Neil Gaiman (writer) and Dave McKean (artwork), The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (Harper Collins, 2004)
'Writers are liars my dear, surely you know that by now?' -- Neil Gaiman in Sandman: Dream Country
I have been reading and collecting Gaiman ever since I read the bastardised...errr...the American...edition of Neverwhere. (I later got the English edition with the proper spellings intact. It's worth searching out on abe.com as there are now a lot of the BBC trade edition soft covers there at rather reasonable prices. Just don't lust after the BBC hardcover; it's very costly!) Everything I've read by him is quite enjoyable with the rather notable exception of Good Omens which was co-written with Terry Pratchett and, I must reluctantly admit, I never have been able to enjoy Pratchett's odd sense of humor. You may indeed like it -- I didn't. But I've relished reading Stardust (in both graphical and text versions), American Gods, the Sandman graphic novel series, Coraline, and far too much of his short fiction to detail here. Gaiman at his very best is one of our finest writers alive today, period.
One of the storytelling forms that he uses from time to time is the short graphical novel: The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish is a fine example of this form. What, you haven't heard of it? Is it new? Not really, but I'm not surprised as Borealis, a small press better know for its dark fantasy publications, was the publisher the first time it was done. Robert Wiersema reviewed that edition for Green Man here and he noted that 'Gaiman fully embraces his inner juvenile surrealist. While the cover promises the books 'will delight anyone who is -- or has ever been -- a kid,' Gaiman goes further than delight. Reading this book, an adult will be plunged back into a child-like frame of mind...'. I didn't have a copy of that edition as I generally don't collect soft cover publications unless I have no other choice. So I passed up owning a copy of a rather cheap looking and flimsy edition of this publication.
Ahhh, but it won't surprise you, I suspect, to learn that the HarperCollins edition which arrived this past week is quite another matter altogether. It appears to be a bit physically larger than the Borealis of seven years ago, and certainly looks brighter in color than that printing was. (So why was it published on Borealis? Though I cannot confirm, the tale I've been told is that it ended up on Borealis because none of the major publishers thought a children's book from Gaiman was worth publishing!) If you read Coraline, or perhaps The Wolves in the Walls, you have a good idea of what Dave McKean is like as an artist. If not, let's let our reviewer of that work, Rachel Manija Brown, tell you what she thought of it: 'Dave McKean employs a art shop worth of media to create the illustrations, from photographic collages to line drawings to cubist paintings. His anything-goes style creates moods which turn on a page from raucous to tender to nightmarish.'
I found the artwork in The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish to be less nightmarish and more whimsical than in The Wolves in the Walls. Here the story is more innocent than the slightly darkly tinged tale of a girl, her pig, and lots of wolves inside the walls of her house. Never mind the icky red stuff that gets smeared everywhere...
The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish is definitely lighter hearted than that work. Yes, it's dark as only Gaiman can be, but in a more child-like way. It has more text than The Wolves in the Walls so I had an easier time falling into it as a narrative where The Wolves in the Walls, for me, barely gets started before its over. Now I like trifles -- they're sweet and are quickly consumed -- but a trifle can be less than satisfying! Wolves certainly was for me, but TDISMDFTG is not in the least unsatisfying. It's a fun, fast read of what might happen in a world less constrained by rules than this one. Indeed I could say I suspect strongly that Dr. Seuss himself would have found this to his liking. It's that fun. It's a perfect gift to you as a Gaiman fan, or as a gift this coming holiday season to someone who really likes Gaiman. Oh, did I mention the limited edition version -- which the removable sticker on the dust jacket cover proclaims this edition to be -- includes a recording of Neil reading the narrative? YES! Is it worth hearing? Oh, very much so. I've heard him read before on the audiobook Warning: Contains Language that Dreamhaven Press put out a few years back, and the unabridged Coraline which he narrates. That Warning: Contains Language audio collection has 'Nicholas Was...' on it, the most horrific look at Saint Nicholas one can imagine! He has a truly great voice, good vocal skills, and the ability to read text that's all too rare these days. Hearing him read The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish is an entirely different experience than reading it myself.
Jack Merry, himself a lover of a good audiobook as he says that they are perfect on an iPod as entertainment while gigging far beyond this city, says Neil is far better than most so-called professional readers. He thinks it shows that Neil likes reading. Jack says his live readings are among the best done by anyone! (I've been discussing Gaiman and his work with him as I jotted out these notes up in in the Green Man Pub. One must sample the Pumpkin Stout we've just tapped!) I, who generally prefer music over the spoken word anytime I have listening time, found this thirteen minute reading to be enchanting. Keep in mind that this is the only printing being done with the audio CD in it!
(One of the worst story readers I ever heard was one of the best storytellers I've ever read -- Tolkien. Telling tales in both oral and written form well is more difficult than one imagines it is!)
If all writers are liars as Neil says in the quote at the top of this review, then it follows that they are storytellers as well. (Jack sarcastically notes that there's no meaningful difference between the two. I retort that he and his fellow fiddlers are no better.) So it's not at all surprising that the other publication of his which arrived here at Green Man was The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection which also has the reading of The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish on it, as well as a Wolves in the Walls reading which brought the tale to life for me in a way that the book didn't. At sixteen minutes and change, it certainly doesn't drag! Also on here is 'Cinnamon', a tale of the fantastic, which is available online somewhere as a legit download, and 'Crazy Hair', a poem for his daughter Maddy. Finishing off the disc is a rather short interview with him -- well worth hearing.
The only annoying aspect of this disc is that there's only fifty minutes of material on it when it could have easily held another twenty minutes worth of goodies, say...a lengthy excerpt from Coraline? What I will say is that it'll make an absolutely perfect holiday stocking stuffer assuming that anyone in this post-modern age actually stuffs stockings in a Charles Dickens sense anymore. After you've bought and heard The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection, do yourself a favor and go get the Coraline audiobook, also read by Neil. As Christine Doiron who reviewed the audio version said, 'turn the lights off, put your headphones on, fast forward through the intro music, and I promise you'll enjoy this dark fairy tale.'
Jack's nodding in approval over the Ryhope Wood Hard Cider he's drinking at the Bar. What more of a recommendation do you need? None I believe, so go get all three of these works as soon as you can. No doubt you too will be well entertained! Now if you care to join us, we're off to watch the entire BBC production of Neverwhere in the screening room. I wonder if The Great Beast is as badly done as Neil says it is?