sandman makes use of the lines between reality, dreams and fiction. One of the recurring characters within Sandman is William Shakespeare. The famed bard thrice makes an appearance in the series. At first he is starry-eyed, full of unrealized potential, until he meets Morpheus who bargains with him, giving him the inspiration for his greatest works in return for tributes to dreams within his plays. Shakespeare, over the course of the series, becomes obsessive and distant towards his family. Rather than simply paying lip-service to Shakespeare’s work without rhyme or reason (as many a lesser artist has done in the past), he examines both the work and its creator on a personal level, and ties both into the most central theme of the series: the cost of dreams.
What’s most impressive about Neil Gaiman’s approach to intertextuality is that he conveys his love of fiction through fiction. He examines the meaning of a text by framing the story as an interaction with storytelling itself. Sandman is about dreams, Anansi Boys about folklore and American Gods about mythology. Each of these forms of storytelling takes on a life of its own, and within these works Gaiman takes these to be elements of human interactions with the unreal. With each of them he asks us to reconsider our relationship to myths, to stories and to writers. In essence, Neil Gaiman’s work reminds us of the importance of stories and of dreams.