Academic journal article Shofar

The "Outsider": Neil Gaiman and the Old Testament

Academic journal article Shofar

The "Outsider": Neil Gaiman and the Old Testament

Article excerpt

Neil Gaiman's educational environment was divided between Jewish family and Anglican schooling. Raised up as a cultural outsider, he has cultivated his detached outlook, moving from England to the United States and depicting the latter from a British perspective in Sandman and American Gods. His cheerful embracement of the position of the "alien" also shows in his use and rewritings of the foundational Judaic text, the Old Testament, in the six scripts he contributed for the British comics-anthology of theological satire Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament (Knockabout, 1987), and in his comics-series Sandman (DC, 1988-1996), where the explicit linking of DC characters to their biblical roots, and the use of Midrashic references, operate as a resacralization that counterbalance the desacralization at the core of Outrageous Tales.

Neil Gaiman, the Minnesota-based former Englishman who wrote the worldacclaimed DC Comics series Sandman, is a prominent Jewish comics-writer, although his experience of Jewishness is very distinctive. In an interview in which Gaiman tries to articulate a description of his childhood, in regard to the issue of Jewishness, he states:

I was brought up Jewish. But I was Jewish and attended High Church of England schools, which is everything you get in Catholic education, without nuns. It was a lovely way of receiving all the religion one ever needed, as an outsider. It was very odd. I was the kid scoring the top marks in religious studies despite the fact that the religious studies would be on the Book of Matthew or whatever and I wasn't even a Christian, which was a lovely position to be in. One got everything as an outsider.1

His Jewish identity certainly made him an "outsider" in his Anglican educational environment, but being half immersed in another belief-system than his family's, from an early age on, actually allowed him to put both systems in perspective. As he puts it, "in a sense, it made [him] view everything as myth."2 So his situation made him more or less an "outsider" to Jewish faith too. Nowadays he describes himself as a believer, but he is unable to name a particular dogma to which he adheres. His comics and other writings often feature pagan gods and mythological beings from many different traditions, interacting with one another. As for"believ[ing] in a biblical god," he claims: "sometimes I do and sometimes I don't."3 It is as if the spiritual stance he had decided to adopt was the same as Samantha Black Crow's in his novel American Gods ("I can believe . . . anything"),4 or the child protagonist's in his semi-autobiographical short story "One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock" ("a magnificent anarchy of belief").5 This is, at least, Bethany Alexander's reading of his works.6 Gaiman certainly retains a fond but detached outlook on his Jewish roots, which he seems to deal with, in interviews, in the same half respectful, half tongue-in-cheek idiom that he uses, in his fictions, for any religion or myth: "I don't think I've particularly practiced since my bar mitzvah. Then again, I take a certain amount of comfort in the fact that if ever anywhere they institute the camps and they want to start stickingjews in them again, I'd go in and fry. I don't think it's something one particularly stops being because you've stopped practicing."7

Being a believer and having, at the same time, an outsider's outlook on the belief-systems most familiar to him could easily qualify him, making due allowances, as a sort of modern-day Kafka,8 if it were not for his being absolutely not melancholy about his condition. Quite on the contrary, he states, "I actually love feeling like an outsider. For example, I really enjoyed the first six years I spent in the U.S. because everything was so alien. I'm starting to get used to America now, which makes me think it may be time to move somewhere else."9 This cheerful embracing of the privileged position of the "alien" often shows on a close analysis of his writings. …

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