22 October 2008

The Stardust of Yesterday

Stardust has been called Neil Gaiman's "first solo prose novel," but its original form was not that of a traditional prose book, as previewed here.

Rather, Stardust first appeared in 1997 in four magazines from DC Comics's Vertigo line for adults, with Gaiman's prose alongside Charles Vess's color artwork. Usually Vertigo publishes stories in comics form; Gaiman's Sandman comics were among the first to move under that umbrella when DC launched the imprint in 1993. A year after the magazines, Vertigo issued all four parts of Stardust in a single volume, which is still in print.

Stardust was therefore created and published by people used to working in the comics form, and I think the result is a hybrid between prose novels and comics. To be sure, Gaiman's prose has proven that it can stand on its own (just as Vess's artwork can make lovely notecards). But in its original form Stardust used a technique common in comics but rare in prose novels: the page turn.

Gaiman's story follows multiple point-of-view characters, and its plot is made of several intertwining threads. (It's quite lovely the way that some of those threads twist together.) The storytelling shifts frequently from one scene and character to another. In the usual prose novel, those shifts are signaled through chapter breaks or section breaks within chapters, if not within the prose itself.

The original Stardust offers readers another signal as well: a page turn, with a new section starting atop a new page and often an illustration of the new character or setting as well. Some section breaks fall in the middle of pages, but those almost all signal a jump in time for the same character, not a shift from one point of view to another.

In the whole book, I spotted only two examples of a section break in the middle of a page in which the narrative shifts from inside one character's mind to inside another's. On page 143, those two characters are at the same place at the same time, so there's no change in setting. On page 126, Gaiman catches us up on the activities of two villains we haven't seen in a while; that page includes Vess's portraits of those two villains as further clues about whose thoughts we're reading now.

Thus, Stardust readers become accustomed to shifting from one plotline to another when we turn a page and find the initial capital of a new section. The page turn becomes part of the rhythm of reading the book.

Positioning almost all section breaks at the top of a page is basically impossible in a standard, unillustrated prose book; the author would have to write and edit to fill space. But Gaiman and Vess conceived of Stardust with illustrations in mind. I suspect the Vertigo designers laid out the text to make each installment fit into a magazine issue and most sections start on new pages, and Vess filled the rest of those pages with his art.

This interview with Gaiman by the Onion, posted on Gaiman's site, recalls how different publishers had difficulties with different aspects of the project:

So we put together a big presentation for publishers at the World Fantasy Convention in 1993. All of the big ones were there, and we did this pitch, this presentation, of Stardust with illustrations and lovely original paintings, and we said, "This is what it'll be: a big, illustrated, beautiful book." And we waited for the big pile-on when the auction started. And nobody bid at all! They all said that they were scared and troubled by the fact of all those pictures. They couldn't cope with it.

And DC Comics said, "We are not scared or troubled by pictures! We've been doing pictures for ages!" So we negotiated a deal with them. But not for the print rights--I got a whole prose novel because DC didn't think anybody would really read one!
The companies used to publishing prose novels couldn't fit color pictures into the way they worked (and budgeted). And the company used to publishing color illustrations and words together couldn't imagine anyone wanting to read an illustrated story without the illustrations.

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